Scholarly writing is a craft

I am working on a lot of revisions at the moment – of my own and also with students on a writing course I am teaching online. I have been thinking a lot about the nature of scholarly writing, especially in relation to why a piece of writing is not working, and what the writer needs to change or add or remove to make it work. This has led me to reflect a bit more on how scholarly writing is a craft an exercise in deliberate, thoughtful, planned thinking, more than anything, and how this manifests in writing that is clear, focused, sensible and accessible to the reader you are writing for.

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Perhaps a good place to start this reflection is on the idea of writing that is not working, and what this usually means. I am focused on the social sciences as this is my field, broadly speaking, but I work with writers across the social and natural sciences and also in the Humanities, and these points apply to the writing they do as well. The first point is the sense that the argument or the main claim is rushed. This is a feeling when I am reading, more than a specific list of qualities in a paper that one can see and tick off as being present or absent. It’s a sense that I am being hurried through the writer’s reasoning process. Common here is claims that are made or stated, but without any or enough explanation in relation to the overall focus or argument of the paper. What I read is a series of statements, perhaps with supporting evidence, but without the writer stepping in clearly enough to comment on, position, or critique these statements from their own position (the argument that paper is advancing). This is, for me as a reader, a paper that is not working to ground and clarify the position the writer is coming from, and what informs that position.

Related to this point is that papers feel rushed when the writer is trying to do too much with one paper – too much theory for one problem, or too many data for one argument, or too many lines of research in the selected literature. If you are working to a word limit, like the usual 6000-7000 words for a journal article or book chapter, this means you tend to gloss over explanations, and rely too much on stating what the theory or data or lines of argument are, rather than thinking carefully about what they mean in relation to the argument you are trying to make. So, as a reader, I feel like I am reading a lot of potentially interesting or useful information, but I am not completely sure why, or what it means, or what you want me to make of it. This is an ultimately frustrating or confusing experience for a reader, because they have to work too hard to try and figure out what they are supposed to be learning from the paper. The guideline, regardless of field, is one main argument/contribution to research per paper, and to carefully select literature, data, methods, and so on in relation to establishing and defending or supporting the development of that contribution.

Another common issue as regards a paper not working is a paper that lacks signposting, or markers for the reader that connect the different parts of the paper’s argument together into a coherent whole. There is no one ‘formula’ for writing a publishable paper in any field. There are commonalities, such as the IMRaD structure for many of the natural sciences, but even with that, a writer cannot simply rely on sub-headings to create coherence for them or communicate the logic of the argument in their head to the reader clearly. So, one way of crafting a paper that works for readers is paying attention to the connections you are making between parts of the argument, and how you are making these apparent. There are various ways of doing this, through the use of descriptive sub-headings (so a heading that indicates what the literature is about, rather than just Literature Review, if you are ‘allowed’ to do this); through careful repetition of key ideas and phrases (introducing the idea in the last sentence of section one, and then repeating the term or phrase in the opening of the next section); and through using connecting word and phrases to signal transitions and relationships between ideas and sections.

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These words are key in writing as a craft: in relation to. Everything you choose to bring in to your paper to situate your contribution within the field, and make a case for why your argument is useful or relevant to readers and fellow researchers in this field need to be carefully chosen. This notion of choice means that you need to be thinking all the time of what that reading, or piece of data, or aspect of methodology or theory, means to your argument, and how it will help you to explain your meanings to your reader. It also means that some things will have to be left out – you cannot use your whole thesis literature review in one paper, or all the data you have generated, or your whole theoretical framework. You will need to select, rewrite, rework and relate chosen parts together into a new whole that connects to the larger research project you are working on, but does not try to cram this into one paper in miniature form. You also need to think very carefully, all throughout the writing process, of how the pieces you have selected in connect or link to one another within the logic of this argument you are making right now.

