I finished reading Written. How to keep writing and build a habit that lasts, by Bec Evans and Chris Smith and as I closed the last page of their book I began scribbling notes for this review. Around 20 minutes later I started typing up the first draft. All of this should tell you something about the impact of this book and why it is well and truly worth reading.
Familiarity, Discovery, Reminders
I’d been looking forward to reading Written for some time, having been signed up to the Breakthroughs and Blocks newsletter for a few years already. Having had their expert 1:1 advice last year made me want to read it all the more. Writing this review is also a way of saying thank-you to Bec for the advice and collaboration when I needed it most.
One of the features I find most engaging their voice, or voices, the way they draw you in making you feel part of an intelligent, informed conversation, one peppered with anecdotes and nuggets of information that make you reflect, feel reassured or just plain curious. No matter how long you’ve been writing, how familiar it may be to you, this book will offer new discoveries and insights. For me, one of the first things this book did was make me reflect on what type of writer I am – and linked to that – what accountability I feel or don’t feel I need in my writing, making me notice more and mull this over as I continued to read the book.
Bec and Chris encourage reader reflection directly at the end of each chapter setting out a series of questions or tasks. When it comes to a self-assessment of what type of writer you are, they offer four categories: daily writer, time boxer, spontaneous writer, binge writer. It is reassuring to know that there is no single type of writer. Of the four, I didn’t fit neatly into any of them, rather this exercise actually got me thinking I might be more than one writer or several of these writers depending on what type of writing I’m doing. As I reflected further, I realized I write in several different ways, for different reasons, at different times, often with an overlap. At the moment I’m working as a resource developer, for example, so writing is the greater part of my daily Monday-Friday routine. That writing is definitely of the ‘leave the ego at the door, creative type’, where we pool our talents and time as a team, sometimes writing independently, sometimes co-creating or other times being the fresh pair of eyes that reviews the materials. So that makes me a daily writer, turning up daily and writing. I’m also doing some academic translations on the side.
The translation I’ve been working on recently is a collaborative endeavour but coincides with a number of other deadlines, so getting everything done has been quite stressful. Reading Written reminded me of the advice ‘to go small’, and it worked a treat. I turned up to this translation after my day job, did a few paragraphs, logged off, went back to it again and hey presto the work is done.
In other respects, I am a spontaneous writer and a time boxer rolled into one. I’m an academic at heart, a researcher, even when I’m not in an academic job, I still have writing commitments – articles and talks in various stages of preparation or review. I can sometimes just get down to writing towards those, and other times I need to box some time in to meet a deadline.
Yet, I’m also a spontaneous writer when it comes to writing my journal. I write as and when I feel the need, for as long or as brief a time as I feel I want to write. This journal is exclusively for me and my only pre-requisites are: a beautiful notebook (in direct contrast to my view un-beautiful handwriting), a nice pen, and quiet solitude. The journal is the one thing I cannot write with any interruption or other person in the room, everything else I can write pretty much anywhere.
I’m also a spontaneous writer when it comes to blogging. I’ve often thought I’d like to do it regularly but really, I know I only want to blog when I have something of value to say, so months pass and I don’t blog – then I do. Written has helped me become comfortable with that. It’s my blog and I write it for me – and that writer’s dopamine hit Bec and Chris talk about.
Helping you become comfortable with what type(s) of writer you are, is one of the great gifts of this book, it is as if it gives you license to say – I’m writing my way, and I don’t need anyone’s approval.
One of the points I really homed in on in Written is productivity, and that productivity is a good thing – even though every piece you write will vary, to get the better ideas you need to write, write, write – and not always the same thing but rather you need to push yourself which makes your writing better. Over the course my academic career to date I’ve been told both publish, publish, publish but also that less is more and to focus on producing fewer pieces to get higher quality pieces of work. I have several issues with that – not only in terms of career development (that’s one for another blog post) but also for two simple reasons – 1) I get bored quite easily and need to sate my desire for knowledge and learning, 2) the more ideas I have, the more diverse things I have to do, the more I make connections or filter out that which is proving not to work. A few years back I’d submitted various proposals for conferences and publications hoping maybe one or two would work out. To my surprise and delight, all four came back with initial acceptances. I told my line manager. He told me I’d have to turn some of them down. I didn’t want to. I didn’t argue. I just quietly declined in my mind and then declined to tell my line manager I’d left his instruction in his office as I walked out of the door. Since then I’ve had three peer-reviewed publications from those initial acceptances, and one rejection at the final stage but even that work had already led to my reaching out to Bec for advice, which in turn resulted in a blog post for Prolifiko, and after rejection, Bec’s earlier advice gave me the courage to publish it on my website together with an accompanying blog post on dealing with academic publication rejection; none of that would have happened without being really productive and saying yes or rather ignoring the instruction to say no. To read Bec and Chris’ findings on productivity and its value was then truly heartening.
Publish or Perish?
Coming to Written as an academic I’m particularly interested in the idea of publish or perish, which also features in the book. This is often a consideration and a fear that blocks academics, particularly early career academics. As the current co-chair of an early career academic group, I’ve had multiple conversations about this. In future I’ll be reinforcing the point Bec and Chris make about writing being a craft that takes time; it might take some of the stress out of writing that first book, giving academics permission to write without it having to be the career-defining book they think it should be. When it comes to publish and perish, my own experience tells me the binary no longer holds, whilst it certainly exists, I also know of individuals who rarely if ever publish, yet flourish and others who publish and perish, nevertheless. There’s a nuance to be had here, one tied up with the structures of the university industry and with economics, but it is one which, you’ve guessed it, is another blog post entirely – and one that I intend to write (putting that out there for accountability purposes).
Written really speaks to me in a number of ways. As I finished writing the first draft of this review, I zoomed into a meeting with my translation collaborator, and recommended Written to him. I’d already recommended it to my early career group, and I’m now passing it on to my partner, who only a few months into his PhD, will really get a lot out of this for his writing. Written. How to keep writing and build a habit that lasts is the book I wish I’d had way back at the start of my PhD, that I’m very glad to own a copy of now, and which I’ll keep coming back to as I continue to write.