Slogging away, slouching and sailing: developing a research work ethic

Recently I read a post on one of my favourite blogs written by Susan Carter on managing emotion in doctoral supervision, and in doctoral writing. What stood out for me were her comments on managing emotions around producing written work for comment and feedback. She comments that she no longer gets emotional about her writing; as an experienced academic she knows it is part of her job, and something she just has to do (and likes doing). She comments that students and academics would be helped by having a ‘workerly’ approach to writing, and also by learning to manage emotions that can lead to writing blocks or paralysis.

This notion of a ‘workerly’ approach to academic writing has been floating around in my head since I read her post a few months ago. I think I have developed a more workerly approach to writing in the last two years especially; I have chosen an academic career and I do know that producing publishable writing is something I need to do as part of this career. I like writing, and while I don’t enjoy all the kinds of writing and reading I have to do, on the whole I derive pleasure from these scholarly activities.

But I still get emotional about my own writing; I still get stuck, and down, and worry about whether and how I will get up again. I do, however, get up. This being down and getting up and carrying on has to do with being resilient, and part of this is developing and maintaining a work ethic about research and writing. By this, I specifically mean working more consciously on what Susan Carter speaks about in her post: learning to manage emotions so that they do not block your progress, and being a little more ‘workerly’ about your writing.

Waiting for the mojo (can leave you waiting a long time)

I, like many writers, have what I think of as my ‘writing mojo’. I am sure many of you have experienced the mojo when it is strong – the ideas flow and the words come and the sentences hang together, and you sail through a morning’s writing that leaves you with a pretty brilliant piece of work to send to a supervisor, or build on tomorrow. These mornings are what keep me going, sometimes – knowing that on the days when the mojo seems weaker, days of sunny sailing through writing are still possible, and will come again.

The reality is that most mornings or days of writing are not necessarily like this. They see me slogging away at a measly 100 words, slouched over my computer, getting up every ten minutes because I can’t concentrate for longer, or find the right word, or figure out what I want to say. I agonise over synonyms, and wonder if I have used ‘like’ too many times. I edit, more than I create. It is hard, painful work. It makes me feel frustrated, and inadequate, and slow.

This is me when I am working on my writing, metaphorical quill in hand, completely idealistic task list mocking me gently

These emotions are difficult to manage. But manage them I must, otherwise the mojo may not return. I am learning that all that slogging is necessary for the brief bright mornings of sailing through my writing to be possible. If I spent all my writing time waiting for the mojo to be strong, and the ideas to flow, I might be waiting a very long time, and I’m not sure I’d get much writing done at all. This, then, is when I need to be workerly in my approach to my writing.

Planning and pragmatism

Being workerly, to me, means being pragmatic, and planning my time as carefully and realistically as I can. It means instead of messing around on email, I need to make myself sit down for two or three pomodoros to read two or three relevant papers and make notes. It means setting myself one task for a morning or a day: writing an introduction, or coding a small set of data, and holding myself to that task until it is done. This, for me, is slogging. It is the work of being an academic writer that is often boring, and tedious (especially coding and transcribing data), and it feels like trudging through treacle because I’m not actually producing something tangible to show for my time spent at my desk (yet).

Yet, in the midst of this slogging is where my work ethic is formed and strengthened. The ability to push through the tedium, boredom, frustration and anxiety and continue to do the small tasks that make the mojo stronger and make sailing through the writing possible is part of what it is to be an academic writer. It requires fortitude; sometimes it probably feels like you are being unkind to yourself when you have to make yourself work on part of your paper or PhD on a Saturday morning when the week has been long, and you are tired. But all those little tasks, especially the difficult ones, build your work ethic and your researcher resilience, and they move you forward.

mojo giftThere are no easy answers to building and strengthening a work ethic, especially when you are a part-time student with many other demands on your time and headspace. But it helps me to remember that the mojo isn’t magic: it’s created over time through many small, seemingly unconnected tasks that all add up to a finished project if I sit up straight and slog away.

