Adapting my reading journal to be ‘fit for (my) purpose’

Last week I posted the first in a series of posts contributed by Master’s students in a research methodology module I taught this past semester. Their final assignment was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of the learning or engagement in the course that represented a kind of ‘aha’ moment or challenge they are working on. This second post is from Jodie Bougaard, who is researching Russia’s cyber-meddling in the 2016 US elections.

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As a master’s student in the process of designing my study, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time engaging with literature related to my area of interest. Throughout the preliminary stages of thinking about my study, I’ve encountered challenges in this regard. I wondered if I was doing a sufficient amount of reading; identifying key themes in the material I engaged with and if it was relevant to my proposed research. Conventional wisdom suggests that conducting a sound literature review at the outset of the research design is essential not only to formulate a hypothesis and research questions but also to broaden your knowledge base as a researcher and identify gaps in the existing discourse.  

With this in mind, I proceeded to read and scrutinise any material I could find, waiting to have a grand epiphany about what the original ‘angle’ on my research would be or what I could add to the academic conversation. I had already identified an area of interest and developed key research questions. My chosen topic relates to electoral interference in the U.S. election in 2016. I knew that I needed to identify the key themes throughout my literature, organise concepts in accordance with the key themes, and create a general structure for my inquiry.  In practice, I was still spending an inordinate amount of time reading, searching for the grand knowledge gap, which continually eluded me. I began feeling that I was using my time unproductively, and this realisation induced anxiety. If you are an inexperienced researcher like me, it is not always easy to see what’s missing and it can be discouraging to read large volumes of material and not have any ‘a-ha’ moments along the way.

As a remedy to this angst, I have realigned how I approached literature by developing insight into what kind of reading I was doing. I started by going back to the beginning, reading as an objective viewer or a passive receiver of information. Instead of frantically trying to identify gaps in existing knowledge from the outset (which puts a considerable amount of pressure on you as a researcher) I found that reading to familiarise myself with material related to my study was a far more effective use of my time in working on my proposal. I didn’t force myself to evaluate the author’s arguments or the underlying assumptions of their propositions straight away. I know that critical engagement occurs further along the process, and through critical engagement knowledge gaps would emerge. In some cases, such as mine, knowledge-gaps may not be quite so apparent. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I understand the aim of pursuing a master’s degree not to necessarily to produce the most original and exciting or innovative study, but rather to demonstrate competency as a researcher. Through proper research of any subject you can build upon existing knowledge, which is still a valid contribution to your chosen discipline.

So, I collected literature, categorised it using a reading journal and qualified it in the context of my study. This process made reading in the preliminary stages far more pleasurable experience. I stopped stock-piling papers to read in future as doing so only fuelled my core belief that I was not reading enough. Instead, I skimmed abstracts and introductions, bookmarking papers I wanted like to read when I had sufficient time. I found that doing this daily over a three-month period provided an extensive reading catalogue, where I was building my own library or repository.

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I have learned to distinguish between the types of reading I am doing. I am growing to understand that there is room for focused, critical and intentional reading; however, there is also a time for general and unconstrained reading. Much like writing, there are variations, each with their own merits. Writing should reflect academic rigour and express critical insights; however, it’s also useful to do freewriting exercises throughout the research design process. Similarly, reading can also be approached in this manner.  Designing a study isn’t a linear process. Making notes or distilling themes and concepts in the literature becomes less arduous when you allow room for exploration through reading. Understanding which kind of reading you’re doing helps lift the fog of confusion and resultant panic that emerges when you read without thinking. Reading comprehensively means casting a wide net and then making conscious choices to either consume or discard what has been collected. Reading thoroughly means engaging with material within a narrow and deep construct, and through this finite scope, expertise is developed. The latter cannot occur without the former. Thus, I am not suggesting that anyone should read indiscriminately. I am, however, stating that building a knowledge base necessitates reading extensively to develop a sound background understanding of any topic.

