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Joli Jensen on Practical Advice for Getting Your Writing Done: Excerpts from an Interview

Jun 25, 2017 by Amy Benson Brown

Joli Jensen is the Hazel Rogers Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa and Director of the Henneke Faculty Writing Program. This interview with Professor Jensen was conducted in June, 2017, shortly after the release of her new book Write No Matter What. Drawing on decades of work with academic writers, Jensen offers practical advice on how to encourage frequent, low-stress writing.

Amy: Write No Matter What is a part of a wonderful series from the University of Chicago on books on academic writing. How do you see this book’s perspective and advice complementing or rounding out some of the objectives of those other books?

Joli: I knew a number of colleagues who claimed to be writing but were not actually getting it done. I saw the effects, the damage of the shame and anxiety that surrounds writing issues. Many of the books out there are focused on content or the process of publication whereas my book addresses barriers to writing and offers ways to overcome whatever stands in the way. These barriers may be emotional and psychological, as well as practical. My book, Write No Matter What, offers a variety of practices designed to drain the drama from this experience and focuses on getting people to the desk.

Amy: You open your book with a succinct summary of the best of research on writing productivity. “In order to be productive, we need frequent, low-stress, high-reward contact with a writing project we enjoy.” Can you say a bit more about why frequent, low-stress, high-reward contact with a writing project we enjoy is the bedrock of productivity? 

Joli: This low-stakes, high-reward approach keeps the project what I call “write-sized” in that it feels doable. Not a big dragon to slay but a pet dog to take for a daily walk. It’s a way of befriending the project. This approach counters the traditional academic norm of infrequent, high-stress, low-reward contact with a project we come to dread.

Amy: You also assert that we need to stop blaming ourselves for the barriers to productivity. Why should we stop blaming ourselves?

Joli: A lot of us fall for the myth that our jobs give us plenty of time to write. Nonacademics friends and family really have no idea what our jobs entail. Beyond this, we tend to mystify academic writing. We tend to think other colleagues don’t face the same challenges we do. The academic culture doesn’t encourage transparency about how hard writing can be. That’s why we blame ourselves and think we just need more self-discipline.

Amy: I love your advocacy and explanation of a craftsman’s approach to writing. Can you tell us more about what that means to you?

Joli: Embracing writing as a craft involves using effective tools, developing different practices, and building our skills over time. Once we finish graduate school, we want to look like we have it all together all the time. We find ourselves keeping up a false front, pretending to be highly skilled professionals. But a craftsman approach begins with patient, daily effort to hone our skills. It focuses on progress, not perfection.

Amy: If you could name one or two things that make the most difference in helping a writer develop this more craft-oriented approach, what would they be? 

Joli: Decreasing anxiety is fundamental for developing this craftsman approach. When anxiety goes down, it’s possible to enjoy the creative challenges that academic writing can offer. It also opens up space for us celebrate our growing skills, the specific accomplishments that ultimately turn into a successful project.

Amy: My next question draws more from something you wrote about handling revisions and rejections. Can you say a little more about what it means to “find the middle path” when responding to feedback?

Joli: I like the metaphor of a conversation—seeing our work as a contribution to a larger conversation. If people misread or misunderstand what we’re trying to say, it can help us figure out how say it better. We should approach the review process with curiosity rather than terror.

Amy: In the same “middle path” spirit, I appreciate what you had to say about the myth of having to write the Magnum Opus and the “need to let go of this unwinnable dialectic between dreams of glory and fears of inadequacy” (pg. 49). You discuss the Magnum Opus myth as a kind of dangerous counter to the craftsperson approach described earlier in the book. Could you say a few words about the downsides of the Magnum Opus myth and how you see “the craftsman ethic” as a kind of “antidote” to it?

Joli: The key word here is grandiosity, which is almost always a cover for secret fears. The Magnum Opus myth makes us believe we have to win big or go home. By contrast, the craftsman approach is more humble and realistic. It helps us understand that we are making our small contribution to a larger body of work. It helps us remember that academic writing, along with teaching, is how we embody our vocation.

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