being a writer

Are you one of those writers who fear writing because they imagine it as a solitary job? There’s no doubt that at times writers might feel lonely. However, if you read the acknowledgments in books, you will see that the bigger picture looks different.

I was reminded of the social nature of writing once again, when I read the acknowledgments in César Hidalgo’s Why Information Grows (2016, Penguin Books). It’s a challenging and, to my mind, eye-opening book about the role and scope of information. Having thought throughout the book that Mr. Hidalgo must be one of the most intelligent people on this planet, I’ve been surprised by his acknowledgment pages at the end of the book (called „Bleeding Words“). Sure, he must have depended on other people for writing and producing the book. But, as I learned, writing was a big challenge for him. Intelligent though he may be, writing is hard for him too. What a relief (no offense intended)!

Whatever book you look into, if there are acknowledgments, the social nature of writing will pop right out. Authors rely on friends, colleagues, families (who mostly suffer more due to the author’s mental or physical absence), literary agents, editors and publishers. They rely on them for logistical support (Hidalgo thanks the baristas working in the coffee shops where he wrote his manuscript), help finding focus or reshaping initial ideas, mental support, giving feedback on various drafts and so on. So far, I’ve not seen any books, in which the authors didn’t thank anybody and did everything themselves. All authors need a social network. And it’s only fair that they thank most of the people in the acknowledgments (at least those they remember as having been supportive).

Before you despair, because you need to sit down again all on your own to write, remind yourself of your supportive writing network. And if you’re stuck with your thesis, PhD or book, start drafting the acknowledgments. Then, at least, you’re writing something you have to write anyway.

Writing alone is challenging; writing with others even more so. You deal with the same writing problems and decision making, but this time, you have to solve them and make them together.

I write this post because a colleague and I just finished the first draft of a book. We’ve been working on it since last spring, when I came up with an idea and wanted him to be a part of the project. Since then, we worked on the project, negotiated with the publisher and then started to write. You can find some books that describe collaborative academic writing (see chap. 3 in Paul Silvia’s Write It Up), but I would like to share some things that I’ve learned in the past few months.

I can definitely recommend writing a text with someone else. On the one hand, you will learn more about the topic than you would have if you had done it yourself. On the other hand, you will learn a lot about yourself as a writer and your abilities to adapt to someone else’s writing habits and quirks.

Here are two aspects of writing together that you need to think about:

Organizing work
Regardless of how many people are involved, which text genre you are writing and how long the process will take, you need to find ways to organize the work. The better you plan, the fewer the troubles you will encounter.

From the outset, we created a shared online folder with a Cloud-supported service. In the folder we began with simple text documents in order to document our first ideas. Having found a structure for the book, we created sub-folders for each chapter and others for administrative tasks. I guess there are other solutions to do this, but this method did the trick for us. As collaborative writers, you need to have your ideas, decisions, plans, texts and other documents in one place, accessible to everyone in the team. Later in the process, when it comes to giving feedback on one another’s texts, shared files are crucial and make your writing life easier. Only towards the end of the first revision round, however, did my colleague tell me that we could have simplified our feedback process by using the same writing program.

Having a shared folder isn’t enough, though. You need to make written plans and define who is responsible for which tasks. Whatever you decide and talk about, make sure you document the important things. With the first conflict, you will be glad that you can go back to your files and check.

Work strategies
If you have the opportunity to choose your fellow writers, choose them wisely. You should know and accept your coauthors work strategies and style. Even if your work style differs from theirs, you at least know what to expect. You will profit from this knowledge, for example, when it comes to planning the project in the long term. I wouldn’t have asked my colleague to write this book with me, if I hadn’t known or couldn’t accept how he works and writes. Sure, we had some discussions about some minor questions on the process and the content, but nothing that would have interrupted our work.

If you do your job well, you will be able to enjoy writing with others. And as a side effect, you will learn new things about writing, the topic and yourself. If you neglect to prepare the process as a team, you will be in for a rough ride.

There’s no such thing as a text without an audience. Texts are written for someone or some group. It’s no different in academia. Why then, I would like to ask, do students have to write texts that don’t address an audience (except the teachers or supervisors)?