By the time I completed my literature review, my research had become a case study situated within a larger conversation about meddling as a foreign policy strategy. I certainly did not anticipate structuring my study in this way. Prior to engaging properly with literature, I had entirely different working questions, none of which considered meddling as a foreign policy strategy. My point is that reading is not merely a means to an end. What I included in my literature review didn’t represent the extent of the material I had spent previous weeks reviewing. Adopting a mindset which prioritises reading as a fundamental part of your responsibility as a researcher, with no apparent start and end point, alleviates some of the stress associated with what to read and how to engage with literature. And adapting your reading journal to enable different kinds of reading, note-taking and organisation can help you in this process.

‘Put down the red pen’: Some thoughts-in-progress on feedback-giving

I haven’t posted anything in ages, for a range of reasons, mostly to do with just having a super tired brain that can really only do what it has to do and nothing extra. I try to make writing blog posts part of my weekly work, but I do also need some creative oomph to find a hook and be myself and share some thoughts (hopefully wisdom) on subjects I am thinking about and think readers might be interested in. And that oomph has been in ever-shorter supply lately. Mainly, I have been spending a lot of my time giving writers feedback on their own writing, and have run out of steam for mine in the process. But, the upside of this is that I have been thinking a lot about feedback-giving and reflecting on doing this online (as opposed to pen-and-paper). Specifically, when do you jump in and track changes, and when do you back off and highlight errors for writers to fix themselves, and how much feedback is too much in the average 10-12 page paper or chapter draft?

There is a large amount of very good research out there on feedback: what and when and how and why and how much. There are many differing viewpoints, of course, but one thing much of the research in recent years can agree on is that feedback works best when it invites dialogue and conversation between the feedback-giver and the writer(s) receiving it. In essence, this means moving from telling writers what to do, to offering advice, prompts, suggestions and explanations that enable and encourage them to sit with their writing and work in revising and correcting it themselves. In this process, they hopefully gain greater insight into and understanding of themselves as writers and not only what they are writing about, but how they are writing about it too, and the effect of their writing on a reader. This is the “critical friend” position: as your feedback-giver, I am here as a friend, but not one who will tell you your writing is perfect (because we know there is no such thing, right?) I will point out errors, gaps and so on from the perspective of a reader, and advise you as best I can on how you could improve the next draft (at least).

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But, the question then becomes: How? How do I offer advice, suggestions, explanations and so on? How much feedback is too much feedback for a writer to make sense of and work with? How many times might I get to read this piece? How do I hold myself back from just re-writing parts of this for them (especially if the writer is my student)?

These How? questions are the subject, again, of much research and fraught conversation in academia, especially as we have moved more and more online in the recent past, and more than perhaps ever before in 2020. We are not necessarily marking by hand, which limits the amount of correcting we can do and comments as can offer, because margin space is limited. I find that I tend to be more discerning when I mark by hand about what to focus on and what to leave, and then how to explain to students the feedback and ongoing revision work. Online, in Word or PDF, I can comment on every error, every line of text if I want to. I don’t have to discern in the same way because space is not as limited in an online text. I can cross out your writing and write my own version over it, potentially taking your ownership of your text away (you can reject my changes, but how many students do this?) I can delete parts of your text, even.

This is where the How? questions can become tricky, and require some introspection on what you are trying to do with your feedback to your students or peers, and what they need to get out of it. If you see feedback as mainly about producing a “perfect” text, then you may well track changes, type over the author’s words and, in the process, assert yourself as part-author of that text. If they don’t understand the thinking or grammatical rules and so on behind the changes you have made, and they see you as an authority, they may just “Accept All” and send it back. But, whose work are you then assessing: yours or theirs? Whose ‘voice’ comes through the text? I have given into the temptation to do too much of this, and have ended up reading revised writing that sounds way more like me that my student in places. It’s an uncomfortable feeling because I know they are not learning and growing as much as they could if I pulled back and tried something less directive (even if that would take more time all round).

