What I Learned About Writing by Not

Author: Rebecca A. Adelman
Original: www.rebeccaaadelman.com

All is not lost.  What I have lacked in tangible productivity over my long season of writer’s block (which seems finally to be limping its way to a close), I have gained in new understandings of the intricacies of my writing process and the fussy mechanics of getting words on the page.

When you aren’t getting words on the page, it’s crazy annoying (at best) to hear about people that are.  And it’s similarly unpleasant to receive unsolicited suggestions about how to get yourself unstuck.  As if it was simply a matter of will or ergonomics or mental hygiene.  But if it was that easy, anyone could do it.  Producing good work, and doing it well, takes more than that.  So here are a few things I figured out about being productive when I was struggling to produce anything at all.  It’s an open letter, of sorts, to my writerly self – the “I” is me, and so is the “you.”  But the “you” can also be, you know, you, if you are reading this and wanting to reconsider your writing praxis.

Become attuned to your limits.
It’s hard to tune out the constant drone of academic meta-commentary about how much (or, from the occasional maverick, how little) we work.  And it helps to know that most of those aggrandizing self-reports are bullshit.  But even still, focusing too much on what other people are doing, or not, just leaves me insecure, or anxious, or envious.  So spend less time worrying about what other people are doing and focus on your own patterns. Then figure out how you work, and be honest about whether all the hours you spend “working” are actually that.  For example, I’ve figured out that I’m neither efficient nor terribly lucid after dinner, and that even when I go back to work late in the evening, I’m not getting much done besides maybe assuaging my guilt about not working enough.

Diminishing returns are a thing.  So consider whether you might be better served by reinvesting those mediocre or largely symbolic work hours elsewhere.

Figure out how you want the experience of writing to feel.  
Turns out, there are no extra points for suffering.  Or if they are, they circulate in an economy that is wildly unrewarding.  Like the counters where you redeem your tickets at arcades: a small fortune in tokens and hours spent playing Skeeball leave you with an armload of little cardboard rectangles and the teenager in charge of the whole operation barely acknowledges you when you come to select your prize and it ends up that all you can afford is a pencil case.  Anyway.

Few of us have the luxury, presumably, to only write when it feels good.  Deadlines, tenure, promotion, &c.  But unless you produce your best work in the throes of abject misery, experiment with the novel practice of setting your writing aside when writing feels terrible.  We all have different thresholds for ‘terrible,’ and that terrible feeling might be mental or physical, but when you encounter that threshold, I think it’s smart to heed it. Admittedly, I am still relatively new to the routine of being a peer-reviewer, but I have not yet encountered a reviewer questionnaire instructing me to give special consideration to a project if I think the author cried a lot (A LOT) while they composed it.  And if there are people who will give you extra credit for your anguish, think carefully about whether you want to play by that set of rules.

Spend some time thinking about how it feels when you are doing your best work.  Maybe you feel focused, or excited, or peaceful, or maybe you’re so in it that you don’t feel anything at all.  Take advantage of those times, figure out how to increase their frequency if possible, develop strategies for doing good-enough work in circumstances that only approximate them.  And otherwise: leave it alone.

Work at a pace that’s sustainable.
Pretty much every academic I know, including me, is overcommitted.  There are lots of reasons for this, both individual and structural.  Obviously, everybody will define “overcommitted” in their own ways, and experience being overcommitted idiosyncratically.  I’ll need to figure out, eventually, why I have a tendency to hoard projects, but here’s what I know for now: I tend to overestimate the amount of time that I have before a deadline, while underestimating how much work I will want to put into a given project.  Part of me also imagines that the asteroid will surely hit between now and whatever deadline so it won’t actually matter.

I can manage the consequences of my over- and underestimating (as well as the general paucity of asteroids) fairly well under normal circumstances.  But when shit, inevitably happens, that mismatch becomes acutely untenable.