Writing as a craft is, at its core, an act of meaning making, and these meanings have to be carefully established, explained and connected together into a whole paper that makes sense to readers. A great deal of the initial acts of writing anything – a thesis chapter, a paper, a book – is planning: working out what to select in and what to leave out, and what the line of argument is that you are trying to establish and support. Later, after feedback, revisions are focused on honing your craftsmanship: editing your ideas, focusing on the connections between parts of the whole – within and between paragraphs, and within and between sections of the paper or chapter. When the first basic draft of pre-writing is down – the writing you have done to tell yourself the story of your paper or chapter – it is important to pay attention to every sentence you write. What are you trying to say here? What is the value of this information – claim, evidence, explanation, connection – to your paper? What are you communicating here, and does it connect with or move away from the core meaning your paper or chapter has to convey? Answering these kinds of questions as you write, think, read your work over, get feedback, and revise and rewrite will all move you towards more deliberate writing, more thoughtful writing, more readerly writing that shows your craftsmanship as a writer.

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Book writing: I wrote a book!

If you have been following this blog for a while, you will know that I have been writing a book. Last night I typed the final full stop on the draft manuscript, and today it’s going off to the series editor and the publisher. The work is not yet done – reviews and changes and proofs and all that are still ahead, but guys, I wrote a book!

It feels amazing and oddly anti climatic, a bit like finishing the PhD thesis. In form, the book and the thesis were a lot less alike than I thought they were going to be, but in process they were quite similar. Much to my dismay, it turns out I have not become any better at time management and planning my writing time than I was 5 years ago. Also, while I am better at shushing the Mean Voice that says my writing sucks, I am still quite angsty about whether I have anything to say that people will want to read. So, I wrote a book but in many ways I am still struggling to be a confident writer.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. Reading Helen Sword’s book about how successful academics write, I am struck by truth that learning to be a writer is not a process with an end. Well, death is an end, I suppose. But, what I mean is that there is no point where you go ‘Yes, I am here! I can now write without any imposter syndrome or struggle or fear that my writing is crap – it will all be smooth sailing from here on!’ I think many students have this weird idea that their supervisors just churn out published research and erudite online pieces without any trouble and that they are the only ones who struggle with writing. There’s a lot of self-blame about writing struggles, and this can be hard to manage and overcome, especially without help.

Maybe there are magical academics who write and write without a single moment of self-doubt or fatigue over revisions or wishing they could just stop and not do this anymore. I have not yet met any, but academia is a big place, so who knows? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you have no angst at all about your writing you are probably not doing it fully consciously. By this I mean that all writers, fiction and non-fiction, put themselves into their pages. I write about my research, which I do because it is meaningful to me, part of my identity as a scholar and also as a human. So, when you read my papers and my book(!), you are getting to know me a bit, and what I care about professionally and personally. If I was completely unfazed by any parts of the writing process, I probably wouldn’t be fully connected with it on a personal level, I reckon.

This is probably why I find writing so angsty so often – I’m not writing about something detached from me. If readers and reviewers are really critical, it hurts. If people think my ideas are weak, or wrong, that’s hard to process. If you’ve spent any time writing for publication and sending your work to journals and publishers, you will know that critical feedback is part of the deal. If you have had hurtful feedback already, you will know that it can be hard to come back from in terms of believing in your ideas and continuing to put them out there. I think part of my angst and struggle is often linked to anticipation of criticism. I get ahead of myself and imagine all the disagreement and opposition to my ideas that might be out there before I’ve written it all down, and then I start to doubt myself. I did that far too often with the book, and ended up behind schedule for most of it.

The solution here is to surround yourself with people who genuinely do believe in you. As Lovely Husband said the other day, it (the last bits of the book, in my case) is like climbing Mount Doom, and Frodo could not have done that alone. He needed Sam to help him get there, to keep telling him he could do it. You are Frodo and you need Sams, family, friends and peers who can encourage you, make you tea, share your ideas and offer constructive advice, and keep you going. The trick, when these people tell you that your writing is not crap and that you can do it, is to believe them. You need to pick Sams who you will believe, and whose encouragement and advice will be meaningful to you. I had so many Sams, virtually and in person, and I could not have kept going at points without them. As with my PhD, this part of writing has not changed: you need people with you on this road.