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If I see feedback, then, as helping students and writers to become more authorial, more in control of their text, their meanings and the knowledge they are creating – and this is certainly the case when you are working with postgraduate and postdoctoral students and writers as I am – I have to work differently. First, I cannot jump on every error and correct it. I try to find two or three examples of the error, if it is repeated, and in the comment bubble, I try to explain as clearly as I can why this is an error and how they can fix it. Sometimes they copy and paste my words from the bubble into the text without thinking too hard, but often, what comes back is a step forward. I have to offer my advice as questions, prompts, suggestions rather than instructions, so that their input (even if this is not shared with me directly) is invited and prioritised in revisions.

Second, depending on how many times I am going to get to see this draft, or where this assignment is placed within a whole assignment plan, I have to be discerning about how many things I comment on and how I approach the feedback process. Do I highlight all of the confusions I see, every missing link between sections and paragraphs, every muddled/long/obtuse sentence, every claim that has no evidence or elaboration behind it? If I do, with that be 20 comments over a 10 page piece of writing, or 40? And, even if it is only 20, will that be too much for this writer or this student? How much time do they have to sit with the comments, make sense of them, ask for clarification, have a meeting with me on Zoom? If this is a doctoral or Masters student writing a thesis, that’s probably an okay amount, because we’ll chat about it in supervision and they’ll likely have a few weeks to work on the next draft. If this is a writer working on a paper for publication, they may, too, have time to rework the paper.

But time is not the only factor, right? We also have to think about the level of confidence of the student, and how much they can actually cope with, mentally and emotionally. Will this feedback really help this student/writer, or will it paralyse them? We all experience anxiety and a bit of paralysis when we get feedback and have to start revisions, no matter how confident we may be as writers. But, the more experienced writers who have gone through the process of getting things wrong, being guided to a more sound position and getting their writing there through revisions and redrafting, may be less overwhelmed by critical feedback given in larger amounts. They know it will probably be okay in the end, even if it hurts and is hard to work through now, and will take time and effort.

But the average student has not yet been through this process enough to know that the feedback doesn’t mean they are stupid, or should not be writing a thesis or paper, and that if they do the work it will probably be okay in the end. So, I try to be conscious of my tone, and also how much feedback I offer and what I offer it on, to try not to overwhelm and paralyse the writers and students I work with. This is the hardest part of online feedback for me – pulling back and leaving things I know I could comment on but that perhaps are not so important right now. I tend to over-comment, to be honest. What I have started doing is forcing myself to just read a few pages without making any comments and changes, and then think about what most needs to be done to improve the next draft. Then I write one or two longer comments on the pages, rather than 10 small comments. This is hard, but it feels better to me in terms of the presence I take up in the text. Of course, this always depends on what I reading, why I am offering feedback and where the writer/student is, but as a general practice, it prevents me from going overboard.

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I have also started sending my students and writers small summary voice-notes. This is partly because I get lazy about typing long summary comments, and partly to moderate the tone of my feedback in this online life where I don’t always get to meet the writers and students on Zoom to explain the feedback to them. I have found a free audio recorder app that works on my laptop and creates small files (about 3mb for a 5 minute recording), and I talk my summary feedback. I say ‘hello’ and offer them an overview of my impression of the text as their reader, and then highlight 2 or 3 main things I think really need to be part of the next draft. I always sign off with an encouraging comment, so that when they then open the text file, that’s hopefully what they hear in their heads.

The feedback from my students so far has been that they like the voice notes, and that these do indeed take the sting and fear out of the feedback a bit and make it a bit easier to ‘hear’ my voice in the comments encouraging rather than scolding them. We never really know all of what writers and students have experienced around their earlier writing, reading and feedback outings before we work with them; even if you have encouraging intentions, your feedback can still be heard in a negative tone in their heads. The voice notes may help to mitigate this over time. Maybe, if they hear an encouraging voice enough in a voice note and in the written comments it may over-write any mean voices telling them they can’t do this. I hope it will.

