Book writing: The thin line between love and hate

The bitter truth about scholarly writing is that it is really hard work, and that no matter how much better or more confident or more experienced you become as a writer, it never stops being hard work. Every new paper or chapter or book makes a new argument, and that argument needs to be built, refined, revised, unpacked and unpicked, and reworked more than once before it is ready to be shared with readers. For me, this creates a love-hate relationship with my writing, and right now, with my book writing specifically. A key question I am grappling with right now is ‘how do I get excited about this book, and stay excited, when I kind of hate this book even though I also really want to write it’?

Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

I feel like I have been trying to write this book for a really long time. I first had the idea and wrote a fledgling proposal in 2015, and then it got pushed onto the backburner and it resurfaced in 2016 again, and the pattern kind of repeated itself until the proposal finally got finished and polished and reviewed and approved. Each time it resurfaced, I was really excited about the idea and the argument and what I thought I could do and say with the book. I still am. But my research focus has started to shift as my practice work has shifted in the last two years, and I’m a little conflicted about this project now, to be honest.

I have started thinking, blogging and scribbling about a new project I am really excited about, but cannot in any way properly start until the book is complete. This is part of the conflict I am experiencing: wanting to stay here and also wanting to move on. I’m trying not to shame myself for feeling like this, or talk myself out of it because I don’t think that’s likely to make me feel any better. I feel a bit like I am betraying the book by wanting to spend time and energy on the new research, but I also feel more than a little resentful that the book is demanding all my headspace when there’s other things I’d like to be getting on with. I wonder if other writers and researchers feel like this: I felt a bit like this about my PhD. It demanded so much time, but there were other projects and papers that were also worthy and interesting, and it was hard to devote equal time to them all, plus everyone and everything else in my life, without feeling like butter spread over too much bread (to paraphrase Tolkien).

Another part of the conflict is that I go in and out of feeling confident that I’m saying something with this book that really needs to be said. I believe in this project: I would never have created and proposed it if I did not. But, I’ve been immersed in thinking and writing about this work for so long that I feel a bit like it’s all been said, and I’m just going to be rehashing old ground. If I stop myself going too far down this particular path, I can actually hear the peer reviewers’ words saying that this is useful work, and potentially quite powerful for lecturers and academic developers in a range of different contexts. Parts of this argument have been made, sure, but not in the complete form of this book, written in my voice, with my scholarly perspective and data and theorisation. But it’s not easy to hold onto the confidence all the time.

At the moment, three and a half months away from submission to the publisher, the writing of this book feels a bit like wandering through a valley like the one above. It’s hilly, but there are flat bits and foresty bits and winding bits and steep bits. Some days the writing just goes, and it’s great, and other days it goes but some of the words seem superfluous and wrong and I know there’ll be loads of editing, and other days it’s just a sisyphean task I cannot get my head around. It’s the steep days when I hate the book and wish I hadn’t tried to write it at all – I just want to move on to something new. On the flat, pretty days it is easy to love the book and love the writing and feel like I’m doing something grand. It’s the middle bit, the days where I can write but it doesn’t all make sense, or sound right, or feel right, that is really hard.

Not writing is actually easy, apart from the guilt. Writing on the good days is super easy and feels amazing. But writing through the middle bits is hard work, and creates conflict within writers that has to just be felt, and worked through, hour by hour. Trying to tell yourself you shouldn’t feel conflicted because you chose to do a book or paper or PhD or Masters, and no one made you, is not the best idea. Trying to shame yourself into writing when you are stuck in a very hard day is also not a great idea. Shame just creates paralysis. My advice would be to feel your writing feelings, and if you cannot actually write the Thing, write in your research journal or reading journal, talk to a friend or peer over coffee, talk to yourself. Explain your feelings, work out where they come from, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a way through the middle bit a little less isolated and frustrated.

Writing is hard work, even on the easy days, and it asks a lot of us. This book is going to be great, and I am going to finish it, but I’m not going to completely love every minute of writing it, and I might not even love every word I read when it’s finished. And that’s okay. Perfection is an unattainable, and probably undesirable, writing goal. I’m trying to remember, stuck as I am between loving and hating my book writing, that I’m learning so much about myself, writing, and my field. And that’s really the goal, isn’t it? More learning, better questions, new ways to join the conversation and say something that helps and makes a dent.

