- Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics by Joli Jensen
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 166. Paper: isbn 978-0-226-46170-0, us$15.00.
'Outsiders think academe is a supportive writing environment. We know it is not' (xi).
Write No Matter What—what academic could resist such a title! And resistance is futile. Joli Jensen has written a book that will appeal to most writing academics. Jensen takes the environment and attitudes of academics and shows how they can be adapted, moulded, or just tolerated to allow writing to happen. The advice is good, clustered around a few central truths, and invariably supported by illuminating ways forward.
In a book of twenty-eight chapters grouped into five parts, Jensen's preface is as important as any later part of the book. Here, the author defines her aim: 'In order to be productive we need frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy' (xi, my italics). This is as worthwhile an ambition as any in academia. We have all had (perhaps have) colleagues who put in long hours to, apparently, little purpose; even their academic successes are usually qualified. Thus, a colleague who wrote a field guide for a conference finished it only shortly before the meeting and then forgot to include the reference list. I could not imagine making such an error, but my colleague never had a low-stress methodology to writing.
Part 1, 'Writing in academe' (three short chapters), ably punctures a few mythical balloons of academic writing and prepares the way for reality. First, Jensen helped me to recognize the obvious: that academic workplaces can sometimes be poor environments for academic writing. I do most of my writing at home and in cafés, departure lounges, and hotel rooms. I now work in an open-plan office, ideal for listening to people chat but poor for academic thought.
Second, academics need to write and get published, but most struggle to do so. Perhaps, mainly, because most of us are self-taught authors and the writing course was, in consequence, inadequate. Many academics settle for inadequate and fail to tap into resources such as the many available 'how to' texts for academic authors, the latest of which is by [End Page 274] Jensen. Instead, they trust to luck and the kindness of strangers, such as editors and peer reviewers.
I like Jensen's emphasis that academic writing is a craft, and all crafts need to be learnt and developed—we are not born with an ability to write a research paper any more than we have an innate aptitude for mending chairs. One needs to make time to write and in the right environment, just as one would set aside the necessary time and appropriate space to fix a chair.
In Part 2, 'Using tools that work' (chapters 4 to 7), the essentials of Write No Matter What are laid bare—how to organize your writing time, space, and energy. Part 2 opens with Jensen's 'Three taming techniques.' First, if you are working on a major writing project, physically collect all related documents in a project box. This makes solid sense; I actually use a project bookshelf, but the idea is the same. Atop the pile on my shelf is a hard copy of the latest iteration of the book/monograph that I am writing, something to pick up and leaf through casually but critically, red pen close to hand. Jensen's third technique is to write for at least fifteen minutes per day; again, I can only agree.
It is Jensen's second taming technique that I have never used—compiling a ventilation file for when you write about the damnability of writing when you are failing to produce what you should be. Essentially, here you blow off steam. Jensen says it better: 'This file offers me a confidential space for every hostile, resentful, negative thing that I think and feel when I try to write' (18).
Jensen discusses time in chapter 5. Why do academics have insufficient time for writing, or, stated another...