This new book is aimed at scholarly authors who struggle with writing. But to my surprise, much of Joli Jensen’s advice is translatable to any project that matters a great deal to you but that you put off doing.
A professor of media studies and director of the Henneke Faculty Writing Program at the University of Tulsa, Jensen acknowledges that academia can be a terrible place for writers. Even though from the outside academia looks cushy – professors have long breaks between semesters, summer holidays, and sabbaticals for research and writing – actually sitting down to write is not easy. For many scholars, the pressure to “publish or perish” can be paralyzing.
Jensen focuses on what she calls the writing “process” rather than content or style. She deals with the negative feelings and beliefs that block academics from writing, and offers practical tools to make their writing lives productive and even happy.
Her key recommendations:
- secure writing time, space, and energy
- recognize the myths that hold you back
- seek ways to give and receive writing support
In a friendly, conversational voice, Jensen guides authors through the obstacles that keep popping up as they try to write. As far as I know, her book is unique in addressing problems that arise at every stage – from getting ideas, prewriting, researching, drafting, revising, editing, and handling rejections.
As an editor who often works with scholars, I also appreciated Jensen’s insights into the psychology of academics and how their thoughts and feelings about writing can affect their prose. For instance, I’m sometimes impatient with the abstract, turgid prose that academics produce. Jensen suggests that academic writing is often obscure because professors are insecure. They write impenetrable prose to shield themselves from the criticism that is built into scholarly publishing. Criticism can feel like a personal attack, like their worth – not just career advancement – is at stake.
Jensen’s antidote to these high stakes is to “drain the drama.” She reminds authors that scholarly work is what they do, not who they are.
She also exposes other “myths” that keep authors from writing. Chapter titles like The Magnus Opus Myth, The Imposter Syndrome, The Cleared-Deck Fantasy, The Hostile Reader Fear, and Compared with X speak for themselves.
Our fears and self-destructive beliefs are powerful because they do have some basis in reality. Jensen describes in humorous anecdotes how she invited her “demons in for tea.” Sort of like cognitive therapy, she airs her thoughts and spots the delusions.
One of her key ideas is that academics should adopt a “craftsman” attitude (I do wish she had used the word crafters). Academics are used to being experts, and they may think they should experts at writing, too. But they don’t have to be; they just have to be willing apprentices. “Academic writing is something we can learn how to do,” Jensen says.
We are always apprentices, learning how to do better and better work.
And crafters need tools. Here are some of Jensen’s more intriguing suggestions:
Create a project box.
Organize your project into a set of files that breaks the work into smaller sections. Jensen uses a literal, physical box – a hanging file system. (She admits to being “old school.”) The idea behind the project box is to prevent the work from hanging over you “like a dark, amorphous cloud.”
Write for at least 15 minutes a day.
This may seem like a gimmick, but Jensen insists that “frequent, low-stress contact” will keep you in touch with your work. If 15 minutes is all you have to give, you can at least get on with your day, guilt-free.
Use a ventilation file.
The ventilation file, whether electronic or physical, is the place to dump all your toxic thoughts and feelings about writing. You can even spend your 15-minute sessions complaining about this stupid, pointless project. “The great thing about the ventilation file,” Jensen says, “is that it acknowledges and incorporates my resistance to writing into the project itself.”
Give your best energy to writing.
Jensen urges authors to work with their energy levels rather than push to the point of exhaustion. The idea is to designate your most creative time of day – which she calls “A time” – to writing, and to schedule all other tasks, as much as possible, to “B time” when you need to be focused but not at your best, or to “C time” when you can coast.
Schedule longer writing times into your week.
Jensen recommends keeping a “reverse calendar” to see how you actually spend your time. If your life is overstuffed, ask yourself: “Are all of these commitments more important to me than writing?”
Give yourself a Sabbath day.
Most of us are raised to be productive seven days a week, so the notion of Sabbath is foreign. When Jensen started practicing the Jewish Shabbat, she kept worrying about work, sabotaging her day off. But when she learned to let her mind to rest, it transformed her relationship with work.
Follow the lilt.
When you talk about your project, is your voice mechanical or musical? If you’re enthusiastic about your project, you’ll hear it in your voice, and vice versa. Instead of choosing topics that will ensure professional success, Jensen urges academics to write about topics they really care about.
Join (or start) a faculty writing group.
Jensen created the faculty writing program at the University of Tulsa, and in part V she provides a blueprint for developing this type of support on campus.
Jensen’s warm tone and readable style will inspire writers to at least give her suggestions a try.