Paper presented at the Language, Literacy and Identity conference

The project team delivered a paper this weekend at the Language, Literacy and Identity conference at the University of Sheffield on the role of relationships in academic writing and identity. We drew on data from phase 1 of the project, in which participants talked about the importance of relationships in their writing practices.

Digital technologies such as Skype and Google Docs (plus many more digital platforms) made collaboration on writing easier and faster, but many of our participants told us that meeting face-to-face brought benefits that online communication could not by making it easier to build trust, to get others’ cooperation when leading a project, and to communicate in a second language, as many academics do. The social dimension of writing, as discussed by Uta Papen and Virginie Theriault in their presentation on writing retreats at the same conference, meant that being able to combine chat and coffee with writing made the experience more productive and enjoyable.

Academics talked about the “learning all the time” from conversations with others around writing, and this continued throughout their careers. Even senior academics spoke about the need for informal support networks to enable them to learn from their peers. This highlights the need for universities to foster a culture in which such informal relationships and networks can thrive.

These days, many universities are removing boundaries between student and staff spaces, and replacing staff common rooms with open seating areas accessible to all. This reduces the places where academics can talk in confidence about their research aspirations, about the inevitable rejection of papers from journals, and about the pleasures and pains of creating knowledge. Furthermore, workload pressures often mean that academics struggle to find time to chat informally about writing and the emotions it stirs up. This should be taken seriously given the role that relationships play in nurturing a writing culture and facilitating learning, not only about writing, but also about who we are as academics and team members.

The slides from our talk can be viewed here.

Releasing the inner bore

As part of the Dynamics of Knowledge Creation project, we are running a 2-day writing retreat for our research participants next month, so we decided to hold a mini-retreat for the project team as a kind of dry run. David and Mary have a lovely house just outside Lancaster, so we spent the day there writing and talking about writing, with added inspiration provided by the lovely view.

inspiring view

We divided the day into chunks of writing time interspersed by breaks and debrief sessions, and used part of the afternoon to talk about our publication strategy. The only rule was ‘no email / phones during writing sessions’. Mary got an impressive 800 words written in the first 90-minute session, while I managed to delete more words than I created. This was probably a reflection of the type of writing I was doing; editing and augmenting an existing proposal often means crafting and polishing at sentence level rather than getting ideas onto paper.

Ibrar does it with pen and paper

It was important to have the timetable for the day available in hard copy to refer to. This, and Mary’s shimmying of us along, helped to keep us on track. Being able to pop outside during breaks also helped in terms of getting us away from the screen and getting oxygen to the brain. Most of the research on writing retreats suggests that the two most important factors in their success are that they a.) provide a protected space in which writing is the only task to do, and b.) provide a supportive atmosphere in which writing is valued (c.f. Murray, 2015). Some people find the presence of others focused on similar goals to be motivating because it provides a sense of collective commitment. I was a little worried about this side of things, as I like solitude when I’m working, but the knowledge that I would need to account for myself and shouldn’t let the side down did stop me procrastinating.

David in his study

Our writing retreat was subtitled “Releasing your inner bore” in honour of the tidal bore which rushes up the estuary outside Mary and David’s window, and which we stopped writing to appreciate. Sadly, I was too in awe of it to take a photo, so you’ll just have to imagine five bores watching one bore.

Murray, R. (2015) Writing in Social Spaces: A social processes approach to academic writing, Abingdon: Routledge.

To blog or not to blog, that is the question

Our PI Karin participated in a public lecture in Lancaster last week on the theme of Teaching, Tweeting, and Trolling – Our Online Worlds.  In addition, I had the pleasure of going to Sweden to give talk at Stockholm University’s department of English on behalf of the Academics Writing project. In both of these talks we shared findings on how academics’ writing practices have been affected by technological changes.

We asked our participants if they did any writing on digital platforms such as Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, and found a bit of a trend across the disciplines (bearing in mind that our sample is too small to draw generalisations). Not many of the mathematicians used these platforms, while historians tended to speak rather more positively about them, even if they didn’t actually use them much.