Feedback-giving online is tough, certainly for me. I really battle to put down the metaphorical red pen in the form of tracked changes and multiple comment bubbles, and focus on ‘higher order’ concerns around argument, understanding, cohesion and sense-making. It’s much easier to over-write and fix small mistakes, especially when you are tired and longer explanatory comments are hard to express clearly. But, I try to stop myself when I feel I am heading in this direction, take a break from the feedback and come back to it with a clearer head. This doesn’t always work out, of course, with deadlines and many tasks on the weekly list and too much last-minuting and fatigue. But, where I can take this time, I do, and where I can’t I try to be more conscious of what I am doing. Usually, this takes the form of going back over the writing before I send it, deleting or editing overly long or ultimately unnecessary comments, and composing an encouraging voice-note.

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I feel like the bottom line here is that I will always be fallible and get it wrong in parts, and maybe even come across as terse and mean when I never have that intention. Feedback is a conversation, and you cannot control what people hear, how they hear it and even what they do with it. But, I can control my responses and my own learning and improving. With this online life being where we are now and into the future, all I really can do is keep learning how to fail better with each student and each draft. And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I have to get back to doing exactly that!

Making my peace with ‘good enough’ writing

*You can also listen to this post as a podcast.

I’m a patchy perfectionist. This basically means that I don’t have the energy to be a perfectionist about everything (just ask Lovely Husband about all the random, tidy piles of clutter on surfaces that should be empty and pristine), but I have a lot of energy to be perfectionist about some things. Like writing. I really struggle to let go of my writing when I am not sure it’s exactly right or amazingly great. For me, my whole life, there has never really been such a thing as ‘good enough’ when it comes to academic work and ‘products’ like papers, dissertations, reports and presentations. It must be the Best Ever or it’s nothing.

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This is, quite obviously now that I write it down, a recipe for immense frustration and quite a lot of stress. Especially when the career I have chosen requires me to write at least two papers every year that can be published, and requires me to carefully and supportively mentor other writers and thinkers through teaching and supervision. I would never place this much pressure on my students; in fact, my advice to them to is become more realistic and pragmatic in their plans and expectations of themselves, because the perfect, Moste Amazingly Goode Paper is a fiction. It does not exist.

What does exist are lots of decent papers, many good ones and a few really fabulous ones, and these measures are not really very objective. Case in point: I once submitted a co-authored paper to a journal based abroad. I was corresponding author, and after revisions had been made, I mistakenly uploaded the revised paper to the wrong part of the submission site (for new papers). I emailed the editor and we sorted it all out (or so we thought) and the paper was published (with minor revisions, which was lovely). But, two months after it appeared in print, we got two more reviews from two different reviewers, recommending rejection. Obviously, the paper had been published and that was a done deal, but what the experience showed me was that I could send any one of my published papers to different reviewers and readers and get quite different, and quite possibly less positive, feedback that I did from the original reviewers and readers.

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So what, then, is ‘good’ or even ‘great’ in a published paper? How do you know when what you have written is good enough to send to a journal, a supervisor or a critical reader whose opinion matters to you? How do you tame the perfectionist who wants it all to be Best Ever, and let go of it? How do you trust the feedback you get and believe the positive comments? I have many thoughts on this, some of them contradictory depending on how loud the perfectionism is and what I am writing and who I am writing for. But I’ll focus on a couple here that seem to be pretty settled across all of these variables. They mainly have to do with my sense of my voice and my writerly self, and my groundedness in the field I am contributing to.

