For academic writers, this blog features an eclectic mix: inspiration and motivation, writing tips, APA style pointers, thoughts on research methods, tips on sharing writing through conferences and publications, articles and other resources that are just plain interesting, and occasionally even some humor.
The late Russell Baker was one of those writers who made it look easy. From the outside, we saw only the product of his efforts – his witty, polished, and prolific prose. Yet, in an interview with Adrienne LaFrance six years ago, he reminded us that producing good writing is hard work:
If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light. …
LaFrance, A. (2019, January 23). Russell Baker: ‘When writing is fun, it’s not very good.’ The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/01/russell-baker-when-writing-is-fun-its-not-very-good/581008/
Scott Hotaling, faculty at Washington State University, developed some advice for graduate students about publishing papers based on his reflections on his own experiences as a graduate student. He summarized his advice in this list, which I reproduce here from his article:
The entire article is worth reading for the many practical tips. My favorite is his Tip #3, Cultivate a Writing Habit. He emphasized that graduate students and faculty are professional writers (a fact often overlooked) and offered valuable tips for making writing a habit.
Hotaling, S. (2018). Publishing papers while keeping everything in balance: Practical advice for a productive graduate school experience. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution, 11, 35–46. doi:10.4033/iee.2018.11.5.f
Are you spending hours upon hours working on your projects, yet feeling little sense of progress? One solution may be to focus on improving the quality of your concentration rather than increasing the quantity of time spent. Tim Herrera (2019) discussed how to do just that in his interview with Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and the forthcoming Digital Minimalism. Newport argued that, in order to accomplish deep work (“doing something hard with your mind”), you must have “zero distractions.” The four rules for engaging in deep work are:
- Work deeply: Actively incorporate deep work sessions into your schedule.
- Embrace boredom: Train your brain to accept periods of work without external novelty and stimulation.
- Quit social media: Be intentional and selective about social media use.
- Drain the shallows: Do not allow mundane and administrative tasks to take over your schedule.
If you are struggling to concentrate on your work — especially if you find yourself constantly distracted or reaching for distractions — you may benefit from reading Newport’s books. As Newport said, “Concentration is like a super power in most knowledge work pursuits. If you take the time to cultivate this power, you’ll never look back.”
Herrera, T. (2019, January 13). How to actually, truly focus on what you are doing. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/13/smarter-living/how-to-actually-truly-focus-on-what-youre-doing.html?fallback=0&recId=1FlcKpo3qni144JVLWXy9MFysf9&locked=1&geoContinent=NA&geoRegion=VA&recAlloc=home&geoCountry=US&blockId=home-living-vi&imp_id=650349116&action=click&module=Smarter%20Living&pgtype=Homepage
Newport, C. (2019). Digital minimalism: Choosing a focused life in a noisy world. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.
I find that many clients are curious about how other writers structure their writing days. I suspect that what they are looking for is the “secret sauce,” some magical, foolproof recipe for structuring time that will unlock their productivity and maybe even help them enjoy writing more. Sadly, there is no secret sauce. However, there are lots of options for creating one’s own unique recipe. The real secret is to just try new ingredients and combinations until you discover what works for you. For inspiration, I recommend reading the series “My Writing Day” in The Guardian, where accomplished writers across a variety of genres discuss their daily writing schedules and rituals.
In “Crafting an argument in steps: A writing process model for graduate and professional students with LD,” Elena Kallestinova (2017) examined existing writing process models in the context of the particular challenges students with learning disabilities face in completing academic argument writing tasks. Although her focus was on helping students with learning disabilities, she presented a structure and strategies for academic writing that could prove helpful to all academic writers.
Kallestinova (2017) proposed the Recursive Step-by-Step Approach to crafting academic arguments. She broke the process of crafting arguments into three stages: argument planning, argument drafting, and argument revision (noting that these stages are recursive rather than linear). Within each stage, writers select, synthesize, monitor, review, and translate information and ideas. Kallestinova offered a checklist of specific strategies writers can use to accomplish these tasks within each stage, which I briefly paraphrase and summarize here:
- Free-write on the argument topic to generate ideas.
- Generate a list of evidence that supports the argument.
- Evaluate the ideas and evidence; revise as necessary.
- Develop bullet points into sentences.
- Develop a preliminary outline.
- Free-write on each section of the preliminary outline to develop a preliminary draft.
- Copy select ideas from the preliminary draft to a new document.
