Jolie Jensen. Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
If you’ve discussed writing with me lately, online or off, I’ve probably already recommended Jolie Jensen’s Write No Matter What (2017) to you. This is the best book about writing that I’ve read in a long time.
Jensen is Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication and the director for the Henneke Faculty Writing Program at the University of Tulsa. She brings a wealth of experience to bear on her topic: her personal experience as an academic writer and her experience of helping other academics to write.
The advice in this book is clearly presented in a no nonsense tone. Jensen doesn’t wax lyrical about the beauty of academic prose or the ivory tower of academe. Instead, she offers practical advice that helps her readers identify what their problem really is and get to a place in which they can write again. Her chapters are short and the chapter titles are descriptive. These are important features for busy academics; it’s easy to identify the chapter that’s most important for you and your writing. I would recommend finding time to read the whole book, but it’s one you can dip in and out of–if you read chapter 4 without reading the preceding chapters, for example, it will still make sense.
Academic writers’ most common explanation for why they don’t write and publish more often is that they simply don’t have time. Jensen makes clear that lack of time is often an excuse, not the real problem. We choose not to find time for our research when we are avoiding it for other reasons.
Part I (chapters 1 to 3) of Write No Matter What, ‘Writing in Academe’, establishes the book’s attitude toward writing. Jensen first insists we must let go of the dream of the ivory tower. However much we want it to be, academia is not some sort of idealised life of the mind in which we have endless uninterrupted time to play with ideas. Academia exists in the world and academics have lives like everyone else. Jensen then moves on to discussing helpful metaphors for thinking about writing. She argues that if we approach our writing as a craftsman approaches a project, we will be happier writers. A carpenter doesn’t set out to produce the best chair ever, she sets out to produce a chair that is better than the last one she made. According to Jensen, if we adopt this attitude toward our writing, we won’t be adding unnecessary pressure to the process.
Part II (chapters 4 to 7) ‘Using Tools that Work’, discusses just that. Chapters five through seven look at securing time, space, and energy for writing. The advice in these chapters is sound, but for my own writing right now, chapter four has proven the most useful. In this chapter Jensen discusses the three taming techniques she found in David Sternberg’s How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation (1981) when she was struggling with her own thesis; British readers, please note that Americans use dissertation where you use thesis and vice versa.
The three taming techniques are as follows: ‘Create a project box. Use a ventilation file. Write at least fifteen minutes every day.’ The importance of the project box is that it keeps your work from taking over every inch of your office or home; it allows you to visit the project daily, and then put it away. The ventilation file is for use on the days that you don’t want to work on your project; on those days for fifteen minutes you write about why you don’t want to write. Jensen argues that ‘[t]he ventilation file is the most crucial and helpful piece of advice I have to offer you’ (19). I was sceptical to begin with, but she’s right. In the ventilation file you have to face whatever it is that’s bothering you about your project. Through using it, a block that would normally have turned into a stalled week, was only a stalled day. Finally, the imperative that you commit to writing for fifteen minutes a day: this one helps in so many ways. When you don’t feel like writing or you’re really busy, you can usually make yourself commit to fifteen minutes; since that’s all you had previously committed to, you can leave it after your time is up without feeling guilty. However, writing for fifteen minutes often turns into thirty or more as you discover you do actually have something to say.
In Part III (chapters 8 to 16) ‘Challenging Writing Myths’, Jensen drills down and helps identify the real reasons we don’t find time to write and offers solutions to these issues. Being able to name your writing demon is helpful whether it’s impostor syndrome (ch. 11), the myth of the magnum opus (ch. 10), or the myth that the whole project will fall easily into place once you produce the perfect first sentence (ch. 15). Once you identify your demon(s) you can start finding ways of dealing with them.
‘Maintaining Momentum’, part IV (chapters 17 to 25), deals with everything from not allowing rejection letters to stall your writing to finding ways to make your breaks (whether they come in the form of a free weekend, summer break, or a sabbatical) reasonably productive; she recognises you need time to recharge and isn’t going to tell you to spend every minute working. Jensen’s discussion of ‘Relinquishing Toxic Projects’ in chapter 23 is very important; hanging onto a toxic project is miserable and it often impedes progress on the non-toxic work you’d rather be doing.
The final section, ‘Building Writing Support’ (chapters 26 to 28), discusses overcoming the isolation that often comes with life as an academic. I especially liked Jensen’s discussion of creating academic writing groups (ch. 27); many academic staff members simply don’t have time for a workshop style group (one in which each member reads the other members’ work), but they do have time for an accountability group. Having such a group not only increases productivity (you don’t want to go tell your group you haven’t written anything in the last six weeks), but also gives you a space to talk about writing. Not the subject matter, the actual act of finding time and head space to do the writing. One of the most important take-aways from this book is that academics need to talk about writing. When we don’t talk about it, it is granted more power than it deserves and we fall into the trap of assuming ‘everyone else’ is better at it. If you’re an academic struggling with writing, it’s a sign that you’re trying to write–not something you should be ashamed of.