I have published a number of papers and book chapters and have just finished a book that is now in press. So, I have a fairly clear sense now of when my writing sounds and feels like ‘me’ and when it does not. I think of this as my authentic or real writerly voice, and this has been very much a work in progress over the last ten years. I have to mostly play by the rules in terms of layout, style, grammar and so on – I can’t just freeform or stream-of-consciousness my papers or they won’t make any sense – but within those rules I can assert my agency to make sure that I use words, terms, turns of phrase, examples and arguments that sound and feel like me, my scholarly self. This is a big thing for me. It’s really hard for me to be excited about telling people to read my paper if I feel like a fake on the page or if the voice sounds stilted or ‘off’. Sometimes, editors make suggestions that push the writing in that direction which even five years ago I might have just accepted without thinking about it too hard. But now, I really stop and think and try out the suggestion in my voice. If it fits, cool; if it feels like something I would not say or write or like someone else’s voice, I politely disagree and defend my original choice. I don’t always win, but I win often enough that I can (just about) let the losses go.

So, when I get to the stage where the paper or chapter looks and sounds and feels like me on the page, and it’s an argument and a piece of work I am proud of and excited about, that’s a point where I can believe it’s at least a decent paper or chapter. The more you write and send your work out and get feedback, and work with it to become conscious of what you are learning and the effect of that learning on your writing and thinking, the easier it becomes to believe you can written something decent, good even. Practice does not make perfect, but it does improve your feel for your voice and for what readers within the fields for which you are writing will respond positively to and what they will likely critique or challenge.

At that stage, I really then turn my attention to the contribution, and look really carefully at the quality and clarity of the argument. I try to ask myself hard questions about how clear my claims are, how strong the evidence is, how useful the paper is or what kind of contribution it may be able to make. I have a less pressured sense of trying to say Something Really New and Huge with my papers than I used to when I started writing for publication, and try now to find angles that shed a different, new-ish light on topics that my peers and colleagues are talking about and interested in. This means I have a clear conversation to join, and I have something small but valuable to say. This doesn’t always mean a ‘yes’ from journals, but it does make it easier to aim for ‘good enough’ rather than Best Ever.

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Writing is hard enough without all the added pressure of trying to make every paper or dissertation or report or presentation the Best Ever. There are literally thousands of papers published every year and thousands of M and D degrees awarded, by and to scholars who are smart, capable, doing interesting work. If you choose academia as a career you are most likely a small fish in a big pond, unless you are in a very niche field or area of study, perhaps. What this probably means, pragmatically and in defence of your mental and emotional wellbeing and work-life balance, is that your career will be full of writing that is decent and good enough with hopefully high points of great in the mix. This is a long marathon, and looking at your career as a whole rather than paper by paper can help to mitigate any over-stressed perfectionism.

I drew this one 🙂

Realising and accepting this was harder for me when I started publishing than it is now, with a few papers and some pretty mean peer reviews behind me. So, I realise that if you are still trying to publish your first paper or are earlier on in your career this can sound like it is easier than it may feel. It is not easy, and it does depend on how much is invested in the paper or project you are working on. Sometimes, with a paper we are less invested in, it is much easier to accept ‘good enough’ and let go of ‘great’ or ‘amazing’. Other times, this is much harder because so much more of our scholarly selves and time has been invested in the project. I guess it might also depend on the stakes – is a promotion or probation riding on getting a publication in a ‘top’ journal, meaning it probably has to be pretty good or even great? With each paper and project, you may need to work out the stakes involved and also figure out what you can live with and let go of and what you need to hold on to and fight for.

For me, learning to be okay with ‘good enough’ has been – is still – hard. That academic over-achiever is never really satisfied and she still rewrites bits and pieces of early papers that had too many long sentences and too many compromises in her head. I have learned, more or less, what I would regret and rewrite in my head if I let go of it too soon, and what I can live with. This has been a process (ongoing, of course) of being increasingly conscious of what feels and sounds and looks like me on the page and what does not, staying up to date with new research and writing in my field both in peer reviewed journals and the more popular presses, and focusing on what revisions, edits and changes made using feedback from critical friends and reviewers do to my voice and the clarity and impact of what I write.

