Season 3, Episode 3 - Christine Tulley, Writing Productivity Strategies


Michael: This is

Sherita: Write.

Chris: Think.

Genevieve: Teach.

Michael: A podcast brought to you by the Writing Across the Curriculum, a program in the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing at The Ohio State University.

Christine: I know even at Findlay, when I teach faculty writers, I’ll say “Let’s have a 30-day period on this thing. And it’s going to be terrible. It’ll be like a juice cleanse, but we’re going to all get over it and you’re going to get rid of that yucky projects and get it off your desk so that you can do something that you really want to.”

Michael: Welcome to Write. Think. Teach. I’m Michael Blancato.

Minseok: And I’m Minseok Choi. Composing written work can often prove to be a challenge, even to those of us who study and teach writing. To help faculty and students think about strategies for overcoming difficulties they face during the writing process, we are going to hear from Christine Tulley, Professor of English and Director of the Masters in Rhetoric and Writing Program at the University of Findlay. Her advice may be helpful to those of you looking to adopt more effective writing strategies to finish your own projects. You may even be able to offer some of these tips to your own students who struggle to complete assignments in your class.

Michael: Prof. Tulley is the author of How Writing Faculty Write: Strategies for Process, Product, and Productivity, a book that features 15 interviews with superstars in the field of rhetoric and composition. These interviewees include past and present journal editors, disciplinary organization presidents, and intellectual leaders. The thread that really ties these writing superstars together is that they are prolific. They produce a volume of work that many of us find admirable, shocking, or both. By publishing her interviews with these folks, Prof. Tulley has made the writing practices of these superstars a bit more transparent. In a few moments we are going to hear some of the key insights and strategies Prof. Tulley gained from interviewing these scholars and practitioners of writing. But first, here’s Prof. Tulley describing her inspiration for writing the book:

Christine: Just as a side reading project, I found this old book in the library and it was the Paris Review interviews. It was from 1958, I believe. Anyway, I was kind of interested in these interviews with people like Hemingway and stuff like that. And once I did it, and I read these interviews, they were all about the writing process, but they were with novelists and creative writers. And at the time when I read it, I was like “This is the coolest thing ever! Why don’t we ever do this with our own writing processes in rhet/comp?” I don’t know this about anybody in my field and we make writing and we make the textbooks and I’ve never had this conversation with anyone. So that’s where I got the idea and then did kind of the same project where I set out to interview the big names in the field just like the Paris Review did.

Minseok: Prof. Tulley’s book is the first of its kind. Although scholars in rhetoric and composition have long discussed the need for publications about the composing practices of experts in the field, How Writing Faculty Write is the first text to address this need. And as Prof. Tulley highlights, the desire to hear more about these productivity strategies is strongly felt, even among the people she interviewed.

Christine: This is one thing that was really interesting about it - when I asked these superstars to do these interviews, I didn’t have a single person turn me down. Everybody was like “Well, no one’s ever asked me that before.” Sometimes I would get “I talk about this with other people in the field and we kind of talk about it over dinner every once in a while. Like ‘What are you working on? What are some things?’” But they say “We don’t really talk about: what do you do at 10 a.m. when you’re supposed to be writing and that’s supposed to be your sweet spot, and it’s not sweet today and it’s not doing anything for you? How do you get going again?” We talked a lot about that. And you find out that with these scholars, no one’s really asked them about that. They might be secretly talking about it. I will say one thing that was kind of funny about it was that a lot of the people that participated in the project – when I told them they were all going to get a copy of the book, they were like “Oh, good! Who else is in it?” They wanted to know who else was telling about their writing process. They do want to know. I don’t know why it’s been such a secret.

Michael: While the specific writing productivity practices and strategies may differ from scholar to scholar, Prof. Tulley identifies three main takeaways that kept returning throughout her interviews.

