On Small Writing

April 29, 2016

A few years back, Meredith Johnson and I started an academic girl gang [AGG]. Our motto was Aut Vince Aut Mori: To do or die. The premise was that we would write 15 minutes a day–she reported that she had gotten tenure on 15 minutes of writing a day, and I could too. Since then, I’ve been more or less successful writing nearly everyday. Thanks, Mer. #mentoringmatters


The Academic Girl Gang Logo.

Since then, I’ve been teaching a lot of grad classes, wherein–as per usual–we give the advice that we should write every day and write in small increments, but we don’t give strategies. Sarah Tracy’s amazing book Qualitative Research Methods [highly recommend, y’all], tells students

  • Not to buy into writer’s block;
  • To write in shorter increments;
  • To not reward windfall or binge writing with days off;
  • To write nearly every day;
  • To set goals.

But even as many of us give and take this advice, we often fail to operationalize it. That is, most of the talk we do about writing is about “articles,” or “proposals” or “papers,” big genres that don’t actually help students [or one another, for that matter] see how we write in short bursts, for 15+ minutes everyday. What can you do in that short period of time? How can you wrangle your writing? How can you discipline yourself to write?

So, let’s be clear: I hate the 15 minute writing segment. I love the 2 hour frenzy; hate the 15-30 minutes. In order to keep myself going, I’ve had to make a list of the kinds of writing and work I count as writing. I have given myself particular “Small Writing Activities” that I can use to fill my slots when I’m underwhelmed, underprepared, unmotivated, and distracted. [Frankly, this is about 50% of the time]. So here’s my list:

  • Read an article and write a summary of what I’ve written or a critical response;
  • Choose a quote that seems particularly important: contextualize the quote;
  • Come back to a quote that’s been contexualized and respond to it critically or in terms of the article I’m writing: why does it belong in the paper? Where does it fit in the argument?
  • Revise or rework just a single paragraph
  • Edit 3-4 pages
  • Draw a picture of a concept
  • Write about a picture of a concept
  • Write researcher’s notes and memos [should we talk about this? This is a field work thing.]
  • Read several abstracts from a current issue of a journal and summarize the trends that seem to be discussed or the disparities among the topics
  • Re-read conclusions from earlier articles, proposals that haven’t been accepted, or articles that still need a home and begin redrafting or drafting a new

Most of these activities, of course, take more than one 15 minute segment. But not always. Sometimes they’re just one-off activities that keep me writing, thinking, and habitually committed to my research. If you’re not sure about what these look like, let me know. I’m happy to share samples or talk them out. But these small writing activities can be helpful prompts for keeping your writing practice going, even in the face of…life.

I recently had the pleasure of working with some Women in Technical Communication during a #teachingtalk on Intercultural Communication. The discussion, led by the ever-fabulous Lucia Dura, prompted us to consider our goals for intercultural communication. We worked to establish goals, means, and outcomes for a range of classes: Elizabeth and I, for example, are teaching service courses at our universities, where Tatiana and Jen are working on specifically Intercultural courses.

I learned a lot from working with these women, but here are some notable takeaways:

  • Intercultural Communication is often treated as an aside or a specialty; we agreed that intercultural communication, ideally, should be integrated throughout professional writing/writing majors;
  • Intercultural is more than just international or global; our students encounter intercultural situations regularly, but they might not identify them because instruction often privileges international rather than domestic interculturality.
  • Notions of professionalism, which sometimes [if not often] motivate our PW courses, are wrapped up in culture and power, and if we allow professionalism to dominate our classes, we have a responsibility to communicate this transparently to our students;
  • Intercultural Communication is difficult to teach because it is so wrapped up culture and power, so the means by which we assess adeptness in this area need to be concrete;
  • One way to make the expectations concrete is to anchor the idea of intercultural communication in specific scenarios or specializations–this gives a site of application for the critical thought required of intercultural communicators.

This list is incomplete. And we all felt we needed more time to consider how to enact our goals for intercultural communication, but our next step is to develop some shared language, assignments, and assessment tools for integrating intercultural communication across curricula in PW/TC.

So, I’ve decided to start blogging about what I’m reading, thinking, and doing. Why? Well, in part, because I feel like I have some things to write about that don’t necessarily belong in scholarship but that belong, well, somewhere. But perhaps the more important question is why not? Well, I’ll tell you why I haven’t had a blog for most of my young academic career: I’ve been scared. As a young [female] scholar, it’s daunting to say what you think. And it’s even more daunting to say what you think and have it recorded. But in the past several months–since the 2014 Association of Teachers of Technical Writing–I’ve been inspired by both the Women in Tech Comm #womeninTC and a small subset of the #womeninTC, a group of peer mentors who discuss their work progress #getafterit, to be more confident about my ideas and to offer some of my thoughts to others in the hope that they might help others, make them more confident, speed along other young scholars’ treks to confidence and public writing. This blog is evidence of the mentoring I’ve received from colleagues and mentors, but will also [I hope] discuss topics that I wish I were mentored on as a grad student, need to be mentored on as a pre-tenure professor, and other snippets of thinking as appropriate, including gratitude posts.


Speaking of gratitude. When I say Twitter saved my summer, I more accurately mean that the #womeninTC and #getafterit women  helped me stay focused, motivated, committed to a community of other writers, and confident that my daily work [even if it was esoteric writing on some rhetorical concept] mattered. At times I was reading documents from other women, receiving feedback from them, talking on the phone about ideas, or reading books per their suggestion. But mostly, I was checking in, championing, feeling championed, and sharing ideas. I started Project Getafterit #getafterit because I knew it was more fun to dig in my heels and work with others rather than in isolation. The #womeninTC and #getafterit group have offered inexplicable support, and for that I am thankful. I am also thankful for the confidence I gained being with and around these women–where some academics say snarky things about writing groups and public accountability, we instead nod along when people are stressed, offer advice, and cheer one another on. Thanks ladies, I’ve needed this.