It’s the beginning of the fall semester for academics in the Northern Hemisphere, which means many of you are setting your semester writing goals. Much of what goes into your schedule will be informed by what you did or didn’t achieve over the summer. Inevitably, you’re berating yourself because you didn’t complete all of your projects.
If shame has a season, we’re currently in it. Academic writers are currently revisiting the writing goals they set at the beginning of the summer and feeling bad when they realize that they’ve come up short.
What if the problem isn’t us, but rather the writing goals that we set and how we perceive our progress towards those goals? I think there are two related ways in which we establish unrealistic expectations. First, we simply give ourselves too much work. Second, we expect that each and every workday we’ll achieve peak productivity. Then, when we don’t achieve those goals, we see it as a failure of work ethic – a personal inadequacy of some sort. We say that we “fell off track” or that our work was “derailed.”
For some reason, we’ve decided that the average, normal day should include a predetermined amount of writing time; orderly, structured meetings; and a productive schedule that we stick to effortlessly. We’ve also decided that we should be able to perform grueling intellectual work for many hours a day without interruption.
Even phrases like “falling off track” and “getting derailed” (phrases that I admittedly use all the time) imply that our work processes should be confined to a rigid, unyielding structure. Phrases like these tell us that there’s only one path forward, with no wiggle room.
What if we developed new language so that “falling off track” wasn’t an aberration, but instead a normal and expected step in our work process? Perhaps we ought to recognize that we can strive towards an ideal (a regular writing practice that rarely gets interrupted, for instance), but acknowledge that the process of moving towards that ideal is messy and iterative (just like actual writing!). Even better, we should realize that we aren’t writing machines.