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Writing Life No. 6: An interview with Sally Wyatt

This article is part of the series:
Figure 1. Sally’s writing space

Sally Wyatt is a science and technology studies (STS) scholar and Professor of Digital Cultures at Maastricht University. She is a prolific academic writer, who has engaged with a broad variety of topics, ranging from digital healthcare practices and online genetic testing, big data and the need for appropriate regulations, to infrastructures, non-users, new knowledge and citation approaches. The variety in topics is matched also by the diversity of genres Sally has taken up, as she has not only written academic articles, books, and chapters for edited volumes, but she has also authored newspaper columns, blog entries, as well as poems[i]. Together with Andrew Webster[ii], Sally has been the editor of the successful series Health, Technology, and Society published by Palgrave Macmillan. In her work, Sally has drawn attention to the digital divide that the (non)use of digital technologies in healthcare has contributed to, and has problematized the meaning and consequences of online genetic testing for disease. She tweets from @wyatt_sally and until recently was a regular contributor to Observant, an independent weekly newspaper published by staff and students at Maastricht University. 

Writing often happens in spaces where few of one’s readers have access to. There is therefore a certain fascination that most people experience about the writing process of their favorite writers or of a mentor. The conversation below came about after many years of having been one of Sally’s master and PhD students and after having learned about research and the craft of writing both from her work and from the feedback she provided. Sitting at a table in her cozy living room on a dark winter day, it was an opportunity to acquire a more intimate understanding about Sally’s own approach to writing and about her engagement with the writing of others. Writing tends to erase the traces of its becoming. The work of transcribing, selecting and compiling that was needed for this piece to emerge is marked by challenges typical to capturing speech – the inflections, pauses, laughter, the wealth of inspiration that emerged when talking about writing made (in)visible.

Claudia Egher: Over the years you have written about a broad variety of topics. What has drawn you to write on healthcare or on health-related topics and digitalization?

Sally Wyatt: I had been working on digitalization already for probably more than 10 years, from the late 80s till the late 90s, but I hadn’t done any work on health in that period. But then there was an opportunity —a combination of funding and somebody I wanted to work with. It was called “Innovative Health Technologies” and it was a funding program with the UK Economic and Social Research Council. Together with Flis Henwood[iii], who I’d worked with before and who is a very good friend, we thought this was a good opportunity for us to apply jointly for some funding. This was because she knew something about digital technologies, although that wasn’t her focus, but she knew a lot about health and technology. And we got the funding. Whereas most of the other projects were about neuroimaging and gene editing and whatever was fashionable at the end of the 90s, our argument was that the internet was an innovative health technology. That’s how we did the project about how people inform themselves about health issues, and since then I’ve sort of kept my hand in around health issues.

CE: I noticed that when writing on health-related issues and the internet, you have written a lot together with other people. What do you need to see in a collaborator to agree to work together?

SW: I don’t think you can write together with everybody, because writing is very personal. I like writing and I like to feel pride in the things I have done, but I’m not obsessive in the way I think some people are. [laughter] They wouldn’t change a comma, you know, without having a huge argument about it. I like to write with people where I think our approach to writing is similar, so that I am not being too possessive of the words on the page. They’d also have to be willing to edit and change, meet deadlines, and be able to write. I think some people work based on a kind of stream of consciousness technique. But I like even my drafts to have sentences in them. [laughter] So I think there is something about writing style that is quite important. Obviously, you don’t always know that in advance.

CE: How does the writing process unfold in such collaborative projects? Do you write in turns or do you decide from the beginning who is going to write each part of the article?

SW: It depends a bit. Sometimes there are projects where there are other people involved and maybe we first brainstorm about the structure of the article, and we do a first division. Then, depending on who is going to be the first author, we send it to the first author, who puts things together, and then it might go around a couple of times. But sometimes it will be: one person starts, and then says: “OK, I’m going to stop here. Can you take it over?” And I know that people who co-author a lot with each other have certain rules. There is a famous one, where if one person deletes something, then the other person can’t just put it back in. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. And it may be that the person who deleted it would have to explain why they deleted it, but you can’t just go back and forth re-instating things that the other deleted. That seems like a good rule.

CE: How do you personally go about writing? Do you have a ritual? Do you need to be in a certain environment?