In my counseling sessions at the university, I deal with a lot of students of varying levels and disciplines. But they have one thing in common: they don’t know their texts’ audience. One might be inclined to blame them for not thinking about it. I, however, would like to suggest that we could blame their teachers and supervisors, who did not construct the assignments accordingly. What is implicit in each and every text those same teachers and researchers publish, is lacking in their students’ work. It wouldn’t take the teachers much more work than before to invent new writing assignments with a clear context, purpose and audience. Not only would the students learn how to deal with differing assignments, it would also be more challenging and, ideally, fun. If the assignments mimicked the ones the students faced in their future professions, they would learn even more.

So what does it take? Not much at all. For each writing assignment you need only a few ingredients: Apart from information about the topic, the text genre (essay, seminar paper, book review, research report, conference abstract, journal editorial, public speech…), you need a more or less specific audience. The audience is comprised of the real or imagined people who would be reading and need to understand the text. Should it be a group of other researchers, who work on the same problems? Could it be the other students from class, who only have a superficial understanding of the topic? Or could it be a group of government officials, who need to be convinced about an argument?

Depending on the text genre, the purpose of a text differs. With that purpose, you also need to imagine how the audience will use the information presented. And therefore, you need to know or imagine, what the people in the audience might want to know, what they already know or how much definitions, technical terms or acronyms they understand. Knowing the audience will influence a text on different levels. That’s why a supervisor’s advice, „Your grandmother should be able to understand your master’s thesis“, doesn’t seem appropriate (that’s a true example, unfortunately).

My clients struggle with their texts, among other things, because they lack an audience. As soon as they have or can imagine one, they can start to work on the answers to questions such as: Which style should I choose? Which words do I need to explain in more detail? What kind of references do I need to make? Which writing conventions and reading habits do I need to consider? In which role do I appear in the text? These and other questions need answers and decisions within the text. We can only decide once we know whom we are writing for. If we don’t have an audience, what’s the point of writing at all?

If you are a student facing an assignment without audience, you have two possibilities: Either you ask your teacher for whom you should be writing the text or you can invent an audience for yourself. You will gain confidence when you know who is supposed to read your text. Only then will you be able to shape your text and prose the way it needs to be.

You don’t need to believe everything that goes through your head. This also applies when it comes to your ideas about how you should be as an academic writer, how the writing process should look, or how the text you produce should be. You need to look closely, especially at those ideas that block your writing or prevent you from starting to write at all. They’re often connected to your habits and actions. I call these ideas writing myths: hindering and inadequate ideas and stories about writing (I’ve been inspired to use this term by Keith Hjortshoj’s book Understanding Writing Blocks). Without changing your mindset, they will continue to bother you, each time you (try to) write. Maybe you succeed in finishing and submitting, but with a bad feeling about yourself, the process or your text. Every time you get a new writing assignment, you think that you know what will happen: You won’t look forward to writing, but you have to go through this torment time and again. I don’t think it needs to be this way.

The first step to demystifying the writing myths that you believe in, is to simply become aware of them. Try to find out, what kind of myth it is and how it hinders you from or blocks you during writing. Only then, in a second step, will you be able to adapt your ideas and the habits related to them. It might take some time, but take it from a formerly tormented writer, it’s worth the effort.

I would like to give you an idea of what I mean by writing myths. They’re nothing new. Unfortunately, they have haunted academic writers for a long time. It’s time to demystify them and get your writing done.

  1. I can’t write.

Instead of believing this sweeping statement, think again. Would you be allowed to study, if you were unable to write? Of course not. So, what exactly is it that you think you’re bad at? As soon as you don’t believe this story, someone else might have told you in the past, you can start the work. Find out what aspect of (academic) writing you need to look at more closely. The more you write, the more you can work on your shortcomings (I know I have still some, but this doesn’t hinder me from writing).

  1. I need to be inspired.

No, you don’t. With practice in regular writing, you’ll be able to write, even if the Muse takes a holiday for some months. It’s not worth waiting for her. She’s only visiting the writers who stick to a writing schedule anyway. Get that work done and enjoy it when you feel inspired. If not, do the work nevertheless.

