When I last posted on this blog in 2014, my now-kindergartener was still breastfeeding. He was old enough to have started calling it “boob snack,” but still. It feels like a lifetime ago, and it was. My life and my business were in such a different place that my memories of that time feel like they belong to another self. I was less than two years into my business, a hungry dissertation editor for whom the more rarefied realms of academic publishing — the vast, glittering world of books and articles published in prestigious venues and grants awarded by famous funding bodies — was still largely mysterious.
In my newness to this fascinating realm, I was still figuring out what academic writing fundamentally is. What features and structures appear across all fields, genres, and “levels” of academic writing? What beautiful variations can be seen in a humanities book vs. a social science dissertation vs. an engineering article? And what surprising commonalities? These are questions I was just beginning to gain insight into. I had completed a Ph.D. in English two years before, but what I learned about argument construction and research communication in grad school was only a fragment of the knowledge I would need to build a broad, deep understanding of how scholarly writing works.
The rational response to feeling over-awed by an enormous body of knowledge you’re trying to master, or by any kind of daunting pursuit, is to grasp at advice. Seek it out, take it in, barf it onto other people. This makes sense; a novice needs to focus on the possibility that, or extent to which, there is something orderly and static in this body of knowledge she’s trying to master. I for one needed to believe that there wasn’t a single sticky situation that the right piece of writing advice couldn’t get a writer out of, and that helping writers meant corralling all the good advice in the world, making it organized and navigable so that writers could easily locate the perfect piece of advice at any given moment when they needed it.
I was like the parent of a single baby who believes that any child can be made to sleep through the night if the parents just do the right things. Which is ironic given that the closest I have ever come to mass murder was in the first year of my son’s life when people kept telling me what I could do (all things I had already tried) to get him to sleep longer than two hours at a time. Few things in life are more rage-inducing than receiving insistent, well-intentioned advice that you already tried six months ago and it didn’t work.
Older and wiser now — and having put my invisible fingerprints on hundreds of books, articles, and grants over the years — I have developed that broad, deep understanding of how scholarly writing works. And it has left me far less drawn to other people’s writing advice and far less inclined to dole out advice myself. If I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that writers already know things about themselves and their projects. They have a seemingly miraculous built-in navigation system that can guide their questioning, their data gathering, their analysis, their argument construction, their articulation of what it all means. The trick to writing, then, is not to gorge on advice; it’s to tune into our own deepest inner knowing.
And the only way another person can help you do that is by respecting your inner knowing, and by focusing on asking you the kinds of questions that can prod you into noticing and hearing what your inner knowing, your intuition, is saying.
All this to say, I’m trying something different for Academic Writing Month ( #AcWriMo ) this year. Most people approach this annual tradition with a focus on quantitative goals that can be measured in number of words written and amount of time spent. And there is a lot of advice floating around on how to set and reach these kinds of goals. I’m focusing my #AcWriMo on setting intentions instead, and pursuing them by asking myself good questions.
You’re welcome to join me! Learn more here.