The other solution here is to consciously get out of your own way. I am so good at getting in my own way and getting ahead of myself. I have written the mean reviews for the mean reviewers before I have written a word for them to actually read! I did this a lot during the PhD too, putting feedback into my supervisor’s voice even though I knew that she wouldn’t actually be that mean or that critical and was far more likely to be encouraging even if she thought I should rewrite a whole section, or think harder about my claims. The thing is, you can only write and read and think your way through your project one day, one idea, on sentence at a time. Try to actively bring yourself back when you start freaking out about next month, next year, the next 100 pages. You’ll get there, but you have to go through here first. This has been a huge lesson for me in writing this book.

I think being a more confident writer probably requires a mix of things. I need to keep learning to be conscious of where I am now and where I need to end up with the paper or chapter, but not freaking out and getting ahead of myself so that the writing is tied up in knots before I have started. I need to keep being brave and sharing my writing struggles and my clunky words with my Sams, and try to believe their feedback when it comes, both positive and not. I need to be kind to myself but not let myself off the hook – a little bit of writing and thinking every day is better than nothing; it keeps the ideas from getting away from me and taking on a life of their own.

None of this is new. I have written it all before here, in different words and ways, this just reinforces for me that this writing gig is a lifelong learning process, and that we often have to learn the same lessons over and over in relation to different projects and at different times. I am always going to be learning how to believe in myself and my ideas, and I think doubt is part of the process of becoming a good writer, someone who is conscientious, understands the power of words, and takes this responsibility seriously. But we have to work to keep the doubt in check, so that we can keep writing and working and get the ideas out there for people to agree and disagree with.

Putting your work out there, in any form, is hard. I want everyone to love this book and, like the PhD, I want it to be the best book ever. It won’t be, of course. But, I am so proud of it, and it’s written. It’s a stepping stone to new projects, like the PhD was a stepping stone to this one. This is another thing I am still learning: that every paper, every project is another building block for me, another opportunity for learning, another chance to fail better. This actually helps me – if the PhD or the book is not the only things ever that you will write, you have more chances to do better, to reflect and learn and grow.

I hope some of this helps you to feel less alone, and like you have Sam her, believing in you and your ability and ideas. Everyone struggles, everyone fails, even the most successful and productive writers you know. Their secret is that they don’t let either the success of the failure define them to the point that they stop learning from the struggles, and working out how to keep moving forward. Happy writing, Frodo Baggins. You got this.

When you hate your writing and everything sucks

I have less than one week left before the (second) deadline for the submission of my book manuscript. I am trying to write the final chapter, which is also the Introduction. Every word is being agonised over, sounds awful, and I really just want to cry and throw in the towel to binge-watch The Witcher. But, I can’t. Because deadlines and expectations and definite self-loathing for tripping at the finish line. So, what do I do? What do we do, as writers, when we feel like complete frauds, hate all the words we put onto the page, and everything just sucks?

I don’t actually know exactly what to do. I have been calling on all the old standbys: ‘If you just slog it out, there will be words on the page and you can always change and edit them later. You just have to start writing’, and ‘You can’t say your writing is trash before you’ve finished the draft – all drafts are terrible but terrible writing is part of good writing’, and ‘You can’t build sandcastles if the sandbox is empty – drafting is filling the sandbox’. Blah, blah, blah. I have a lot of these platitudes and positive, peppy soundbites going round and round in my head, and while most of them are actually true, they don’t really help me find the words I need to open this book on the right note. They just make me feel bad, right now.

