Assorted writers—scholars, procrastinators, productivity gurus—have noted the tendency to check e-mail and blogs, sometimes obsessively, when they or their intended audience are supposed to be writing.  This is usually read as a form of procrastination, and something to be avoided.

I wouldn’t say that’s not true, but I am going to propose another way of looking at the situation.  Boice stresses the social aspects of scholarly productivity, and urges scholars to become socially skilled: share writing, get feedback, learn to handle criticism, and so on (The New Faculty Member [1992]; Professors as Writers [1990]; How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency [1994]).  What if the checking of e-mail and blogs is a search for that sort of social reinforcement that makes writing easier?

Having just mentioned to my translation-team, via e-mail, some of my excitement and frustration with the state of the MMP, I find myself longing for some friendly feedback from them.  I want them to tell me that they, too, find this kind of work exciting, that it is worth doing, that they look forward to the results for their own sake and not just because it will let me give more attention to the translation project.

I know this work is worthwhile.  And I like doing it.  But sometimes I want the same sense of an eager (or at least supportive) audience that I have of an eager (or at least worried) audience for the comments I will make on student papers.  The students are there, I see them regularly, they want to know how they’re doing.  I, too, want to know how I’m doing, and it can be painful to wait until an essay is not only finished but published in order to find out what other scholars will think of it.  Sure, there are conferences and so on, but really, even though we spend a lot of time reminding each other that our students are not us (that is, not likely to go on to graduate work), we lose track of the idea that we are not so different from our students (that is, we feel anxious about even projects that excite us and that we want to write).

This is what writing groups can be good for, of course.  At least once a week, someone will tell you that you’re making good progress, moving the project forward, and so on, even if you’re pseudonymizing your project so that nobody knows what the MMP is really all about.

So let me suggest that if you are in the phase of writing where you frequently check your e-mail and blogroll that maybe what you’re doing is looking for support, and cut yourself some slack.  Maybe ask a friend if s/he’ll send you an encouraging e-mail from time to time.  Or sign up for the next iteration of the peripatetic online writing group, which a comment on my last post said would be up today at

If you’re writing, consider this encouragement: I think what you’re doing is significant and worthwhile, and I look forward to hearing about your progress.

And, um, if you wanted to say something similar to me, I would appreciate it!  Because the translation team is busy.


11 thoughts on “Writing as social act

  1. I assume – based on my conviction at school that I used the same bits of my brain for Latin and maths which was why I wanted to take both as A level subjects (the school wasn’t convinced, but I did manage to continue studying Ancient Greek…) – that this sort of stage in writing a humanities paper is rather like the data analysis phase of a science paper – when you have all these bits and hints of exciting patterns, and you are trying to tease them out of the mass of stuff in front of you and find the best way to lay them out for an audience – and there are hints that maybe there is something even MORE exciting going on underneath, you just can’t quite get hold of it yet – if so, I completely agree that it’s EXCITING and FRUSTRATING and in many ways just the best bit of writing the paper – but it can feel agonisingly slow. It’s like untangling yarn. Pick pick pick looking for the end or the critical knot, but at some point it will all start to cascade free. Keep going – and come play with us at the writing group too! We can at least share Glows and Frustrations, if not details…

    1. The Octopus Touch has struck, and what was once a relatively abstract analysis of marginalia in a MS is now partly biography of a MS owner, and the abstract analysis has to be re-thought in terms of precise place, historical events, and social class. Making all these elements play nicely together is driving me up a tree—even though I really enjoy the work—but at least this is the more exciting thing underneath that I suspected for a long time, so it’s progress. But the laying out in order is key, and maddening.

      I quite agree about Latin and maths, having taken maths up to abstract algebra before throwing it all up to return to the humanities. I wish I had been a Classics major instead, though.

