“How to Become a Prolific Academic Writer”

 Or: How to Become a Model Neoliberal Academic Subject.

If you’ve met me recently, online or offline, you’ll know that I’m in the middle of finishing my PhD dissertation. That’s to say: I’m in the middle of finishing a manuscript, a book, the largest piece of writing I’ve ever written. Some 90.000 words, excluding bibliography.

So it should not come as a surprise that writing and everything related to it have been on my mind these past months. How to reduce procrastination time and be more effective in my time management? How to overcome writer’s blocks and deal with the anxiety that comes with trying to finish up a project like this? How to edit your own text and how to be satisfied with what you’ve written?

Because I’m nerdy like that, I also love reading, thinking, talking and even writing about writing. Yeah, that’s some ‘meta’ stuff! The genre of self-help books and articles for academics are a rich resource here. For a PhD seminar on academic writing offered at the Institute for Gender Studies (RIP) at Radboud University, we are having a seminar on academic writing. The text that was assigned to prepare for the session is Write to the Top: How to Become a Prolific Academic Writer (Johnson and Mullen 2007).

As I was reading this book, I noticed myself becoming increasingly angry and pissed off. Not just about this particular text, but about the discourse it represents: a neoliberal discourse about productivity and efficiency in academic work. I got so angry, that I was even spurred to write this blog as a response – well, Johnson and Mullen achieved something there!

To start with the positive: there are definitely some very helpful and practical tips to be found in this book. For example, there is the good advice to take your writing seriously and to make it a habit to write every day. I also agree with the tip of scheduling uninterrupted time for writing in your workweek and to take this ‘appointment’ with your writing as seriously as you would other appointments like teaching or meetings. There are also tips about how to structure such writing blocks, and practical advice about the publishing process.

But the main problem in this book and others in this genre is the neoliberal undertone, which puts the responsibility for the success of writing squarely with the individual scholar, eclipsing the structural conditions of contemporary academic life. I’ll go into three pieces of advice by Johnson & Mullen that I find deeply disturbing. I’ll juxtapose these with passages from Rosalind Gill’s insightful article “Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of Neoliberal Academia” (2010).

Tip 1) It’s not work if you’re doing what you love!

For Johnson and Mullen, writing and other academic labour should be considered a ‘vocation’ rather than a ‘job’. While many may agree that you should be driven by an inner motivation as a scholar, in the context of increasing precarization of academic labour this seemingly harmless argument can easily slip into something more disturbing. Consider the following passage:

When external rewards (e.g., cash) are applied to an activity that a person does for pleasure (e.g., writing), that activity often decreases in frequency—its positive valence declines. What was once done for the love of the activity becomes tied to one’s livelihood and thus associated with an onerous demand. Imagine your dean standing outside the door each day when you walked into teach, handing you a few twenties to compensate you for that day’s work. Although the thought of this individual giving you money might be appealing on some level, you get the point; soon, teaching would begin to feel less like a vocation and more like a job. Slowly, extrinsic incentives would upstage intrinsic rewards. (Johnson and Mullen 2007, 4-5).

Wait a minute… Are they seriously saying that it’s a bad thing to be paid for the work you do? Just because you ‘love’ something, does not mean it is not work and does not deserve to be compensated financially!

Just imagine being paid for teaching by the university (that dean standing at the door with a few twenties)– what a ludicrous idea!

Imagine writing not just because it’s so much fun, but as a job – how unappealing!

With these comments, Johnson and Mullen reveal themselves to be very blind to the contemporary working conditions in academia, which are characterized by precarity and casualisation, especially for younger academics. The discourse about academia as a vocation is strongly connected to these working conditions. Rosalind Gill comments:

the academic’s refusal to grubby his or her hands with talk about money is related to the idea of scholarship as a ‘noble’ calling or vocation — a fact that is probably not unrelated to our failure over many decades to secure pay deals that even keep pace with inflation.  Financial hardship can be masked- and rendered difficult to speak of – by academics’ educational and cultural capital. (Gill 2010)

In other words, this rhetoric of ‘vocation’ that Johnson and Mullen advocate, along with their distaste for financial compensation, is the same logic that makes young academics accept work on shortterm contract after shortterm contract without view of anything permanent, and accepting payment that does not even equate to minimal wage.

But they are doing what they love, so it should not matter that they don’t have a pension… Right? Right?… Yeah, right!

Tip 2) Just work all the time! Time off is for losers!

Since writing is not a job but a vocation, it’s also not something that you really need a break from, Johnson and Mullen seem to think. In fact, they even advocate taking your manuscript with you on holiday!