Overcoming my resistance to my own writing

Last year I wrote a paper – my first paper out of my PhD thesis – and sent it to a big international journal. After 4 months, they sent it back with an odd decision: ‘reject and revise’. Essentially, a substantial revise and resubmit. I was given a deadline three months hence, and three reports to work with. Two were mostly encouraging, and one was Reviewer 2. I had many angry one-sided conversations with Reviewer 2 for about a week which felt quite cathartic. I eventually revised the paper, it was rejected again by Reviewer 2, and it is now, finally, being published by a completely different journal after yet further revisions. While a pleasing eventual result, it is the messy and emotionally draining revision process I want to reflect on here.

Although I had three months to revise the paper, I actually only did the revisions in the last 3 weeks of this time period. It was not because I had so many other things to do. I realised, after some reflection, that I was putting off the revisions because I was afraid. The reviews were so painful to read, and felt so mean (especially Reviewer 2), that I became convinced that my paper was complete rubbish and should never have been sent to a journal in the first place. I was scared to open the file and read my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad* writing. I literally could not even go into the folder, and double-click on the file for about 2 months. I tried, but I found myself unable to initially overcome the resistance to going back to my own writing, and what I perceived as my failure to succeed in writing. This fear is something I have felt on more than one occasion when I have received negative peer review, and it took me a while to see it, and realise that I could confront it and overcome it.

Deadlines are an excellent motivator for confronting fear of something you have written and being forced to see for yourself just how awful it is. I eventually opened the file because I had to, and I re-read the paper. To my immense surprise, it was not quite as awful as those reviews seemed to indicate, and re-reading my work enabled me to find the courage to go back and re-read the reviewer reports, make notes, and begin to rework the paper. I rewrote almost 70% of the paper, and was much happier with it when I resubmitted it. Unfortunately, the reviewer who re-reviewed the paper (seriously suspect it was Reviewer 2) indicated that I had addressed the concerns, but wanted more revisions, pretty much along the same lines as the first round. This contradictory request, with no mediation from the editors, was confusing and unmanageable. I didn’t see how I could actually do any more for them with the comments I was given. I withdrew the paper politely, and went elsewhere.

The second round of journal consideration has been more successful. Another 5 months of waiting, but a better decision, and much more encouraging and useful feedback. Yet again, though, getting into the revisions has been tough. I really loathe this paper now. I have rewritten and revised it 5 times, and I really, honestly have no clue whether it is very good or not anymore. I don’t know if it is making any kind of useful contribution to scholarship in my field. I just hate it. I have been so resistant to revising it again, so unwilling to keep looking at it and reading it. It has been useful, though, for me to think about why I feel this way about my ‘feral’ writing, to use Annie Dillard’s brilliant term. I think we all feel really emotional, and hurt, when we receive feedback that is hard to hear and work with. This is well-known and often written and spoken about. But, I have heard much less about what comes between getting the feedback and delivering the revised thesis chapter, draft or paper.

brightonactors.co.uk

brightonactors.co.uk

I think most or all writers feel resistant to going back into a piece of writing that needs to be revised and rewritten, especially on the basis of harsh critique. Perhaps it is not always clear what that resistance is about. In my case, it has mainly been about fear: that my writing is bad, and that if I go back in I will lose faith in myself, and carrying on with this or any paper will be impossible. I would rather not confront the ugly writing I have done. And yet, if I had just chucked this paper, as I wanted to more than once, I would not have learned this about myself. I would not have learned what I have about writing – every time I write a paper, I learn something new about my style, my voice, my thinking and so on. I would not have a paper in press. I would really have failed if I had just caved in the face of the fear and stopped working on this paper.

Writing is hard work, this much we know. But what we also have to give ourselves is recognition that resistance to writing, fear of our own (potentially) bad writing, and feelings of fed-up-ness, loathing, and frustration are part of this hard work that we need to deal with if we are going to push through and make progress. Give yourself time and space to feel your way through as you think your way through, and if you are feeling resistance, frustration or more, try to work out what is at the root of those feelings so that you can get to it, work it out, and keep going. You’ll be so glad you did.

 

*From the book  ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz (1972)

The relentlessness of writing for publication

This post comes on the eve of AcWriMo – a month long writing event that happens around the world during November every year. In this post I want to address two things I am (and colleagues and friends are) battling with at this time of year: fatigue, and motivation to keep going in the face of the relentlessness of producing writing that can be published or can go into the thesis, and can help us ‘earn our keep’ as doctoral, postdoc or academic scholars.