SW: I think a lot [laughter] and I can think pretty much anywhere, whereas I know Hans[iv], for example, has to be sitting at his desk. I mean, he also thinks in other places, but most of the action for Hans happens at his desk, whereas I can think in the train, in my yoga class, while I do shopping. If it’s something quite new that I plan to write on, then often I will go away from my desk and my computer, and either sit here [the dining table], because likely our WiFi doesn’t reach, or in a café, and I’ll just write notes by hand, and then I’ll start writing.

How I go about it depends a little bit on what it is. If it’s more empirical, then I’ll probably start with the empirical material. But if it’s more theoretical, then I’ll start at the beginning, to try to figure out what I’m trying to say. Even though I feel I’m often quite slow to start, once I start it goes quite easily and usually in fully-formed sentences. That changed and I don’t quite know when. But now I do compose directly on the computer. When I was younger I didn’t, then I would write things by hand first.

CE: Do you feel that the use of the computer has changed your writing style in any way? How have these different technologies and preparations influenced how you write?

SW: I think I still have some of the habits from when I wrote by hand, trying to think first about what I wanted to say rather than just starting to type. It’s a lot easier to edit, so I will go through a lot of edited versions and often, but this also can slow you down. It can also mean that the first page is brilliant and then it quickly dries out, especially since I have got other things to do, so it might be a while until I get back to something. I’ll start from the beginning and start editing before I continue, partly as a way of getting back into it. That then means that the first three pages have been gone over multiple times and the last ones just a few.

I am old enough that I am used to literally cutting and pasting text. I’d have a typed manuscript and sometimes in order to reorder things I’d cut a piece of paper or cut it into paragraphs and move them around a bit and then retype it. There was this wonderful invention of Magic Tape where you could tape it on and then it wouldn’t show up in the photocopier. That was a brilliant invention, much underestimated. [laughter] But sometimes, depending on what it was, you would still need to retype it, so I can remember when cut and paste meant cut and paste. Of course, that is now a lot easier to do, but I will still print things several times. I wait until I have a reasonable first version and then I print it out and make notes on it, and put little arrows and say “move this up here when I’m next to a computer”. I don’t cut and paste literally anymore. I’m also making references as a displacement activity, to take a short break from writing and give myself the time to think while doing something else.  

CE: If you were to mention a non-human as an actor who witnesses most of your writing or if you were to acknowledge the agency of an object in your writing process, what would that be?

SW: I think that would have to be a cup of coffee. It’s my first instinctive answer. What else could it be? I think partly with the advent of the digital I’m less fussy about my pens, whereas I used to be a bit fetishistic about them. But still, a cup of coffee.

CE: You worked as an editor for many years. How did you experience having to communicate with other researchers, with your peers, and give them feedback on their writing?

SW: Luckily with the book series[v] you also have reviewers, so you can also refer to them. If there are things that you want to say, sometimes it’s easier to externalize a bit. The book series is probably the best example. There were several things that we wanted to do that actually Palgrave has been very helpful with: there are a few books in the series that are based on dissertations, which some publishers won’t touch, and we have quite a few edited volumes, also which some publishers won’t publish. Both Andrew[vi] and I felt strongly that certainly in this area some of the most interesting and innovative work is done by PhDs, and edited volumes, especially in STS, are incredibly important. So to dismiss it as a genre, certainly in STS, doesn’t make sense. But both books of PhDs and edited volumes do have particular problems that you need to pay attention to.

We’ve also had the language issue, where the English just wasn’t good enough. Palgrave will do some of that, they do have copy editors, but they don’t do detailed language editing. This has always been awkward, because we do want to have a fairly good distribution of authors from different countries, certainly around healthcare where national differences are important.

Generally speaking, I think we just try and be helpful and I think most people appreciate it. I was talking to somebody recently, who said being an editor is a lot of diplomatic work, because there is a lot of ego and personal investment in writing. There is a lot of diplomacy that goes into editing.

CE: How has your work as editor contributed to how you write?

SW: Editing is the best thing for improving your writing. Because it’s not your own work, you see lots of possibilities for variation, and you think more carefully about what really needs to be changed there to make it better. I always recommend people to do some editing. I think it’s really helpful to improve the quality of their writing.

CE: Who would you say is the critical voice in your mind when you look at what you’re writing or who is influencing what you’re looking for to determine the quality of a piece you’ve written?

