It was Stefan Collini, in what now reads as an early and prescient exposure of the problematic language of productivity in humanities research, that suggested as an aside that we might all of us be better off if there were much more writing, and rather less publishing.(1) And if you’ll excuse the fact of a blog post about writing not to be published, I rather think that his point is as relevant now, if not more so.
But (you may ask) who has time to write for the sake of it ? When under pressure to produce for research assessment, and then some more for our blogs and for the media to increase our ‘impact’, isn’t writing not to be published simply wasteful of time, an inefficiency to be overcome ? In my own case, I can recognise the train of thought, which is made more pressing still since all my writing happens outside work time. Why write that paper if there is not a conference at which to deliver it ? And, why speak at that conference if there isn’t to be a volume of papers to follow ? And if a paper is turned down for publication, can I not get it placed somewhere else, or (failing that) recycle it for blog posts or as part of a larger piece some other time ? (By extension, there have been times when I seem only to have read books if I was reviewing them.) When writing time is so precious and, for some, the act of writing itself often such a trial, ‘waste not, want not’ seems to be the motto.
But I’m beginning to find that the act of writing for the eyes of no reader has its benefits. I have recently found out something which (for complex reasons) I cannot contemplate ever writing up for publication, or at least not while some people are still alive. But I need to make sense of it, because it is materially important for my thinking on other matters; and I need some way of dealing with it in a safe way, to allow it to have its impact on the things I can publish. And so I’m beginning to write it up as a means of clarifying what it means, even it then remains in the metaphorical bottom drawer.
More generally, Paul J. Silvia has suggested that the more prolific published authors tend also to produce the highest rated work, suggesting a positive correlation between quality and quantity in published work, rather the negative correlation one might expect. And if Collini was right, then we might extend this principle to suggest that the more unpublished writing one does, the better will be the words that do eventually escape into the wild. I tried to suggest in an earlier post that every act of writing for publication has some place in the development of one’s thinking, even if this or that sentence is deleted or revised to the point of being unrecognisable at one’s next sitting. If the same applies to whole pieces written not to be published, then I need simply to write, as much and as often as possible, since in ways that are hard to document, it will make me both a better writer, and a writer who writes better history.
(1) Stefan Collini ‘Against Prodspeak: “Research” in the Humanities’, in his English Pasts (OUP, 1999), p.236.