Writing under pressure: how to stay grounded

We usually write under pressure. A deadline. A particular audience. For our boss. We might be writing for a particular journal, or outlet. We have house styles and word counts hemming us in.

If writing is part of our job, we are also measured against what we write.

Pressure cooker writing inside the academy

In academia in the UK, we also have the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to contend with. What is the ‘value’ of our ‘outputs’. Are we making an original contribution? Fine. What about one that is world changing? Are we producing enough, quickly enough?

This additional pressure can result in writing feeling like a fraught experience; especially if we don’t take the time to do it. Yes – I’m saying take, rather than make time here. We can’t invent more hours in a day.

Claiming our writing time is not an optional extra. It is a core part of our job. I really like Rowena Murray’s take on this – writing is not our hobby, but part of our job. It should be done in working hours – however those are defined.

At the start of this year I wrote a post about writing, but not for the REF .

In that post, I discussed how my engagement with creative writing – whilst on sick leave – had been liberating. It allowed me to re-connect with writing that was free of such pressures. Freeing the pressure of external audits also lifted the self-judgement that goes with it.

What if you are writing for the REF?

However, if you want to get in/stay in academia in the UK, you do need to write for the REF.

You need to be ‘REF-ready’. This requires writing to a particular set of requirements. You will have disciplinary conventions and ‘target journals’ to work towards.

It is worth accepting that your writing is contained within certain parameters.

Accepting these parameters is not about giving in; it might be the key to working – critically – within them. To enable yourself to find the spaces within; how to push at boundaries, and find others who might want to work with you in a similar way.

I loved this article written back in 2015 in Discover Society. The sociologist Dr Hannah Jones argued the need to be ‘amphibious’ in our response to being in, but critical of, the neoliberal university. In particular, this quote is excellent in summing up the conflicting pressures of academic writer life:

We want to ‘publish the shit out of’ structures of power which are having immediate effects in our lives and society – but we recognise that this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Not only is a peer-reviewed journal article likely to come too slowly and too quietly to publish the shit out of anyone; but we also have to recognise that the type of responsive, mobile, opportunistic and yes, if you like, entrepreneurial sociology I am advocating is also worryingly resonant in some of those characteristics with ideal neoliberal behaviours. However, I would argue, this doesn’t mean that doing engaged and opportunistic research is inherently neoliberal, oppressive, individualistic or reinforcing of dominant norms; subverting arguments and practices can mean engaging in them, working the spaces of power in and against these contradictions, rather than withdrawing – or claiming to withdraw while continuing to play the audit game.

Hannah Jones, Discover Society 2015

So how do we stay grounded in our writing and politics when writing under pressure?

While I’m now on the outside of the academy, I was there until very recently. I was going through my second REF cycle. I’d been through the mock scoring and evaluations; I have a good idea of what this conflict feels like.

Last year, I burnt out. I made the choice to withdraw from the organisational structures and cultures of academic life, but not the writing.

If I can do one thing with my own very steep and painful learning curve, it is to try and pass on some of the new strategies I have that might help those still in/entering the academy.

This is not idealistic 20/20 hindsight speaking, here are things I think can still be done in – and outside – of the academy to keep you focussed on writing what matters.

Your writing and research are the things that ignited your passion in the first place. Without that connection to our writing – while remaining firm that we are not our work – it is difficult to always prioritise it.

We can prioritise what we love in writing and still ‘tick the boxes’ of the game.

Audit is a game. The rules change. It is subjective – however pitched – and it is experienced as such. The REF can and will be weaponised by some. Protect yourself. See it for what it is, and try these out…

Five things we know we should do. Try them.

  1. Take time to write. This article shows how difficult this can be – especially if you are on a precarious, or teaching only, contract. However, writing is what keeps us going as academics. Just keep writing about your research in any way you can. Small chunks. Be that in scribbles to yourself, reflections, a guest blog, a pitch. Then go back to them and use them. You might not write every day. So be it. Just don’t let too much time pass between you and your research.
  2. Give yourself enough time to rest. We can’t magically slow everything down and take forever. We can, however, learn to be more realistic about how long something is going to take. One of my never learned lessons while I was an in post academic was just how long the writing process takes. Don’t make promises – to others, or yourself – unless you are sure you have the time – and energy – to meet a deadline. Check out this on better planning – it’s been a game-changer for me. You start to be kinder to yourself. AND more productive.
  3. Change your writing space. If you sit down at the same space where you have just fired off 100 emails and dealt with 3 meetings, you are probably going to be exhausted and associate this space with all the other work that stops you writing. I read best in the library. When taking notes, I move to a cafe. When I need to get down to committing words to the page, I do this best in a quiet space at home. Fresh air, low-energy social interaction, coffee/tea/water, a bit of cake – these always help.
  4. Find writing friends. Just make sure these are people you you can trust to support – not compete – with you. The sad reality of the pressure cooker of academia is that is deliberately manufactures competition between us. Find your people. Writing retreats and groups have become increasingly common in academic life. For good reason. I started going on retreats back in 2016 and I love them. However, they can be expensive. You can also set up your own virtual, or physical, writing groups with friends and colleagues. Or, join in one of the #acwri threads. Or check out my course linked below.
  5. Read. I recently read a thread on Twitter where academics were suggesting that there should be reading retreats. This crucial aspect of our work, research, teaching – and writing – has also become squeezed out of daily practice. Yet, you cannot be a good writer without reading. You cannot make a contribution to a conversation if you don’t know where that conversation is at. When I was on sick leave, I began listening to audio books. I didn’t have the energy to lift a book and physically read it. Now, I’m back reading like my voracious bookish younger self. AND I have less hours in my official working day than before. If you are exhausted, start listening again.

Stand your ground

Your time is not always manageable. Your schedule is often not fully under your control. However, there are always some aspects that are. You can choose to prioritise what matters. Not only because you have to write, but because you want to.

Reclaim and protect writing as your time.

We need great academic writing in these horrendous political times.

Let me know what you think by commenting below, tweeting me @VikTurbine, or following the conversation on Instagram @vikturbine

If you are looking for some community and non-competitive accountability – you might like my online course. Places are limited, but still available.

We are starting on 16/09/19 – deliberately as term kicks in. Make a commitment to yourself and your writing. We need it.

2 thoughts on “Writing under pressure: how to stay grounded

  1. Great advice; at SPAIS Gender Centre we introduced one day writer’s retreats which were just great; I also try to start the day with one hour of research – of whatever kind – means you ‘start’ the day having achieved some research before everything else kicks in …

    1. Thanks Sarah – great to hear that it is helpful. I love hearing how people are managing to prioritise their research. This is so good – and I was/am especially a fan of NOT checking email first thing. Get that hour of clear-head thinking in and then tackle all the noise!

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