 You will find yourself traveling to a convention or a speaking engagement, as well as taking holidays and vacations, so why not bring along your laptop and writing files? Both of us have enjoyed writing articles, books, and proposals on jaunts around the world as well as in beach condos. Spring and summer breaks offer ideal times for achieving major progress on writing projects. In these instances, create a writing schedule before departing for a vacation or a conference: Discipline yourself to steal moments or even hours while away to get some important work done. Even at crowded conventions or on long travel days, “down time” can occur as an unexpected surprise. (Johnson and Mullen 2007, 19).

Sorry to break it you: if you’re ‘getting important work done’, it is not called a holiday. It is worktime. If you are disciplining yourself and creating schedules, it is not ‘down time’. It is worktime.

What a sad vision.. And what’s worse: what an unproductive one. Call me naïve, but I strongly believe in evenings, weekends, holidays and down-time as essential parts of being a whole person (something Johnson & Mullen advocate) as well as being a productive researcher and writer. You cannot be ‘on’ 24/7, and you really don’t need to feel guilty about taking time off.

This mania about working all the time is unhealthy and ultimately unproductive. Of course, I write this as a PhD researcher in the Netherlands, with good working conditions and the ‘luxury’ to take holidays. Maybe I’ll think differently about this if/when I will be doing a postdoc or trying to secure tenure. Maybe I won’t be able to ‘afford’ time off at a later stage in my career. But even if that were the case, I hope that that could be recognized as a problem, instead of seeing it as some sort of perverse virtue, as Johnson and Mullen seem to advocate.

Tip 3) Become a Robot! Or: How to write a book while the pasta cooks.

The last piece of great advice that Johnson & Mullen offer is to just be more efficient! To do this, they suggest tracking your time to find out where you can make gains.

Given the presumed constant of a 24-hour day, where does each of those precious 1440 minutes go? For a period of one week—including the weekend—keep a log of how you spend each 15-minute segment. Be specific. Rather than write “in office” or “working on administrative tasks” for a one-hour period between classes, specify exactly what you did. Be just as concrete with your description of evening and weekend hours. After diligently time-tracking for even one day, academics are often surprised and chagrined to realize how much of their discretionary time is offered up to the gods of distraction and inefficiency. Unnecessary, and often redundant, activities (e.g., browsing the Web, checking for new e-mail messages, chatting with colleagues, watching television) often occupy a prominent place in the daily log. Reflect soberly on your daily time allocation. Even if two hours of time each workday, and probably more on the weekend, are currently not well spent, think of the increase in writing time this would mean. What could you accomplish with an additional 15 hours of time to engage in scholarship each week? (Johnson and Mullen 2007, 8-9).

Browsing the web and chatting with colleagues, my goodness, it’s now obvious why I haven’t finished that PhD yet… And what do you do once you know where all that extra writing time is going? Streamline your calendar!

In our experience, extra writing time can be captured where none existed simply by being prepared to do some work in such circumstances as sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for an appointment, standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, sitting in your office during a half-hour stretch between classes or meetings, during down-time at a convention, waiting for repairs to be completed on your car, for a child’s soccer practice to end, or even standing around in your kitchen while pasta cooks. (16)

For me, this reads like a parody of itself. Writing while cooking pasta: now that’s taking multi-tasking to the absurd. While you’re at it, why don’t you just become a robot instead of a human being! Why talk to colleagues at all? Who has time to watch their kids soccer practice or stand around waiting for the water to boil when they could be writing their next award-winning article at the same time!

In the neoliberal academy, the ‘solution’ to a heavy workload that leaves little to no time to write and think is often put on the individual academic, instead of looking at it as a structural problem and an organizational issue. As Rosalind Gill comments:

This is a collective, structural problem that is a direct result of workloads which leave many people with no ‘slack’ to take on anything beyond that which is directly required of them.  Yet once again there is no discussion of this as an institutional or organisational issue.  Instead universities ‘help’ staff to deal with these new intensified conditions with a barrage of ‘training courses’ (most of which we have no time to attend) which cover topics such as ‘time management’, ‘speed reading’, and ‘prioritising goals’, and require each individual to work on the self to better manage proliferating workloads, as if there were a technical fix (oh it’ll all be alright if I only check email once a day – why didn’t I think of that?! I’ll just pick all 115 of them up at 5  o’clock then I can stay up all night answering them!) while actively refusing any ‘reality check’ on the sustainability of contemporary academic workloads. (Gill 2010)

Here, Gill exposes clearly the ridiculousness of these ‘solutions’ like those suggested by Jonson & Mullen. While they think the answer can be found in individual efficiency, that that can only take you so far.