So: try to plan out your projects and commitments, as best as you are able, so that they align with how busy you want to be, and when, while also maintaining an overall mode of existence that is tolerable.  (Parenthetically, I think academics ought to aspire to existences that are more than tolerable, and break the habit of postponing tolerability until the summer.)  Not all of this is in your control, of course, so another part of writing and working well is, I think, accepting that those plans won’t always pan out.  And leave a margin for catastrophes, great and small.  If your whole writing scheme is contingent on you never getting a flat tire / your kid never getting sick / you never getting called for jury duty / no one you love ever needing you or dying, it probably isn’t going to work for you long-term.

Consider what it’s worth to you.
Because we are all, alas, constrained by the laws of time and space, doing one thing generally means not doing another (or half-doing two things at once).  Try to be cognizant of the trade-offs your writing affords and requires of you.  Be honest about whether the potential rewards actually appeal to you, and your values.  And then consider the costs, and whether they’re acceptable.  With a few exceptions, I am generally fine to sacrifice binge-watching for writing.  And sometimes I feel very okay opting out of being social so I can stay in and work.  But on the other hand, it’s almost never worth it to me – though it used to be – to trade work for sleep, or healthy food, or exercise.  Maybe your non-negotiable stuff is different.  The point is to figure out what that non-negotiable stuff is, and protect it … otherwise work will eat it all.

Detach from the outcome.
Beyond doing your best to make your ideas intelligible and your style engaging, you can’t control how people will respond to your writing.  Consider your audience, but don’t obsess about them, and learn the difference between wanting to connect with your readers and needing to charm and trap them into your ways of seeing and thinking.  Efforts to engineer reader reactions almost never generate better writing, and are much more likely to result in arguments that overreach or result to pedantry, while the fixation with impressing your audiences will ultimately leave you stultified and unable to say much of anything at all.  Good ideas are much easier to come by than magic words.

Look, and move, forward. 
You will have seasons when you are more productive, seasons when you are less productive, and seasons when you are scarcely functional.  Hopefully, over the course of your writing life, these will balance out into an overall sense of accomplishment, with a body of work that bears it out.  When you are more productive, spend some time figuring out what enables you to work at that level, but don’t make yourself crazy trying to recreate it every time you encounter a slump.  Chances are, it’s mostly a matter of circumstance: a legitimate manifestation of your brilliance, sure, but maybe also just good luck. Conversely, the seasons when you are less productive are also likely to be those in which your luck is worse than usual, and not a  final revelation of your incompetence.

Capitalism tells us that time is modular, that any hour has potentially the same value as any other hour, and hence that missed hours can be replaced.  Nope.  If there is something big that keeps you from your work for a season, you won’t (sorry) be able to get those hours back.  And especially if that something big is also something massively unpleasant, you probably won’t be able to stop feeling lousy about those lost hours, anxious or mournful about the work you could be doing, and resentful of the people around you who happen to be enjoying one of those good-luck seasons of magical writing.  In those moments, all you can do is muddle through: do what you can with your radically reduced resources, plead for deadline clemency if you need it, and accept – your overwhelming fatigue may help lubricate this process – that you probably won’t be producing your very best work at this particular godawful juncture.  And don’t compound the insult by blaming yourself for those lost hours, those words left unwritten.  For my part, now that I’m halfway (give or take) back in the saddle after a pretty unrelentingly miserably eighteen months, it’s a daily struggle not to take the losses of that period out on myself.  It takes a lot of mental discipline to focus on what you can do, not on what you didn’t because you couldn’t.

*    *    *    *    *

So that’s a little bit of what I know now that I didn’t know before.  It strikes me as odd that academics, generally so good at questioning why things are the way they are, rarely bring their skeptical sensibilities to the task of questioning their own work habits or the expectations they have internalized.  And for those who are satisfied with their circumstances, there may be no need for this kind of querying.  But I get the impression (or maybe I just run with an exceptionally grumpy crowd) that lots of us are less than satisfied.  Of course, many of the reasons for that are structural, and so insuperable by these tiny little hacks.  But despite this, or maybe because of it, minor adjustments made in the service of your own comfort are meaningful, worth it, and necessary.