The thing is, I am tired. I had a full-on year last year, and I really needed a rest at the end of it. But, because of my own ridiculousness in terms of saying yes to deadlines for BIG projects in January, and my old BFFs Procrastination and The Mean Voice, I ended up not having one. Rather than doing the bulk of the drafting in October and November, leaving me just editing and polishing in December, and time for a proper rest, I had to spend all of December writing, writing, writing. I had bits of rests, but not a proper brain-off, computer-off recharge. So, I’m freaking exhausted. And all my brain wants to talk about is how tired I am and how much I don’t want to be writing. So, the first thing I’m trying to figure out is how to turn off that track in my head for the next few days. Like, I know we’re tired but this has to get done.

I think another problem is I keep getting ahead of myself. I look towards pressing ‘send’ on the book files, and that feels potentially awesome, but then my teaching starts and this other big project has to be finished, and I have three reviews waiting, and I have journal stuff to manage, and I have to go on a work trip, and my kids have all this school stuff, and I have to do laundry and … All The Things, you know? I just feel flattened by the weight of all the work waiting and then I can’t actually do the work now. So, I have to turn off that track too. One thing at a time, one day at a time. Just do The Things for today, and tomorrow will wait. This is actually helping, a bit. If I don’t check my email too much. Or think too hard.

The biggest problem, linked to fatigue and overwhelm I am sure, is that I genuinely hate my writing right now. The words are all wrong, and the sentences don’t flow and I can’t find my thread and it feels clunky and awkward and stilted and boring. The Mean Voice has the microphone right now, and is pretty sure no one will like this book. Now, I have enough practice at this academic writing gig to know, under all the rampant self-doubt and frustration, that people will like the book and my writing does not suck (that much). But, right now it is really hard to push this voice aside and write through the frustration and sucky words and malaise. I just want to stop. I am struggling a lot more with turning off this track. I am not sure I can, so I’m writing anyway and hating it all but the pages are being created and the words are there. I am hoping for a final burst of kind energy from my lovely, tired brain to edit it all into a golden thread that opens the book on the note all my work over the last few years deserves.

Basically, there is no avoiding the days and weeks where you hate your writing and it all just sucks and you wish you could just stop. It’s part of the deal of being a scholar, whether it’s just for the PhD or whether this is your day job. I think we just have to feel our ways through it, actually. It is okay to not love your work all the time, to not feel super productive and shiny about writing all the time, to not like your words and thoughts. It is okay to have really, really bad days and wonder what on earth you were thinking choosing this project, or paper, or career. These days seldom stick around for that long, in my experience. I will get out of this funk, as I have others, and I will start to feel less awful about this book and my writing and things will stopping being so sucky. Hopefully, before Sunday! My plan now is to feel what I feel, and make myself write the crap words because not writing anything is not an option, and then pull it together in the end. I do kind of have to trust the process; I have before and it has been okay in the end. I may not ever love this book, but I am proud of it, and that’s enough.

What I learned about being a writer in 2019

As I sit here at my desk, on the first day of what promises to be one of my busiest work years yet, struggling to keep the writing mojo with me, I am pausing to reflect on what I have learned about being a writer over the last year. Indeed, what I have learned over the last decade. What lessons can I learn, and what inspiration can I take forward into this new year and decade? What small nuggets of pithy writing wisdom can I share? Well, if you will permit me to try and share what writing wisdom I have gained, here goes:

1. The only thing that actually leads to finished papers and books is writing.

Profound, right? The thing is, I have spent a lot of time over the last year doing some serious procrastinating, and talking to my students about their lack of writing being done and sent for feedback. There has been a not-so-small amount of panicking, for me and peers and students, about the writing not being done. Yet, when it comes down to it, sitting down to write gets pushed further and further down the to-do list, and all the top spots on that list are filled with e-mail, and tidying, and faffing around. If you want finished writing, you have to write. Even if you hate every word, even if it feels like you press save at the end of each sentence. Even if you think it’s the worst thing you have ever written. You have to just do it, as often as you can – every day is best, but at least 4-5 days a week if you are working on a big project like a book or a thesis. You can’t really expect to produce a big piece of writing if you are only getting yourself to sit down once a week or less. So, you have to make your writing time a priority and protect it, from yourself and from others.

