Setting out on a writing experiment

I follow the work of Pat Thomson ( reading her blog and following her tweets. Each morning I check in on her ‘This academic life’ page to check out the visual image and description of what she has been up to the day before –finding this a fascinating way of looking at what academic work entails. On my twitter feed one day a link from Pat came up to a book by Patricia Goodson (2013, Sage Publications) ‘Becoming an academic writer’. I was intrigued about what this book might be like and so ordered it and was excited when it arrived just before I was due to fly to Canberra to see the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition – it would be perfect plane reading material.

Goodson writes that she often asks students and staff members what they do for a living, arguing that she wants them to remember that they are writers – ‘They write for a living. Every dimension of their future success as academics – grades, promotions, presentations to professional groups, funding for research projects – will depend on how well (and yes, how much) they write’ (p. 16). She says that remembering you are a professional writer is the one thing she wants people to take away with them- and to be honest it’s something I hadn’t really thought about in much depth before. I see writing as a key part of my job, I love to write, but I’d never actually thought of referring to myself as a professional writer – rather I see myself as having so many dimensions to the work I do, with writer perhaps being one that is sometimes pushed to the edges.

So, I thought I’d keep going with Goodson’s book and follow the exercises she describes. I think it will be an interesting experiment to see what happens to my writing –how might it change and develop over the time I spend with Goodson’s book?

Today I started with her exercises and began with some of the things that get me writing which include: a space for writing both mental and physical; a passion for the topic; an ability to switch off from distractions; the ability to be in ‘flow’; nothing practical or pressing nagging in my brain and needing to be done and being immersed in the topic and the writing so that it doesn’t even feel like work.

As I write this I have all these romantic Virginia Woolf style notions of a room of one’s own in my mind. One of my favourite places to write is in my childhood bedroom at my parent’s house where the sea breeze drifts in through the window and the trees cast shadows across the desk. For me it becomes an idealised picture of the solitary writer caught in a wave of inspiration locking out all else and generating copious amounts of material, which are characterised by a genius of ideas and expression. Maybe all these notions of writing and of myself as a writer neglect the fact that writing and academic writing are work, and sometimes, hard work. There will be moments of inspiration, moments when words flow from my fingers and brain, but there will be other moments when it is hard work and requires me to plug away, rephrasing a sentence, searching for a word, grappling with an idea. Sometimes these moments will not be the easy, enjoyable moments I have in the idealized image that appear when I think about writing, but maybe from them there will emerge possibility, understanding and growth.

I wonder if the moments that seem mechanical and pedestrian can transform into moments of flow? As I write this I sit in an airport terminal waiting for a flight home. Around me I can hear music streaming through the sound system, there are children crying and conversations occurring in earnest. Yet here I sit absorbed in tapping out words on my iPad.

Starting with the first question, I begin to write, to explore my processes, my ideas, my style, and maybe, as Richardson says, to write myself into understanding.

Let’s see where Goodson takes me on this writing journey – I’m interested to see what I think of the book and of my writing by the time I finish…


4 responses to “Setting out on a writing experiment

  1. Interesting ideas here. Perhaps this is exactly the most significant difference between teachers and academics. I had always thought it was the research process but now I wonder if it is the writing; the production of academic writing. Certainly school teaching seems not to allow much thinking space or serious writing time anywhere in a day. Some teachers write, I know I did, but their careers do not depend upon it.
    I love the description of your room at home…I think place is very important for writing. Interesting that the airport and the ipad worked fine for this post. I look forward to hearing more about this particular part of your journey.

    • Thanks M. I have been struggling to find time to write on school days – I find myself often thinking during the course of the school day that I should write down particular experiences and thoughts, but then those thoughts often get pushed out. I find your comment about the production of academic writing interesting -and I wonder what your thoughts are about those teachers who write blogs – where do you see their writing fitting?

      I was kind of amazed that I could manage to write at the airport- really goes with the ‘any port in a storm’ idea! Place is important though and that’s why so much of my writing is done away from my work offices -neither my one at school or at uni really provide the kind of space I find useful for writing. I think there is something about being out of normal work space that helps me write more effectively – so I work better by the sea, in the lounge, in your house, in the houses of other colleagues or even in cafes….and now you have Place central in my thoughts. Thanks for the

  2. I think teachers writing blogs is an absolutely legitimate form of writing. Richardson’s idea of ‘writing ourselves into understanding’ is really another way of defining reflective practice. The difference between teacher blogs and academic writing is that blogs don’t tend to be based on research (although they can be) and teacher promotions and careers are not dependent on writing…so the stakes are different.

    I wonder, too, if blogging (or any teacher writing) is more about managing the emotional labour of teaching and trying to make sense of or share the teaching experience, whereas conventional academic writing is focused on research and can be slightly removed. Not sure about that when we work in the world of narrative methodology. I am sure much of my writing has been about making sense of my work, and my life at the time.

  3. Hi, Sharon! Thank you so much for letting me know about your blog – and I will share it with my POWER folks, here at Texas A&M University (the grad students and faculty who provide support for other grad students’ writing; many of them are educators who research teacher training and development ).

    I just wanted to react to your post by wondering why you don’t see yourself as a writer: it’s clear you are, and a very passionate one, too! Also, in my view, you seem to be one of the best kind of academic writers: one who uses writing to reflect and to learn, not merely to “report”.

    I also wanted to react to the post by Maryann, who wonders if blogging and conventional academic writing differ because one is more an emotional labor, while the other is “focused on research and can be slightly removed”. In a more traditional view of research, the statement would be right on. In narrative methodology, as Maryann says, the writing is not as removed (and shouldn’t be). Interestingly enough, the disciplines that function in the traditional ways of science are, indeed, moving toward including the researcher in the writing. Read, for instance, a couple of issues of the journals SCIENCE or NATURE. They have some of the best-quality writing you’ll find – and you’ll see many of the articles written in first person!
    Other interesting pieces that you might enjoy (and Maryann, too): Helen Sword’s book “Stylish Academic Writing” – where she makes a call for more engaging and powerful academic writing, by analyzing a good number of publications in various disciplines (by the way, Higher Education is one of the worst-performing ones, when it comes to “stuffy” and non-engaging academic writing, according to her review). And: Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative, by Robert Nash. He makes a very good argument for writing in first person narrative, even when writing academic reports.

    But, enough: this might be turning into another book… Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book and email me. Let me know if I can be of any help, throughout your journey…

    (Oh: also loved your next post on Weaving Words! I do needlework, and can really, really relate to the image!).

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