- Polish the claim statement.
- Continue to develop and organize relevant evidence for your argument.
- Develop reasoning for your claim based on the evidence, working on one section at a time.
- Compile the separate sections into a comprehensive draft.
- Read the draft critically for main ideas and areas needing improvement. Place comments in the margins. Color code the necessary parts of the argument.
- Create a reverse outline of the draft in order to see the big picture and evaluate the flow of the argument.
- Fill in any additional evidence or reasoning needed.
- Check that you have presented any necessary qualifications and rebuttals.
- Solicit feedback from peers, colleagues, and others.
- Revise your argument according to feedback received.
I encourage you to read the full article for Kallestinova’s (2017) insights into the argument writing process and her elaboration of the various suggested writing strategies for academic writers.
Kallestinova, E. (2017). Crafting an argument in steps: A writing process model for graduate and professional students with LD. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 15(1), 15-37. Retrieved from http://www.ldw-ldcj.org/
In my previous post, I mentioned freewriting, which is the first step in Rebecca Schuman’s system for increasing writing productivity. I want to describe that process in more depth for those who may not be familiar with it.
Freewriting is simply the process of writing continuously for a set period of time on a given topic. Continuous writing is the key to freewriting: you put your pen or pencil to paper, or your fingers to the keyboard, and do not stop writing until your set time is up. Let the thoughts flow freely. Do not reread, correct spelling or grammar, revise, or pause to think about the best way to articulate your point. Do not worry about sentence structure or paragraph structure. Just keep writing. By doing so, you silence the critical voices in your head, separate creating from editing, and open yourself to new insights and questions on your topic. Some writers use freewriting as a warm-up to a longer writing session; some use it to fight writer’s block.
The steps are simple and straightforward:
- Select a topic or a prompt. Write it at the top of your page.
- Set a timer for your writing period. I recommend a period from 10 to 30 minutes.
- Write whatever comes to mind. Just keep writing continuously for the entire period.
- Stop when the timer goes off.
Once you have completed your freewriting, read over what you have written. Look for new ideas and insights, questions, and patterns. Highlight ideas you can build on. Make margin notes to record your reflections. Some writers then use those ideas and reflections as the starting point for the next freewriting session.
To read more about freewriting, see:
Belanoff, P., Elbow, P., & Fontaine, S. I. (Eds.) (1991). Nothing begins with N: New investigations of freewriting. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Castle, J. (2017). Benefits of freewriting for academic staff engaged in a writing retreat. South African Journal of Higher Education, 31(2), 124-137. http://dx.doi.org/10.20853/31-2-1341
Elbow, P. (1989). Toward a phenomenology of freewriting. Journal of Basic Writing, 8(2), 42-71.
Goldberg, N. (2016). Writing down the bones: Freeing the writer within. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Li, L. Y. (2007). Exploring the use of focused freewriting in developing academic writing. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 4(1), 40-53. Retrieved from http://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp
Wagner, V. (2017, August 1). The magic of freewriting. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-creative-life/201708/the-magic-freewriting
Clients seek out a writing coach because something is not working for them. It is no surprise, then, that one of the initial complaints I often hear from new clients is “I’m stuck. I can’t find a productive and regular writing practice that works for me.” We generally have a conversation about what the client is doing now, what works and what doesn’t, and some ideas for trying something new. The goal is to build a personal writing practice that is both habitual and productive. There are many different strategies for this in the literature – almost as many as there are productive writers. Writers need to explore different strategies and find the ones that suit their personalities and schedules.
Rebecca Schuman (2018), in “Don’t spend your holiday break writing!”, offers an intriguing roadmap to a productive academic writing practice. Some of her advice might seem unconventional and even counterintuitive. However, if what you are currently doing to organize your writing life is not working, it is worth a try. Shake things up! For example, Step 1 in her plan is “write first.” That’s right – begin with writing rather than researching. As Schuman says, many scholars get caught in the trap of trying to “read everything” before they write. She recommends a different approach:
Instead, at the beginning of a project — even if you have only the vaguest idea what it should be about — I suggest you set aside a week and free-write. On each workday of that week, spend 25 minutes twice a day (two “pomodoros” a day) and write down all the things that you know, want to know, are interested in, are confused, or are excited about in your new venture. Don’t try for paragraphs or even full sentences. Revel in the mess. At the end of that week, you may have 1,000 to 4,000 words of semi-gibberish — but it holds the key to your future brilliance.