The more conscious I am of the craft of scholarly writing, and of the mark I want to leave, the easier it is to be okay with the ‘good enough’ papers, because I have realised that they are actually much less awful that I think they are and that no one is harder on me than I am on myself. I need to take my own advice and focus on pacing myself for the longer race I am running, and learn to trust that sometimes ‘okay’ is more than okay and ‘good enough’ is actually pretty great. If I stay as true as I can to my own sense of scholarly self and to my own voice, it’s hard to regret anything I have written, even those long sentences!

Book writing: Timelines, best-laid plans, and expecting the unexpected

Those who have been following this blog for a while will know that I have been working on my first sole-authored book for some time now. I am completing the final edits and corrections this week and then it will be off to the publisher for the next stage of the process. And what a process it has been. I had NO idea, in spite of reading other people’s blogs about book writing, exactly how long this process takes and how many different steps and stages there are along the way. This posts tracks my book-writing process, and I hope it may be helpful to those of you working on a large project of your own.

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2015: While working on my postdoctoral research and writing papers for journals, I start thinking that my argument is much bigger than a journal article, or even a few journal articles; that I actually need a PhD-thesis/book-length project to say what I think I need to say about knowledge-building and teaching in higher education. One of my two advisors is putting together a larger proposal for a series, so I run my early ideas past him. He’s interested and thinks it could work, so he says ‘draft a proposal and let’s see’.

2016-2017: I start working on early versions of the book proposal in 2015 and by mid-2016 it’s in a pretty decent state. I even have a basic draft chapter to go with the proposal and a few other pieces of two other chapters. But, I work on contract and I have kids and bills and a life to help pay for, so teaching and consulting work takes up most of my headspace and emotional and mental energy. The proposal writing process slows way down. Then my mum gets really ill mid-2017 and no writing or research of any kind happens for a while. My advisor—now the series editor —emails periodically, encouraging me to keep thinking about the book and working on it when I can.

2018: Buoyed by the encouragement from the series editor and from peers who keep telling me how useful the book could be, I start working on the proposal again in earnest. The series editor gives me really helpful, sharp feedback, and slowly we beat the proposal and a draft chapter into a shape and form that can go out for external peer review. This happens late 2018. The wait for feedback is extended by staff changes at the publisher. I get on with other bits and pieces in the meantime, including holding texts and bits and pieces of writing and thinking on most of the seven chapters.

2019: Feedback arrives finally in February and it’s a green light. Yay! And, OMG, now I have to write the book! I work out, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that with the bits I have already done, I can write the full draft by the end of October. I do not properly factor in how much work I actually do every year between my contract teaching, supervision, consulting, parenting and administrative tasks (life and work). I also do not properly factor in how much procrastinating I do around my writing and research. On top of this, I get pretty ill in July and August and am finally diagnosed with asthma, which is a pretty tiring condition when it is not being managed. I fall way, way behind.

I have written a couple of the chapters in full, sent them to critical friends, and have some useful feedback to work with in revising these one and writing the missing ones. But there is no way I am making that deadline. I have to send the email I don’t want to send and ask the editor for more time. He says: ‘Ok, how much? Be realistic’. Friends who have written books, including Lovely Husband, tell me this is normal: nobody makes their first book deadline. I am encouraged by all of this and set a new deadline: 15 January 2020. This feels mad, but I am also really keen to not drag this project on way into 2020.

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I spend most of November doing everything other than my book, even writing a full journal article on an unrelated topic. I am hugely frustrated with myself but can’t quite seem to make myself do more than a few floppy hours on the book each week. This does not bode well. December and school holidays arrive. I cannot possibly go on holiday: I have a freaking book to write, and I have maybe got about 40% of what I need. So, I write and I write and I write. The combination of shame (I do not want to ask for more time again) and motivation (I really need and want to move on from this now) spurs me on. Having my whole family ask me about my daily word targets also helps. Christmas and New Year pass and the thing is turning into an actual book.