The reasons our participants have given for not engaging with these new genres of writing include a perception that they were trivial or inconsistent with their professional identity. For example, one participant (a statistician) said, “I don’t necessarily approve of Twitter and Facebook so I tend to avoid them”. But these feelings of disapproval were not shared by everyone, and others were keen to use these platforms.

One History professor said, “I lay awake sometime last week thinking maybe I should have a blog. Haven’t got around to it. But the blogs I do read, some of them are terrific.” Another historian expressed similarly positive views: “I am really interested in the idea of blogs and sometime, maybe when I retire, I might get into blogs. I think they are really fun. I don’t do Twitter either. All those modes of communication seem quite interesting.”

The language these historians use speaks of the potential pleasures and creativity of these forms of writing, yet their take-up is constrained by the need to produce other, more privileged genres. This was particularly clear in David’s comment, “A lot of the work is grey literature where people have written blog pieces. I think that’s opened my eyes to what’s possible in that area but yes, if there’s time – I think it’s always a question of time. Again, that work is not valued by the university as far as I can see.” Although he saw potential in these forms of writing, particularly in terms of communicating to audiences beyond the academy, he acknowledged that peer-reviewed, scholarly publications take priority, partly driven by institutional demands to produce REF-able research outputs.

Where do you stand on these hybrid genres? Are they appropriate for academics? Should institutions value them more or would this simply add to already heavy workloads?


Affect and academics’ writing

As part of the ‘autoethnography’ component of our research project we have been documenting the team’s views associated with the affective and emotional aspects of their professional writing. We decided to explore this particular aspect of academic professional life, as the affective experiences of academic working life (its joys and pains) are closely bound up with successful and unsuccessful experiences of writing (acceptances of papers, completion of monographs, proposals, feedback, etc.).
Here are some of the responses to the questions we asked in the autoethnographic survey:
1) Tell me about a piece of writing you did which brought positive feelings or joy?

I am quite a synthetic thinker and I enjoy the creativity involved in researching ideas and putting them together in an argument in a new way, or developing a storyline from disparate data and viewpoints.

If I am satisfied with a piece of writing (and this might just be an email that I feel I have successfully crafted), I sometimes go back and read it over several times, enjoying the achievement of it.

I don’t feel the same level of satisfaction when I prepare and deliver an oral presentation which is too unpredictable. I feel more in control of my ideas and self-presentation when I write.

I get satisfaction and pleasure from writing, but wouldn’t say it has ever made me “really happy”. To me, writing is mainly an intellectual endeavour rather than an emotional one.

My writing process goes something like this: initial enthusiasm, leading to a first burst of work on something; getting stuck, accompanied by a conviction that this time, it will all be impossible; relief when something clicks and I see how it will be possible (this is usually when I get from ‘idea’ to ‘an actual argument’).

2) What specifically was it that caused you to be happy?

In terms of process, the satisfaction came from seeing the book as a project come together from the original seminar, through negotiating publication with a good publisher, working with contributors and co-editors, designing the book cover etc. In terms of the topic, helping a new field to come into focus.

With pen and pencil writing, I don’t usually enjoy the act as it tends to be messy and untidy.

Content gives me anger, regret and sadness, but not the act of writing itself.

Online I like writing when I do it unnoticed. I hate being rushed, and I try never to circulate drafts if I am not happy with them.

I was satisfied to recently get a chapter from my PhD published – because it had always nagged at me that I hadn’t got journal articles from it and should have done.

3) Tell me about a piece of writing that you did, the memory of which you associate with negative feelings

A piece of professional criticism which I was commissioned to write. Though I stand by the content of the piece, I don’t think I fully understood at the time how my writing was being used politically by the commissioning body and the whole thing felt very uncomfortable – but perhaps uncompromising criticism is always difficult and confrontational – not my normal style.

