Helen Sword

How did you become a writer? As a child, I always thought of myself as “a good writer,” thanks to the early encouragement of teachers and friends. I confidently dabbled in various genres, especially poetry. In my mid-twenties, however, when I was working on my PhD, I gave up writing poetry: my critical self stamped out my creative self. In recent years, I’ve allowed the poet back into my life. I like the cross-fertilization that happens when I’m working on creative and critical projects at the same time.

Name your writing influences. The writers I’ve learned from most are the ones I’ve studied and taught: Yeats, Rilke, H.D., Joyce, Woolf, Stevens, Dickinson, Lawrence…. But have they influenced my writing?  Only in indirect ways: the seepage of rainwater into roots. As a scholarly writer and teacher of academic writing, I also look to recent masters of clarity and grace: Joseph Williams, William Zinsser, Andrea Lunsford, Richard Lanham, Annie LaMotte. 

When and where do you write? I subscribe to the “write every day” school of productivity and try to plant myself in front of my computer every weekday morning between six and seven a.m. (It helps that my study has a beautiful view of the Auckland waterfront, particularly stunning at sunrise). No matter how busy the rest of my day becomes, at least I know I’ve cranked out a new paragraph or two. Otherwise, I carve out time whenever and wherever I can amidst a fairly frantic life of teaching, meetings, family, and travel. Several times a year I rent a tiny cottage on Waiheke Island, half an hour away by ferry, and hunker down for four or five days of concentrated, distraction-free writing, interrupted only by long beach walks morning and evening. Bliss! 

What are you working on now? I recently published a book called Stylish Academic Writing, which has led to invitations to “write about writing” for a number of publications (including this one). These tasks have temporarily distracted me from my current project, a book about the writing habits of successful academics. I’ve interviewed more than eighty academic writers and editors from across the disciplines and around the world, and I’ve gathered questionnaire data from hundreds more. Now I’m itching to find time to sit down and write the book. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? That malady was cured the moment my first child was born, more twenty-one years ago. I used to wait until my daughter was asleep, then rush to the computer to write until she woke up again an hour or so later. Since then, I’ve never suffered from a lack of ideas, only from a chronic lack of time.

What’s your advice to new writers? Read the work of great writers and think about what they do. Write every day. Most importantly of all, build rituals of positivity into your writing routine. Behavioral psychology research suggests – and my own research confirms – that people who approach their writing from a positive frame of mind and with good social support structures in place will be more creative, productive, and prolific than those who set out steeped in negativity, loneliness, and angst. Try prefacing your daily writing with a walk or a swim; treat yourself to a beautiful notebook, a special pen, a whizzy new laptop; write in cafes, at parks, or in any other physical space that contributes to your well-being; meet regularly with friends or colleagues to talk about each other’s work and feed off each other’s energy. 

Bio: Born and raised in Southern California, I now teach at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and have published widely on academic writing, modernist literature, and higher education pedagogy, and digital poetics. My latest book is Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press 2012). See my website (www.helensword.com) for links to my books, my digital poetry, and the Writer’s Diet, a free diagnostic tool for writers.