This relentlessness is often talked about among students, postdocs and academics – producing publishable research on a regular basis is part of playing the game of academia well, and it needs to be played well everywhere. So, this pressure is familiar to all those who aspire to an academic career. But, we don’t always know how to manage the feelings of frustration, fear, fatigue and even rebellion that this relentless hamster-wheel of writing for publication engenders. Many students and academics battle to find support – either professional or personal – and may then opt out or drop out, slowing down to the point where they get stuck, unable to make any meaningful progress. This is a horrible and overwhelming place to be.

But what to do? I am wondering this now. I have been literally forcing myself into my office and to my desk every day, managing about 15 minutes of concentration at a time as I grind out 100 words here and there, half of which I have to edit, delete and rework later. It’s exhausting. And then, when I have managed to finish one paper out of the many that I really need to write, it takes months to get feedback from journals, and further months to make the inevitable revisions, send the paper back, get further feedback and eventually, please god, see the paper in print.

As a young scholar, in career terms, with a slew of ideas but without a slew of actual papers on a conveyor belt of writing, revising, and conceptualising, this hamster-wheel is flattening me more than I would like it to. I have had one paper accepted this year – last week (which, don’t get me wrong, is fabulous), but the other writing I have sent off is languishing in slow journal systems, and one is at a second journal after having been reviewed, revised and then rejected by the first journal. This is all quite difficult, and I feel that this frustrating process is often too invisible to those in our universities who assign us the brownie points, grant funding and recognition. I certainly feel that there is a glibness about doing research and publishing in journals and books that does not quite tally with my experience as an academic researcher and writer.

Perhaps if we can talk, in public spaces, about how difficult it can be to get onto one’s own research and writing conveyor belt as a career-young PhD or postdoctoral scholar, we can create a dialogue with university research offices and bean-counters that enables more acknowledgement of the challenges younger scholars face. This acknowledgement, and a troubling of the often linear-seeming ‘formulas’ that are applied to research and publication funding and support, can then hopefully lead to new, more developmental support opportunities, in the form of research workshops, writing retreats, and/or peer editing partnerships and writing circles, where written work is swapped, shared and worked on with others.

So much of our research and writing, especially in the social sciences and humanities, is solitary, or done in small writing and research groups. I spend a great deal of time reading, writing and thinking on my own. It is lonely, and the more I am on my own the less brave I feel about seeking out critical feedback and peer review. I really do feel that I need to connect myself more obviously, whether face to face or virtually, with other writers, and I have been trying more consciously to do this over the course of this year especially. I may not always be able to research and write with others, but I can offer to read the work of colleagues and ask them to read mine. Academia.edu, for example, now enables scholars to share drafts of their work with selected followers to enable peer feedback.

AcWriMo is another good opportunity for me to re-engage my tired brain and absent concentration within a supportive and non-judgemental writing community – both face to face and online. I have been invited to join a Facebook page where a diverse and international group of writers can share writing progress and stumbling blocks, and we have a Google spreadsheet where we need to record our writing targets per day or week for the month, so we can hold each other gently accountable. For me, this works well, as I need encouragement, even if I imagine that people around me are egging me on (they may or may not actually be doing so).

Image courtesy of Red Pen/Black Pen - www.jasonya.com

Image courtesy of Red Pen/Black Pen – http://www.jasonya.com

In the end, I know that (at least for now) I have chosen to play the game of academic research, writing and publication. In spite of this whinge, I do actually see great value in sharing my research, and in having other research shared with me. Perhaps the way onto the conveyor belt, to work my way up to having a series of papers in various stages of development, is to be patient and not expect it all to happen NOW, and to keep plugging away – writing as steadily as I can, even if only 100 words a day, and seeking out peer responses and feedback, both from friends and from journals. Perhaps, as with much in life that challenges us to grow and change, the only way through it, is through it.

 

Finding what you need to read: Is it really elementary, my dear Sherlock?

One of the most unpleasant surprises, getting into writing papers based on or even largely out of my thesis, has been how much reading I still have to be doing, in spite of having done a great deal already for the actual PhD. I feel I should not be as surprised as I have been: what else is research about but reading, writing, thinking, doing, more reading, more writing, more thinking, more doing, and so on? Another surprise was also how much I still have to learn about doing useful and productive literature searches. The Thesis Whisperer has written a very helpful post about literature searching; I’m adding here to these kinds of posts with some of the tricks I am learning to master to turn myself into a literature searching ninja.

