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by Cally Guerin

At Adelaide University we have just tried our first experiment with Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo). Inspired by National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Charlotte Frost developed an academic version of this concept a couple of years ago that has grown and grown since then. Despite the feeling that the word AcWriMo sounds like it might turn into ‘acrimonious’, the exact opposite is true. I know that some academics have expressed reservations about the concept of AcWriMo, but I decided to give it a go anyway.

As an academic developer running programs for research students, I wanted AcWriMo to achieve several different things for participants at my university. Mostly, I hoped that this experiment would:

  1. encourage more writing;
  2. build a sense of community; and
  3. provide a form of online writing group for those who can’t (or don’t want to) attend face-to-face sessions.

Of course, there were some teething problems. Originally I had planned to use Facebook for the community discussions, as other academics tell me they’ve had good success with engaging students in the space they already occupy. Perhaps that’s true for undergrads, but in the end I chose not to use Facebook after several students told me they prefer to keep it for purely private social interactions and/or had previously had bad experiences with too much information being ‘shared’ by others on Facebook. So we ended up using Wikispaces for the community discussions—partly because it’s free, and partly because it is really easy to use.

Quite a bit of the early correspondence to set up AcWriMo took place via the (supposedly outdated but really quite convenient) email system. This is probably because my initial email inviting all research students to participate was sent out through the university-wide email list. I’m of the generation that likes email, but the participants don’t seem to mind such an old-fashioned approach, especially since it is our university’s usual form of communication.

Then we used Dropbox to house a register of names, writing goals, and to tally each day’s writing achievements. I had tried out a couple of alternatives for the register, including Google Docs with spreadsheets, but any free versions seemed clumsy and hard to manage. Dropbox, in contrast, is good for Word documents, and it’s free. There were a few problems in terms of students receiving the right link, but one of the participants worked out what I was doing wrong. In the meantime, another resourceful participant had created a basic, editable table in Wikispaces, and many others have chosen to stick with this as their main place for recording daily output. One of the great advantages of working with clever, resourceful doctoral candidates is that they are very good at solving problems (thank you both!). Having all the information in one place is a better way to go and next time we will use just the Wikispaces site.

Participants set writing targets ranging from 100 to 500 words per day. Any kind of target is fine—the key is making a public commitment and then feeling an obligation to follow through. As a role model for my first group I wasn’t always quite as productive as I’d hoped, and several others commented on the Discussion Board that they’d had unexpected interruptions during the month too. Many, however, exceeded their promised word count, and I for one found myself trying to write just one more sentence so that I could meet my obligations.

Did I get all three of my pre-Christmas wishes? Yep, I think so. Thousands of words have been written during this concentrated effort; maybe they would have been written anyway, but this way there is a record of the achievement. There is certainly a sense of a community developing, with a few key contributors to the Discussion Board but no doubt plenty of others reading and lurking in the background—they are all busy adding to their daily scores, even if not responding directly to my discussion prompts. Already some have asked if they have to finish at the end of November, or can we continue to have the Wikispace (the answer is a resounding yes!). And finally, most of the names on the register are not people I’ve come across in the other writing groups and workshops I run for research students, so AcWriMo seems to have reached out to a different group from our other offerings.

Overall, as a lead-up to the end of both the calendar year and the academic year in Australia, this has been an invigorating experience. I’m already planning to do it again in 2014, and hope some of this year’s participants are keen to try again—unless, of course, they’ve established such good writing habits this month that they complete their theses before then!

Have you ever been involved in AcWriMo? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences, both positive and negative, and any tips you have for making the most of it.