Christine: There’s really three and they are quick to talk about. One would just be that they are all really thinking rhetorically. And what I mean by that is they are already thinking about: which journal, who wants to read this, who is the audience. But they are not even thinking about it just on a strategic level; they are thinking about it on a genuine level. So they are thinking about particular people in the field, how can I talk to them about this, and then where might be the best space to do it. We kind of know that happens anyway. We’ve seen this with successful faculty in other practices, that they do think about a journal, and audience, and already start streaming down. But at least with the thinking rhetorically, I feel like they genuinely are because they have to think about “Well, there’s six people doing this kind of work in the field of rhetoric and composition. What ways would be the most appropriate to talk to them?” and go from there. So that’s one. The second one would be that as they are drafting, they are already putting the structure in around it. And I think that’s partially because they think rhetorically. So if they know they are going to write for say [College Composition and Communication] or [Rhetoric Society Quarterly], they already know kind of what that’s going to look like. They know what the shape looks like, they know what the section headings look like. But also, just as they draft, they do insert a lot of commentary to themselves to come back later so they can keep a master structure going. It’s kind of hard to explain it on a podcast. It’s really cool how they do it and so many of them do it. So that would be a second thing. The last one is that, I think they do a lot with getting focused very quickly. And I feel like that’s the nature of our job. So many of us are WPAs or writing center directors or WAC coordinators, you know, you have a meeting, you have a class, you have five minutes here, you have two minutes there and they are very good at toggling and dipping in and out of projects.

Minseok: As a writing scholar herself, Prof. Tulley also has writing habits that she uses to sustain writing projects. Her response highlights that some people need to find a space and place where they can comfortably compose their work.

Christine: One thing that I do that nobody said is that I am still an old school library writer. I love our library. It is like a 1968 riot proof box. It is ugly and I love that thing. I go up there on the second floor and I write. I go 10-12 or 1-3 and I just write four days a week, five days a week up there. I don’t write on weekends. And I didn’t see a lot of that. I saw more of the “I write in the morning early” or “I’m a binge person” or - and this would be something like Danielle Devoss, and Chris Anson, and a couple other people – how they leave a bunch of projects open and they just kind of toggle, Cindy Selfe, they toggle in and out of those projects all day long. I’m not opposed to doing that. I could do that probably. But for me, I like the two-hour block. I like to just do it when I’m going to do it. I like to be in the library, get a cup of coffee, and jack into the thing and I just go do it. And I didn’t really see anybody like me. But I have a reason why. It’s not that I need the library or need the quiet. I just need not to be at my desk where people can find me. I need not to be at home. But yeah, I didn’t see anybody that did that. I feel like there probably are some old school library writers that still have undergrad habits and do it, but I didn’t see any in this book.

 Michael: Prof. Tulley has also adopted a few new writing strategies from the interviews she conducted. Here she describes one particularly helpful writing approach that she calls “semi-drafting,” which she picked up from Chris Anson, Prof. of English at North Carolina State.

Christine: One would be - and I’m hoping this is Chris Anson, I think it was Chris Anson – there is one where he talks about doing a semi-draft where he’ll put brackets and write notes to himself in there. I was always lazy and never wrote the note. So if I’m typing something in Microsoft Word, I’m drafting along, everything’s going great, and I have a brilliant idea, I’m more of a “Let’s just slap a highlight on that. I know I got to come back to that later.” But I never say what it is or where I was in my brain at the point of that. So sometimes I’ll come back to a draft and I’m faced with 20 highlights that I think mean something but then I’m like “I don’t even know why I stopped there. That’s brilliant!” Or something like that. Not really brilliant, but you know. It’s just, I don’t ever really write the note. So I’m trying to think more like him and write the note in there so at least I know like “Oh, here’s why I stopped. I knew I had a problem here because I forgot this source” or “I didn’t say anything about the relationship with revising” or I just haven’t been dropping those in. But that is one thing I’m trying to pay more attention to and do more of.

Minseok: One of the more surprising findings for Prof. Tulley was how writing faculty thought about and address writer’s block, those pesky situations where we just don’t quite know how to proceed with a writing project. Prof. Tulley’s conversations with writing faculty revealed how a shift in attitude may help writers persevere through those writing slowdowns and stoppages.