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2. Your writing is part of you; it needs your time, and you and your time are important and should be prioritised.

Too often, I have pushed my writing away because I have told myself that it is less important than the work other people have prioritised and are paying me to do. While I have to make a living, and pay the bills, I am not just a worker. I am a writer. This is part of my scholarly and personal identity, and as such it is important, valuable, worthy of respect. But it takes a lot of time to be a productive, competent writer. You need to read, make notes, plan, draft, revise, redraft, find the courage to seek feedback, use that feedback, redraft again. That time is too often given away to other tasks, big and small, important and unimportant, mostly because I devalue my writing, and in so doing, de-prioritise the time it needs and also the development of this part of my self. This is a version of balance, but rather than work-life, I have been trying to learn about work-writing balance. Rather than veering from one extreme to the other, which is not really sustainable (all writing and no work, or no writing and all work), I have been trying to create days that have both: writing first, before the email and busy-work, and then email and busy-work after. The days I get this balance right are few, so far, but they feel so good that I am motivated to keep trying.

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3. Writing is also work, and work is only one of the things that defines me.

This world of academia that I work in is hella competitive these days, and pressured. It is scary, as someone without tenure, to consider saying ‘no’ to offers of work: who knows if that offer will come around again, or if there will be another piece of work (and salary) behind it? There are so many people like me, looking for work, competent, driven. So, if I say no and they say yes, I’m out. That’s the fear, anyway. So, I tend to say yes to far too many things, and overload myself, and then struggle to find time and headspace to write. Making writing work, and not a special indulgence, helps: along with seeing it as a valuable part of my self, seeing it as valid work enables me to make it part of my work day and week, and not (always) feel like I’ve done nothing productive if all I have done is read or write of a day. Just because it doesn’t earn me money, doesn’t make it not-work. But, between all the writing-work and paid-work, there is a not a lot of time left over for life, especially if I am always competing and scared to say no. This year has been a big learning curve for me in terms of learning to say no, let go, and not panic or feel bad for doing so. Work of any kind is just one thing – an important thing, but ONE thing – that makes me, me. I am also a mother and a wife and a friend and a baker and a surfer and a reader and a person who likes weekend lie-ins. I have learned that I can be just as, if not more productive, if I learn to stop every now and then and have a day in my pjs doing nothing much, even in the middle of the week. That balance, between all the work and me and what I need to cope with my whole life, has been hard to strike consistently, but I’ve done more writing this year than any other since my PhD, and I have managed to be more balanced too.

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4. Writing can be enjoyable if you stop trying to create perfection.

This is my final nugget of wisdom from 2019. I spend far too much time trying to write The Most Awesome Paper/Chapter Ever Written, which is, of course, impossible. Perfect writing does not exist. But good writing does – great writing even. This writing is considered good or great because people can actually read it and judge it so. This means it is finished, published, out there in the world and not stuck in my head or my laptop. This quest for perfection is paralysing, and it makes writing too hard and too painful. If you want every word, every sentence to be exactly write on the first or second go, you are just going to hate your writing and sitting down to do it will feel like a punishment. In trying to get this book finally finished (and I have about 3 weeks left now), I have consciously let go of this push for perfection. Every single time I sit down, which is every day now, I tell myself out loud: “Just write. Get the words on the page and tomorrow you can re-read, edit and reshape this thing. It just has to be written for now”. What I am finding, as I let myself do this and get into a groove is that, even though I know some of these words and sentences will get the chop, or be rewritten, I am actually enjoying the process of creating these final drafts. I am enjoying this more than the earlier drafts, where I put way too much pressure on myself to write the definitive text on teaching in higher education. Seriously, what was I thinking? Any piece of writing, big or small, is just one argument, one contribution to knowledge, one grain of sand on the vast beach of knowledge we humans are creating. If I can’t have any fun doing this work, why would I want to keep going? I want to enjoy writing, even when it’s hard, and I don’t want to feel like it’s a punishment. So, I’m going to keep learning this lesson far more consciously, and look for the pleasure rather than the perfection.

