Tuesday, November 4, 2014

#AcWriMo - Academic Writing Month 2014 (Part 1)

It starts! November 1st marked Day 1 of Academic Writing Month - a month-long effort to set goals, work toward them, and hold yourself accountable. You can read the history and full instructions here; in brief, you set writing goals, identify your plan for accomplishing them, and check in each day using the publicly shared accountability spreadsheet. Many academics say that this burst of community-oriented writing invigorates them and increases their productivity. As this is my first year participating, it's a good time to (1) discuss goals, and (2) reflect on how to improve my writing process.

#1: Goals. November already is a busy month for me, so setting goals wasn't terribly difficult. Here are the ones I included on the accountability sheet:
  • Finish and submit a teaching enhancement grant (i.e., a proposal to earn extra money for teaching equipment and other resources)
  • Put the final touches on two nearly-done manuscripts, and submit both
  • Complete requested major revisions to my dissertation manuscript, and resubmit
  • Complete my first year faculty self-report (i.e., a summary of what I've done so far/why my institution should rehire me for year two/goals for next year)
The teaching grant and the self-report have hard deadlines, which are early and late in the month, respectively. (At the time of this post, I've already submitted the teaching grant. Hooray!) In the middle, I have two manuscripts that require a few hours each, and a set of major revisions that will take several days (at least). 

My plan is to focus one hour per day on writing, either all at once or split up into chunks. It's not much every day. But considering that teaching prep takes a good deal of time, and I have endless stacks of exams to grade this month, an hour every day will be an accomplishment. Writing here, counts, as well :)
#2: Process. I realized long ago that being a great writer takes more effort than I've been willing to give. For example, this excerpt from an advertisement for Hands On Writing sums up my process while in training (red = my edits):
This is how I (unrealistically) thought I would improve my academic writing back at the start of my PhD. Please feel free to laugh:
  • I write something. I send the first un-revised draft to somebody (usually) more senior than me asking for feedback. 
  • I will go to “track changes” and accept all of them automatically (so I save time). 
  • Write some more and re-do the feedback accept-all-changes step. 
  • Rarely - When the reviewer says it is good enough, read the document, try to find the 13498986 differences with my first draft so I can  learn some lessons for next time I have to write. 
  • Forget everything quite a lot the next day.
I internalized some basics, like how NOT to use a colon and striving to keep sentences short. And my academic writing has improved dramatically over the past few years; I can tell when I read others' writing and I find ways to improve clarity. But I wonder how much better my writing would be today had I paid more attention to the process during training. 

These days, I still rely on others' feedback. I'm rubbish at finding the holes in my own logic and even worse at spotting typos. So a good friend and I trade documents and give each other comments, which has been helpful. I also include my undergraduate students in the process, by encouraging them to compare early- and late-stage cooperative pieces and asking them to proofread for me. And I read as much as I can. I often read about writing, of course. 

But I've also recommitted to reading books, for several reasons. One of which is that staying immersed in others' writing helps me stay in tune with what writing should (or shouldn't) look like. I'm partway through David Quammen's Spillover (about zoonotic diseases) and William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep (about problems with higher education). Both informative and timely for entirely different reasons. (More to come on these, I suspect.)

It's Day Four of #AcWriMo, and I'm going strong. Fingers crossed that we all keep it up!

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