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Failing better

Failure, productivity and audience in #acwrimo

Productivity - TDL

Photo credit: koalazymonkey via Flickr

I signed up for Academic Writing Month soon after it started. I hoped that it would help get me into some good writing habits. Plus, I needed to get my MPhil upgrade document written (a 10-15,000 word extended research proposal for my PhD). I promised to spend the first two hours of every morning focused solely on writing tasks (including reading, note-taking and planning) and to write 500 words a day without worrying too much about whether those words were good enough or would make it into my final draft. I went public with this pledge on twitter and on the shared accountability spreadsheet. I was hoping that I would develop some good habits so writing every morning became something I didn’t have to think about, and to get a better idea of how long it really takes me to do something. Because I often find myself flicking between several things at once, it’s hard to know how long any one task would really take me, and as a result I often drastically underestimate it.

I haven’t stuck to my goals – even slightly. And I haven’t participated in the community aspect either. I peer through my fingers at the #acwrimo twitter stream with a mixture of guilt at not participating more, and jealousy of others’ success. Public accountability is a big part of #acwrimo, but because I don’t actually know anyone else involved it doesn’t feel that real: If I don’t keep up my promise, no one except me will know or care. But while public accountability can be incredibly motivating (for some people), having fallen behind with my aims, I feel like I need to achieve something worth sharing before I can start participating again. And with each day that passes, it feels like the something needs to be even bigger to justify my re-entry.

The Thesis Whisperer describes her concerns about #acwrimo feeding in to an academic culture built on an unhealthy obsession with urgency, productivity and performance metrics that can leave many burnt out. What changed her mind is the ability to set her own goals and targets around her own working patterns – so to write for a period of time rather than produce a set number of words. And PhD2Published, heroically coordinating the twitter chat, emphasise that it should be about finding and extending each individual’s personal best way of writing, not adding to the burden of stress:

Nevertheless, we do seem to consistently compare our negative feelings about low productivity and participation to the seemingly easy positivity we can find on the twitter stream. As Explorations of Style points out, this comparison of our internal feelings to others’ external projections is not just unhelpful but inaccurate, and as academics we should know better. But how do we join in when we feel we haven’t achieved enough to earn our place in the conversation?

It is hard not to focus on numbers of words as the main focus of productivity. They are the visible, almost tangible, evidence that we have accomplished something. Kathleen Fitzpatrick talks about academics’ need for outward and visible signs of productivity, or even stress, as indicators of a state of grace. In a conscious nod to the Catholic church’s description of the sacraments, she describes how the signs of busyness we display come to be equated with our academic moral worth. If you have time for leisure – or sitting around thinking – well then you can’t be busy enough!


Photo credit: Dave Makes via Flickr

This made me think more about how “productivity” potentially requires an audience. To really feel productive, perhaps we need to have our productivity seen by others, and in order to display our productivity, we need tangible things like word counts or other outward and visible signs of busyness. But productivity isn’t the same as work, study or thought. One of the reasons #acwrimo hasn’t worked so well for me this time is I’m just not ready to churn out the words.  I’ve been distracted by organising events at work, I’ve been getting to grips with (and getting lost in) a new theoretical perspective I’m still fairly ambivalent about, and it’s been a tough time personally for reasons I won’t go into here.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not making important progress. I need time to read and think, and this is harder to display. I also need time to find a way to think about my work and writing in a way that is more meaningful to me than it has been for a while. The pressure of productivity can mean that this important phase can feel unimportant or lead to guilt about the time it takes – this guilt is inevitably counter-productive because without these foundations, efforts towards productivity remain meaningless and subject to high-risk failures. I’ve also started writing this blog, which could become a source of procrastination, but actually feels important as part of a process of finding a voice and a way of speaking that feels right. The blog title says it all, really: I will continue to fail, as we all will, and that doesn’t really matter. The trick is in carrying on and sometimes managing to fail a bit better. This process I hope will mean that the words that I do write, when I write them, will be words that I think are worth saying.



8 thoughts on “Failure, productivity and audience in #acwrimo

  1. ”…“Productivity” potentially requires an audience’…’: certainly true and what’s more important analytically interesting for all sorts of reasons. Is this why academics seek such approbation/ audiences/ applause all the time? I’ve noticed this a lot in both myself (as an academic) and my peers… Given that we work on our own a lot, we need validation, clapping, cheering. Without an office/ place of work/ boss every day, that’s so acute.

    Posted by Anonymous | November 20, 2012, 18:22
  2. What I like about this is that you end up describing a state that is more accepting of what you are doing – and it feels as if it allows you to see more that is positive as a result. Buddhists, like Beckett, advise not dwelling too much on evaluating past ‘failure’ and just to get on with what one plans to do next, without the impediments of too much memory or too much desire. Short term goals might help – set yourself what can realistically be done in a half hour rather than the ‘desart’ of two hours?

    Posted by isobelurquhart | November 20, 2012, 19:04
  3. I don’t see how anyone who signed up for acwrimo has failed.

    I can see how anyone who regrets not signing up for acwrimo, has.


    Posted by Cate Wilson (@psychengineer1) | November 20, 2012, 21:28
  4. ” I need time to read and think, and this is harder to display.” – have you considered tracking overall productivity with weekly progress reports? Maybe that’s what your blog will unofficially be. I find that they allow me to recognize where I put work even if I don’t have deliverables to show for it just yet.

    Posted by Nicole K.S. Barker (@NKSBarker) | November 21, 2012, 11:52
  5. ‘productivity isn’t the same as work, study or thought’ – this is what jumped out for me. I’m always tempted to measure how well I’m doing by the number of words I’ve written, but in my experience that only works when you’re either freewriting ideas at the beginning of a project, or writing a first draft once you have all the information to hand. Reviewing literature, working out what you’re actually going to say, making sure you’ve said what you meant, all takes time, and is vital for good academic writing, but it’s harder to ‘measure’, and you certainly can’t do it by word count. I’ve split my #acwrimo spreadsheet into 6 ‘projects’ I want to get done, and each one has bits for reading, revising, analysis etc, so there’s always a bit I can cross off that’s leading towards an overall writing goal (maybe that’s cheating – I don’t care).

    I think finding your voice is important, as you say. I’ve found writing my blog really useful – if only because writing *something* makes me more inclined to write *something else*!

    Thank you for your thoughtful post.


    Posted by cheerfulresearcher | November 23, 2012, 09:04


  1. Pingback: ‘Fessing up – my #acwrimo experience | Dr Jackie Kirkham - November 22, 2012

  2. Pingback: What is the meaning of writing? Reflecting on AcWriMo « The Victorian Librarian - November 27, 2012

  3. Pingback: AcWriMo Reflections | Explorations of Style - December 6, 2012

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