A Different Path? The Slow Scholarship Movement

I see so many colleagues on the verge of a burn out, that I find these tips depressing rather than inspiring. Johnson & Mullen offer not a model of how to become a prolific academic writer, but rather a handbook on how to become a model neoliberal academic subject. As Rosalind Gill warns:

All this happens in a context in which not only has the boundary between work and play (or non-work) become completely corroded, but in which we are deeply invested in and passionately attached to work — indeed, we often draw no distinction between our work and ourselves (and again there are powerful parallels with creative workers here)… We therefore need urgently to think about how some of the pleasures of academic work (or at least a deep love for the ‘myth’ of what we thought being an intellectual would be like, but often seems at far remove from it) bind us more tightly into a neoliberal regime with ever-growing costs, not least to ourselves. Lauren Berlant’s work on ‘cruel optimism’ may be helpful here in showing how such passionate investment (eg in the myth of the academic good life) allows us to survive, whilst simultaneously making things worse. (Gill 2010)

I think we have to really watch out as critical scholars not to fall into the traps of neoliberal academia. While undoubtedly well intended, the ‘tips’ offered by Johnson and Mullen are more destructive than productive.

Instead of listening to tips like these, I think we have to take seriously the emerging movement for ‘slow scholarship’ (Mountz et al. 2015, Hartman and Darab 2012). In their text For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University, a collective of feminist geographers offer concrete tips to resist this neoliberal model: tips to ‘move deliberately through a fast world’. Those are the types of tips I would like to see discussed in a Gender Studies PhD seminar on academic writing – not the neoliberal checklist offered by Johnson and Cullen. Not how we can excell within a broken system, but how we can work to change that system, make it work for us and for a feminist ethics of care.

Let’s just face it: academic work takes time. It should take time. Books are not written while the pasta boils. Talking to your colleagues is not a waste of time – that’s called dialogue and exchange, and it’s a crucial element of academic life. Productivity is not holy, and time off is not optional. We’ve got to resist this neoliberal academic discourse!



Gill, Rosalind. 2010. “Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia.” In Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process : Feminist Reflections, edited by Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill. London: Routledge

Johnson, W. Brad, and Carol A. Mullen. 2007. Write to the top! How to become a prolific academic. 1. ed. ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mountz, A., M. Walton-Roberts, A. Bonds, B. Mansfield, J. Loyd, J. Hyndman, R. Basu, R. Whitson, R. Hawkins, T. Hamilton, and W. Curran. 2015. “For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the Neoliberal University.” ACME no. 14 (4):1235-1259.


39 thoughts on ““How to Become a Prolific Academic Writer”

  1. This is SUCH an important and refreshing read! The neoliberal agenda is so dangerous, time off and holidays are vital parts of our lives, we need them physically, and I’ve heard it so much that, since we do what we love, we should not be considering writing books, papers, theses, etc., “work”…
    This resonates so much with me, thanks!

    1. Thanks for your comment – its good to realize that others feel the same, that I’m not in this alone. On the other hand, of course also sad that this piece strikes a chord with so many academics… The problem is widespread unfortunately…

    2. I often find some of my best ideas come when I am resting, enjoying a down day around town, or whatnot. Time away from writing is just as important (if not more important!) than time writing.

  2. Lovely post, (sadly) it is very recognizable. And thanks for adding your source material (I love reading Rosalind Gill and it was a nice surprise to see she wrote about this).

  3. I agree that the demands on PhD students and early career scholars have increased since I started out (in the 1980s), but the other thing that’s changed is the proliferation of advice texts like the one you’re taking issue with. If they existed at all in 1983 I can’t remember ever seeing one. The fact that there are so many now isn’t just because the need is greater, it’s also because the publishers’ profit motive is greater–another side-effect of neo-liberalism. And I honestly think that (just like other subgenres of self-help like books about relationships or corporate career success or dieting) they don’t help: rather they make readers feel even worse. They set you up to fail because the ideal they want you to aspire to is so unrealistic, and the advice ditto. That ‘write while the pasta cooks’ tip for instance. What’s wrong with it isn’t just that you’re entitled to pause for a moment to make dinner, it’s that you *can’t* use that time for any serious writing. What on earth do we think these authors are writing while the pasta cooks? A tweet? As soon as you think about it calmly, you realize it’s nonsense and they’re not describing what they or anyone else *really* does, no matter how prolific. Seriously, my advice to anyone who’s anxious about getting their writing done would begin with ‘stop reading advice on how to get your writing done’.