Christine: One that surprised me a lot was, and this is more of an attitude and I do talk about this in the book a little bit, but the attitude that writing faculty have, and I do think this is a disciplinary strength, we have it because we feel…these faculty in this book feel more comfortable with their relationship with writing and they are kinder to themselves about it. So if you’re writing and a piece isn’t working, a lot of them say “Well, that just means I need to walk around and think about it some more” or “I need to drive my car ten more trips to campus before I’m going to get it.” And the interview that talks about this really well is Joe Harris’ interview. It’s a beautiful interview. He talks about how when he’s thinking about something, sometimes he’ll say “I’m just not ready to write it down yet. I need to walk around with my dogs and think about it some more.” I saw a lot of that. That people are very kind with themselves if they can’t do it. And they just assume “That’s how writing is.” It’s like waves. It comes back, it goes away, it comes back. It always comes back. They just don’t have that sense of panic about “I’m never going to be able to write again. I’m blocked. I’m never going to be able to do it.” I did ask about writer’s block, but I didn’t get very many good answers on it because most people said they didn’t have it. But if you look at what they said in a traditional sense, they actually did have what maybe we would call writer’s block where they can’t write for days on end or something like that. But none of them viewed it that way and they were very accepting that “This is the way that writing is and this is what we should teach students.” It was a surprising finding to me. I thought they would be more machine-like in the way they put out the goods, but they weren’t.

Michael: Some of us have a more, let’s call it “complicated” relationship with writer’s block. Fortunately, Prof. Tulley has more advice on how to deal with writing projects that we can’t quite seem to complete.

Christine: One of the strategies that I liked in there was…Duane Roen talked a little bit about having an open journal that he does with his wife every morning. It’s very cool how they write back and forth. But he also talks about how he thinks about writing. He does more journal-type writing and the way he explained it, it’s just a very open-ended thing. They don’t even have to be writing about the topic that they are working on because that might be the source of the anxiety. If you’ve got this paper about x, y, z or an article you want to do, maybe that’s not the thing you’re supposed to be writing back there and the idea is that you sort of fall in love with writing again. So his chapter is really good for talking about that. Another thing that I think would be really good in there is that, at least half of the interviewees basically said “If you have a project that’s not fun, abandon it if you can.” Obviously, if you’re working your way towards tenure and you’re kind of stuck in the middle of an icky project, I know even at Findlay, when I teach faculty writers, I’ll say “Let’s have a 30-day period on this thing. And it’s going to be terrible. It’ll be like a juice cleanse, but we’re going to all get over it and you’re going to get rid of that yucky projects and get it off your desk so that you can do something that you really want to.” And most of these faculty, we’re talking about the idea that they are picking projects that they are passionate about, that they know will have the longevity to sustain them. And it does seem, at least when I work with faculty writers at the University of Findlay and some writing group and stuff, a lot of people are like “Well, this should be easy for me. It was a conference presentation.” But it turns out the conference presentation was somebody else’s idea. Or it’s a chapter from a dissertation, but they are so sick of that project, they hate it. They can’t even bear to open the box to work on it again. It’s just one of those things. Maybe you just walk away. They’ll say “Well, I can’t have a dissertation and not get a single article out of it or a chapter in an edited collection.” But, yes you can. I think I got one chapter out of mine and I was happy to walk away because, the same thing. I was burned out. So I try to talk with them about that.

Minseok: Prof. Tulley must be putting those productivity strategies into practice because she is already working on two other big projects. She describes them here.

Christine: My second book right now – it’s called I Know How She Writes It, tentatively, right now, it’s Parenting, Professionalism, and Productivity. And it’s a time use diary study of rhet/comp moms where I basically had them track their time for an entire week and in half hour slots so I could see when they were writing, how they were navigating the parenting side with doing the professor side. So that’s the book I’m working on right now. The second thing that I’m working on is a relationship with a group in London called Prolifiko. They do writing productivity software. So that’s my new love interest at the moment. I’m really interested in the kind of stuff that they do because I don’t feel like writing productivity software has met any of our needs and I don’t think it really meets the kind of expectations that rhet/comp folks have as a field or the things that we advocate for like writing as a process. A lot of those softwares work on a Fitbit model where steps are pages. The software that Prolifiko has, it works more on project and ideas and doing all the things that we just talked about like thinking rhetorically and all that kind of stuff.

Michael: For more information about Prof. Tulley and her work, check out her interview on the podcast Rhetoricity with Eric Detweiler. We will include a link to that podcast episode in the transcript for this interview. Thanks to Prof. Tulley for joining us and sharing her insight into the writing practices of superstar scholars in rhetoric and composition.