Published in the May 2021 Teaching & Learning Collaboration Newsletter
Mathematical & Computational Sciences
In this short note, I’m going to share some personal reflections on hiring an academic writing coach. We all know that academic writing is a difficult task at the best of times. There are so many choices to make, and their long-term significance is unclear or even invisible. Often times, I ask myself questions like: Why is academic writing so hard for me? Should I focus on teaching instead of writing? How much would another collaboration further upset an already tenuous work-life balance?
I found that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the difficulty that these choices present by removing many of my informal, spontaneous opportunities to get support from my colleagues. Gone is the coffee break with a senior colleague. Gone is the chance encounter with a friend from another department who might see things differently. Gone are the emotionally rewarding interactions with students and colleagues which inform our choices. It has been much much harder for me to get advice and wise counsel through informal channels or formal channels as many are working through their responsibilities.
Soon after the pandemic forced us in to isolation, I began searching for new avenues of support and came upon the idea of hiring an academic coach through Twitter. As a graduate student, I received scant advice on writing and productivity management. I had never heard of writing coaches before. An academic coach can support your development and help you ensure that you reach your goals just like a coach for any complex psychosocial activity, such as acting or tennis. Many coaches have experience with counselling and social work, and can help work through the psychological difficulties tied to the difficulties of academic writing. I felt that having the perspective of someone outside my institution was beneficial.
For the sake of context, I should say that I have always been an avid diarist since childhood. My diary has accompanied me through thick and thin, and runs to about fifty volumes. On average, I write about thirty thousand words per semester in my diary. And yet, for years, I could barely write a sentence of academic prose! The thought of writing and submitting an article of original work was inconceivable. I read a small mountain of books on academic writing, foremost among them being Robert Boice’s classic Professors as Writers. My wife and I even read Anne Lammot’s Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life out loud to each other in the evenings. It is that good! After reading about all the ins-and-outs of writing, I did not change my writing habits despite my earnest and sincere desire to become a writer.
And so, I hired Dr. Rich Furman, a professor of social work at the University of Washington, Tacoma who also works as an academic writing coach. Initially we met for about hour per week via Zoom. We talked about my career goals and past writing experience. We talked about developing healthy and long-term sustainable writing practices. Boice’s work on academic writing shows that academics are prone to binge writing where large uninterrupted blocks of time are needed to write. Bingeing often leads to feels of pre-writing anxiety, as there is never enough time to write, and post-writing exhaustion, because writing is so taxing and onerous. Both of these trends tend to upset binge writers’ work-life balance.
For me, a much more sustainable approach to writing is to write small amounts regularly, with clear goals. My coach checked in with me regularly to see how my writing practice was developing. Did I experience any writing related anxiety? Why was I skipping writing sessions which I had scheduled? What was I enjoying about the new writing process? When the first rejections for my articles came in, we talked about handling rejections, learning from reviewers, and moving articles forward to publication in other venues.
Developing a writing practice is not something that can be done in a day. It is a habit and routine which evolves over months and years. I admit that I was unable to do so on my own. Hiring an academic writing coach during the COVID-19 Pandemic dramatically accelerated my progress as an academic writer. I’m glad that I did so. There are other avenues for supporting your writing. UTM is enrolled in the Faculty Diversity (https://www.facultydiversity.org/) initiative, which provides writing coaching to faculty in teaching and tenure stream appointments. There are many options available online for faculty who are not in such appointments. I welcome anyone who has questions about my experiences working with an academic writing coach to email me.