SW: This is very Freudian. Probably a mixture of Hans and Wiebe[vii], because Wiebe was my own PhD supervisor. Hans is more recent and he doesn’t read everything I write, but quite a lot. Also Keith Pavitt[viii], who was my first boss, and who was quite a personality as well. And possibly also my mother. She is a writer, so sometimes I look at things thinking “that’s not a very good sentence”. So she is that very formative voice in terms of, you know, where is the verb. These are probably some of the voices in the back of my mind when I’m writing.

CE: What would you say are the biggest threats to the quality of writing in our field at the moment?

SW: The pressure to publish. I think this is the biggest threat. Also the emphasis on quantity over quality. And what I said earlier, and I think they are related, that there aren’t that many outlets for publishing other sorts of writing, such as interdisciplinary work, experimental work. And even if you manage to publish it, only some people appreciate it, but not employers, for instance. I think the outlets for experimental writing have largely disappeared. There are still a few, but not many.

CE: You wrote an article some years ago on the non-users of the internet. If you’re now thinking of your writing, are there any intended non-users? Are there people or groups of people that you’d rather did not read your articles for any particular reason?

SW: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. There is one thing that I really regret in my writing: I have an article with Flis that opens with a vignette from one of the interviews. I think probably for the interviewee it’s recognizable, and I should have been more careful. Whether she ever read it, I have no idea. I don’t think this because we said anything terrible or judgmental, but I do think it was too recognizable about her own health issue. Of course, it would only be recognizable to her and maybe to her very nearest and dearest, but still. For the rest, if anybody wants to read it.

CE: Since we started by talking about health-related issues and your writing about that, I want to finish by asking if you also write when you are not well physically, and if you then have preferences in terms of what you work on, or in terms of how your home needs to be organized for it.

SW: Actually, if you’re slightly feverish, it can be quite productive. [laughter] It’s disinhibiting. I found that work pressure is also quite disinhibiting weirdly. “I’ve got three hours this morning, I’ve got to do this. Let’s see how far we get”. Whereas when you have endless time, it can be very inhibiting.

CE: Do you ever get writer’s block these days?

SW: Very, very rarely, actually much less than I used to when I was less busy. I get more nervous about writing and about publishing and about public speaking than I used to. I once said this to Wiebe and he very helpfully said: “Yes, you’ve got more to lose now”. And I thought, “Thanks, Wiebe, now I feel a lot better!” [laughter] So I get more nervous about publishing and speaking than I used to, but I don’t sit and stare at a blank page or screen as often as I used to.

CE: So experience makes the master.

SW: Experience does help. There are a few tricks for getting started which I now know.

Figure 2. Claudia’s writing space

CIaudia Egher obtained her doctoral degree in 2019 from Maastricht University, having studied how expertise about bipolar disorder is enacted on American and French online platforms. Claudia’s research interests include the digitalization of (mental) healthcare, and the social, cultural and ethical dimensions of emerging science and technology.

Sally Wyatt is Professor of Digital Cultures at Maastricht University. She has held various visiting and permanent academic positions in the Netherlands, England, Canada, France and elsewhere. She originally trained as an economist (McGill University and University of Sussex) before migrating to STS.


Notes

[i] Some of the poems Sally has recently written can be found in this booklet of poetry and images authored by the staff and students of the Faculty of Arts and Science, Maastricht University, in early 2020, during the lockdown caused by the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

[ii] Andrew Webster is Professor in the Sociology of Science and Technology at the University of York.

[iii] Flis Henwood is Professor of Social Informatics at the University of Brighton.

[iv] Hans Radder is Sally’s partner. He is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy of Science and Technology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

[v] The book series Health, Technology and Society published by Palgrave Macmillan.

[vi] Andrew Webster, who was editor of the Health, Technology and Society series together with Sally, 2006-2020.

[vii] Wiebe Bijker is Professor Emeritus of Technology and Society Studies at Maastricht University.

[viii] Keith Pavitt (1937-2002) was Professor of Science and Technology Policy and Innovation Management, at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex.

About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative — an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

The first installment of this series is composed of 8 interviews which will appear weekly in Somatosphere from early December. We openly invite further contributions to the series to appear throughout 2021. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest. You may already have someone in mind to interview or be interviewed by, but we can also make recommendations.


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