  1. I shouldn’t talk about writing.

Researchers love to talk about theories, methods and results. But when it coomes to writing and its challenges, they too often keep silent. Don’t be one of them. Talking about the craft of writing can only help to understand it better. Talk to other students, colleagues or your professor about writing. Or visit your university’s writing center and similar institutions (I hope there is one). Consider it this way: In order for athletes to become better, they consult coaches. Without them, they wouldn’t know what to improve or how to overcome physical and mental obstacles. Use every opportunity to learn from other writers and share your struggles and successes.

  1. I need to read and know everything before I write.

If you think so, you won’t finish your text in the near future – if at all. There’s always something to read and study. Do yourself a favor and start to write as early as possible. Use writing as a tool to think about your topic, question or thesis. Writing can accompany your research and reading phases. (I believed in this myth for about three years of my PhD…).

  1. I should work like the others.

Maybe you think that your colleagues work in a specific way. They seem to be successful, as far as you can tell. If you also believe in myth number three, then this might all be speculation. Instead of following someone else’s way of working – which might well work for this particular writer – and getting nothing else but frustrated, you better find your own way. You need to figure out what works for you – not forever, but for each writing assignment.

  1. I need big blocks of time to write.

If you don’t have big blocks of time, what are you going to do? Are you going to wait indefinitely until you find this block of time? Good luck waiting. You better get going by using the time that you have. With some training and good habits, you can write for half an hour and produce more than just waiting for four-hour blocks that will never show up. If you belong to those lucky (or poor?) researchers, who received a sabbatical, you’ll have a hard time making good use of it. A sabbatical may be hell, if you don’t know how to spend your time – I know what I’m talking about.

  1. My first draft needs to be perfect.

If it were perfect, it wouldn’t be a draft anymore. Perfectionists make their own writing life worse than it needs to be. Take musicians: They practice for weeks or months, making a lot of mistakes. Only when they go on stage and perform for an audience, do they need to get their act together. As a writer, you won’t perform in front of an audience until you submit or publish your text. Before that, you make up your own audience. So relax and allow yourself to write a shitty first draft that you can revise afterwards. That’s when the quality comes in. Oh, and don’t strive for a perfect text, because it probably won’t ever reach perfection.

  1. I can’t use the word „I“.

That’s an old one too. Although many students and researchers still believe this to be true and to have always been, research shows a different picture. While students especially think that the use of „I“ stems from a subjective, hence non-objective, perspective, they don’t know that they could hide a bias, belief or the like with allegedly objective passive phrases. The question is not, whether you should use „I“ or an indirect self-reference (such as the passive or „This study argues…“). The question is, when and how you use them. It all depends on the writing context (requirements, expectations, rules) and the text genre. If you’re able to switch between the different ways of referring to yourself in the text, you can master every assignment. (See also here for another blog post on this.)

  1. I need to write complicated sentences.

In the name of science: please don’t! Do your peers and yourself a favor and stick to simple, but effective language. That doesn’t mean that you have to write for laypersons everytime you write academically. But it means not making things more complicated than they need to be (no jargon, for one). Use technical terms, concepts etc., but don’t overdo it. Stick to good and understandable prose (check out Zinsser’s On Writing Well). Remember: you need to communicate your insights in an understandable way, unless you want to confuse your peers. Of course, there are many (famous) counter-examples. Don’t imitate them.

For more detailed information and many examples from famous researchers, check out my new book Schreibmythen entzaubern (Verlag Barbara Budrich/UTB, 2016) – in German only.

Although she had wanted to become a literary writer as a child, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) changed her major during college from English to Biology. She would later become one of the most famous science writers (e.g. Silent Spring, 1962).

When writing, Carson seemed to have been her own biggest hindrance. She did her research as carefully as possible. Her working pace was slow because she revised her texts again and again – even after having given it to the publisher. Among other reasons, she worked so diligently, because her audience was laypersons from a general reading audience. She tried to convey the information in an understandable way, without simplifying it too much.

While being occupied with office work, she found the time and space to write a new book. But this freedom turned into a prison, as one of her biographers wrote. Having no other obligations besides writing, she couldn’t use the time as planned. Reality didn’t match her expectations.

