'Write No Matter What'

Author discusses her new book of writing advice for academics.

 

July 27, 2017
 

Professors do a lot of writing, but that doesn't mean that they are good at it. That's a central point of Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (University of Chicago Press). The author is Joli Jensen, the Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa, where she founded and directs the Henneke Faculty Writing Program. Via email, she responded to questions about her new book.

Q: What do you consider to be the major obstacles that academics face in their writing?

A: The craft of academic writing has been needlessly mystified, so many of us feel shame and fear when our writing doesn’t go smoothly. But writing rarely goes smoothly! University life makes writing even more challenging by setting the stakes very high (“publish or perish”) and shrouding it in secrecy, while expecting excellent teaching and lots of service. My book offers faculty a variety of techniques to help them accept the realities of the academic environment; reduce writing anxiety; secure writing time, space and energy; recognize and overcome writing myths; and maintain writing momentum. I hope it helps to demystify the academic writing experience.

Q: Do you see particular challenges in some disciplines?

A: I do.The humanities, social sciences and sciences each offer somewhat different writing demands. In the humanities, research is usually individual and interpretive, so writing can feel like a lonely excursion into uncharted terrain. The challenge is to make an original, individual contribution in a vast sea of possible perspectives. In the sciences, the research process is more collaborative and data-driven, and writing can feel impersonal, formulaic and obligatory.

The challenge in the sciences is to juggle multiple collaborative writing projects, often at various stages of completion, in ways that keep grant money and publications flowing. The social sciences draw from both traditions, so social scientists can experience both the individualized anxiety of the humanities scholar along with the pressured project juggling of the research scientist.

Q: You lead a faculty writing program. What does that program do?

A: The Henneke Faculty Writing Program at the University of Tulsa offers monthly workshops, confidential individual coaching, a collection of writing-related books and resources, designated writing space, and faculty-led writing groups. The various workshops I offer include Myths We Stall By; Securing Writing Time, Space and Energy; Dealing with Stalled Projects; and Becoming a Public Scholar; along with Writing Plan workshops for semesters, summers and sabbaticals.

Q: A common complaint of professors is that they can't find time to focus on writing. What do you recommend in terms of finding the time? Do you favor "every day" or finding concentrated chunks of time?

A: I recommend spending at least 15 minutes a day in contact with your writing project. This offers frequent, brief, low-stress daily contact with your writing project which helps keep the project “write-sized.” It can include “ventilation,” which is spending 15 minutes writing about how you don’t want to work on your project at all. Daily project contact makes it much easier to commit to and use longer (but no more than 3 hours) writing sessions each week. Naturally prolific writers choose to write a few hours every day, but most of the colleagues I work with commit to daily 15 minute contact, with a plan for longer scheduled writing sessions 3-4 days a week. Faculty writing groups, focusing on accountability (not content critiques), are great ways to maintain weekly writing time commitments.

Q: Many faculty members have a challenge when writing for a non-academic audience. Do you have a few tips for such writing?

A: Yes. I am starting a new Public Scholar Initiative at the University of Tulsa to help my colleagues create articles, podcasts and books for a non-academic audience. The focus is on learning how to tell an accessible, compelling and accurate research story using everyday language and narrative techniques drawn from journalism and creative nonfiction. The key is to use anecdotes, argument and evidence to describe research to an audience who doesn’t know or care about “the field.” Once you’ve identified the narrative elements in your research story, you can use a variety of nonfiction writing techniques to explain to non-academic readers why your research matters.

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