2020: I make my deadline and off the book goes to the series editor. We decide that asking two colleagues for feedback would be a really useful thing to do, so the book goes off to them too. While I am waiting for peer feedback, I get my year going. The coronavirus reaches us in March and everything goes off-plan. My kids are no longer in school; my colleagues’ teaching and home plans change. Feedback finally reaches me in May and it’s all positive and encouraging. But detailed: there are now revisions to really sit with and take time over. I tell myself these will be done in two weeks. Two weeks later I have not even opened the files. It takes about four weeks, but I finally push myself into my chair, open and merge the files they sent, and get started. It is hard. These are not just corrections; they are revisions. New writing, re-thinking, careful responses. I’m exhausted.

July 2020: It goes, fully revised, to the series editor and now it is his turn to read it. He reads the first two chapters and sends detailed feedback. There are a few holes that need filling and lots of small corrections and edits (commas, referencing style changes, etc.) The usual sorts of things you have to pay attention to when you are preparing a manuscript for actual readers out there in the world who will pay for your work. This is fine. But, I am tired, emotionally and mentally. This year has kicked my butt. My asthma is up and down, so some days are full of energy and others are empty of it. I pick away, working backwards from the end of the book (my favourite chapter) towards the ones he has read, making all the small corrections to psyche myself up for the big ones. After completely freaking out about a couple of more critical comments which prompt new writing and actual revisions (not edits), Lovely Husband and a good friend talk me out of the spiral and I manage to get it all done.

Late August 2020: I get an email from the editor saying there’s not much more to do now, and I’m almost there. The relief is huge. The book will be finished (for now) before my birthday, which was my goal. The first major finish line is in sight at last: a finalised manuscript ready for the publisher.

I imagine, if I had to keep going with this timelines, that September and October will be spent waiting for proofs, which may arrive before the end of the year, depending on the publisher’s timelines and their own planning. I will then have to read the whole book again, dealing with all of their edits and corrections. This is a potentially tiring thought. One of the things I did not expect was how many times I would have to actually read my own writing. Of course, every time I do, I make corrections and improve it (especially my long sentences). But, these improvements are made only after telling the mean voice that says my writing is trash to please shut up. She can be pretty loud, especially when I am already tired and over it all. So, the work now is not just mental; it is also emotional and psychological: I have to use all my resources to get me across this finish line.

This is not unlike the end of a PhD-writing and research process. Doing any kind of significant project, even with the best-laid plans, means coming to terms with unexpected delays (e.g. waits for feedback, for examiner’s reports, and even dealing with yourself and various acts of procrastination and self-sabotage that you need to overcome). It also means being kind to yourself when things go awry or just take longer than you thought they would. This book project has taken, all told, 4-and-a-bit years so far. That is a lot longer than I—perhaps naively—thought it would. There have been many unexpected delays and parts of the process I wasn’t planning on or didn’t know to plan for. But, surrounding myself with people who believe in me and in this project has helped me to stay the course. Imagining that book in my hands with my name on the cover has inspired me to keep going. You can’t do any kind of significant project alone: you need your people and your sources of inspiration and motivation to keep you going.

If this process so far has taught me anything about myself, it is that I am more capable than I give myself credit for. I can do more than I think I can if I just get out of my own way and let myself believe what my friends and colleagues tell me. I can do this, and more. I think those things are probably true for all of us if we let ourselves believe them.

Word limits: Arbitrary or purposeful writing boundaries?

There is a fair amount of art and craft that goes into any form of writing. Scholarly writing is a form that is not often seen—especially by novice writers—in ‘art and craft’ terms in the way that, perhaps, novel or short story writing is. But I think it’s important to understand writing an assignment, a journal article, a book or book chapter, a dissertation or thesis, as an act of ‘crafting’ our ideas and thoughts into a narrative that will engage, inform, persuade the readers we are writing to.

In any form of writing there are word limits. 1500 words for a first-year essay, 40000 words for a Masters thesis, 80000-100000 words for a doctoral dissertation, 7000 words for a journal article. Even in blogging land, the average post tends to hover around 800-1000 words, a fairly standard word limit for the average post. These word limits can frustrate and annoy writers—they either feel like they are hindering creativity and expression or are overwhelming (so many words!) A student once expressed having to stick to a very short word limit for an in-class task (300 words) as ‘deeply painful’ because he felt he had to cut ideas out that he wanted to include, that were part of him.