Writing Silent Spring took Carson four years. On the one hand, she continued to work slowly. On the other, her work was interrupted by different diseases, among them cancer. Yet, she still worked on and tried to convey the effects of pesticides on the environment for a broader readership.

As if her different struggles weren’t enough, Carson was repeatedly confronted with sexist reactions to her books. Some male readers didn’t believe that Carson, as a woman, was capable of writing about complex scientific topics. Nor did they believe that her master’s degree in zoology would suffice. Despite these reactions, Carson continued to write about science for a broad audience, receiving several prestigious awards.

Steiner, Dieter (2014): Rachel Carson. Pionierin der Ökologiebewegung. Eine Biographie. München: oekom.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) wasn’t only famous for his contributions to physics, including his work on the first atomic bomb for the Manhattan project. He was also famous for his character. When you read his “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”, you gain an insight into this unusual physicist’s life.

When it came to his work habits, he had his own idea about what was possible and helpful. While many researchers yearn for a sabbatical, Feynman didn’t want to spend his entire time thinking about his research. He needed distraction in order to find new research ideas. That’s why he wanted to teach. He pitied the thinkers and researchers at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton (e.g. Einstein), because they had nothing to do but research. What if they didn’t have any ideas while sitting there, Feynman wondered. For him, this situation must have been associated with feelings of guilt and depression. The researcher would be chased by sorrows. In contrast, Feynman needed distraction through lecturing, because students asked questions that could initiate new ideas.

Feynman seemed to be able to work anywhere. In one case, he went to teach a course at a different university. During the train trip from Los Alamos to Ithaca, which took several hours, he worked on reports for the Manhattan project and prepared for the course he would be teaching. In another case, Feynman spent ten months in Brasil. Besides working at the office and playing in a Samba band, he worked on theory in his hotel room.

Even someone like Feynman could become exhausted and therefore could not do any research. He was confronted with different job offers, but he didn’t feel that he could meet the employers’ expectations. Eventually, however, he realized how he could get out of this situation: High expectations were the problems of potential employers, not his. That’s what helped him to relax. Although he still thought that he was unable to do research, he found a new research project in a cafeteria by chance. Once again, he enjoyed doing research.

Feynman knew how and in which situations he worked best. Even when he was blocked for some time, he found a way out by himself, beginning with his own thoughts and expectations.

Feynman, Richard (1985): Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character as Told to Ralph Leighton (edited by Edward Hutchings). W. W. Norton.

If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t assume that this man in the electric wheelchair is one of the most accomplished scientists. Stephen Hawking (born 1942) suffers from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a disease that has worsened since his diagnosis at age 21. Despite the fact that he can no longer move and relies entirely on other people, he is still able to think through complicated math and physics. He wrote and co-wrote several books, one of them a bestseller.

Despite being talented, he was lazy during his studies in Oxford. Only later, during his PhD, with the spark of inspiration, did he began to work harder, even though his disease had already started to worsen. Soon after, however, he was no longer able to write. He relied on other people to get his writing done. The math he still did in his head, while talking with colleagues helped him to clarify his ideas.

Due to his dependence on other people, he developed daily routines. As a professor, his daily routine included preparation at home, getting to the office, going through the mail with his secretary, working at his computer or reading, having coffee with his colleagues, dealing with correspondence, eating lunch, working again until tea-time, counseling students with the help of assistants, and working some more before going home in the evening.

Working on a book with a co-author, Hawking had to dictate the text. In one case, it took them six years to complete the book. In the case of his book A Brief History of Time (1988), Hawking closely worked with the editor. In the beginning, the manuscript was too complicated and technical for a broader audience. Hawking wanted to publish the book with a publisher, who also would sell the book at airports, so he needed to rewrite the book. Other people assisted him during the revision process. Due to a treatment for pneumonia in the mid-1980s, Hawking lost his voice. Only when he received a computer to aid in writing and talking, he could resume the work on the book.

What Stephen Hawking accomplished is astonishing, despite his disease and the limitations connected with it. In other words: There are no excuses anyone could use for not writing. If Stephen Hawking can do it, everybody else can do it too.

White, Michael/Gribbin, John (1992): Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science. Viking.
Hawking, Stephen (1993): Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays. Bantam.

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