Social Writing As An Introvert

I decided that I want to publish an article by the end of this year or early next year.

I finished my dissertation in January of this year. After a five-week marathon of writing, revising, and reformatting (and final submission at the eleventh hour), I took some time off to enjoy doing absolutely nothing for a few weeks. I read fiction. I cooked food. I napped. I needed to rest for a bit.

Since then, however, my intellectual production has been at an all-time low. It's not that I haven't been writing. I have. I write regular blog posts. I'm still working on writing my (awful) novel. I’ve been busy reading, editing, and commenting on other people’s work instead of working on my own. I’ve got the itch to do something with my research and thought that writing an article would be a good goal.

I wrote and published a few articles when I was a grad student, but received so much help that the process seemed simple and easy. Now on my own, without helpful professors or an institutional affiliation, I realized that I was going to need some help. The idea of writing and publishing an article (who, me?) seemed intimidating.

Fortunately, my public library carries Wendy Belcher’s excellent book, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. Armed with her book, I’ve been working through the exercises and making a writing plan.

Belcher argues that academic writers who publish regularly share four common keys to success. In order of appearance, they are (pp. 5-10):

  • Successful academic writers write.
  • Successful academic writers make writing social.
  • Successful academic writers persist despite rejection.
  • Successful academic writers pursue their passions.

The part about making writing social stumped me for a bit.

I’m an introvert by nature. I’ve known this about myself for years. I fit all of the criteria. I love being around people, but find that I become exhausted after spending time with too many people for too long. I feel anxiety when I look at photos of open work spaces. I sometimes take a long time to decide something because I want to consider all angles. I feel overwhelmed by too much light and noise. I do my absolute best work in silence and solitude.

When I first started writing my dissertation, I tried to write in coffee shops, as most of my colleagues did their best writing there. The sounds of people talking and clinking their coffee cups on saucers distracted me. Even with noise-canceling headphones, I couldn’t concentrate, as all I wanted to do was watch people. I found writing in noisy, busy settings difficult, but reasoned that dissertation writing was supposed to be tough. I felt anxious that I made little progress.

I made much better progress when I started paying attention to how I felt when I wrote in different places. I discovered that I could focus at home or in a library study carrel, far from the din and bustle of the outside world. I wrote alone and without noise; my ideas and writing began to flow. I’ve learned that to do my best work, I need to be alone and in a quiet place. When I finally connected my need to work alone to my introverted personality, it made perfect sense to me.

But back to article writing and academic publishing success.

Belcher writes about how isolation is a particular problem for scholars in the humanities. Writing dysfunction, she argues, is much higher in the humanities because we don’t view our writing and ideas as part of larger debates with actual people. We don’t generally work in teams, like people in STEM fields or even scholars in the social sciences. Historians, in particular, conduct their research in solitude in quiet archives and then write up their findings alone. We do not collaborate: we rarely, if ever, co-author articles. So, given that I’m an introvert in a field that endorses solitary writing, how could I possibly make writing social?

Making writing social, I’ve come to realize, doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to write in loud public places with other people. It does, however, mean that I need to talk about writing and share ideas with other people.  Academic writing doesn’t take place in a vacuum or on a planet devoid of other humans. We write in order to exchange ideas with other people.

What I realized was that even though I have to write alone, I am never alone with my ideas. When I was writing my dissertation, I regularly called up friends and colleagues to discuss my ideas with them. My car turned into a space of intellectual production, as my dissertation-writing bestie and I talked out all of our ideas on long drives. We exchanged rough chapter drafts ; we proofread each other’s work for grammar and as a way to flesh out ideas. We wrote in solidarity with each other, setting timers and checking in with each other to see what we had written that day. We encouraged each other, cheering each other on as we struggled to understand and express difficult ideas.

Even an introvert, I need to strive to make writing more of a social activity. Though I may have to work alone, I can still share ideas with other people and receive helpful feedback from them.

Here's what I'm doing to try and make my writing more social:

  • Blogging. A blog post on the Internet has a much wider reach than an academic article. People sometimes read and comment on my blog, so that it’s more like having a conversation with people than a solitary effort. I learn a lot from other people’s ideas and comments on the blog, tweets, and Facebook. I might write a few posts about my research article in progress and update people on how I'm doing with the writing and hammering out ideas.
  • Tweeting. Twitter is my social network of choice. I follow and am followed by a whole bunch of writing people: novelists, bloggers, dissertators, and the occasional poet. I’ve found it really helpful to talk about writing on Twitter (using the hashtag #acwri, #amwriting, or #writingpact). People discuss their writing projects, progress, and problems, all through 140 character messages. I’ve received writing encouragement from total strangers and do my best to cheer on anyone who seems to be struggling through a particular writing problem. I’m considering hosting a Twitter chat about academic writing (#acwrichat), which I think would help all kinds of people talk about their writing.
  • I’m hesitant to share my early drafts with a wide online audience, but I’m considering trying to get some more article writers together to work through Belcher’s book with me. A lot of my graduate cohorts are in the early stages of academic careers and need to get some articles published. I’m thinking about creating a Facebook group for article writers, where we could share ideas and help each other.
  • In the future, I’d like to co-author an article with a fellow historian and break the stereotype of the lone historian. I think it would be particularly fun to co-write with someone whose area of expertise is outside Latin America.
  • I’m stepping up my networking efforts. Networking is particularly difficult for me, but I’m always amazed how willing people are to help when I get brave enough to ask. I’m setting little networking goals for myself: emailing a scholar I don’t know, reconnecting with a colleague I haven’t seen for a long time. I’m also going to the American Historical Association meeting this year, despite the fact that I no longer have an institutional affiliation and am not even presenting a paper. I’ve got a much better idea of how to make the most out of conferences and am actually excited to go.

Finally, I’ve pinned a note above my desk with a sage piece of Belcher’s wisdom: “Without Community, writing is inconceivable.”

What are you writing? Let’s talk about it!