Friday, August 01, 2008

Write of Way

Writers have frequently relied on communities of their peers in order to complete ambitious projects and improve their competence in the craft of creating prose and poetry. Although the stereotype of the lone writer working away in the garret still persists, the rise of formalized writers' groups and workshops in MFA programs indicates that these communities have become recognized as legitimate aspects of literary life and its institutions.

Now many seek this kind of criticism from online communities. Much has been written about fan fiction sites and how writers take part in discursive exchanges about literacy there, by researchers such as Rebecca Black. But it is also interesting to note that more sophisticated writers who seek to produce scholarly monographs also are relying on their own affinity groups online.

For those struggling to finish dissertations, Academic Ladder offers "coaching" to those who might answer "yes" to the following questions: "Stalling out on your dissertation? Not publishing enough?"

Although much of the Academic Ladder pitch is aimed at advice in the behaviorist mode of traditional time-management and goal-setting approaches, they also offer a "writing club" with the following features:
  • Using this tool, participants log their writing progress on a daily basis, interact with others about the process of writing, and get help and feedback from their assigned coach. [Note that grad students and professors are in separate groups; post-docs have a choice.]
  • Your goal will be to write, during short daily writing sessions, every weekday. You will be provided with instructions, guidance and feedback on your writing process.
  • Your progress will be posted on a grid, showing who logged their progress each day. You can read and post comments on each other’s progress, and read the coaching comments that will be made at least twice a week.
  • A message board and user profile page will allow you to learn more about each other, post questions, challenges and ideas, and continue discussions started in the logs.
Much like a dieting support group, members of the writing club can chart the number of pages that they produce while striving to emulate successful participants and top their own previous performance.

Those who have used Academic Ladder complain that they can't contact people in their peer group outside of the service and that the company's emphasis on professionalism and neutrality often translates into impersonality and anonymity in the online exchanges that are orchestrated by the site's administrators. Furthermore, I have heard that since the groups are content-neutral by design, writers don't participate in real debate about the actual ideas contained in the writing and thus miss out on the kinds of impassioned argumentative responses that most stimulates good scholarship

In short, it's a quantitative rather than a qualitative approach, but it doesn't have the risks of public exposure that are associated with keeping a "dissertation blog" in which the spotlight stays on the author's progress day-by-day. (See Scott Kaufman and Jane McGonigal for different examples of the genre.) It's also very different from the open publishing experiments in which more established faculty members such as Siva Vaidhyanathan, McKenzie Wark, or Noah Wardrip-Fruin solicit criticism and suggestions.

As a very task-oriented individual, my own approach to academic writing tends to involve various to-do lists in which writing is just like any other weekly or monthly chore, such as scheduling travel or arranging for household repairs. (See below. Click to enlarge.) I also use e-mail to circulate articles-in-progress to those whose work I respect and reciprocate by reading their manuscripts if offered.

For another example of online writing communities, check out Faith Writers, which describes itself as "the HOME for Christian Writers!" The site has weekly writing challenges and features the portfolios of chosen members and deploys much of the same language that is associated with talent searches.

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