Why write?


I’ve been clearing out my book shelves. Getting rid of anything that I think I won’t actually look at again. It’s a pretty dusty dirty task as some of the books are quite old. They haven’t been opened for a long time.

In order to work out what I want to keep I’ve found myself re-opening quite a few. Cue sitting on floor? Yes. Cue sneezing? Yes. But also cue browsing through what was once good advice and sensible ideas about writing and accurate depictions of academic life. But it’s now quaintly naïve. And some of what is naively written is in stark contrast to what we might write now.

Here’s an example. Fifteen years ago Arthur Asa Berger wrote a book about academic writing. At the time he was already retired from his post in Broadcast Communications at SFSU. He called the book a toolkit, but I guess it’s a collection of Berger’s best advice based on his own academic writing practices.

I won’t bore you with what’s in the book. But I do want to talk about one part. Berger ends the book with a coda. An afterthought where he talks about the purposes of academic writing. He nominates four reasons why it’s worth all the hard work:

Personal validation. Being accepted by a publisher is always a thrill Berger says. And that thrill helps you get through the darker writing times when you get poor reviews and negative comments.

Self-discovery. Putting words onto the page is a means of surfacing and synthesising and developing ideas. Berger is one of those people who never entirely knows what he thinks until he writes it.

Pleasure. Berger writes, he says, because the creative act of putting words on a page is gratifying and fulfilling. And what’s more, he says, if writers find the writing process pleasurable, then they often communicate that to their readers – they then find pleasure in the reading.

Conversation. For Berger, writing is a conversation with the reader, an imagined listener who was present for previous writings, and will be present in the future.

Now, I think these for reasons are all true and helpful. But my, how times have changed. These days, those of us who write about writing generally include other reasons to write. Two reasons in fact take pride of place in our answer to the why write question. We start our writing advice by addressing our context.

Purpose 1.

As one of my colleagues said to me the other day, citations are now academic currency. What we write, how much, where it is published, how often we write and whether other people cite us – these all count and are counted.

For individual academics, writing is a means to getting a job, keeping a job, getting promoted, winning funding and building a personal profile. For institutions, the collective writing and citing of staff counts for reputation, rankings, enrolments and funding. So this is a writing political economy, with opportunities to participate inequitably distributed within disciplines, institutions and around the world. Despite the apparent equality of audit measures, the publication landscape is highly uneven, weighted to the global north and to particular elite institutions.

We all know thus. It’s now everyday academic life. So you often hear people talking about publishing and perishing, and it is writing as academic currency that they are referring to. Not pleasure. Not conversation. I’ve also heard and read the occasional comment that the press to publish isn’t real, and references to it are greatly exaggerated. IMHO this kind of dismissal comes from a position of great privilege and from an institutional location which is now far from the norm.

Purpose 2.

We now worry much more about communicating the results of our research. That is, we write not to an imaginary reader but real readers, plural. In some countries, like the UK, concerns about the take-up of research led to a focus on “impact”. Who uses our research and what for. Impact is generally dependent on public engagement” which is where writing comes in. But the writing that is required for impact may not be the writing that earns citations.

Both impact and public engagement are also subject to counting – ranking, funding and so on depend on these scores. Many of us are now in a position where we not only have to produce citations as currency, but also public engagement and impact work as well.

Academic books about writing usually now recognise the dominant trend for writing to stand in for quality, as well as individual and institutional performance. Blogs and books often begin by acknowledging these performative measures as the context within which academic writing is done. Outputs must be generated at an acceptable rate, or else…

Looking back at Berger’ s book shows an interesting shift. It’s not that his four purposes don’t matter any more. No, they do – the kinds of purposes for writing that Berger proposes – writing as personal validation, as self-discovery, as pleasure and as conversation – are now talked about as resistance to the pressures that have writing as a mandated academic product. Bergers four purposes are seen as additional reasons to write, writing for/against that demanded by our institutions.