I wrote an article for a public media outlet. I did it with some edits from their editor who kind of ‘sexed it up’ a bit. There was a really positive response on social media about the issues I raised, with very few negative comments. Some of the negative comments however got to me. It hasn’t changed the way I write. It’s just toughened me up a bit.

I tried to write a book based on my previous big research project, but didn’t, despite spending a lot of time on bits of it – I think mostly because of other life and work stuff happening which got in the way.  I was disappointed in myself – I see myself as someone who gets things done but there were a couple of years when I didn’t.  I also feel that although I didn’t have an actual contract, I let down the people who had said they might publish it.

4) What irritates you most about the professional writing that you do (teaching, admin or research)?

I hate doing boring routine stuff. I think this is why assessing repeated exam answers, for example, is such an effort for me.

I found it hard being required to annotate student scripts online with feedback comments but this was really about a technology that wasn’t fit for purpose. I tend to mark when travelling or at other times when I’m not near a large screen computer and mobile technologies are fiddly for this kind of writing.

I loathe filling in templates for things like annual reviews or references etc. Wherever I can, I take the headings as guidelines for writing in a narrative way and avoid filling the boxes.

Writing abstracts is demanding. You have to know what you want to say, or have to discover it by the act of writing. I was doing one this morning for a plenary in a few months, and I don’t actually know what I want to say. I tried staring at an empty, fresh, new Word document and that didn’t work. I moved away from my computer and tried with a pen and paper. That gave a set of bullet points, but not a well-argued abstract. So a lot of wasted time – it wasn’t the right time for writing something new.

I honestly don’t think there is anything that irritates me about the writing I do.

I don’t know if anything irritates me. Technology can be annoying sometimes I suppose.

5) What do you like most about your writing?

The feeling of “flow” of being absorbed in the moment of writing so that you don’t keep track of time.

The internet has also brought a new dimension to my writing as I frequently search online while I am writing to find references, citations, perhaps read a related article, watch a video or follow a trail that informs me about a concept or aspect of my topic more deeply.

The recognition from peers if it gets it. But the best is when my writing reaches people I never expected it to reach and they value it.

What I like most about my writing is when it has an effect. For example if I review an article for a journal and my writing is useful and has an effect.

I like the process of doing it, and it’s nice for my ego when people cite the resulting text. I don’t pay that much attention now, but the first time I discovered that someone famous had cited my work, I could scarcely believe it.

I like the feeling of thoughts clunking together. I like the neatness of a well-structured piece of writing.  I like finding just the right word to make a sentence work.

6) What do you think about this quote from the writer Dorothy Parker? “I hate writing, I love having written”Do you feel the same? Try to explain your answer.

Yes, I agree. Those horrible hours chained to a computer and not going out for fun, contrasted with the satisfaction of seeing something I’ve written appearing in print. But the opposite can be true too. Enjoyable mornings can pass working and making progress on an article or a chapter.

I understand what Parker means. Writers of all types often say that the process is torturous. There must therefore be all the more satisfaction in having done it, and being rewarded for all that hard work.  I love having written, and in that sense I agree with Parker, but I also like writing. It seems rather indulgent not to.

I know what she means.  I often hate the idea of writing, but when I’m not writing I feel edgy.  When I’m writing regularly I feel much saner.  Though I’m not sure I love having written either – I am often reluctant to look at things I have published.

We are finding that affect and its associations with academics’ writing is emerging quite a bit in our research data, chiming with other research that focuses on the social aspects of writing and the importance of motivation and supportive culture in which academic work can emerge (e.g. Cloutier 2015; Murray 2015).

Do the responses above correlate with your experience? If so, how? And if not, how would you respond to the questions we posed?


Cloutier, C. (2015) How I Write: An Inquiry Into the Writing Practices of Academics, Journal of Management Inquiry, DOI:

Murray, R. (2015) Writing in Social Spaces: A social processes approach to academic writing, Abingdon: Routledge.