    1. Yes, there’s really a lot of nonsense out there that’s profoundly unhelpful. On the other hand I don’t think it’s completely pointless to think, read or talk about writing worries. You just have to do that in the same critical mode you would approach any other text or discourse ;). Honestly the resource that I’ve found most helpful, and have found myself recommending to peers are a series of Youtube videos by feminist scholar Alexis Shotwell. Playfully called “Suffering Free Academic Writing”, it’s basically a workshop that has been taped. For me there were a lot of tools there that actually helped calm any anxieties and get over problems that I was facing (link below). But maybe this is already outside of the “self-help” genre that you rightfully criticize.

  4. Thank you for your wonderful thoughts on this! The advise of Johnson and Mullen can only be meant satirical. Through my work in the Writing Ashram (a sort of monastic writing retreat for academics) I know for a fact, that those actions only lead to exhaustion, and that is the opposite of productivity. Writers need more concentration, not more work hours. And concentration comes through a balanced life style of effort and regeneration.

    1. The scary thing is that I’m afraid it’s not satirical – though that’s how it should be read for sure! Writing retreats are a great thing, I have gone with a group of friends once (self-organized) and we are planning a follow up.

  5. As the author of a self-help academic writing book, I so appreciated your intervention here. You are right. I was on a panel recently where I was giving my usual writing advice, and my colleague, who went last, looked out at the room of women and people of color and said, basically, you are in a system that is racist and sexist and I could give you advice on how to survive it, but that implies that there is something you could do, or should do, to yourself rather than to this system, that you need to be changed. And it was so important, and we all sat with it, moved, and then someone raised their hand, and said, okay, that’s good, but what’s your advice? And then my colleague gave two fantastic pieces of advice. Because it’s unbearable to feel a sense of no agency. This is one tiny part of what makes it so tough to be a neoliberal subject: we want to act.

    1. Yes, this is definitely such a tricky double bind! Describing it as a relation of ‘cruel optimism’ as Gill does with use of Berlant seems very fitting to me. And while it’s tempting to sit back and despair, like you said a sense of agency is so important, even (or especially) in the face of a racist/sexist/classist system. Also, thanks so much for commenting – it has given me a chance to discover your work! Seems like a very different ballgame from the book that sparked this blogpost. I’m looking forward to read more – but first, there is writing 😉

  6. I am in the academic writing advice business and I agree with your critiques. I do believe loving your work is important but it INCREASES it’s value, not makes it “not a job”. And academic work requires interaction, rest, time for contemplation, etc. Writing is a practice that works a lot better if you see it as more than just producing publications, too. I’m really sorry that this kind of perspective is being recommended to you as a student.

    1. I completely agree with you Jo! To be fair: I wrote this blogpost before the seminar that the text was assigned for, and shared it with my colleagues and the professor. This really kick-started the discussion, and we ended up having a really good and open discussion and exchange about writing habits, expectations and pressure, and the academic circus. The professor who assigned the text certainly did not subscribe to the content whole-heartedly, but rather advised us to take it with a (big) grain of salt. So it’s luckily not as bleak as one might imagine 😉

  7. I appreciate the author’s spirit….I think this is a great essay for graduate students; it becomes less trenchant for those of us with multiple skills who are also on the job market.

  8. Not sure I know what neoliberalism is, but the other thing J and M seem completely oblivious to is the research on efficiency. There’s a reason the traditional workweek is 40 hours, and likely “knowledge workers” need a shorter week.

  9. This was good and very true. When I was a dissertation coach much of my work was spent disabusing my miserable, blocked clients of this neoliberal claptrap and freeing them to create a more realistic and compassionate relationship to “productivity.” This book has done untold damage to beginning scholars.

  10. I really appreciate this post. I completed a masters but haven´t taken on a PhD because I´m taking space from academia until I know I can have firm enough boundaries with neoliberalism that it can´t penetrate my precious sphere of productivity on my own terms. Thanks for taking the time to work with this concept out loud on the internet for the benefit of the rest of us!
    And man, do I ever wish the dean stood outside the door with twenty dollar bills.

