Academic Writing Month and the problem of time

This week marks the end of Academic Writing Month: a month generally used by academics to put into place exerted efforts with the ambition of getting writing done. The premise is simple. For every day of the month in November, a specified amount of time is ringfenced for writing. The amount of time put aside varies from person to person and can be as little as 10 minutes a day,at any point in the day. The important thing is to write consistently for 30 consecutive days. The time of day and the amount of time reserved for writing may vary across the month, and the nature of the writing is also not pre-determined. Academic writers set their own goals, identify the type of writing they wish to pursue and venture forth with their writing aims in the knowledge that others are doing similarly, which provides a type of support and perhaps a nudge of motivation.

On the face of it, the idea sounds great, and it is certainly a nifty way to give some pre-eminence to writing that can otherwise take a bit of a backseat in the daily lives of academics. However, its own conception reveals something problematic about the nature of academic work. There is often a lack of time generally, and particularly so for the devoted attention and focus required for developing writing that is of a publishable and reputable quality. Access to time is also different for different people, based not just on their workload for that particular time of the year, but also in terms of home and personal circumstances. As a result, academic writing month might hold opportunities for some to make concerted efforts in their writing, but for others, it might just represent yet another pressure point. The expectation to write throughout November might even be exacerbated when others appear to be making the most of it when, by contrast, your own schedule just doesn’t offer that sort of leeway.

The thing with time is that it just is. More time cannot be magicked up. We can think about how we use the time that we have but this does not extend as far as creating more time. That is impossible. Yet the nature of academic writing month places the onus for writing on the individual: choose your time of day, choose your amount of time per day, and choose your writing project or writing goals. It sounds inclusive, equitable and responsive to individual needs on the face of it, but in pinning everything on the individual, the wider systems within which the individual operates within are overlooked. In overlooking the wider context that frames academic work, the responsibility for getting writing done (or not) is placed squarely upon the individual. This can hit hard when others are writing, and you are not.

So how can we dislodge the impetus for productivity and the competitive undertones that tend to accompany academic writing month? How can the idea for getting writing done be harnessed in a way that maintains its appeal to writers, whilst also acknowledging the conditions that either enable or hinder writing? What might be a fairer and more inclusive approach? In short, what could be done differently?

As a starting point, I suggest the following possible ways forward:

  • Use Academic Writing Month to celebrate past achievements. If writing daily is difficult, why not use November to promote past work: perhaps by posting quotes on social media networks from past publications.
  • Share others’ work. Alternatively, Academic Writing Month could be used for supporting writing done by colleagues – again, through social media outlets.
  • In the spirit of what Berg and Seeber (2016) call a ‘shadow CV’, list the writing you would have liked to have done if your schedule was lighter or differently convened. Make this visible so that these difficulties are known and can be understood, and shared in the same way that writing achievements are.
  • Perhaps even consider choosing your own Academic Writing Month. For example, if November is too overloaded, identify an alternative month which is likely to be more conducive for you to get your writing done. Be vocal about this in November, and then be vocal again when your own self-identified writing month begins.

Of course, in writing all this the problem of time continues. I certainly do not anticipate that any of the points that I have just raised are easily resolvable. However, simply by discussing the problems that sit below the surface of Academic Writing Month, we can at least note that finding the time to write isn’t always easy for everyone – even in November.

Verity Aiken

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