From that humble beginning, you then move into developing a targeted annotated bibliography and a skeleton outline, reading key sources closely, and writing a “workable draft.” Then it is time to revise, revise, revise. What I like about Schuman’s approach is that it gets words on a page quickly – a sure antidote to writer’s block. It is easier to revise those words, no matter how unsatisfactory you may find them, than it is to face a blank page.
I encourage you to read Schuman’s article. You will find detailed steps and a reasonable timeline to help you progress from free-writing to a completed article by following a structured writing practice.
Schuman, R. (2018, December 12). Don’t spend your holiday break writing! The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/2141-don-t-spend-your-holiday-break-writing?cid=VTEVPMSED1
Ahh, there is nothing like flipping the page from one calendar year to the next to stimulate a little reflection and planning. As I reflect on 2018, one thing I notice is that I have not written in this blog for quite a while – most of the year, in fact. I could claim that the blog suffered simply because I was busy, which is true enough, but I also have to acknowledge that 2018 was a year in which I just needed to retreat a bit, have some quiet, and focus inward.
An eventful year in so many ways (not all of which I can even recount here), 2018 called on all my capacities to respond and adapt with grace. My mother suffered through several grueling surgeries. Her death in November put an end to her pain, but left much pain behind for her family. I lost my dog to the effects of syringomyelia, a particular scourge for Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. I continued to work on adjusting to life with Pompe disease, a rare neuromuscular condition with which I was diagnosed in 2016.
Among other accommodations to my condition and the events of 2018, I reached the decision to stop teaching altogether and, instead, focus my energy on this coaching and editing service and on my own writing. I have been, and continue to be, fortunate to work with engaging clients on their many interesting projects. The work is intellectually stimulating. At the same time, one of the things I value most about this work is the personal relationships I forge with my clients. It is a joy to receive texts and emails from past and present clients with holiday wishes, pictures of newborn babies, and such varied professional updates as news of comprehensive exams passed, doctorates awarded, articles published, book contracts signed, and new positions secured.
For 2019, I plan to spend more time keeping this blog fresh. After all, writing is one of the many joys in my life. It is important to make time for what brings joy. I also plan to work on my writing beyond the academic domain. My love of qualitative research springs from my lifelong interest in understanding the particulars of human interaction. In the last two years, I have been stretching my writing muscles by taking classes in essay, narrative nonfiction, flash nonfiction, and memoir. I find these genres offer me new ways to explore the particulars of human interaction, and especially the questions that drew me to my doctoral studies in communication science in the first place:
- How do we connect with each other in positive ways across our various differences?
- How do we promote social and personal transformation by working through conflict?
- How do we balance the need for personal agency with the need for human connection?
- How do we move beyond dehumanizing transactional strategies, assumptions, and values as we relate to each other?
And maybe the most meaningful question of all, at the root of all the others:
- How can we be good humans?
My hope for 2019 is to continue to work on being a good human, to be curious, to be inspired, and to be of service to my fellow writers.
Happy New Year!
How can you get better at what you do? In a 2017 TED Talk, author and surgeon Atul Gawande suggested that professionals can benefit from getting the assistance of a coach. Gawande reported on his experiences with coaching in his own surgical practice, and also on an experiment he conducted with using coaches to improve practice in childbirth centers in India. The impact of coaching in both cases was positive and profound. Why? By observing performance and giving feedback, a coach helps you focus on fundamentals, identify barriers to excellence, enhance strengths, and overcome weaknesses. So, if you are asking yourself, “How do I get better at what I do?”, working with a coach may be the answer.
You can view Dr. Gawande’s talk at the link below. If you want to delve deeper into the power of coaching, you will also find a reading list there.
Gawande, A. (2017, April). Atul Gawande: Want to get great at something? Get a coach [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/atul_gawande_want_to_get_great_at_something_get_a_coach
Faculty members, wondering what to do with all that free time over winter break? Do you want to clean up, tune up, or learn something new? Ryan Straight, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, has some suggestions for how to tweak your teaching, writing, reading — and even self-care — during your vacation.
Straight, R. (2017, December 15). Winter break: Want, should, and probably will. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/winter-break-want-should-and-probably-will/64685?cid=pm&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en&elqTrackId=c0e9ee0579734495ad630b5d1333cd61&elq=cdfda3050b3445719c7ea00859aed83e&elqaid=17180&elqat=1&elqCampaignId=7450