Two Good Books for Aspiring Academics (and for Actual Ones, Too)

1. Robert Boice, Professors as Writers: a Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing

2. Ellen Daniel, Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women Scientists

1. Professors as Writers describes itself as “a self-help manual for colleagues who want to write more productively, painlessly, and successfully.” Based on his many years of working with writers (academic and otherwise) and his own painless, stress-free writing, Boice presents practical advice that goes well beyond (although it does include) strategies for overcoming procrastination.He says that one of the dirty secrets of academia is that many find writing hard and unpleasant but believe that they’re the only ones. (I was much relieved when I read in Ann Patchett’s memoir Truth and Beauty — Patchett’s novel Bel Canto is breathtakingly good — that every writer she knew found writing hard and painful.) Boice presents a 4-step program:

  1. Practice automaticity – or generative writing. Just write. Put off the internal editors, critics, etc. Not all the time, but it’s often useful for getting started or unstuck.
  2. Externality – external controls that ensure writing. Make writing a high priority, recurrent activity by scheduling it in, as a priority. Rearrange your environment and writing habits in ways that help you work regularly and productively. work in small, regular amounts. Plan your writing sessions so that you’re working on a specific, finishable unit in each session. DON’T write for long periods of time — set limits. PLAN your work, “planfulness.”
  3. Self-control: monitor your internal self-talk; figure out what’s adaptive and what’s not; interrupt the maladaptive thoughts; and reward yourself.
  4. sociality – solicit comments on work in progress; prepare for negative criticism; develop a sense of audience; build social networks.
  5. (Yeah, it’s a 4-step program but he has a 5th suggestion): Keep track — of time, pages, and progress toward completion. whatever.

Reading this over it seems sort of obvious, which I guess it is — what’s different about this book is the detailed reasons, examples, suggestions, and his understanding of the wide variety of reasons academics (specifically) have trouble writing.

He has another, longer, denser, excellent but hard-to-find book for all kinds of writers, based on his years of counselling writers: How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure.

My major complaint with both these books is, oddly, how disorganized they are. He says lots of useful things, but when I go back to try to find points or to understand the structure of the book, I find they both tend to wander. But I only noticed this when I went back to try to find things I remembered reading.

2. Every Other Thursday is about a group of scientists, mostly academics, and eventually all women (though it wasn’t intended that way) who met over a period of 25 years to discuss professional concerns, act as a sounding board for one another but also to help one another act, providing information, support, advice, and encouragement. The book is both about the group process and the sorts of things they’ve learned. For a new academic, in particular, there’s a lot that I wish I had known earlier.

I particularly liked the discussion of process. At the beginning of the evening, each member asks for a set amount of time from the group, and everyone has an opportunity to raise an issue. When I participated in such a group many years ago, the first person to shift the conversation from the general to raise a specific issue got the group’s attention for the entire evening — and since the group met monthly, this meant that it was often hard to get the group’s help.

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