Don’t Sell Yourself Short as an Academic Writer

Head in the Clouds oil on canvas by Jim and Lynn Lemyre

Let things Grow to their Level

If you look at the culture of independent novelists today, you’ll see a healthy respect for maximizing your return on the long hours of effort. They have to make a living!

But academic writers can totally miss out on this attitude.

What’s weird about academic writers is that it’s the same thing for you. You are writing for a living, but it’s harder to do the math.


For novelists the equations is:

Write novel + publish = pay bill

But for academic writers it’s:

write book + publish + teach + advise + do service + do more research + wait 6 years = keep job


Getting paid in six years is very hard to stay motivated by. Open the fridge so that I can eat Kozy Shack rice pudding, now that’s easy for me!


And it’s also very easy thing to pile a whole heap of writerly aspirations into six years of writing but quite another to contain all that, make it coherent, give it a readable structure, and to keep it coming out of you in the future. Unlike most successful novelists.


What do I mean by this? Well we know some novelists set out to write the Great Novel. They put many years into it. Most will give up. A few will finish. And fewer yet succeed in it being great.

Most novelists I know have had, or are currently having, this dream. But if they are actually making a living, most likely it’s in check.


They have a healthy respect for their time and effort and know they have to write a lot, pump from their creative well, and make the most of what they’ve got.


How do academic writers make out on the productivity part?

By contrast, academic writers can often be collectors and hoarders, and through fear and insecurity, as well as great sincere intention too, try to pack as much as they can into their writing.


What should be 5 articles is packed into 1 article. What should be a book is conceived as an article. What is conceived as a book, should be a life’s project or at least 3 books.


I do this myself. It’s not the kiss of death. You can work it out, but it’s hard. It takes a long time, and you burn through not only a lot of time but also a lot of your ideas and inspirations.


So why not make those 5 articles packed into on article into 5 articles? Or why not 10?


Some do: see Slavoj Zizek or Noam Chomsky, for instance.


It’s a shift in attitude that can get a lot of blow back and can be uncomfortable, because one of the main forces stopping us is:


“I don’t have enough and/or I’m not good enough”


The insufficiency feeling runs rampant through the academic being.

I know this well.

And I’m not particularly insecure.


You don’t have to be insecure to have this problem.


It can also come from a totally healthy and appropriate desire to do a really good job, to make something really great.


I’ve been a stuffer and packer myself– jamming in as many ideas and cool material I can into my projects.


Part of it comes from a feeling that I really want this to be great and full of all this great stuff and ideas, but also out of a fear that it will be inadequate, not enough, or that my ideas, while good, would be gooder if there was more extra sauce on top.


We need to have the courage to be simple, at least at first. We can build on things, elaborate, clarify. We don’t need to pile more on top just to feel better while we are working. Do a trust fall!


Our writing is going to not only be better, but easier to write, and best of all,


easier to read!

And yet bucking up and having courage might not be enough. It might take a tad more to make the switch over and start out our writing with simplicity first. To not not spend all our chips at once. Which is my real reason for writing this. Another thing we might need is a sense that:


It’s the right thing to do.


I mean look around. So many people striving to get jobs, get published, keep jobs. It makes us all feel like we really need to pack in the value, so that we will be valuable. So that someone will pick us, over the others.


It’s a very disempowering mindset. And in that situation we’re not going to think straight, and we are going to start stuffing our creations.


What happens is we get a big hot mess our hands that is difficult to revise, difficult to structure, difficult to keep in line.


Look around. Look at us. Look at what the system is doing to us. It’s crazy and we shouldn’t take it anymore.


Your 3 books should be 3 books, not one book.


Your 5 articles should be 5 articles, or 10!


Not just one. Don’t sell yourself short!


We all need to stand up for ourselves.


So if it’s not enough reason that we can avoid big tangled messes


and monster misbehaving texts


with widgets and springs falling out around the edges,


if it’s not enough reason that readers will actually enjoy your clear writing more,


if it’s not enough reason that you will be more productive and successful,


then do it also because it’s the right thing for everybody and for our profession:


Don’t sell yourself short, and give your thoughts and material a chance to breathe and grow.


Your creations will be much easier to dress up and send off to school if you grow them that way!