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Academics in nearly every college or university setting write as part of their careers, and yet few faculty members identify as writers. In this article, we explore this paradox and its ramifications. We showcase the promise and possibilities that are unearthed when we more fully identify ourselves as writers.

We are two sociologists who write for both academic and popular audiences and joyfully embrace our identity as writers. We’ve spent countless hours alone and together facilitating workshops about improving one’s writing, how to overcome writer’s block and make breakthroughs, and how and why to prioritize writing despite a heavy teaching load. We believe in, teach, and model for other academics an effective writing process so others can approach writing with greater ease and efficiency.

Unfortunately, the graduate school curriculum at most institutions focuses almost exclusively on gaining substantive knowledge in an area of specialty and adding to it with research. However, few academics spend all or even the bulk of their time doing research. We teach, and then we write about our research. Some of us are lucky enough to have some training in pedagogy. Yet most of us were never trained to become writers of academic articles, book chapters or monographs. And it is even rarer indeed that graduate programs include any training in how to effectively and persuasively make writing accessible to a general audience.

The lack of training for writing—and perhaps maybe even more problematic, the real lack of mentoring toward a writer’s life—is why so many of us do not dare to identify as writers. How is it that an important, if not necessarily predominant, aspect of our academic careers could be so discounted? If we are not writers, how can we write well? If we are not writers, how can we develop confidence in the work we produce? Our lack of attention to writing often stymies our careers and interferes with the capacity to translate important work for the larger public.

Academics internalize that we must “publish or perish,” as the common adage goes. This is a message that discourages joy in writing—beyond focusing on a utilitarian means to an end, it creates fear, loathing and pressure. We’re told that if we do it enough, our careers will survive. Meanwhile, the process of writing that publishing requires is rendered invisible. It’s as though the outcome of publishing is all that matters for a committee to tally up the number of enough publications in a file, so our jobs will be secure. Publish enough and you are tenured, and your job is secure. In this paradigm, publications are defined as external products created for pragmatic reasons. 

What if rather than scaring faculty members into publishing instead of perishing, we considered more deeply the joy of writing? Publishing in a competitive academic market has come to be seen mostly as jumping through enough hoops to get or keep a job, yet focusing on good writing serves us better and is far more effective. It will produce better writing, and thus more publications to boot. A focus on writing helps us keep our eyes on the long game and why we are writing—and therefore publishing—in the first place. 

In the process of writing, we clarify our thinking. Often, writing helps us come to know what we know, to discover our argument and to make plain our feelings. When words are translated from our minds to the page, we communicate as only writers can, helping readers also discover what we know, make the analytical connections we have discovered, understand the theories we propose, and wrestle with the conclusions we draw.

The process of writing is about entering a conversation—first in our own minds, and then ultimately with readers. Being a writer is about having the courage and conviction to dare to be part of a larger conversation. It’s about deepening and extending that conversation by generously offering our distinct angles of vision. When we think about writing like this, it is much more about the opportunity to engage with others, to influence the discussion.

The process of writing is liberating our ideas, taking them from internal dialogues to a public forum, whether for colleagues, students or people who read newspapers and magazines. Rather than dread the publish or perish game, academics should focus on the process of writing, the privilege of being a writer who is able to enter the intellectual and public debates of our time, and perhaps to influence them.

Of course, the submission process may still be frightening. We will definitely still often receive rejections. And yet, when we focus on writing as our art, our craft, such concerns do not always take center stage—we shift the focus to the reasons we write, and the process of doing so. Submitting our work for publication becomes an opportunity to get the perspective of reviewers and editors. And if we focus on improving our craft, it is easier to understand, and really know, that those reviews can help sharpen our ideas and their ability to influence the conversation.

Our Own Art Form

If we think about writing as having the privilege of entering a conversation and pushing it in the direction we think it needs to go, then writing—yes, even academic writing—becomes creative. It becomes our own art form, if you will. It gives meaning to our lives and is one of the ways that we contribute to the world.

Once we recognize that our writing is an art form, we need new ways to judge ourselves and our productivity. Should a painter’s worthiness as an artist be determined by how many pieces they landed in a juried show in the last year? When we think of an artist’s career, we see the arc of their art over time. Similarly, as academics, we write over the arc of our careers. It’s the way that we—as people involved in the front lines of knowledge production, construction and consumption—make art.

Publishing monographs and articles in top-tier journals is a fine goal—in fact, even necessary sometimes to get or keep a job. But publishing isn’t the only reason for writing any more than juried exhibitions and winning awards are the sole reasons an artist goes to paint. The painter finds at least as much, if not much more, nourishment and fulfillment in the process of making art as in the external recognition, however validating and joyful those accolades. Indeed, dreaming of accolades is rarely why an artist sits down to paint. The painter makes art to thrive, to share the meaning they find in the world with others. So, too, if a writer recognizes their work as their art, they sit down to do it to share their gifts with other people and society in general. And the process of writing itself becomes a way to thrive, to contribute to the world.

To take our writing seriously, we must think about it as a core part of our life’s work. We often write for our peers, sometimes for our students, and sometimes for audiences outside of academia. Once we have confidence in our writing, that paves the way for more outward-facing scholarship, bolstering the possibility of becoming a public scholar.

We urge our colleagues to reap the benefits of seeing themselves as writers and focusing on the process itself. Once we take seriously our art form—or craft, if the word sounds more apt or comfortable—we must make time for it. When we finish a research project, we must realize that good writing takes care, thought and loving attention to words, to phrasing, to paragraph construction. Knowing that it takes time, and is worth the time, can boost our confidence. Good writing brings our ideas, our findings, to life.

With all of the competing demands that students, colleagues and our increasingly bureaucratic administrations in higher education impose on us, writing can be something we can claim as our own. While our course material is housed in learning management systems with accompanying questions of control over our intellectual property, and committee work is in service to the institution, the writing we do is ours. And the time we claim for it—for cultivating and honing it—is time we’ve declared, if only to ourselves, as precious and sacred, reserved to nurture ourselves and our ability to contribute to those around us. There’s something very liberating about that.

In sum, while many faculty members see the “publish or perish” message as exemplifying the competitive pressure of an academic career, making the time to enjoy the process of writing is an antidote to some of what has become the drudgery of university life. It reminds us what turns us on in our fields of study and motivates our inquiry in the first place.

Deborah J. Cohan is professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and Barbara J. Risman is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Together, they are founding partners of The Writing Guides and can be found at

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