What kind of writer? Spree writing, metrics and the myth of productivity

I once was in a seminar which started with the typical ‘what do you do and how do you do it’ academic icebreaker. One participant’s witty and self-deprecating contribution went as follows:

“I’m a philosopher. That means I read books and think about them. Sometimes I write about it.”

Any academic in the social and human disciplines will know that they’re not really a historian, or a sociologist. They’re a writer. If you take the above quote seriously, we’re all philosophers, too.

We’re all writers because that’s how we make our bread and butter, most of the time. We write papers, books, lectures, blog posts, grant applications and so on in order to communicate our ideas and to make a contribution to knowledge (see previous post). If we don’t write, we don’t exist – in the sense of ‘if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound if there’s no-one to hear it?’

Increasingly, writing outputs are how we are judged professionally as well. Many in the UK will be familiar with the cyclical stress of ‘making it through REF’ – do I have enough 4* papers out within the appropriate time period? Are they in the journals my department values? If not, what’s the impact factor of the journals? Added to the stress is the fact that budgets are linked to how well the department does in the REF – and if you have been ‘unproductive’ (in the very narrow constrains of what counts as a REF-able output) then you may not have your contract renewed, or you may have your budget cut and so on. Teaching, lecturing, administrative and pastoral work, journal editing and managing and a host of other necessary functions do not count towards the REF.

This is the point at which many interdisciplinary scholars come unstuck. Although there is a trend for inter- and multi-disciplinary scholarship at the moment, universities are still organised into disciplinary ivory towers (hence the name of this blog). For example, I could be placed in an environmental sciences/studies department, a sociology department, or a religious studies department, because my research covers all those fields. BUT if I were placed in a sociology department, they may be unsupportive of me publishing in religious studies journals, because of impact factors. A ‘good’ impact factor for a sociology journal is roughly between 3 and 5, whereas the religious studies journals tend to cap out at 2. This is more a reflection of the size of the discipline than the relative merits of the journals or the papers therein, but it means that a very successful scholar in one discipline may look mediocre in the wrong department.

Ahhhh, metrics. What a wonderful way to measure human value (intense sarcasm)

All this results in a rather skewed view of productivity in academia. We are judged based on our productivity, regardless of whether we are supported in that endeavour.  But academic outputs like papers and books can work on a very, very long timescale and much of that timescale is out of your own control. A paper can take a year to research, a year to write, and then could be stuck in the peer review system for another 3 years (this happened to a colleague of mine). SO, the only way to ensure you survive is always have something on the go: to be constantly reading, thinking and writing (like my philosopher at the top). But the emphasis is always on writing.  

This is where a particular point from Wendy Belcher’s amazing book Writing your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks is especially relevant. Wendy encourages all of us to write regularly (everyday, even) for a relatively short amount of time. This is hardly a revelation in itself – but what struck me was her point that some academics seem to do exceptionally well without doing this. She calls them ‘spree writers’. From an outside perspective, they get the bulk of their writing done in very short, condensed periods – a long weekend, for example – at irregular intervals. Wendy gave the example of one person who ‘wrote’ about three times a year, at dedicated writing retreats.

However, Wendy explains that writing is not just about putting words on a page. As a creative activity, writing also consists of reading and thinking.

Imagine it like an equation;          WRITING = (reading + thinking) x writing.

The ‘spree writers’ that Wendy interviewed actually typically spent time every day thinking and reading, reading and thinking, while they did other things associated with the function as an academic. So in reality, they were writing every day.

Having recently written and submitted a paper with Wendy’s wisdom in my ‘back pocket’, I have realised that I am a spree writer. I hold on to thoughts and ideas until they are fully formed, ready to spring forth like Athena from Zeus’ head. While this tends to mean that my ‘first drafts’ resemble other people’s second or third drafts, it also means that there are long periods in between writing where I became very anxious because I felt I was being unproductive and lazy. Then, after a week or even after a month, I’d have a sudden burst of creativity and would think to myself, ‘Gosh, why can’t I be like this all the time?!’

Now, after having experienced this cycle of apparent lethargy and creativity in my academic career for nearly a decade I was relieved to read Wendy’s explanation of spree writing and her holistic conception of the writing process. It has allowed me to view my ‘in-between’ times as those when the ideas are percolating. I have learnt that I can stimulate the percolation through reading, but that these times of apparent inactivity will still happen nonetheless. I just have to wait and work for the ‘Eureka’ moment to come. Something will come.

Simply put, a lasting and valuable insight from the Way of Wendy has been discovering what kind of writer I am and learning to be kinder to myself during those periods when I am (reading + thinking).

Thank you Wendy!

One thought on “What kind of writer? Spree writing, metrics and the myth of productivity

  1. As a creative person, I totally understand the importance of what I have come to call “thinking time”, but it took me years of stress about being ‘unproductive’ in the spaces between bursts of activity to reach this happy conclusion. We are all different. Some of us search all the time and others simply ‘find’. The world today likes ‘finders’ and so the ‘searchers’ are often overlooked because we live in a time that champions the instant and superficial over something well honed and deeply satisfying. I am a ‘searcher’ and I live each day in a process of becoming. I know that my creative output improves all the time yet I will never be totally satisfied. Instead, my work evolves gradually but it will neither be stale nor repetitious.


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