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I’d love to hear your nuggets of writing wisdom gained over the last year – won’t you take a moment to share one for other readers in the comments? I hope 2020 is a productive, happy, balanced year for us all. Happy new year!

Hashtag AcWriMo fail (so far)

So, it is AcWriMo again. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, it stands for Academic Writing Month, and is a global phenomenon with academic writers all around the world committing to putting words on pages, and tackling writing goals within both face-to-face and virtual communities that offer encouragement, support and accountability. My own university has a Facebook group (although I am avoiding Facebook for mental health reasons right now), and we have a Google sheet where we have written down our writing goals, and update the group weekly. So far, my updates have read: I did nothing, and I did nothing. So, thus far I am basically a #AcWriMo fail.

I think I am starting to actually feel very badly about this, because yesterday I woke up with chest pains, and my mood is declining. I could say it is impending end-of-year-itis, as Lovely Husband and I term it, and that I am always tired and grumpy in November, in the middle of the kids’ exams and last minute requests from people to ‘just quickly please look at X and send some feedback’, and, and, and. But, because I actually know myself better than this (damn it), I have to acknowledge that I feel crappy because I am supposed to be writing, and I am not.

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I have done that thing you’re not supposed to do as a writer and left it all alone for too long. Now it is properly feral, to borrow from Annie Dillard, and I am very afraid of what I will find when I open that door. And even thinking about opening the file, and reading and revising and writing fills me with tiredness and dread. I am in a proper state about it all, and am therefore quite, quite paralysed. Which, you know, sucks. I have chest pains just writing this. Seriously.

I have no magical solutions, and no grand plans. I think the time for these kinds of delusions has passed for 2019. It’s too late in the year for that. What I have is me. I have to dig deep (very very deep I fear), and find my resilience and my strength and just actually sit down and write. Write terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad words (thank you Judith Viorst), and just let them come out of my fingers and settle onto the page. I’ve been seeing all these tweets about how you can’t edit a blank page, and I tell writers in my own courses this exact thing: you can’t make sandcastles out of air. You have to shovel the sand into the sandbox first. You have to have something to work with.

But, you also can’t really work effectively and efficiently with complete nonsense. So, not just any sand will do. You have to have the right kinds of sand, or words and ideas, to actually create a paper or chapter that readers will find useful, interesting, and so on. I think this is the problem, for me. Well, this and the fact that I am just over it all right now. I have kind of lost my faith in my words and ideas. I feel like they’re just blah and meh and ugh. And this prevents me from actually putting them on any page. I don’t know how to get over this. I have tried bribing myself, but it turns out I don’t have anything I want badly enough. I’ve tried being mean, but that just makes me feel worse, so I’ve stopped doing that. I’ve tried gentle cajoling, which sort of works.

Mostly, I just need to write. Write the trash words, which are probably not nearly as trashy as I think they are, and then work them into the shape and form they need to be in. And just keep cajoling, with kindness, because I think most writers actually respond better to kindness than any other form of ‘motivation’. Well, at least in my experience. And I need to not feel like I am the only one having a #AcWriMo fail so far. Because I’m pretty sure I am not. So, solidarity friends, if you are stuck in the molasses like me.

November isn’t done yet, and tomorrow is a new day. Every day is a new day to try and fail and try again and fail better, as Samuel Beckett said. And in failing better, we succeed. But we have to be brave enough to fail. I am not very good at this, and never have been. I hold myself to rather impossible standards, really, and it’s not helpful – certainly not always well conducive to a step-by-step, word-by-word approach to writing. But you know, I’d rather not miss my deadline, and miss this chance to write this book and say these things I think I need to say. This failure would be so much worse than writing a crappy page or nine en route to the finished Thing. So, tomorrow, I will write. Rubbish, brilliance, averageness – I will write it all and then see what I have, and go from there. Who’s with me?

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