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Review: Writing in a Group

August 20, 2021

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed tells of the experience of a group of 14 scholars who decided to write a book together. The group included a writing instructor. The other scholars were food experts. Their just-published book is called Acquired Tastes: Stories About the Origins of Modern Food (MIT Press).

The article has lots of lessons for future writers in the English Department at Southern Adventist University. Knowing the writing process is vital.  

Scholarly writing is usually a lonely business that keeps the writing process strictly behind doors, but this group made the experience a family affair. They met at a large Airbnb in Pennsylvania and spent hours and days working, chatting one-on-one, eating, or simply playing games. By the time they left, there were hugs all around.

Helen, the writing instructor, emphasized the creative aspect of the project, not the research aspect. When the group was finished, they wondered why formal academic conferences could not be more like what they had experienced. Their gathering had been intimate, fulfilling, and productive.

Most scholarly writing puts a premium on objectivity and the absence of personality and humanness. Emotion is absent, as is all uncertainty. However, changing the dynamic to creating compelling narratives, connecting, and meeting an audience’s needs is extremely helpful.

Scholars tend to think of writing as concerned with citation of sources and garnering a sense of respect. The actual means of writing is treated as either too mystical or too obvious. The means is certainly not something to be shared with outsiders.

Scholarly writers, Helen says, should think of their task as the creation of an “idea story.” That is, scholarly writing should betray its own development from the first research question to the final argument. This means showing doubt when warranted by using expressions such as “maybe” while at the same time maintaining rigorous intellectual standards.

Scholars don’t ever like to betray their own doubts or their own thought processes. But expressing ideas this way provides a powerful ethos that readers can identify with. Academic writing is actually a journey, or should be, that can be freely expressed. If written this way, academic writing becomes much more accessible.

Applying the principles of the writing process to academic writing could revolutionize the way scholarly work is done.