All about Academic Writing Month
For many academics, the month of November is associated with making progress on a writing goal. In this blog post, we’ll discuss why that is, how Academic Writing Month started, and why there's such a need for it.
Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) was inspired by “National Novel Writing Month” (NaNoWriMo), which also takes place in November. In NaNoWriMo aspiring novelists aim to write a 50,000 word manuscript during the course of a month.
As its name implies Academic Writing Month has scholarly writing as its focus. In contrast to the pre-defined word count of NaNoWriMo, academics can define their own individual goals. This makes sense: depending on the academic discipline, the word count for a publication can be considerably less than for others. For example, a mathematical thesis can be very short, while a dissertation on a historical topic can run to several hundred pages. Anyone can take part in AcWriMo, from a first-semester student finishing a research paper to a professor working on a journal article.
In 2011 art historian Dr. Charlotte Frost initiated the first Academic Writing Month, which was originally called “Academic Book Writing Month”. Her goal was to feel less isolated while working on her writing project. Perhaps she too was dealing with a case of the long-term project blues. Frost’s ideas was to put together a group of academics that were each working on their own projects, and who would work on achieving their specific goals at the same time. Via Twitter and on the blog PhD2Published individual successes and setbacks were to be shared with the others.
Today many people participate in AcWriMo for the same reasons as the original group. Setting a goal and deadline for yourself and declaring it to others creates external peer pressure that can help motivate you to get started with writing. Since you want to look good in front of the other participants and be praised for reaching your goal, you’re more likely to keep going. Being a part of a community also helps with motivation. And, when you successfully participate in Academic Writing Month you should have a good chunk of writing to show for yourself when it’s over.
The purpose of the event is not only related to output: it’s designed to build community and create a supportive environment and to help participants learn how to set realistic goals and follow through on them. Even if you don’t reach your intended word count, you will have gotten to know yourself and your way of writing better. In this way, Academic Writing Month can help you kick off improvements to work habits that last well beyond November.
Originally AcWriMo participants were individual scholars, but today many universities, publishing companies and other organizations also take part. They offer a number of additional events, such as live writing sessions or webinars on topics related to writing. Two such offerings this year are WriteFest 2020 at the University of Liverpool or the webinars offered by SAGE Publishing Methodspace.
Why does AcWriMo resonate with so many people?
The popularity of AcWriMo around the world shows that academic writing is difficult for many people. You’ve probably experienced it yourself; when you’re telling colleagues or peers that you’re working on a new paper or on your dissertation do you talk about the actual writing process with enthusiasm or with frustration? We’re guessing that more often than not it’s the latter.
But why exactly is writing frustrating? The reasons are different for different people, but they can include the following:
- You don’t like to write and don’t feel like you have an aptitude for it
The math and science whizzes in high school were not necessarily equally good at writing essays. Writing just might not be your thing if you’re more of a numbers person. If you don’t like to write, it can feel like a burden compared to carrying out research or experiments.
- Your procrastination instinct often gets the best of you
Unlike your colleagues described above, you actually like writing once you get going. You just find it difficult to get started. The same urge to procrastinate that keeps you from putting on your jogging shoes in the morning also keeps you from turning on your computer. There are just so many other things you should take care of first before you start writing…
- You’ve locked yourself in the ivory tower
Your academic work takes place far removed from the rest of the world or other colleagues. You sit alone at your desk and carry out your research. Only once your results and your writing are absolutely perfect are you ready to present it to your colleagues, which means that you have a hard time completing projects. Your pride keeps you from asking for help, sharing your failures, or sharing preliminary results.
- The “publish or perish” culture
You already have so much to do: you teach, you’re involved in departmental activities, you carry out your own research, and you also need to write journal articles for publication. You feel the pressure to constantly be publishing, but it can be difficult to find the time to write as much as you feel you need to.
- You need other people around you
Even when you’re collaborating with others on a writing project, much of the discussion happens virtually these days and might even take place asynchronously if your colleagues are located in different time zones. But even when meetings take place in-person, the writing of individual sections still has to be completed on your own. If you’re someone who likes to work with others, you can feel isolated and uninspired when you have to sit alone at your computer for hours on end.
AcWriMo – a step towards solving your writing problems
The good thing is that you’re not the only one who has difficulty writing. Talk to your colleagues and they’ll tell you about the difficulties they’re facing with their own publications. Sometimes sharing which dead ends you ran into in your own work and which tricks you used to get yourself writing again can help. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution since everyone is different, and no one is born a writer.
If you want more people to commiserate with and help cheer you on, you can expand your group of colleagues by taking part in Academic Writing Month. To participate, follow these six rules from the original challenge:
- Set a goal, for example, a certain number of words or hours of writing that you want to reach by the end of the month. The goal should be a challenge but still doable.
- Share your goal with others, for example, on social media.
- Prepare yourself by finding free time to write and blocking off your writing sessions in your calendar. Get a hold of any sources you need and read and take notes prior to your writing sessions.
- Share your successes and failures on social media.
- Work hard and stay focused.
- At the end of the month let others know if you reached your goal or not.
You can also use Academic Writing Month to reflect on the entire process of scholarly communication and to remind yourself why you wanted to work on your writing in the first place:
- You want to finally finish your dissertation or Master’s thesis.
- You want to share your findings with colleagues.
- You want your work to be acknowledged and recognized by others in your field.
- You hope to obtain a new job, a grant, or tenure.
Is the medium of writing the problem?
Isn’t it somewhat strange that writing seems so difficult? Shouldn’t we be motivated to share our enthusiasm for our research and want to convince others of our findings and share new knowledge with them? Perhaps part of the problem has to do with the medium of writing itself if so many people have trouble with it.
How might scholarly communication look in the future?
How could we better share our ideas and present them to the public?
Let’s try to imagine what that could look like. In the future, there could be more alternative publication formats equivalent to written publications. Research results published as a video, podcast, or a series of blog posts or even social media postings could have the same standing and impact as a journal article. Of course, for these new formats some form of quality control similar to the peer review system for journal articles would need to be established. Conference presentations and posters would no longer need to be submitted additionally as text since both the presentation and the discussion round would be recorded. The video would just need to be accessible and it could then be cited just like a published conference paper in the past. A long-format post on an academic social media platform could be referred to just like an online article. From a technical standpoint, this is already possible if the post is assigned a DOI. Even mainstream social media could become a bigger part of the academic conversation. A controversial tweet about new findings presented in a pre-print could lead to more researchers reading and commenting on the study and to more rigorous review then might be the case in a double-blind peer review carried out be just a couple reviewers.
Of course, in the meantime writing will remain the preferred method for scholarly communication and will remain important beyond the month of November. Use the tips and discoveries you make about your own writing habits this month during the rest of the year as well. You might just find that writing gets easier when you find a few tricks that work for you. And if you do get writer’s block, just take comfort in the fact that there may be alternative forms of scholarly communication to look forward to in the future.
For Further Reading
Tarrant, A. (2012, November 1). Academic Writing Month and the social landscape of academic practice. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2012/nov/01/academic-writing-month-acwrimo-research
About Jana Behrendt
Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.