How I Write

My most recent on-again, off-again book (i.e. things I read out of a desire for professional development, but wouldn’t label as “fun” and don’t always have time for in the course of “work”) is Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: how successful academics write (2017). The overriding theme of the book is that there is that there is no one right way to write. Instead, she creates a formula called B.A.S.E. from behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional habits that serves as equal parts analytical took for talking about writing and self-assessment rubric. The details of your writing experience, Sword says, are less important than the shape and size of your BASE–with each category rated on a scale from 1 to 10–which forms the foundation for your “House of Writing.”

Inspired by the types of questions Sword asked her interview subjects and the BASE formula, I figured it could be useful to run diagnostics on how I write. This is a long post, so anyone not interested in writing process would be forgiven for skipping the rest.


By way of a preface, a note on my current projects. I am at a stage right now where little of my writing time goes to active generation of new words. Instead, I am doing a lot of editing, repurposing, and writing proposals. The most immediate projects are revising an article based on referee feedback for Ancient History Bulletin and working on turning my dissertation into a book, but I am also working on two abstracts and another article that needs some additional research. I have a few other odds and ends that I want to work on, including some fiction, but between teaching, job applications, and these projects most of those have been pushed to the back burner for the time being.

Behavioral (7.5)
This is easily my strongest category, though there is still plenty of room for improvement. I have tried a number of different writing habits over the years. My MA Thesis, for instance, was drafted almost entirely by hand on legal pads while sitting in coffee shops, typed, and then edited again by hand. These were marathon writing sessions around classes and a 28-hour per week job that usually took up more time than that. My process for my PhD dissertation was more fluid, and included four full drafts, mostly drafted on computers and then edited by hand. Again, I defaulted to marathon sessions, but my best rhythms involved new words in morning (sometimes as early as 2 AM if I had a deadline) and then editing in the afternoon and evening, ideally after a short nap. I didn’t have a set writing schedule for either project, but made sure to carve chunks of writing time from the rest of my schedule.

Post-PhD, finding time to write has been both more and less difficult. On the one hand, I actually have fewer chunks of the day that are already blocked off, but, on the other, there are more demands on my time, including preparation for teaching, and more pressure–not to mention a stretch in there when I was mentally exhausted and needed a break. The result is that I have started being more rigorous about setting a schedule for myself. For instance, about a month ago, I started going to bed a little earlier and getting up at 4:30 every weekday so that I can sit down at a computer and writing for between 45 and 60 minutes, followed by doing my daily Duolingo (I am working on strengthening my German and learning Spanish). Since starting this schedule, I have missed one day when I decided getting an extra hour of sleep would be more productive than torturing myself for a few words. I also started keeping a daily writing log where I record, down to the minute, of the distraction-free time spent writing and editing. I am ashamed of how little time I actually write distraction-free in the course of a week, but the combination of setting a regular schedule for writing (or repurposing) words rather than editing, and gamifying the writing process in a way that makes me accountable has both worked well in the last month and should help me develop productive and healthy habits.

Some ancillary notes: I vary how I write in terms of venue and medium, and still love writing by hand while also coming to appreciate the ability to workshop phrases in quick succession when typing. I likewise vary the location, and have been known to switch between my office, a student center, several spots in the library, and several coffee shops, sometimes going to two or three until the environment suits me. These changes are not meant to be fickle, but they force me to physically move and take a short break, both of which can help break a writing rut. The last quirk I want to mention is that I tend not to write without copious notes, sources, and often several books on hand that I can look things up in. In part this is a crutch since I will not necessarily refer to the notes while writing, but if I don’t have these materials and can’t look a question up, I have a bad habit of getting derailed.

All in all, this is my strongest category, not necessarily because I am the most diligent writer, but because I want to be one.

Artisanal (4.5)
I think that this is my weakest category, but also find this category particularly hard to judge. My writing is functional, but also contains a number of ticks and errs on the side of being overwritten and stilted. There are some things I have published here that, upon further review, I am pretty proud of (on the merits of the writing alone, though they can be a little sloppy), but I still struggle to find an engaging academic style—a point that more than one anonymous journal reviewer has mentioned. This is a point that I want to improve on, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. So far I have two general plans on how to proceed beyond taking more time to workshop my sentences. First, I want to read more books like this one, books on writing, reading, teaching, or general non-fiction, with an eye both to content and style. The other is to get back to doing more in terms of reading my sentences out loud and talking myself through the points I am trying to make as a way of recapturing style that I sometimes lose on the stage.

Social (5.5)
A month ago this rating would be several points lower, but around the same time that I started reading this book I joined two writing groups. One is online and international, built around goals, accountability, and positive reinforcement, but with some space for talking about process. The other is in person, meeting once a week in a cafe to write and talk about each other’s work. The other people in the group are coming from a very different academic background in that they all study modern history, but they are good readers and I would hope most of what I write is accessible to non-specialists anyway. Both groups are a positive change for me, since my writing experience to date has been almost entirely solo rather than social. This experience probably did cultivate the behavioral habits described above, but hasn’t done me any favors in terms of thinking writing and publications. I am sure the rate of return on these groups will diminish as time goes on, but I am heartened by the progress I have seen in this short time.

Emotional (4.5)
Another particularly weak category Frustration is the first word that comes to mind here. Most of my past metaphors have involved overcoming obstacles with obstinance, whether slogging through the process or slamming into a wall repeatedly until finally finding a way around it. Then there are the negative emotions surrounding the artisanal habits, feelings of anger and frustration or even inadequacy, both with my ideas themselves and my ability to articulate them. The big problem here is that even while I have nominally attached my emotions to the skill, the feelings won’t improve with that skill. For one thing, I am not a rational judge of my own writing (I have definitely written things I thought were good that were clearly bunk and vice-versa), and, for another, I still feel this way even having successfully passed multiple articles through the peer review process at prominent journals. Similarly, I have a bad habit of taking rejection personally, which just serves to hinder progress of my various writing projects. All of these negative emotions about writing are more likely connected to other struggles I have had with anxiety. In addition to trying to concentrate not just on successes, but on the fact that I also *like* writing, and using other mindfulness techniques, I hope that making writing less of a solo project and more a healthy part of my social life that it will have the additional benefit of strengthening my feelings about writing.

In sum, my BASE is heavily weighted toward the desire to write and in desperate need for further development in all of the surrounding features. This is good news, I think, because all the artisanal skill in the world doesn’t matter if the behavioral habits aren’t in place. On the flip side, diagnostic result reveals significant limitations in terms of writing anything that anyone would want to read and shows several place with the most potential for development.

Sword’s book can be intimidating, but is also immensely helpful both in the advice it gives and the examples it sets for healthy, productive writing practices. Academic writing is a curious phenomenon and between the text and the meta-text where she pulls back to the talk about the process of writing the book, Sword offers a helpful guide to making it understandable. Air & Light & Time & Space: how successful academics write will not be the last book on writing I read, but it was a pretty good place to start.

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