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Academic Problems and Skills

The Joy of Writing

Personal Perspective: Unlocking the power of the creative process.

Key points

  • Getting more comfortable with and confident about the writing process can assist with publication.
  • Writing can be liberating and relates to clear thinking.
  • The pressure to "publish or perish" in academia is sabotaging and undermines the real joy of writing.
  • Writing is about being part of a larger conversation; academics should make their work accessible.
Toa Heftiba/ Unsplash
Source: Toa Heftiba/ Unsplash

Academics in nearly every college or university setting write as part of their careers, and yet few faculty members identify as writers. There are real ramifications to this paradox. Importantly, the promise and possibilities are unearthed when we are able to identify ourselves as writers more fully. It's possible for academics to develop an effective writing process that carries with it greater ease and efficiency.

Unfortunately, the graduate school curriculum at most institutions focuses almost exclusively on gaining substantive knowledge in an area of specialty and adding to it with research. However, few academics spend all or even the bulk of their time doing research. We teach, and then we write about our research. Some of us are lucky enough to have some training in pedagogy. Yet most of us were never trained to become writers of academic articles, book chapters, or monographs. And it is even rarer indeed that graduate programs include any training in how to effectively and persuasively make writing accessible to a general audience.

The lack of training for writing—and perhaps maybe even more problematic, the real lack of mentoring toward a writer’s life—is why so many of us do not dare to identify as writers. How is it that an important, if not necessarily predominant, aspect of our academic careers could be so discounted? If we are not writers, how can we write well? If we are not writers, how can we develop confidence in the work we produce? Our lack of attention to writing often stymies our careers and interferes with the capacity to translate important work for the larger public.

Academics internalize that we must “publish or perish,” as the common adage goes. This is a message that discourages joy in writing—beyond being a utilitarian means to an end, it creates fear, loathing and pressure. We’re told that if we do it enough, our careers will survive. Meanwhile, the process of writing that publishing requires is rendered invisible. It’s as though the outcome of publishing is all that matters for a committee to tally up the number of enough publications in a file so our jobs will be secure. Publish enough and you are tenured, and your job is secure. In this paradigm, publications are defined as external products created for pragmatic reasons.

What if rather than scaring faculty members into publishing instead of perishing, we considered more deeply the joy of writing? Publishing in a competitive academic market has come to be seen mostly as jumping through enough hoops to get or keep a job, yet focusing on good writing serves us better and is far more effective. It will produce better writing and, thus, more publications to boot. A focus on writing helps us keep our eyes on the long game and why we are writing—and therefore publishing—in the first place.

In the process of writing, we clarify our thinking. Often, writing helps us come to know what we know, to discover our argument and to make plain our feelings. When words are translated from our minds to the page, we communicate as only writers can, helping readers discover what we know, make the analytical connections we have discovered, understand the theories we propose, and wrestle with the conclusions we draw.

The process of writing is about entering a conversation—first in our own minds and then ultimately with readers. Being a writer is about having the courage and conviction to dare to be part of a larger conversation. It’s about deepening and extending that conversation by generously offering our distinct angles of vision. When we think about writing like this, it is much more about the opportunity to engage with others to influence the discussion.

The process of writing liberates our ideas, taking them from internal dialogues to a public forum, whether for colleagues, students, or people who read newspapers and magazines. Rather than dread the publish or perish game, academics should focus on the process of writing, the privilege of being a writer who is able to enter the intellectual and public debates of our time and perhaps influence them.

Of course, the submission process may still be frightening. We will definitely still often receive rejections. And yet, when we focus on writing as our art, our craft, such concerns do not always take center stage—we shift the focus to the reasons we write and the process of doing so. Submitting our work for publication becomes an opportunity to get the perspective of reviewers and editors. And if we focus on improving our craft, it is easier to understand and really know that those reviews can help sharpen our ideas and their ability to influence the conversation.

A version of this post also appeared in Inside Higher Ed with Barbara Risman.

More from Deborah J. Cohan Ph.D.
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