By Cally Guerin
November is Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) – the perfect time to get some writing done before the end of the year. Inspired by Kay Guccione’s WriteFest at Sheffield University over the last few years, I’m trying out some extra events in my new role at ANU. I’ve reported previously on my experiments with AcWriMo, and am keen to keep refining the process. Things have moved on a bit since my first attempt in 2013, but the core concept remains the same.
AcWriMo was initiated by Charlotte Frost, to whom many of us are indebted for her practical approach to getting on with writing. Frost’s writing group was originally conceived of as a worldwide event, but I want to use her model to develop a more local community of doctoral writers within the institution. The concept of writing groups focused on productivity rather than critique is now well established in many institutions and AcWriMo is a month-long version of that concept.
An advantage of AcWriMo is that participants commit in advance to a certain output each day in November. This promise is recorded in a register and participants update the register each day with their tally – it’s easy to see that real progress is being made as the word count grows. Usually, the goal is to produce a nominated number of words; however, in order to include those at different stages of writing, I also encourage participants to nominate a given number of hours working on writing (e.g., editing or revising). For those in the early stages of candidature, it might be more useful to aim for a certain number of articles to be read and notes made about them. Establishing regular writing habits and simply getting on with the job is the point of publicly announcing the day’s goal.
This year I’m adding some extra events to the schedule: online writing sessions, in-person writing sessions, workshops and a local AcWriMo blog.
I’ve set up some Zoom writing sessions. The idea is to open the Zoom meeting with a brief conversation so we know who’s in the ‘room’, and announce our writing plans for the session. Then we’ll write for 50 minutes, have a short break, then write for another 50 minutes. I’ll keep the screen open, preferably with video on and microphones muted, so that we can see everyone working busily (and a way of encouraging people to stay at their desks for the full writing sprint – hopefully it won’t feel like surveillance!). I’m hoping this will give us all a sense of having company while getting on with our individual projects; in particular, this format is intended to reach out to PhD candidates who work off-campus and have little contact with their peers.
For those who can attend in person, I’ll run some face-to-face writing sessions in our seminar room. The time structure will be the same as the online sessions – two 50-minute writing sprints. By being there in person, participants will have more opportunity to meet and talk with each other than the online sessions provide. At the end we will have a shared lunch, providing more opportunity to enjoy the social connections we know can be so valuable for PhD candidates who often experience their doctoral journey as a rather lonely and isolating experience.
We’ll run a couple of workshops in November as well. Inger Mewburn (The Thesis Whisperer) will offer advice on dealing with writing trouble, based on her recent book. I’ll run a session on ‘Working with the literature’, since this topic frequently comes up when talking to candidates about managing their time as well as their writing. Reading more and more is a great procrastination technique – it feels like work but doesn’t really get the thesis written! I’m interested in finding ways to encourage people to get on with writing their own version of what’s been said about their topic, rather than endlessly postponing the writing in favour of reading ‘just another couple of articles’.
My local AcWriMo blog is a replacement for my original discussion board hosted on Wikispaces (sadly now defunct). I’ll post short pieces throughout the month to encourage interaction between participants to share their ideas about writing: what works, what doesn’t, what else they’d like to know about getting their theses written. The blog allows for comments, but is not really conducive to participants starting up new discussions. We’ll see how that goes. I’ve also moved over from Dropbox to using Google docs for the register where participants fill in their daily output scores – a fairly simple system that seems to be accessible for my participants. I’m using these new platforms partly to be better synchronised with standard practice in my new workplace, but am also finding them pretty convenient.
Another activity for the month is to invite participants to nominate their favourite soundtracks for writing. My current preference is the Norwegian jazz pianist, Tord Gustavsen. When I asked what my office mates listen to when writing, some said they prefer something a little more upbeat through their headphones, while others like the sound of rain in the forest. I’m fascinated to see what other soundtracks our postgrads are listening to. Their nominations will be collated into a joint playlist for the group to enjoy and circulated to our participants.
Well – I’ve already met the word count I promised myself for today! What are you planning for AcWriMo this year? I’m keen to hear more about what’s happening at other universities to support writing through November.