Reflections on AcWriMo 2022

If you haven’t been here before, this blog is just a messy random collection of stuff. For the past few years it’s really only held end of year processing posts (gratitude for the year past, goals for the year ahead, that sort of thing) but I’m thinking with the demise of Twitter that maybe it has a place as somewhere to drop random long-form writing that I might want to share, but which doesn’t quite fit at

This is the first year I’ve done AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month, if you’re unfamiliar) and I wanted to reflect on the experience which on the one hand has been a bit stressful (not its fault) and on the other incredibly useful.

I started out in the conventional way, declaring something I wanted to get written by a deadline and that I would do something on my thesis every day of the month, albeit with a little get-out clause because I try to do different types of work on the weekend to weekdays. I failed at all this. Totally missed my self-imposed deadline and while I certainly did thesis-related work most days, there ended up being a big hole in the middle of the month where hcmf// just took up 100% of my attention. So the whole conventional goal-setting thing mostly just resulted in a metric smegtonne of stress, which collided head-on with a bundle of random anxiety, probably exacerbated by the whole Twitter Implosion situation. All in all, Not Good, either for productivity or mental health.

However, as I said, the experience has been incredibly useful and at this point I’d like to reference Pat Thompson’s blog post Not writing as usual #AcWriMo which she posted on 7 November. In it she says “I wonder if November might be the month where we fall in love with writing. (Re)find our passion for the aspects of writing that we find pleasurable. A month where we no longer focus on the end point of the writing, but rather on what is most enjoyable about the process.” I can’t remember whether I read this post before I fell into an anxiety whirlpool and shifted into what I called AcReaMo (Academic Reading Month) or after, but it certainly stuck with me and I think it’s potentially a better type of use for the month for many people than simply getting writing done. Even if we don’t find joy in writing, it can be a good opportunity to test things out, to experiment, research writing-related topics, or even just think about how, what and why we academics write.

For me, this wasn’t really a conscious shift, but it’s certainly been what I’ve got out of this month. At the start of the month I was plagued by exhaustion and freewheeling anxiety issues, and after a few days of struggling, procrastination and then feeling bad about what I was producing (or not producing), I decided to give myself a pass and try a different tack, chilling out on the couch and reading Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, which had been on my shelf for months without me having got further than a few pages in. This book is – in a word – fantastic. I’ve found it really useful, immediately been able to apply its lessons (even in contexts outside my own writing), and for someone diving down an anxiety spiral it was an enjoyable, thoughtful but easy read. Reading this got me past the worst of the anxiety, and when I started to write again I found myself using what I’d learned from it, paying more attention to my verbs and so on.

However, I got stuck again once I got past the introductory bits of my thesis chapter and started trying to write about the pieces I’ve created in this project (this is the first chapter where I’ve needed to write about this aspect of the work and it’s proving harder than I thought it would be!). This time, though, the problem felt structural and I didn’t really know how to tackle it. My structure (developed through stream-of-consciousness writing in Scrivener) looked OK but it seemed to be leading me to write about each piece in a chunk, which was just ending up a stream of “the piece does this. I did this” and not effectively leading to analysis of what was going on in each one. I was bored writing it, so how could anyone be interested in reading it?

I’d seen a few people mention Obsidian on Mastodon and talking about setting up a ‘second brain’, and then I listened to Inger Mewburn and Jason Downs’ episode of their podcast, On the Reg, where Jason waxed lyrical about how amazing Obsidian is (podcast is everywhere podcasts seem to be, but here’s a link too: ) and it sounded like it could be a useful thing to play with to see if it could show me my chapter in a different way to work out how I could alter the structure to include the pieces more organically into my argument.

Reader, yes it could. I am now – after about a week of using it – a confirmed Obsidian fan. Within the first 24 hours it was already bringing up connections I’d missed, and helping me identify questions I needed to ask or answer. And with the discovery of the Dataview plugin I have relegated the powerful-but-clunky-slow-and-ugly beast that is Nvivo to the scrapheap. (Note that I still think Nvivo is probably amazing if you have, like 76 interviews to process for your research, but for my type of artistic research which is heavy on literature, my own autoethnography and random ideas, it’s kind of overkill and very constraining).

In short, before AcWriMo, my research workflow shuttled back and forth between Scrivener (for writing and structuring), Zotero (for references), and a scrappy mix of incompletely coded notes in Nvivo (because it’s a pain in the ass to code things there and the interface is horrible and messy) and more complete but less reliable-to-find notes scanned from 6 years of research journals in Evernote. These things didn’t really link together very well, so they were kind of each standalone but perhaps needing to reference the others. With the way Obsidian is set up now though, it is becoming a hub for my research which actually connects the other tools I use together. I have set up the Citations plug-in which connects directly into my (auto-updating) Zotero database. I can link directly to records in Zotero, documents in Scrivener and also to original notes in Evernote – and all of this very easily using Markdown.

(Sidenote: I have always hated Markdown. I first came across it on internet forums where my first response was “but why do you need another language to learn when HTML is so straightforward and does exactly the same thing and lets you make webpages?”. OMG was I wrong. Markdown makes it so easy to just type away and add text styles and links and things without ever needing to click up to a menu. It’s the text version of keyboard shortcuts and even after just a day I was loving it.)

So what all this is leading to is that my time spent doing a looser, less obvious, more playful approach to AcWriMo (reading, experimenting with software, thinking about my writing) has been far more valuable than the aspect of doing the writing itself and writing everyday. I emerge from the month calmer, more organised and better armed for the writing to be done, even if I haven’t done as much writing this month as I had hoped to do.

[Update, 31 December 2022: A friend has just told me about Joplin which is a Markdown note-taking app very similar to Obsidian but open-source, also with a wide range of community-created plugins, so if you’re interested in the idea of Obsidian, you might want to also check out Joplin, especially if you are interested in taking notes that might include musical notation – Joplin has a plugin that can turn alphabetical pitches into notation, I understand!]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *