Tucked within the solid writing advice of Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What (Chicago, 2017) are the quiet brewings of a manifesto.
Jensen won’t say you need more self-confidence, or more free time, or a more positive outlook on life, in order to write productively. While her book offers the standard, tried and true, advice for writing motivation—keep momentum by writing every day, find a private writing space, banish your inner critics—it also touches a deeper nerve about the thornier, more insidious, work conditions that make writing feel so untenable within the academy. To the exhausted researcher buckling under deadlines and perfectionism, “write no matter what” might at first sound like the relentless mandate of an impersonal, academic machine. In Jensen’s book, “write no matter what” takes the contours of a rally cry.
Why is academic writing so painful? Jensen suggests the usual hurdles: staggering fear of critics, unrealistic pressures to write and publish in ever-increasing volumes, overwhelming schedules crowded with teaching and other commitments. Jensen’s book is ideal for academics who are struggling to find motivation. She comforts our anxieties by naming our academic-specific obstacles and then spurs us to action with concrete advice.
I resonated most with her advice in Chapter 17, “Follow the Lilt”. Many academics, Jensen points out, falter when they lose interest in their work. She sees this loss of interest occur as early as with her undergraduates who, when given the creative freedom to design their own semester-end projects, invariably opt for conventional and (frankly) boring ideas. If a lost student comes to her for advice, she tries to “follow the lilt” in their voices to register the moment they begin expressing interest in a particular idea or trail. The “lilt” rarely reveals something particularly innovative or brilliant in the moment—but following that lilt tends to leads to exciting, and often high-quality, work.
In several of her chapters, Jensen identifies enthusiasm, or basic interest, as central to writing well. Academics enter their profession because they believe they’ll dedicate large amounts of time to studying, writing, and sharing research that they believe truly matters. Somewhere along the way, they discover a dimmer reality. Burdened by the pressure to publish, to write more, to produce more, to say something worth being funded, they develop anxious and fraught relationships to their own writing. Fearful, perfectionist, or bored writing stifles the lilt and produces weak scholarship.
To recover that lilt, Jensen begins by dispelling a few myths about academic writing. First, banish the belief that your dissertation, or monograph, or journal article, will be your magnum opus, or that it will be ground breaking, or that it will be brilliant at all. A good piece of writing only needs to add something respectable to the ongoing conversation. Jenson shares an anecdote of a friend who would sit down at his desk every morning just to see “if he had something to say”:
Most mornings, he says, he’s not sure he has much to offer, so he mentally prepares himself to be unproductive. But he sits down anyway and reads over what he left for himself the day before–the rough beginnings of what might become the next paragraph. And to his daily surprise, he finds he might have a little something to add.page 83
The trick, Jensen concludes, is to approach writing not with “grim determination” but with an open invitation to figure out whether we have “anything to say” (page 83).
There’s an underlying radicalism to Jensen’s advice, even while she’s encouraging authors to understand and work within the limitations of their systems. Ideas of perfectionism and brilliancy, she shows, drive the engine of a neoliberal institution that alienates us from our own writing and supportive communities. “Following the lilt” pushes against these structures in an important way. We can be curious about our writing, and maybe a little sloppy, with a short bibliography or fewer publications, and still produce respectable work—all the more meaningful because it interested us in some way.
It seems too self-evident to conclude that academics should find interest in the work they do. And it might also seem facetious to tell academics to “enjoy themselves” for the sake of the revolution. Jensen makes this advice even more explicit, and urgent, by her conclusion: “It is cruel, debilitating, and unnecessary to maintain a mystified writing gauntlet that faculty must navigate all by themselves” (page 149). To combat these unrealistic expectations, “productive writing requires frequent, low-stress encounters with an enjoyable product” (page 149). Productive academic writing, Jensen argues, only occurs through collectively acknowledging and resisting daily the impositions of our academic institutions. Doing so might draw us closer to the life of the mind that many of us had at the beginning of our studies.
Heidi Rennert is an editor, writer, and academic at linescomposed.ca. She loves digging deep into drafts and collaborating with authors on how best to express their ideas. She has experience working with a variety of academic texts, grants, and creative writing. She’s currently doing a PhD on science, technology, and housekeeping in the 19th century.