Unpacking @AcademicsSay: Part 1

N. C. Hall  /  06/05/2016

This is my first blog post.

And the only reason you’re seeing it is @AcademicsSay, ostensibly one of the most influential academic social media accounts reaching upwards of 24 million views a month across platforms.

Although polite company warrants eyes-down, humblebrag explanations of the success of this social experiment as serendipitous, that’s not entirely accurate. Instead, the account growth has been markedly consistent, largely anticipated, and intentionally facilitated by strategies common to influential accounts.

To the extent the following may read as a self-indulgent, overthinking, faux-Machiavellian hyper-justification of writing procrastination, I apologize in advance. Below is Part 1 of a tl;dr overview of the varied growth hacking strategies derived mainly from observation, basic psychology, and trial-and-error that may or may not have contributed to the success of @AcademicsSay.

1.   Opportunity. When I set up my professional Twitter account in May 2013, there was no common gathering point for faculty or lightning rod for feedback/sharing. There were no clear accounts to follow first, nothing central that really got academics excited. I wanted to create that, first because it’s confusing and boring to go online and not have a place to connect with others. Second, I was feeling burnt out and needed a laugh. There were also no humour accounts for faculty, aside from scattered student-shaming efforts and @PhDComics for grad students, so I made one. I am not a humour writer. But you don’t need to be great when there’s no competition; you just need to show up.

2.   Tone. I am not a generally positive person. So when deciding how to sound online, I went with my regularly scheduled deadpan, sarcastic, depressing, uncomfortably self-aware over-explanations that make for awkward conversation. I also pride myself on avoiding the wrath of colleagues by getting a laugh despite my interrupting their work as a way of procrastinating on mine. So the overall tone of @AcademicsSay was basically an extension of what I was already doing, just in a more distilled online format. I then found a recognizable meme that fit the tone and went from there. Fortunately, as non-intellectual or unintentionally humourous aspects of academic content tend to get the most attention on social media (e.g., the “Gabor” effect), I was immediately in business.

3.   Authority. I regularly get comments, questions, and surprisingly impassioned critiques about the account behavior; hopefully this section addresses some of that. In addition to content tone, I incorporated from the outset a set of implicit cues to convey authority to potential followers and expedite follow/retweet decisions. This was for two reasons: first, to provide an ironic take on the stereotypical aloof, egocentric academic persona; second, to mimic the profiles of existing viral parody accounts in the history or science domains. Some examples involving language, formatting, colour, and ratios are below.

4.   Language. The word “shit” in the account name implies irreverence or catharsis and is unexpected in academic timelines, grabbing attention while providing ironic context for otherwise curse-free content. The account handle remained curse-free to accommodate more respectable manual retweets. Similarly, “academics” not “professors” were referred to in the account name to convey faculty responsibilities beyond instruction (e.g., writing, tenure requirements, work-life balance). As the content was to be more “water-cooler gossip” or internal self-talk than in-class “dad jokes,” the less-than-student-centered approach was intentional.

5.   Formatting. Tweet text was formatted to exclude “all caps,” emoticons, exclamation points, and question marks to mitigate impressions of attention-seeking and uncertainty. In addition to facilitating a deadpan or aloof tone, ending sentences with periods was also a bit of a inside academic joke not unlike how Kanye West describes the private hilarity of not smiling. To not dissuade engagement among academics who are typically less than familiar with Twitter protocols, I also initially tried to avoid including nonintuitive hashtags (e.g., #ecrchat) and acronyms (e.g., H/T) in favour of more accessible terminology (e.g., via, courtesy of).

6.   Colour. The colour profile was also intentional. Although the specific profile image (“avi”) was selected almost at random from my cell phone, it needed to satisfy two  conditions: it had to show well at lower resolutions and needed to be red. The colour red was emphasized based on research showing red to implicitly convey competitive success and dominance in affiliative and advertising contexts (e.g., CNN, Time, Science, Netflix, BuzzFeed, TMZ, TED Talks) and to solicit more online engagement (e.g., link clicks) than other colours. The image itself is simply a cropped photo of a graffiti art gorilla I took on the sidewalk after a disappointing trip to the farmer’s market. I’d like to think the gorilla signified other elements (e.g., stoicism, “300-lb gorilla” metaphor), but it’s mainly just red.

