Air and light and time and space: how successful academics write (a book review)
Given I am about to begin writing my dissertation the process of ‘how’ to write, as in, finding the time, space, company, motivation and craft to write are of interest to me. Writing has always been an agonising, if increasingly more rewarding process, as I find my own style and confidence in the feedback that I receive.
Academically I know that I produce good work; well-referenced, analysed and synthesised arguments, but it is always answering someone else’s questions. At undergrad’ level, it is just regurgitating someone else’s work but now I have hit master’s level and I’m beginning to define my own interests, ideas and research the writing process is changing. It is taking on a life of its own, like my research itself.
The book I am reviewing is a great introduction to the art of writing. It divides itself into four subsections that approach writing from different perspectives that I hadn’t really thought of as the novice researcher than I still consider myself to be; behavioural artisanal, social and emotional, The author, Helen Sword, herself a seasoned writer, based the book on a comprehensive piece of qualitative research that included interviewing one hundred academics from around the world about their writing practice; its ebbs and flows, the benefits and challenges, with forays into pure abstraction such as exploring the metaphors academics used for their relationship with their writing. This was complemented with a further body of questionnaires that expanded out the data set to encompass a considerably wider scope of writers in terms of their professional status and career state.
I found the tone of the book to be light-hearted. It bestowed upon me a sense of comradery as a new recruit joining the ranks of academic authorship. It was heartening to see battle-scarred veterans still describing some of the struggles I have whenever an essay deadline looms.
Some of the perspectives were different to anything I had considered before. The struggles of those academics working within English as a second language shone a light on the inherent language bias that still exists in so many aspects of our global life as human beings. In some ways, the struggles of those coming to their work from very different cultural origins seemed to echo those I feel when thinking about how much of my own lived experience to seed into my writing. I struggled whether to use ‘I’ or not for weeks in my research essay. It was only the support of a very knowledgable and experienced tutor, who both has oodles of academic as well as lived experience of mental health distress to reassure me that it was the right thing to do.
The different experiences of writing that I can bring to bear on my current development as an academic were also things that I had not considered before. Working as a graphic designer, copywriter and web designer has developed a skill set in me that I draw upon regularly in my own writing. Being autistic is a blessing and a curse. I am able to zoom down into the detail to an infinitesimal scale, and my proofreading is also pretty damn good after working as an account manager. But I struggle terribly with anxiety and cannot often summarise what I am going to do, or even know where I am headed in my writing because I don’t have the structure and context to know the destination. I have just learned to trust my instincts that the end result will usually be pretty good, and ultimately enjoy the journey on the way.
If I were to sum up Air and Light and Time and Space, my best attempt would be to describe it as a book about the philosophy of writing that ultimately has many gems for living as well. the habits of ‘lucky’ writers and academics; noticing opportunities and building networks, trusting their instincts persevering in the face of rejection and criticism and seeing the positivity in challenging or difficult circumstances. These are habits I have cultivated myself in the last six years of being mentally ill and which I am finding also serving me as I recovery and carve out a new professional niche for myself. Similarly, the advice to do something creative or expansive before writing as a means of opening the mind rung true when I considered it in relation to the time I have spent on my allotment and riding my bike in the countryside. Not all the advice was as relevant, but this is the beauty of this book. I suspect that there really is something for everyone.
Overall I loved it (and have decided to write this review about 15 pages from the end). The organisation of the sections, together with the author reviews, very personal, and sometimes vulnerable, author contributions, with practical ‘try this’ sections and a brilliant list of further reading that is interspersed into the text rather than being lumped together as the end, weave together into a lively and colourful consideration of academic writing.