Not ‘that’ kind of doctor

On a flight home from a teaching block last week, there was a medical emergency on the plane. The crew, as they do in these situations, asked for a doctor to make himself or herself known (and then asked for any medical professional to come forward). A Swedish doctor sitting next to me stood up, and spent the rest of the flight with the passenger, until we landed and she was handed into the care of paramedics. This was my first such experience, and I fly often. I found myself, for a brief moment, thinking: ‘I wish right now I was ‘that’ kind of doctor – that I could help out here’.

But, I am not that kind of doctor. I call myself Dr. I have a right to that title. But, as a friend of mine said of his own similar title, after a similar experience on a flight last year, ‘It’s not the useful kind of Dr.’ I was talking to my son about this yesterday, and he asked: ‘well, what is the use then?’

This, of course, got me wondering: what kind of ‘doctor’ am I, and what can I help you with, in that role?

pixabay.com on Pexels

Maybe a good place to start is thinking about what having a doctorate means. What can you do, or be, that you could not without one? The main aspect of the qualification, and the work involved in gaining this, is research capacity. Whether by ‘big book’ or publication, or art installation, the average PhD project is a research project. You are creating an argument in response to a research question, and that research question is asked because there is a knowledge gap in your field that needs to be filled. The main requirement of any PhD, at its core, is a contribution to knowledge in your (and perhaps even an allied) field of study and/or practice.

It follows then, that doing a doctorate enables you to expand your knowledge of a slice of the world – that related to your area of study, and your research problem and questions. But, to expand your own knowledge, and build on what is known to say something new, and valid, you need to do an awful lot of critical reading, writing, speaking and thinking. A doctorate, then, also enables you to gain, and develop, scholarly skills and practices. You learn to become a more efficient reader, and writer; you learn to make deeper connections between allied ideas and arguments, and critique those which seem incorrect or incomplete; you learn to articulate, in writing and speech, what you think and why you think it, and what it could mean in relation to other meanings. You learn to create a whole, and build that whole through creating and connecting parts – theory, literature, methods, data, and so on.

All of this work, then, over the 3 or 4 or 5 years it can take to research and write a doctoral thesis – in whichever mode you are writing yours in – offers you a sustained opportunity not just to actually do research and write about it, but also to reflect on the meta-level work involved. What forms of writing are more effective and persuasive than others? What kinds of verbs signal your intent in argumentation best? What kinds of structure work most effectively for different parts of the argument, to weave it all together? What does not work at all, and why? In other words, you have opportunities to work out not just what to write about or research, but also how and why to research it and write about it, following certain rules, or bending certain rules about doing and writing research in your field.

As a qualified ‘doctor’, then, you have the insight, learning and ability to offer other researchers, and postgraduate student writers, help with their own writing and research processes.

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

You can do this as a formal supervisor, taking on the role of guide to your own postgraduate students, as your supervisor was a guide to you. You can do this as a writing coach or peer writing consultant, either in a writing centre, or in a more informal or private capacity. You can blog, as I and many others do, about research and writing, sharing what you have learned. There are different roles you can play, with a doctorate, to step up alongside a student who is struggling – experiencing some equivalent form of the medical emergency in my flight – and offer advice, an empathetic ear, guidance, and even direction where this is needed.

There is, then, quite a lot of usefulness in doing, and having, a doctorate. I may not be able to help you if you are having a heart attack, but I can help you create and carry through an argument in a paper; I can help you work out what you want to say in your paper or thesis, and follow a structured process that will enable you to say it more clearly and persuasively. I can offer broad-level advice, and fine-grained feedback. I can draw on my own learning, to walk alongside you as you work through similar learning, and hopefully help you learn from some of the missteps and mistakes I have learned from (even though I may have to let you make these too).

Photo by lalesh aldarwish from Pexels

In a higher education sector that, globally, seems to be marked increasingly by academics and scholars feeling isolated, overwhelmed, alone in their struggles, those who have the ability, and capacity to put their hand up and move forward when called on are increasingly needed, and valued. The more we are able to step alongside one another, as peers and as mentors, the less lonely and isolating the PhD journey will be – or any other research, writing and learning journey for that matter. I am not ‘that’ kind of doctor, then. But I can put my hand up, and I can help.

