You want to write more. You want to finish and submit more of your writing.
You may think that the only way to do that is to do one or more of the following:
- set concrete (product-oriented) goals
- give yourself deadlines for achieving those goals
- make yourself accountable to someone else for those goals and/or deadlines
All of those things might work. And all of them make me feel really uncomfortable.
I’m going to try to tease out why that is. I published some thoughts on the blog recently: You don’t need accountability. You might want to read that, too.
In writing this, I am not attached to the idea that these are bad strategies. I know that they are bad for some people. I also suspect that the fact that they are effective (for some people) does not necessarily make them the best strategies.
My goal in writing this is to help you think through what works best for you.
Are you lazy?
Implicit in these strategies is an assumption that without external pressure you wouldn’t do anything. Or, at the very least, that you wouldn’t do these particular things.
As I’ve written before, no one is lazy. If your gremlin is not convinced, set a timer for 2 minutes and write continuously for that time. Don’t stop to think too much. Looking back over the past week:
- What projects did you work on? (work, life, anything, everything)
- What commitments did you keep? (to others, to yourself)
- What out of the ordinary or unexpected things did you deal with?
Stop writing when the timer goes off.
Is that the list of a lazy person? Remember that this is not everything. It is what you remembered, what you thought worthy of writing down, and what you could write in 2 minutes.
Do you have poor judgement?
Even if you don’t assume laziness, these strategies assume that you wouldn’t do the right things. There is an inherent assumption that you can’t trust your own judgement. Without an external force guiding your actions you would not choose wisely.
This may be true. More likely you doubt your judgement. There is a lot about how school works (and you’ve been in school for a very long time and succeeded at it) that encourages meeting externally imposed standards over developing your own judgement. (see also Why being a Straight-A student isn’t necessarily a good thing)
Is the way you are using goals, deadlines, and accountability helping you develop better judgement? Or, are you reinforcing your lack of trust in yourself?
In particular, how often does a personal goal or a personal deadline provide an opportunity for self-flagellation? How often does a personal goal or a personal deadline offer an opportunity for self-congratulation? How do those 2 numbers compare?
How would you work if you trusted that you weren’t lazy and had good judgement?
How would you set personal goals and deadlines build your self-confidence?
What else could you do instead of setting goals and deadlines?
How would you organize your time to move projects to completion?
What could you do to build your trust in your judgement, in your processes, and in your ability?
Do you need external accountability? Or do you need support? What could that support look like?
The Academic Writing Studio includes resources that will help you figure out how to establish a writing practice that works for you, and resources to help you maintain that practice by scheduling time for your priorities, set achievable goals (which may focus on the process rather than the product), and get the support you need.
Other thoughts on accoutability
My goal for this blog is that it becomes a library of useful things, so I’m sharing these two conversations to this library.
My goal for conversations about accountability and related issues is to help you think about what supports your writing and how you can develop a writing practice that works for you.
Pat Thomson, targets, and writing practice
“You don’t need accountability” generated some interesting conversation. I want to say “on Twitter” but this isn’t really a conversation you can have in 140 characters. A couple of people I engage with on Twitter, who also write about writing and how to do it, have either written or shared related pieces. My goal for this blog is that it becomes a library of useful things, so I’m sharing this conversation to this library.
My goal for this conversation about accountability and related issues is to help you think about what supports your writing and how you can develop a writing practice that works for you.
Pat Thomson, who tweets as @ThomsonPat, wrote a post on her blog prompted by this discussion of accountability. In it she shares her own writing practice as an example.
Read her post: accountability and academic writing
Now don’t get me wrong, I use manuscript targets too. […]
But in reality, most of the time I don’t work to a word count. I do have calendar deadlines when things need to be done. I mostly meet these – but I don’t work to word or page targets in order to do so. As long as I’m writing each day and getting somewhere significant towards completion, I’m happy. Somewhere significant might be a small section on one day and several large chunks of material on another.
She goes on to explain how that works in more detail, with reference to education research on the use of targets and rewards (her field is education), and concludes with this:
But this all leads me to think that perhaps we need to have some conversations to counter-balance those about the usefulness of accountability to academic writing. Conversations where we share the strategies we use to compose, draft, revise, edit and craft texts. Conversations where we share views about the kinds of academic texts that are good to read, the academic writers that we admire and the kinds of writing that they do. Many many more conversations that are about more than word length and pages ticked off… Conversations that are about the stuff we write not just the quantity and speed.
I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I started writing about this in the first place. And it’s not just about what you write but also about aspects of how you write beyond “quantity and speed”. There really is more to a writing practice than that, both as goal and process, which is the basis of my whole business model when it comes right down to it.
I intend to keep writing about this periodically.
Rachael Cayley, productivity, ethics, and hard work
My musing asserting that “You don’t need accountability” generated some interesting conversation. I want to say “on Twitter” but this isn’t really a conversation you can have in 140 characters. A couple of people I engage with on Twitter, who also write about writing and how to do it, have either written or shared related pieces.
Rachael Cayley, who tweets as @explorstyle, shared a post focused on a comment she received from a PhD student at the end of a recent course on thesis writing. Accountability is part of the broader discussion of productivity and it raises some interesting questions.
Read her post: Productivity: an ethical response
The ethical paradigm that rewards growth and creativity is quite different to the one that adjudicates and punishes. This insight from the world of ethics might bring to awareness a question worthy of consideration. Is writing a dissertation more about obligation and getting stuck in one’s own limitations, or is it more about creativity and exploring my own personal, undiscovered potentials? [the student, Anne Sirek]
leading to these thoughts from Rachael in response.
When we treat writing as something to be managed or as a chore or as a necessary evil, we are foreclosing the possibility that writing might be joyful or that we might use the occasion of writing to be kind to ourselves.
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I talk often about the inherent challenge of academic writing. And I definitely see a great deal of benefit in acknowledging that difficulty. Doing so allows us to ask this crucial question: ‘how can we write through the difficulty?’. Like many people, I’ve been thinking of late about the influence of William Zinsser on the way we approach writing. I often return to this passage:
“Writing is hard work…. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard” (On Writing Well, 2005, p. 12).
As a teacher of writing, I feel obliged to offer a bit of pragmatism: you don’t need to enjoy writing, you just need to get down to it and work through the difficulty. It seems so important that each struggling writer be reminded that the problems aren’t theirs alone—everyone struggles with writing.
Read the whole piece as Rachael goes on to tease out this response and raise more questions.
One thing this got me thinking about is the relationship between joy and hard work. Are you assuming that experiencing joy negates the possibility that this is hard work? I’ve written about this and related assumptions about writing being work that you might love before:
- Love and hard work addresses the apparent exclusivity of love (or joy) and hard work.
- Loving your work and the work you don’t love addresses the fact that writing might bring you joy and there might also be parts of the work itself that you do not experience as joyful.
And yes, I think love and joy get the same sort of treatment and can be elided for the purposes of this discussion. If not the same, they are at least more similar to each other than to things like productivity, deadlines, accountability, etc.
Rachael is writing for an audience of PhD students. I am writing to an audience of working academics, along with PhD students, which makes me more conscious of the fact that these issues are not just issues for new academic writers but continue well into an academic career.
This post was originally 3 separate posts but was brought together for continuity.