7.   Ratios. The account also manipulated three Twitter ratios to implicitly convey authority. First, an exaggerated “following-to-follower” ratio was achieved by not following other accounts (as per other parody accounts) requiring unidirectional follows vs. reciprocal “followbacks.” Second, the “retweet-to-follower” ratio was bolstered by deleting tweets that did not sufficiently resonate; a ratio consistently held to around 0.001. For example, tweets in Spring of 2014 (~30K followers) that did not reach 30 retweets were omitted (typically within an hour), with the exception of tweets including links or promoting content intended for “clickthroughs” (current cut-off is ~150 retweets <1 hour, >1K likes on FB; see @TheTweetOfGod, @SoVeryBritish for comparable ratios). Third, deleting tweets with insufficient retweets helped to improve the “tweet-to-follower” ratio. Off-brand tweets promoting specific accounts, lists, hashtags, sites, etc. were similarly omitted to provide an on-brand, content-focussed read for timeline scrollers (“grooming”). Overall, these ratios were maximized to create the impression of an authoritative, non-reciprocal, content-provider account where each tweet not only resonated but gained substantial followers.

8.   Branding. Similar to other viral parody accounts, @AcademicsSay does not reply or retweet. Instead, standalone text reposted from other accounts is formatted as per a typical academic quotation (“…” – @source), or (more rarely) as a screenshot image, to visually associate or “rebrand” it with the account name and image. The quotation format is immediately recognizable to academics but differs from typical (less visually appealing) manual retweets in which acronyms and the original account are inserted before tweet content (e.g., RT “@source …”). This form of attribution is generally appreciated by those referenced, avoids “Twitter plagiarism,” and facilitates portability across platforms (e.g., Facebook, Tumblr). However, it can also be seen as particularly distasteful (especially screenshots) as it effectively affords self-promotion and metric gains at the expense of direct engagement with source accounts. Given the markedly ego-involving nature of not following someone on Twitter or Facebook, it’s perhaps not surprising that this strategy has to date been the most negatively received.

9.   Images. One of the most well-known and easily implemented ways of increasing Facebook or Twitter engagement is to just add an image (e.g., by 35%). So after waiting three months to ensure that text-based content was resonating with followers (~7K), relevant images were introduced. At this point, I had decided to use the account to recruit for off-line research and consciously opted to forego whatever old-guard, intellectual cache was attached to excluslively sardonic text in favor of incorporating more accessible, existing visual content that elicited a more visceral response (e.g., May 2014: doubling new followers/day to 450+ by doubling down on comics, graphics, and screenshots). Given a long-standing body of work by academic comic legends (e.g., PhD Comics, XKCD) and creative efforts of emerging webcomic artists (e.g., Errant Science, RedPen/BlackPen, The Upturned Microscope), finding content wasn’t hard and I finally had a chance to indulge my long-time love of cartoons. I eventually introduced original images and memes to capitalize on social media norms, mocked up preview graphics to increase clicks for news articles or blogs (16:9 to prevent awkward Twitter cropping, better Facebook previews), and started embedding square blog logos that are automatically grabbed when link is shared.

10.   Attribution. Given the emotional and financial investment involved in creating visual content for social media, I eventually started to receive responses from artists requesting that additional source information be included in posts beyond that contained in the image. And after a few requests by original artists (e.g., @MacLtoons, Kemson Cooper), online criticism when attribution was not included (e.g., Paris attack graphic), and an education on attribution and copyright by my friend Jorge Cham (@PhDComics) following an uncomfortable Twitter/email exchange with artist @twisteddoodles, I not only research the origins of posted artwork (e.g., TinEye, Karma Decay, Veracity) but try to provide linkbacks to within-platform accounts or external sites to not deprive artists of potential exposure or income. Although posting images without attribution or linkbacks is more efficient (particularly when source/contact info is embedded), a well-worn strategy for expediting growth (see @HistoryInPics, IFLScience), and not unpermitted in the Twitter TOS (see p. 22, Agence France Presse v. Morel), it is more susceptible to removal on Facebook or Twitter (DCMA takedowns) on copyright grounds and is not a good look for an academic audience uncommonly preoccupied with attribution.