PhD workout: warming up your writing muscles

So, I am writing a book. I have been sort-of-kind-of writing a book for a long time now. We have an on and off relationship, my book and I. But, a proposal is being reviewed, and the hope is that the feedback will be a green light, so I have to get writing. And soon. But, I am a bit out of practice. I wrote a fair bit last year – 3 book chapters (a few drafts each) as well as part of a paper with colleagues. But this is a different beast altogether – as long and as complex as a PhD thesis. I am finding I am out of shape here.

This is not an unfamiliar feeling. I wrote here and here about moving from one year of PhD or post-doc into the next, after having a break and getting a bit flabby around the writing middle, so to speak. I know, therefore, that I have felt unfit before, and have made myself fitter and gotten the writing work done. But, this is – like actual fitness – hard work and requires a level of emotional and psychic energy that can be hard to find sometimes. I have decided, therefore, that I am going to start with gentle warm-ups, rather than jumping straight into the whole thing (Thank you, Roger Federer :-)).

rfed warm up

The first thing I am doing is starting with something manageable, that I could want to do every day – or at least 4-5 times a week. If I want to do it, and it feels manageable, it is very likely I will actually do it (and enjoy the experience). Instead of doing what I too often do, and writing ‘Chapter 1 draft’ on one day of my calendar, I am writing ‘one pomodoro’ every other day. I can do this. It’s 30 minutes of writing. I can then tick this off, and actually add days as a I go, or keep it every other day and work up to 2 pomodoros at least. If I can do it, I won’t fail, and if I don’t fail, I can keep enjoying this writing time and make it productive. Too often I set myself overly lofty goals, in life and writing, and set myself up to fail rather than succeed. Last week I wrote my first blog post in over 4 months, scheduled this post, and also managed about 1000 words on my book. HUGE success I say. All in these little manageable chunks.

The second thing I am going to do is keep it steady. Rather than having a good week, and thinking I can now escalate to high levels of writing productivity, I am going to keep going at this pace for now. Probably, realistically, this will be the pace for the year, with bursts of higher productivity around deadlines and when I have excess time and energy. As one of my writing students said to me last year: ‘Eat the elephant one bite at a time’. Apologies to elephant lovers – I am one too – but this is a good metaphor for taking it steady with life and writing. One task, one pomodoro, one idea at a time. This way, things actually do get done as opposed to being menacing, un-ticked-off tasks on your to-do list.

Finally, for now anyway, I am going to get me some writing buddies. Face-to-face if I can, but virtually if not. I am always thinking I should join a Twitter shut-up-and-write group, or create my own writing group. And then work, and kids, and life, and my writing gets pushed down (with me attached) to the bottom of my list. My writing time is also time for me – it’s personal as well as professional. So, I have to actually value it, and myself. As a working mother I am too often too far down my list. And so is my writing. I am hopeful, that with positive peer encouragement, we can collectively make our writing more present each week in the to-do lists, and make appreciable progress on our projects.

group yoga

Warming up these tired writing muscles to fuller strength will take some time – what do people say?If it’s too easy you’re not doing it right? Maybe so. I don’t think writing should always be hard, but good writing should take effort and time. Maybe you are in this spot too, coming back to work and PhD and research writing, and working out how to begin your “elephant meal”. Hopefully some of these steps to warming up your writing muscles will help you, too.

If you have other ideas, please share in the comments. All the best for 2019!

What does it mean to ‘sound academic’ in your writing?

I have been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately, which has kind of sapped my own creative energies. However, it really has got me thinking about a few issues related to helping other people to improve their writing, which I’ll share over a few posts. This one is about ‘sounding academic’, and what that may mean in academic writing.

The first thing I have noticed in the academic writing I have read, as an editor and a critical friend, is that writers often use overly complex sentences and (under-explained) terms to convey their ideas. Here is one example:

Despite the popularity of constructivist explanations, this perspective oversimplifies the otherwise complex ontology and epistemology of reality by suggesting that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are social constructions. Constructivists do not necessarily focus on an ontological reality they regard as unintelligible and unverifiable, but instead on constructed reality. Rather, constructivists discount claims to universalism, realism or objective truth, and admit that their position is merely a view, a more or less coherent way of understanding things that has thus far worked for them as a model of the world.