There are a couple of reasons why there is still a fair bit of reading to do when you start writing papers out of or directly based on your PhD thesis. The first is that we cannot copy and paste papers from a PhD thesis. There is a significant difference between the thesis kind of argument, and an article kind of argument. I have heard people tell fantastical tales of just ‘turning my three chapters into three papers’; now, perhaps I am just not going about it the right way, but I can’t work out how to do this and end up with three good articles I want other people to read. I am finding, with the kind of ‘big book’ monograph-type thesis I wrote, that I need to re-craft parts of my larger argument into smaller, article-length arguments, largely by asking myself: ‘What is the significance or use of these findings, and who are they significant or useful to?’ Starting there, I have found my way to possible papers, all using data I generated in my PhD research, but all making arguments I kind of made in the thesis, but that were really more sub-claims or sub-arguments to the main overall argument I made. So, in order to make these smaller, sub-arguments well I now need to read a little more into research territory I have covered more broadly in the thesis, fine-tuning my reading and thinking.

This is where I use trick one (hardly new, but worth mentioning again): a ‘detective work’ search using reference lists from papers that are really spot on as clues to new searches. I recently read a fantastic new paper by a UK colleague to understand an issue I have been very fuzzy on in my writing. In it he references two further articles I then tracked down via Google Scholar and my library database. They were both incredibly helpful, and their respective reference lists have led me to further, fine-tuning reading. You do have to be a bit careful not to get endlessly lost in this detective work – there is a lot out there to potentially read on just about every subject you can think of, especially in the social sciences. Keeping your aim in the reading and searching in mind – ‘I need to map the field on issue X’, or ‘I need to understand better the connection, in my writing, between X and Y’ – can help to keep you from falling into a reading Alice in Wonderland type-rabbit hole that takes you in all sorts of new and fantastic directions that may (or may not) help your writing along. Using reference lists ‘forensically’ is a great way to join the conversation, and fine-tune your own reading.

A second reason that you are not done reading the literature in order to write PhD-based papers is that your field may have shifted and changed between the thesis reading and writing, and the paper writing. In my case, I am working with theory and conceptual frameworks that are fairly new, and there was less written about the conceptual stuff itself, and about the ways in which it has been used in research, when I was mapping this field during my PhD. Since I completed my thesis, a great deal of research drawing on the same kinds of methodological and theoretical frameworks has been published, and I need to delve into this literature in order to reference the relevant work in my own writing, and to keep abreast of developments so that I don’t repeat other research in what could be seen as plagiaristic or derivative ways. I’d like to add to the field in useful and hopefully new ways, not copy what has already been written about.

This is where I use trick two: finding out where the research in my field is mainly published and signing up for alerts or new issues of journals. In my field, there really are only about 8 major journals (at the moment) where the most relevant and useful research in relation to my own is currently being published. Of course there are many more, but these are what I would regard, based on my prior reading and searching, as peripheral journals because they either publish studies that are not necessarily relevant to my research, or because they publish this relevant research fairly infrequently. Not only does creating a ‘centre and periphery’ journal list, and then signing up for their mailing lists help me to see when new research is published and what to be reading next, it also helps me to work out where I should be trying to publish my own articles. Most journal publishers, like Springer and Taylor & Francis, for example, have mailing lists you can join. Seeing the new research in your field as it is published can help you thus: you’ll be reading the latest research in your field; you can select articles to look up, download and read more strategically (less time going round and round on Google Scholar); you can see where this research is being published, which can lead you to the journals directly and to useful articles in their back issues perhaps; and you can work out which networks to publish in and which journals to seek out for your own writing.

Being your own Sherlock Holmes when it comes to creative literature searching, finding the right kinds of things to read, and knowing when to continue, stop or shift tacks, is an ongoing process part and parcel of being a scholar. I’m learning, as Inger Mewburn says in the post referenced above, that it is not all ‘elementary’ and these skills and practices can be taught, learned and honed over time. Making a note of what has helped other scholars, as well as your own detective tricks, can really help to turn your forays into online and library searches into more exciting and productive ventures.