  11. Thank you for an excellent post. Having just completed a humanities PhD thesis over 4 years, I can testify to the futility of the ‘efficiency’ model. I didn’t follow any particular ‘self-help’ guide but did, I think, internalise much of the dominant academic work ideology. No matter how much time I would set aside, I was only ever able to write a limited amount most days, and some days simply weren’t productive full stop. Treating this as a ‘lack of efficiency’ generally didn’t have any positive effects on productivity and moreover contributed to rather depressive/agitated tendencies. The fact is, I would very much like to increase my daily productivity, but efficiency models generally focus far too much on how to squeeze the last drops of productivity out of the day, principally by focusing on the diminishing gains of ‘workifying’ (for lack of a better word) more and more of our leisure and relaxation time at the expense of rest and recuperation. I think it would ironically be much more productive for those attempting to develop academic self-help mainfestoes if they focused on the rather less tangible but far more important conditions of academic flourishing, i.e. what makes you as an academic enjoy your work and motivate you to work through difficulties. These are ultimately usually quite particular to each person, so need to a large degree to be discovered through introspection and self-exploration/experimentation and cannot be reduced to a few Boxer*-esque slogans.

    *I.e. Boxer from Animal Farm, with his slogan of ‘I must work harder’. Things, of course, do not end well for Boxer, and I don’t think most of the rest of us benefit from much of the similar sloganeering promoted by today’s neoliberal austeritarian cultural hegemony.

    The move towards standardisation and de-individualisation happened in other industries some time before academia, but academia is now equally subject to these same conditions (Canguilhem has an excellent discussion of industrial ‘normalisation’ in a later essay in the The Normal and the Pathological). The move towards efficiency is thus part of a broader straitjacketing of individualism and cultural pluralism in academic life. Now, when I say cultural pluralism is being straitjacketed, I am not denying the growth in diversity in academia, with more women and more racial and gender minorities being able to enter academia and openly practice. However, whilst academics are today drawn from a much wider cultural pool, and this is a very positive development, they are today expected to fit into a more restrictive mold as working academics. I think this constriction is actually, particularly in the UK, a reaction to this opening up of academia. Before, academia, as an elitist discipline, was largely restricted on a class, racial and sexual basis to bourgeois white men. This reflected the ruling order in the UK. With globalisation and neoliberalism, the ruling class in the UK has connected up with a global elite that is much more culturally, racially and sexually diverse, although bourgeois white men are still prominent. This new order is held together by a shared commitment to business and money-making. Therefore merit is chiefly judged by collateral wealth and the appearance of activity (wealth and money-making being commonly conflated as related to activity, often as a means of obscuring the structural inequalities of capitalism that are the real producers of wealth). The globalisation and diversification of the elite has moreover correlated with a similar globalisation and diversification of academia. Now, since being a member of the old local ruling class is no longer ‘enough’ to be trusted as grounds for assuming one is productively contributing to society (and academics always need to ‘prove’ their value to society given that to many observers it looks like they get plenty of money and admiration for things ‘anyone can do’ such as talking and writing at length), the new ground for ‘societal value’ is profitability and the appearance of activity. Universities are therefore increasingly turned into ‘knowledge factories’ churning out standardised, supervised and sterilised courses underwritten by student debt, whilst it is demanded that academics be more and more active in terms of output (articles in particular), online self-advertisement and networking, to the detriment of down time, in-depth research and contemplation.

    Now, this isn’t to say that my view of contemporary academia is wholly negative. i completed my PhD and now want to continue in a research and teaching capacity. I think there have been some clear improvements with the opening up of academia, which was long a relatively closed and in many cases closed-minded section of society that presumed its value to society rather than sought to reach out and demonstrate its value. But i think we need a much broader understanding of ‘utility’, or else develop a broader set of categories of societal virtues that do not just focus on narrow economic values if academic culture is not going to strangled and diminished by the cultural constriction imposed by efficiency models.

    Now, speaking of low efficiency and procrastination, I should really try and get some work done…

  12. This was a great article – I will definitely NOT read that book. Will also look into slow scholarship – it sounds very much my style! But I wanted to mention a book I read recently called “How to write a lot” by Paul Silva (2007) – don’t know if you’ve read it (this is my first visit to your blog). While it sounds similar in title, from what you describe of Johnson and Mullen, it’s very different in tone. First and most important, it’s funny (yay!), and honest. Silva pulls no punches about what writing is like – “a grim business” but also points out that like it or not it is a necessity for academics, and then sets about giving very practical advice about how to do it (much of which is based on psychology, which is his disciplinary background). His main thing is that getting a bit more organised about your writing should help you avoid what he calls “binge writing”, which is no fun for anyone. Anyway, I laughed a lot reading it and I did not feel patronised – rather that Silva totally understood what it was like, understood the barriers and difficulties, and genuinely wanted to help. It also has some very useful stuff on style etc at the end too, and talks about the different kinds of writing – papers, book chapters, books, and grant applications.

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