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Getting to Tenure and Sanity with a Spreadsheet: One Writing Group’s Tale

Book --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

As social as we academics can be, as often as we commiserate about teaching over coffee in the break room, as often as we tweet about our day to day grinds, there’s something that we often do locked in an office, at a table for one in a coffeeshop, in our basements, or wherever we can hide: we often write alone.

A monk writing on a desk.

(Writing) alone again, naturally. Image by AJC1 (flickr)

But, to paraphrase the title of Sherry Turkle’s latest book, we’re all alone together. A few faculty in the College of Humanities at the University of Utah have recognized this and have started a writing group to help each other feel less alone. We meet every two weeks, share writing and revise-and-resubmitting stories, swap drafts, and talk ourselves out of the stresses of publishing or perishing. With this group – one I jokingly call the “Will THIS Get Me Tenure?” Writing Group, despite the fact that there are two tenured professors involved – I certainly feel less alone as I face the long writing trek to tenure. In this way, our group is much like writing groups described in publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education here, here, and here.

However, it’s not just the somewhat cliché loneliness of writing in the humanities that can hold us back. It’s also the sense that nothing ever gets done. Yes, we put together conference presentations. Yes, we submit manuscripts to journals, and yes we collect rejection letters. But if you’re like me, at its worst writing can feel like an overwhelming sense of getting no where, even when a manuscript goes out the door. Sisyphus comes to mind, and so does Elijah Sparrow’s Frodo in The Two Towers, lost near the Dead Marshes: “We’re going in circles!” Writing can feel like an endless grind with little to show but the madness of half-baked ideas on the page. And, of course, rejection letters.

To alleviate this, in addition to meeting to share stories about the writing process, our writing group came up with (gasp) a spreadsheet. We use a Google spreadsheet to keep track of the writing we do and to keep each other on track.

Here’s how it works. We pledged to write a number of words per day. I pledged 500 words a work day; for my busier tenured colleagues who are on 1001 committees, 250 words is a common pledge. The amount isn’t the point. It’s the commitment to do it every day. When I hit 500 words of writing for the day, no matter how quickly or painfully, I note it in the spreadsheet. For me, this is more like a hobby of mine, playing bass. If I don’t do it every day, the bass feels stiff and stubborn under my fingers. If I play every day, the bass and I get along just fine. Writing, I think, is the same. It isn’t about genius (most especially for me), and it isn’t about inspiration. It’s about work. And despite meetings and grading, our group works. This gets reflected in a column on the spreadsheet.

Speaking of work, we also decided that notes count. That is, we also count the words we write as we take notes on sources, because it is difficult to distinguish between taking notes on sources and composing original work. This appears in another column on the spreadsheet. Many times I’ve read work by, say, Michel Foucault or Maurizio Lazzarato that sparks a line of thought, and many times this line of thought is worked out in first form as I take notes. These ideas often migrate into drafts of papers, and so I count them and put them into the appropriate column of the spreadsheet. Of course, because of the magic of copy and paste, there’s a danger we might count words in notes and original writing twice; to alleviate that, I often divide the number of words in notes in half.

In addition to words per day, we also agreed that it “counts” when one deletes words. That is, when one of us gets a revise and resubmit, or even before that point, many times it’s necessary to cut words out, to make the manuscript tighter and more focused. We decided that revision time counts, and we count it in hours spent. That’s another column on the sheet. This way, we don’t replicate the old software engineering problem of equating lines of code written with productivity; refactoring code to make it tighter should be valued. So, too, do we value revising down a long manuscript. A member of the group who slogged through 8 hours of difficult revision is as respected as one who wrote 5000 words in a new draft.

As you can see, a lot “counts” in our spreadsheet, making it a valuable tool for our group. However, this brings me to one of the most important things we decided: the spreadsheet isn’t in charge. We don’t want this to devolve into a bureaucratic exercise in filling in cells, doing precise accountings of activities, and maintaining averages. Instead, we use it as a rough guide, and when we meet every two weeks to compare notes on our progress, we’re able to decide who hit her goal for the fortnight and who must pay the harsh penalty for not meeting his goal: buy beer for the group (we prefer to do so at The Fiddler’s Elbow). I might look back over my columns and argue I did enough revision to say that I hit my goal, even if I didn’t meet the raw number count (5000 words for the two week period, with weekends off). Another member will point to the number of words she produced doing field notes. Another will simply point to the number of words he wrote on a draft. Most weeks we go without beer, which is probably for the best.

I get a lot out of this group. I have tenured and untenured colleagues to share notes with; I’ve gotten critiques of early drafts of work; and I truly think that my overall writing productivity is higher with the group than it would be if I were always alone.

After a year, I’ve also received an invaluable and unexpected benefit from this writing group: I can actually be with my son when I am home. As we all know, one of the unique downsides to the life of the mind is that we don’t leave our minds at work; we bring them home. Dinners become optimal times to rethink a passage, and toy-train time with the kids becomes a fine time to compose a new introduction. This is connected, I think, with the tyrannical power of writing never feeling like it’s over. However, with the writing group, and by taking a daily log of my writing, once I hit my daily goal I feel like I achieved something. I don’t feel that nagging sense that I need to work – to hide away, alone – when I am trying my best to solve a puzzle with my son.

No, using a spreadsheet and setting goals isn’t particularly sexy. No one is going to look back on our group and talk about the muses over our shoulders or the flashes of genius insight. We’ll leave those things for others. 500 words may not be much, it may not seem like I’m getting anywhere, but 500 words a weekday over a year is at least one book. And that can get you tenure. Not to mention your home life back.

Note: I would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Tanner Humanities Center and Bob Goldberg, who helped fund our writing group.

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