There is a lot going on in this sentence – it tries to establish that constructivism is popular, but flawed, and then also tries to show why it is flawed. But, for me, the sentence doesn’t quite pull this off. A few simpler, connected sentences may clarify and expand a little on what the author is trying to put across here.

Constructivism is a popular paradigm for explaining reality. Yet, its ontological and epistemological stance is overly relativist, as it conflates different categories of social construction in problematic ways. For example, a constructivist may argue that like tables, chairs and atoms, race, sexuality and gender are social constructions. A chair, and race, are clearly very different kinds of ‘social’ construction. We therefore need a different way of understanding ‘social constructions’ that allows for differences, and takes us beyond getting stuck in a battle between competing views of reality. 

This is one way of rewriting the passage above, of course; there may be others. But what I am trying to do is distill the essence of the point being made into simpler, shorter, clearer sentences. While the first example may, on the surface, look and sound ‘academic’ because of the large words, and complex phrasing, dig deeper and it becomes hard to understand what the author is really trying to say. The meaning gets a bit lost in the big words, and complicated ideas. To sound ‘academic’, therefore, we should rather focus on creating clear and accessible meanings, through shorter, more focused sentences connected together through relevant explanations and evidence.

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This is another example:

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through “a pedagogy which makes explicit (or attempts to make explicit) the principles, procedures and texts to be acquired” (Bernstein, 1999:168), usually the natural and physical sciences, and tacitly where “showing or modelling precedes ‘doing’” (Bernstein, 1999:168), typified by the social sciences and the humanities. Horizontal knowledge structures can be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155); these grammars may be ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999:164).

Here, I want to focus on the amount of quoting going on. In this short passage there are three direct quotations, and a further reference to an external text in the second to last line. Many of the authors I work with, especially those who are new to academic writing in the form of a thesis or article for publication, overquote, believing that their inclusion of several quotes shows their reading, and their knowledge of the field. While using relevant, current sources to provide a foundation for your own research is important, the emphasis in any writing at doctoral and postdoctoral level must be on your own research.  This means paraphrasing more often than quoting directly, and using the work of others to inform and shape, rather than overshadow your own.

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through pedagogical approaches or processes that focus on making the principles or procedural learning accessible and clear to students, as well as the means by which to acquire it (Bernstein, 1999). This kind of learning is usually typified by the natural and physical sciences. These languages can also be modelled tacitly, as in the social sciences and humanities, where students are immersed in texts, language and learning over a longer period of time (Bernstein, 1999). Horizontal knowledge structures can further be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155), and as such  may be stronger or weaker relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999).

This is a minor edit, but transforming the direct quotations into paraphrased passages, and changing the sentence structure goes some way to making the author more visible, and more ‘in charge’ of the text’s construction. Thus, to sound academic, it is important to claim an authorial voice, and make your own research and its contribution to the field very clear through your paper  – in other words, as you weave your golden thread, make sure it doesn’t get crowded out or lost in long, complex sentences and over-quoting from the work of others.

pexels-photo-144633These are just two observations I have made in working with a range of writers across several disciplines in the last few years. Other things writers do, seemingly to sound more ‘academic’ is introduce and use smart-sounding transition words, often in the wring place, or extraneously; include 15 references in a bracketed space where only the 5 top references are needed); and over-use formatting tools, such as adding tabs, heading levels and so on. It’s like writers are trying to create a staircase to take their readers from one ‘place’ of knowledge to another; the question is whether you create a staircase that makes your readers dizzy on the way up, and wanting to stop halfway, or one that has a bit of interest and colour, but gets them to the new knowledge via an accessible and manageable route.

