Enjoy the Company

If I were asked to summarize my writing advice in a single sentence I know what I’d say. Spend between one half and three hours every day writing paragraphs about things you know for people you respect. I would add that you should enjoy it, but why wouldn’t you? If you don’t like writing, it’s probably because you don’t write often enough, have been at it too long today, are writing about something you don’t know, or are imagining a reader you don’t respect. Basically, my advice is to do your writing under orderly conditions and in good company. The joy should come naturally.

Now, the scholarly life isn’t for everyone. There are people who don’t like the company of scholars and there is no shame in that; they can find something else to do with their lives. But it’s likely that the problem is specific to a particular scholarly community. You may not like the company of historians or psychologists but enjoy that of physicists or economists. And even these disciplines exist as much smaller communities, working on particular topics in particular traditions. You may not like one group of historians but find another full of kindred spirits. It takes a village to know something, and there are many villages to choose from.

The important thing is not to get yourself bogged down in a bunch of relationships that make you feel bad. In general, you shouldn’t feel stupid or ignorant when talking to your peers. They shouldn’t make you feel sad or angry all the time. (We’re human, so you have to feel this way some of the time, of course.) On the whole and in the long run, you should admire your peers for what they do and you should want them to admire you. You should also generally think they do.

When you’re writing, you should feel like you are in good company. It’s not quite the company of friends, but there should be a friendly feeling about it, a “collegial” atmosphere. These are your peers. You have chosen them because you recognize your intelligence in theirs and you share a curiosity about the same things. They have also chosen you. You disagree with them about a great many things, but you understand these disagreements as grounded in a common interest in the truth. If you find your disagreements are not constructive in this sense, you should be looking for new peers to talk to.

For any particular paragraph, you know what you want to say and who you’re saying it to. Indeed, you want to say it to them. If you were talking to someone else you’d be less interested in saying it, or you’d be less confident that they want to hear it. Because this reader is familiar to you, you can decide whether you need to support, elaborate or defend your claim. It’s not easy to write but the difficulty can be easily identified. In rare cases, you know your reader is a little bored, but you can empathize. You can imagine your writing from your reader’s point of view; indeed, you know many of your readers’ names, where they work, what they’re working on at the moment. You have reviewed the literature to which they have contributed.

This, then, is my advice to doctoral students and early career researchers. Spend some time looking for a group of people you like writing for and just go ahead and enjoy it for a few hours every week. (I recommend at least two and a half hours and at most fifteen.) This will all be happening within you, in your heart and mind, so you are in control of the moment. Keep the mood warm and collegial. Don’t spend a lot of time writing for readers you don’t like, or readers you fear, or don’t respect, or feel humiliated by. Spend most of your writing time among your peers. Enjoy their company.

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