11.   Anonymity. I ran the account anonymously until July 2015 for various reasons. First, I didn’t want my atypical online activities to somehow influence my tenure deliberations. It also helped to maintain a focus on the followers, underscoring the aim of the account to resonate based on shared experiences rather than a self-indulgent showcase of intellectual, writing, or humour abilities. In this way, followers were allowed to perceive their engagement more simply as sharing a laugh or connecting with others by way of satire, as opposed to endorsing the attention-seeking efforts of a specific individual. This decision also helped to circumvent the awkward self-esteem-loaded “followback” expectation otherwise encountered with personal Twitter accounts. In a similar vein, demographic cues involving nationality (e.g., American spelling), gender (typically assumed female), race, rank, or discipline that could unnecessarily complicate or bias content perception and mitigate engagement were avoided. As an anonymous account, I was also allowed more freedom to make mistakes and experiment in term of content (e.g., topics, attribution) or growth strategies (e.g., branding, promotion) without risk of direct criticism or reprisal.

Maybe it’s because academics tend to be familiar with blinded research and manuscript reviews that remarkably few people ever asked who I was. Or maybe it’s that social media platforms generally promote engagement over attribution, a point illustrated by Twitter adding the “quote tweet” function in 2015 while at the same time quietly removing the automatic insertion of quotation marks and account mention (used for manual retweets) when copying tweets in the app (making it much easier to plagiarize). Regardless, it was only after my tenure was confirmed, account influence exceeded relevant benchmarks, the cache of “coming out” could be reliably predicted to bolster off-platform efforts (study recruitment), and these unconventional online activities could be justified in part as a public service to non-social-media users that I wrote the Chronicle piece about the account (as agreed upon one year earlier). However, judging by continued confessions of love for “whoever you are” or “you guys,” and minimal spillover to my personal Twitter account, people generally don’t seem to notice or care who’s running the account.

12.   Efficiency. To promote initial growth, I also pre-prepared tweets that released automatically on apps like Buffer (Facebook pages provide in-platform scheduling) and used free sites like Tweriod to determine optimal tweet times (now largely irrelevant due to international reach). Not unlike other parody or satire accounts, I also regularly repeat content. Although I had previously deleted original tweets to disguise this strategy (some accounts delete tweets wholesale, presumably for the same reason), I now keep them up to gauge growth. I initially felt comfortable repeating only after a 6 month lag (consistent with previous Twitter API restrictions preventing older tweets from being viewed), but now tend to repost within 2-3 months due to a follower base big enough to ensure sufficient sharing from those who would not have seen it, would not remember seeing it, or would not mind seeing it again. Although some repeats are verbatim, others are reformatted or modified (e.g., replacing “book” with “blog” 9 days later) to improve engagement. As for the account meme, the “shit xxx say” format itself affords specific efficiencies, such as a focus on what others say (observation is much easier than inspiration) and basic text (Siri dictation while waiting at Starbucks vs. curated content or creating visuals), as demonstrated by even single-letter posts gaining traction. Finally, one unanticipated consequence of this meme is the extent to which it actually encouraged crowdsourced feedback (replies, mentions, emails) that has to date been highly effective in terms of providing off-platform content, pop culture phrases (e.g., “all of the things”, “Netflix and chill”), timely memes (e.g., Game of Thrones), or even grammatical improvements for repeat posts.

So there you go: a quick introduction to some of the more straightforward strategies adopted a priori or over time to expedite follow decisions and account growth for @AcademicsSay. For more on the roles of analytics, experimentation, and emotions, or more awkward topics such as plagiarism, haters, and monetization, check back for Parts 2 and 3 in the coming days.