Image by Markus Weber from Pixabay

All of us writers have, at one point or many, had to sit with a piece that was over the requested or set word limit and work out what to cut, what to leave, and what to rephrase or reword to keep the idea but reduce the word count. This editing and re-crafting process can be a painful and frustrating exercise indeed. It can feel arbitrary after a certain point. ‘Why is there such an issue with an extra 126 words in a 6000-word paper or an extra 10 pages in a 200-page thesis? Just let me say what I want to say!’

These editing and revision experiences and my student’s frustrated plea for more words may beg the question: Are word limits a purposeful boundary around a single piece of writing and thinking or are they rather arbitrary conventions devised by publishers, lecturers and examiners to save costs or reduce marking stress? Why are some word limits negotiable and others are like a solid wall: not one more word may be written!

Image from Pixabay

To answer this question, I am returning to the idea I started with: writing as a craft. In some ways, it is quite easy to include all of your ideas in a paper or thesis; you can write about everything you have read, everything you think on the issue. You can just capture your ideas as they come. This is often what we do in brainstorming and drafting: let the ideas flow so we get them out of our heads and onto paper. But we cannot send this to reviewers, editors and examiners. This is what we perhaps may share with critical friends and supervisors to obtain feedback and help with shaping one argument that can be clearly supported with relevant literature and evidence, organised coherently and cohesively into a structure that will make sense to readers and persuade them to take our ideas seriously.

This ‘stream of consciousness’ type drafting needs to be crafted—edited, reorganised, shaped—into one argument, one ‘golden thread’ that runs through the paper. This is especially the case when working on a journal article or book chapter. If we try to throw all of our thoughts into one paper, or even one thesis, we end up confusing and confused. We struggle to work out where the focus of the paper or thesis is and that leads to confusion around what we should be including and excluding, what further reading we may need to do, what data we need to select, etc. Word limits are perhaps more accurately described as argument or thinking limits.

A word limit is actually a limit on purpose and focus: 6000 or 7000 words for a journal article, for example, makes it possible for one argument to be made well. That argument, or main claim/focus, then becomes a tool that enables you to choose: relevant literature to support your contribution to knowledge; relevant theory to apply to analysing your data; selected methodology and data from your larger methodological framework and dataset, chosen to make the argument; a focused conclusion that draws the argument to a coherent close. For a non-empirical paper (conceptual, systematic review, etc.) you still need a ‘choosing tool’ and that is still the main argument or focal point of the paper.

Word limits help up to choose judiciously with the aim of making meanings clear, well-supported and persuasive. For example, if I know I only have about 800 words for a whole blog post, I can’t spend all of those on the run-up to my point; I have to get to the point quickly so that I can spend my allotted words explaining, supporting and elaborating on my point so that it is made meaningfully and as fully as possible. ‘Rambling’ around the point means I have used up my 800 words and left you wondering: ‘Why am I reading this? What is she trying to say?’ This happens with any writing that is sent to a reader without being crafted into a form that has the reader in mind, as well as the purpose and focus of the writing in mind.

Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay

Word limits, then, are not arbitrary or there to save money or time. They are there to help us as writers focus our thoughts, our reading and our research. The outcome of all this focus is clearer writing that makes a limited set of points or an argument meaningfully and effectively with the reader and the purpose of the writing in mind. While all the crafting work that goes into making any piece of writing effective and meaningful is not easy or quick, it is important. Writing is about meaning-making and meanings take time to make well. For students used to writing a paper once and handing it in for a mark, this can be a big shift in thinking and action. Writing is far more about rewriting than people tend to think it is: re-drafting, re-thinking, re-working, re-editing. But, as I have been learning in editing and polishing my own writing these last few weeks, the work pays off in the writing you are able to share and be proud of in the end.