Why Scholars Should Never Write Alone

For most of my years as a graduate student, I clung to the image of the solitary scholar. You know the one–huddled over her laptop in a drafty library with a cup of coffee Bonoat the ready. While I’m not promising that reading this post will mean the end of lonely nights or early mornings while you painstakingly craft word after word of your latest piece of academic writing, I am proposing in the words of Paul Hewson that “you don’t have to go it alone.”

If I learned anything from working as an editorial assistant for the American Historical Review, it’s that excellent scholarly writing is rarely a solitary act. A second pair of eyes–and sometimes a third, a fourth, you get where I’m going here–can be crucial for helping to flesh out your argument or just curbing your propensity for em dashes.

So what are some of your options?

The most obvious choice is to share your work with a colleague. The problem: most likely, they are as busy as you are and desperate to find time for their own academic writing.

Another option is to join or form a writing group that fits your specific needs. If you’re looking for a safe place to debut your latest book chapter or draft for a journal article, try a traditional writing group. Whether you’re at a Research I university or a small liberal arts college, you can probably find a few folks who would benefit from getting together and sharing their work.

There are numerous online resources aimed at graduate students as well as professors on how to establish an effective writing group. (For a very helpful article, check out Joli Jensen’s recent contribution to Vitae.) Some items that you’ll want to consider are: group size, structure, frequency, and feedback.

For those of us who have trouble getting started or staying motivated, another great option is finding an accountability partner. Having someone to answer to–whether it’s once a day or once a week–can dramatically improve your productivity!

Write-on-site grcoffeeshopoups and virtual writing communities offer two more options for avoiding the trap of the solitary scholar. The advantage to write-on-site groups, such as Shut Up and Write!, is that they force you to get out of your home or campus office and interact with people in the “real” world. This is also a great solution for folks who work best with some background noise but apps like Coffitivity are no longer cutting it.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking “I became an academic so I could spend big chunks of time reading and writing alone.” I get it; I’m an introvert, too! But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t benefit from a virtual writing community. Thanks to Twitter, you can follow and participate in online groups, such as #acwri and #getyourmanuscriptout. Again, a little accountability–whether face-to-face or virtual–can go a long way toward increasing your productivity.

Last, but certainly not least, is the option to seek out a professional academic editor or writing coach. The advantages to hiring a professional are numerous. Two major benefits are the lack of guilt (you’re not asking for any favors from someone who is as overcommitted as you are but instead are paying for a professional service) and convenience. When you work with a professional, you are largely in control of the terms of the relationship. Maybe you’re wary of the commitment of a traditional writing group and are looking for just occasional feedback from an experienced and unbiased reader. Perhaps you’ve been putting off taking care of those dreaded footnotes and don’t have the time to figure out how to properly format a citation for a webpage in Chicago style.

Professional academic copyediting, however, is more than having a second pair of eyes to catch glaring mistakes–although that is a significant advantage. Based on my years as a scholar and an editor, I approach my editing and coaching work as a collaboration to make my clients’ scholarly writing the best that it can be. Whether it’s a journal article or book manuscript, your final product will be demonstrably more polished and effective when you find the right person with whom to work. In my next post, I will give some tips for choosing an academic editor that’s the right fit for you.

But for now, what concerns do you still have about challenging the myth of writing alone? Do you have any experience with being a member of a writing group or working with an accountability partner or academic copyeditor? Feel free to comment so we can continue the conversation. My intention for this blog is to start an ongoing discussion about the obstacles to academic writing and provide a place for scholars to share strategies for overcoming them.

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