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Successful Academic Writers Make Writing Social – Wendy Laura Belcher

This month of #AcWriMo we’re featuring heaps of advice from the book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher. She’ll offer a wealth of information on carefully planning your writing and getting over obstacles – practical and emotional.

The myth that writing should be a solo activity is just that, a myth. Yet, the popular image persists of the writer as someone who works alone for months in a cold garret, subsisting on bread and cigarettes while coughing consumptively and churning out page after page of sui generis prose. It’s a lonely, hard life, but that’s what writing takes.

Academics in the humanities persist in believing that texts spring fully formed from the mind of the writer. In the sciences, this myth is not so prevalent since most science articles are the result of a team of researchers who publish as coauthors. Students in the sciences work as secondary authors, contributing sections or data to faculty members’ articles, long before they ever become primary authors. That is why the rate of writing dysfunction in the sciences is so much lower. Scholars in the sciences consistently see writing as a form of conversation. When this idea of collaboration is lost, many of the writing problems so common in the academic community arise—writer’s block, anxiety over having one’s ideas stolen, the obsession with originality, the fear of belatedness, difficulties with criticism, even plagiarism. All rise from the myth that writing should be private and isolated.

Just look at the host of reviewers, friends, and family members thanked in any published book. This is not just civility on the part of the author; authors are usually understating the case. Those thanked may have performed research, suggested theses, recommended resources, and actually written conclusions. This was especially true in the past, when faculty wives not only typed and edited manuscripts, but also sometimes wrote sections of their husbands’ texts. The recent legal suit against the Da Vinci Code for copyright infringement suggests that such wives are still around. According to Dan Brown, his wife Blythe Brown did most of the research for the Da Vinci Code, suggested the idea of centering a book on the suppression of women in the Catholic Church, and insisted that the book include a child of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene (Collett-White 2006). Because the myth of originality is so strong, authors rarely give these laborers coauthor credits. This variation on the repressive silence discussed at the beginning of this chapter is the result of not recognizing that writing is collaborative labor.

A useful corrective to the myth of the solitary writer is the experience of Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who was Southeast Asia’s leading contender for the Nobel Prize. Toer spent fourteen years as a political prisoner on Indonesia’s infamous Buru Island. Denied paper and pen, from 1969 to 1973, Pramoedya composed oral stories for the eighteen prisoners in his isolated camp, who would whisper the latest installment to other prisoners during their only daily contact, in the showers. These stories were so rich and human that many prisoners attributed their survival to them. Pramoedya himself has called the Buru novels “my lullaby for my fellow-prisoners, to calm their fears, they who were suffering so much torture” (Belcher 1999). The prisoners, in turn, did his work and gave him their food to enable his creation. When his captors finally allowed him to write in 1975, “it was like a dam breaking.” Toer wrote continuously to capture the stories from memory, sitting on the floor and writing on his prison cot. Only four of these books were smuggled out; six others were destroyed by prison guards. The first, This Earth of Mankind, is one of the best novels of colonialism ever written in English. The quartet of which it is a part is a defining work of this century. Is Toer’s story unusual? Yes. But his experience of writing highlights a persistent truth: The best writing is created in community with a strong sense of audience.

So, work to make your writing more public and less private, more social and less solitary. Start a writing group. Take a writing class. Convince another student to co-write an article with you. Meet a classmate at the library or a café to write for an hour. Attend conferences, participate in electronic discussion lists, join journal clubs, and introduce yourself to scholars whose work you admire. Do not get distracted into reading yet another article when a conversation with someone in your field can better help you to shape your ideas and direction. You should be spending as much time on establishing social scholarly connections as you do on writing, for the best writing happens in active interaction with your potential audience.

The more you participate, the better your experience of writing will be. This is partly because others give you ideas and language. But it is also because you must relate your ideas to others’ ideas. You must know what theories professors in your discipline are debating, what their primary research questions are, and what methodologies they consider appropriate. You can only know this if you are an active member of the community.

Students usually experience several problems with making their writing more social.

1. Many students feel real horror at the prospect of networking. Some feel awkward or invasive attempting to contact someone they admire. Others experience deliberate attempts at befriending others as superficial or brown-nosing. Certainly, reaching out socially takes courage and tact. Yet, you will find that others are often interested in meeting you and even grateful to you for taking the first step. Many established scholars enjoy being asked for advice on the field. So, whatever your comfort zone, try to push outside it.

2. Many students are hesitant about showing their writing to anyone. The university environment can encourage students to see their colleagues as adversaries rather than advocates. Classmates and professors can appear too busy to read and comment on your work. Students can be afraid that sharing their work will reveal them as impostors and demonstrate their deep unsuitability for the academy. Fortunately, if you manage to share your work, you usually find that others are happy to help and that you are not as much of an idiot as you thought you were. Moreover, others can quickly identify omissions and logical breaks that would take you weeks to figure out. Of course, some readers will be too critical and others will give you bad advice. But an essential part of becoming a writer is learning to sift useful criticisms from useless ones. The more often you deal with others’ subjective reactions to your work, the more readily you will be able to deal with peer reviewers’ comments down the road.

3. Some students are good at sharing their work, but only when they consider the article complete. Avoid waiting until your manuscript is “done” before sharing it. You will be disappointed when you share it with others, expecting compliments. Instead, you will get recommendations for revision that you are little interested in addressing. The point of sharing is to improve your writing, not to convince others of your talents. So, share your writing in the early stages. Show outlines to classmates, faculty members in your discipline, or even journal editors. Exchange abstracts. Give out drafts and ask for specific comments about aspects of your writing that you suspect are weak. Learn to share your writing at all stages.

4. Students fear that sharing their work will lead to their ideas being stolen. Like so many of the anxieties named in this book, there is a rational reason for this fear: students’ ideas are stolen. Stories are always circulating among graduate students about stolen intellectual property. But hiding your work will not solve this problem. In fact, getting your work out to a number of people will protect it. Furthermore, no one can articulate your idea like you can. You may suspect that anyone could do a better job of presenting your ideas than you could, but my book will help you see that’s not true.

All these activities will help you counter the myth of the lonely writer. Nothing is as collaborative as good writing. All texts depend on other texts, all writers stand on the shoulders of other writers, all prose demands an editor, and all writing needs an audience. Without community, writing is inconceivable. My book will help you to develop social writing habits and to share your work. If you are working with a writing partner or in a group, you are making excellent progress already!

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