      1. I wanted to be an ASNAC (Anglo Saxon, Norse And Celtic Languages, which possibly tells you which university I was at as there can’t be many offering that…) – they had the best subject matter AND the best social life/wierdness quotient – but science is so unforgiving if you leave it, and I was never completely sure I’d be good enough to work in the field (I was poor at modern languages; my Latin and Ancient Greek weren’t too bad, because no-one made you speak them in class in front of everyone). Nice to know that SOMEONE else’s brain works like mine…

      2. Dame Eleanor, if at some point you want a historical discussion, I’d be interested. It’s not really my period, but close enough,and it sounds fascinating.

    2. I’m very amused- as another scientist, I also did Latin at school, ancient Greek at university, and had a burning ambition to do a PhD in old English for a while- I think if it had seemed more possible at my undergrad university I would have been seduced. . . I feel almost like a cross dresser here! Meantime, I have ended up doing some science projects which incorporate aspects of culture and history.

  2. This is, as usual, good advice. I know I go searching for some form of validation a lot of the time – signs someone’s read my previous entry, or commented on some smart-a$$ post I’ve made on Facebook. Not quite sure if that’s related to my academic writing, except that it’s still a validation of my voice.

    (I was thinking, the other day, that one reason I have never been able to keep a paper journal is that I sound so very different, and self-conscious and uptight when writing a journal for myself. Perhaps I need to see it as a letter to the future?)

    I can’t wait to hear more about MMP – I know I’ve only been getting echoes, but it sounds really exciting. Have fun!

    Now I’m going to prod some of my academic stuff, and see if it’s still kicking…

  3. Completely identify! And however worthless it should be, I will just state that since you’re working on it, I’m SURE that your work is worthwhile, meaningful, and therefore difficult!

    I think it’s really interesting to think of checking blogs as a subconscious way of checking that your social group is there & involved. Knowing someone else is interested is so important… and really, it should be that way, since at least our work can have that little bit of practical applicability! We should be doing something that others care to know about, so it makes sense that we’d want to check every now and again. Fun if its in some subconscious way that doesn’t quite make logical sense…!

    Yay for the new writing group!

  4. Yes, I see myself doing this a lot, and to be honest, your post gets at a lot of why graduate school felt difficult for me — I was writing on a topic that drew a lot of flak from a lot of the other students, and in some ways I felt like I was being actively discouraged (thank goodness for my supportive advisor, but, I was so bent on looking like I didn’t need help that I didn’t consult him enough).

    I do think we need to feel like there’s an eager audience, or a kind of engaged intellectual community — when I was writing my diss. I had a friend I knew from my previous graduate program who had always found my topic fascinating, and in some ways, knowing he was out there, and that on the rare occasions we saw each other, would listen to me chatter about my work for long stretches, was like oxygen for me at times. I am writing about girls’ intellectual community right now, and so feel extra aware of how important that kind of shared engagement/enthusiasm can be.

    I think the challenging thing, for me at least, is asking for that contact/feedback/support!

    I also find that I miss reading people’s drafts; I think I need to be in a live writing group, but in my current situation there isn’t a good way to do that. So I do appreciate these online writing groups.

    Oh, and speaking of the value of online writing groups: today I submitted the article I was working on in last semester’s group! 🙂 The group works! It just works a little better for me when I have some time away from 9-5ness. Thanks again!

  5. At the suggestion of one of my committee members who understands my paralyzing fear of imperfection, I just started reading Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” and your post and your concerns sound just like one of the first things to jump out at me from her book. She was talking about how she had her first poem published as a child and when the teacher told the class “the other children looked at me as though I had learned to drive…I understood immediately the thrill of seeing oneself in print. It provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist…Seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere.”

    I think we always want to know that someone is paying attention. Facebook and twitter wouldn’t exist if we didn’t want that attention, right? Academics aren’t any different. We need attention, too. Just ask Guy Halsall and his students!

    For what it’s worth, I appreciate your weekly comments on the various writing groups and I think what you’re doing is significant and worthwhile, and I look forward to hearing about your progress!

  6. “I think what you’re doing is significant and worthwhile, and I look forward to hearing about your progress.” RIGHT BACK ATCHA. And I am going to print that out and stick it to the top of my computer screen, I think. The social aspect of supporting writing is just huge. Thanks for your support along the way, and I really am looking forward to hearing more about how the MMP turns out!

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