Writing and systems: Beyond strategies, beyond tools

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad 2020 has ended. The year was exhausting and disrupting on so many levels. I watched my productivity hang on like a spider web in a hurricane, and my soul curl up inside, challenging assumptions, questioning most everything. Invariably, I thought quite a lot about my academic writing; I wrote very little. I thought more than I wrote, yes, but the thinking nurtured the writing, offered renewed perspectives. With these, hope revived. With hope, the deep satisfaction of having stayed the course, having written somethingeven if not enough – and been sustained by the writing habit, by the comfort and familiarity of a writing routine.

What helped the most? To think about writing in terms of a system.  Yes, system… as in “complex systems”, “dynamic systems”, “integrated systems”. Read on, you’ll see what I mean.

I have a passion for hand embroidery. Recently, I decided to tackle a very complex cross-stitch project. How complex? Over 250 thousand stitches and 80 thread colors – that kind of complex. I started this design the same way I always approach other simpler projects. As you might imagine, I became exasperated very quickly!!! I was about to give up when I heard a fellow embroiderer utter the magic words: “For these complex projects, what you need is a system!” By system he (my embroiderer colleague who happens to be an engineer) meant specific strategies, performed in prescribed steps and in a precise order, combined with particular tools or instruments, alongside various kinds of support.

That single notion – system – not only solved my embroidery problems, it became the missing piece in the writing productivity puzzle I had been toying with for a while. The puzzle was this: Over time, several people have told me they adopted one or two strategies I suggest in my writing productivity classes or workshops. Yet they had not seen much difference in the quantity or quality of their work. These comments always bothered me, as I couldn’t pin-point the problem: I had, personally, employed the same strategies and they worked for me… they also worked well for my students… Why wouldn’t they work for these writers?

Shifting my mental model about writing to a systems-approach appeared promising for solving the puzzle. As I began observing my own and other people’s writing practices, I learned something useful: Adopting isolated strategies randomly, and failing to establish connections among strategies, tools, and support — that seemed to be the problem. Folks who integrated strategies into available routines, developed systematic methods for applying their tools, and planned how and from whom they obtained the feedback they needed, appeared more successful, and certainly more peaceful.

I began, therefore, to reframe my view of academic writing, to see it as part of a system – a system embedded within broader systems, with sub-systems tucked inside.  I began to frame academic writing as that which emerges from the interaction among various elements forming a complex dynamic system. In this system, the basic elements are you (the writer), a set of strategies (or methods), a set of tools, and a support sub-system. Yes, one can devise several other important elements, but to better grasp the image, here, let’s constrain the model to these four components.

I also began to view these four elements as interacting components, in other words, as factors simultaneously affecting and being affected by all the others. On their own, each strategy or tool might not be as formidable, but when combined with other elements, when integrated into a system, they work almost magically! For example: Writing daily. In itself, the practice can be very productive. Yet in my experience, only when I integrate writing daily into a routine (a sequence of steps preferably taken at the same time, repeatedly), and couple that routine with other elements such as weekly sharing my writing log – only then, does the “writing daily” element work powerfully. Yes – writing daily, without a set schedule or routinized steps and no accountability/support can be helpful, no doubt, but it will be akin to wanting to bake an apple pie and using only one ingredient — the apples. Yes, the ingredient is essential and, on its own, can be very useful – there’s a lot you can do with apples alone – but by themselves, those apples will not become a pie. Something qualitatively different emerges when several elements in a system come together – often referred to as synergy or “the total transcending the sum of the parts.” Actually, it is rather difficult to explain what happens. But something does happen.

While I lack the space, here, to unpack all the benefits resulting from a systems-mental-model for academic writing, I hope you become intrigued enough to explore the possibilities. If you do wish to explore, then, the challenge is to answer these questions: What is your mental model for your academic writing? What images or metaphors come to mind when you’re asked to describe this most vital dimension of your professional identity? (Because… if you’re an academic, you are a writer, remember?) Could it be you have been trying different strategies or various tools, haphazardly, without much success, because you are not integrating these into a coherent system?

As you think about these matters and further explore, also ask questions about each of the four elements I proposed: You, your strategies, your tools, and your support – how well are these elements established in your writing life? Which ones have changed over time? Which ones need updating or replacing or re-envisioning? Which ones can carry you through times as difficult as this year’s?

If you need help identifying or developing a useful writing system, you have come to the right place. Many TAA members have put forth excellent models! As a starting point, I encourage you to explore TAA’s online resources as a starting point, including how-to articles, webinars, eBook downloads, and more. (And I’ll be happy to help, also, if you contact me directly).

Here’s wishing that 2021 is nothing short of an exciting adventure into reframing the way you view (and relate to) your academic writing. I hope your perspective shifts beyond mere strategies and tools… Far, far beyond…

Patricia Goodson, Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence at Texas A&M University is the author of the book, Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing (2nd edition, SAGE), winner of the 2018 TAA Textbook Excellence Award. Her newest book, 90 Days, 90 Ways: Inspiration, Tips & Strategies for Academic Writers, co-authored with Mina Beigi, Associate Professor at University of Southampton (UK), and Melika Shirmohammadi, Assistant Professor, University of Houston, was released in November 2020 and is available in paperback or Kindle format at Amazon.com.