The general ‘rule’ to observe with writing, as I hope this post has shown, is to be as clear, direct, and detailed as possible in setting out, establishing and substantiating your argument. Shorter, simple sentences that convey your meaning clearly; the right references for the piece you are working on (not all the references); limited use of direct quotations and only where you really need these (quotations from literature used as data are a different kind of quotation to the one I refer to here); and all claims supported, and explained in context, so that your golden thread is clearly woven through the piece of writing. Verbose, under-explained, ‘fancy’ papers are alienating to readers, who have to work too hard to figure out what you mean. Simple, direct, clear prose that conveys your meaning and gets the point across well is so much more enjoyable to read, and is far more likely to be useful to other researchers too.

Fairy castles, ramshackle cottages and writing in the real world

I have this problem: I am not always a huge fan of reality. It’s often far less interesting and well-ordered than the world I can create in my head. For example, it can take 2 years to publish a paper – writing, revising, reviews, more (crushing at times) feedback, more revising, and this goes on and on, paper after paper. It’s tiring, and hard. But, in my head, I write a paper that is erudite and important, and journal editors and reviewers like it a lot, and it gets published within a year, and cited a lot. This sounds silly, right? It is, kind of.

I wrote ages ago about PhD fantasies, and why you should have them. In that post I argue that, while they can be distracting and even perhaps paralysing if you indulge in them too often, and for too long, fantasies can be useful motivation tools. Imagining the eventual future, as a place where we are successful, and have achieved something we are currently struggling with can push us towards that goal.  I think we need fantasy – what I call my ‘fairy castles’ – because fantasies are, at their core, creative acts. I could imagine a fairy castle of writing that goes well, is invigorating and stimulating, and that makes me feel clever, accomplished and productive. In reality, right now, I’m more like in a ramshackle cottage in the woods just trying to get the fire going with damp wood. (I have also been watching too much Once Upon a Time). The reality and the fantasy in my writing life do not align often enough.

fairy castle 2

But, they do align. And I believe that my fairy castle papers -and Book Manuscript, and the New Project I Will Start Planning – are a vital part of creating a reality that will actually be productive, and result in written work that will eventually be published.

The fairy castle and the ramshackle cottage can be part of the same ‘writing realm’ that all writers inhabit. There are always good writing days, where you can concentrate, and make sense, and feel like progress is really being made with the piece you are working on. And there are bad days, where none of the words see  to come out right, or at all. I am starting to really get that these two kinds of days go together – they have to. It can’t all be fairy castles and magical days of erudite brilliance, but by the same token, it can’t all be days of smoky damp fires and frustration. You have to learn from the bad days, to make the good days more frequent, and useful.

The work, to follow the metaphor, is to bring the cottage closer to the castle; to bring it into the walls of the city, like one of those small houses in the shadow of the queen’s castle in medieval time.

fairy castle

I have a plan I am going to try to follow to start inching my writing fantasies and writing reality closer to one another. Firstly, I am going to write down the fantasy in my research journal: finished book chapter by February, and a book proposal and draft chapter by March. Let’s start small, so we don’t crush the whole enterprise at the outset. I am going to outline the steps I need to take to actually get there – how many words, what do I have, what do I need to read, write, do. Then, I am going to stop thinking about it all, and spend an hour a day – two pomodoros – writing. It will be awful at first. I will feel stuck, and frustrated, and cross with myself. The ramshackle cottage will feel like it is falling apart. But, if I keep slogging away at this, the cottage walls will get a bit stronger, maybe the fire will get going at last, and the fantasy of the finished work will start to become more attainable. (And I will probably feel much better about indulging in my binges of Once Upon A Time if I use them as rewards for actually writing, rather than as ways to escape writing!)

The cottage will always be a cottage – it will never turn into the fairy castle up on the hill. I am not sure it should. I think we need the struggles and frustrations to push us across important thresholds in our learning and thinking – about theory, methodology, the nature of our research, the process of actually writing, and so on. The struggles do make the victories that much sweeter, I must say, and they help me to appreciate that this is a real job. Being an active writer and researcher is work, hard work most days, and it is valuable work. To me, and hopefully to others in my field too.

So, my plan for this year is both simple, and really hard: to strive to create a writing realm for myself where the cottage I really live in is closer to the castle I admire, and often wish I lived in, so that they co-exist in a mutually beneficial space, where the fantasy feeds the reality, rather than keeping me from it. Or, where the words become sentences, the sentences become paragraphs, and the paragraphs become my published work.