Monthly Archives: February 2014

Working with the selvedge

In my last post I wrote about the value of critical friends and the way they can help you see the flaws, gaps and bumpy sections of your writing. After getting a critical friend to read the paper draft I’d put together in my DIY writing retreat I had a good plan for where to go next in the rewriting journey.

I took to my paper with gusto, slashing some sections, rewriting others, trying to get it all to hang together neatly, in the same way that I try to line up pieces of fabric when sewing. I look for the grain of the fabric, I work with the selvedge to stop the fabric from fraying. In the rewriting process, I look for the selvedge of my paper, linking pieces together to ensure that the paper as a whole is strong and works in unison.

As is so often the case, I turn to Pat Thomson’s blog, to find that she has so eloquently captured ideas that I’ve been tossing around in my brain as I try to get things clear. In her latest post she articulates much of what I’ve been throwing around. She argues that the key part of writing is the revising , not the editing and that nearly all academic (and other writers) have to engage in this business of rewriting. It is in this process that we get to the heart of what our work could be and shape it into a final version. For me one of the most important things to remember in shaping new pieces of writing, is to ensure that I don’t leave that revisioning process until after I’ve sent the work in to a journal. When I worked as an intern on an international journal, this was one of the things I saw, people who’d sent their work in too early, before they had a critical friend cast a gaze over it. The temptation to rush is strong in academic writing, and yet, ideas need time to formulate, papers need time to sit and rest, so that we can return to them with fresh eyes, eyes that are not filled with excitement at having finished a draft.

So today after letting my paper rest for a week and after having two more critical friends read it over, we decided that it was time to submit it and to see where it goes from there. I read something the other day about always having one paper in draft form underway and one under review as a good goal for academics. At the end of last month, I submitted one paper, and then kicked this one off. Now that I’ve submitted this one, it’s time to turn my attention to a half-finished paper I had on file.

 In tackling this one, I think I need to go back to the very beginning. Time to revisit what Thomson and Kemmler describe as the tiny text to see if what I wrote is actually where I want to take that paper. While I have a half-formed paper, I don’t think it will be as simple as saying I can just finish it off – there must be a reason why I left it half-written on my computer and my guess is that I rushed to begin it, without a clear sense of what I was hoping to achieve in it, and then, with loose foundations, I found I couldn’t build on it. So, it’s time to go back, to work with the selvedge of that paper and stitch it into something new.

Critical friends, coffee and the writing process.

 In my last post (  I wrote about my DIY writing retreat where I locked myself away in the solitude of my farmhouse and crafted the draft of a paper in 2 days. At the end of that post, I reflected on the fact that perhaps the only downfall of the process is the lack of critical friends when you’re running a DIY with just you. As I identified in that post, once I’ve written the paper and read it a couple of times, I can no longer see it for what it is. I see it as what I want it to be, what I think it is, but I cannot reflect it back to myself in a way that enables me to step outside it, and I definitely cannot do that the day that I write it. With some time it is possible to look at the paper in another way, but it is crucial that I get eyes other than my own to read it.

 Finding critical friends to read your work can be a challenging and difficult process. A new colleague stopped by my office the other day to ask who might be a good person to give a draft of writing to and I, have at times, wondered about who I might seek feedback from. I’m lucky to have a couple of people that I have written and worked with, who seem happy to read my drafts and provide thoughtful and generous comments. This was not good planning on my behalf though, just luck that the people I like and like working with, are happy to read my work and sit and discuss the ideas that spring from it. My critical friends write about similar concepts to me, they know the field, the literature, the methodologies we draw on and this enables rich, fruitful discussions about the work.  My friend and colleague, Maryann is a constant reader of my work, and today we sat in the coffee shop with my paper draft and she talked to me about her reactions to the paper as a reader. She’d already sent me some brief feedback the day before and I’d already started thinking about how I could take her feedback on board and use it to shape the paper into a better version of itself.

 This is not a natural or easy process for me. I have a tendency to write and then think ‘that’s it, I’m done’. I pour myself into my drafts and am exhausted once I finish them. Whenever I first look at feedback, either from my trusty critical friends, or from reviewers, I’m instantly shocked that they didn’t love everything about my work. How is this possible? How can it not be the best piece of writing they’ve ever seen? In this reaction, I hold myself up to impossible standards. I tell others, including my undergraduate and my HDR students, that writing is a process, that no-one gets a perfect draft first time, that it is important to embrace the SFD (shitty first draft) and to develop the work from there. Yes, that’s all fine in theory, but in reality, I want to be able to write a perfect piece, FIRST TIME, EVERY TIME. So there is a certain thud in my brain when I get feedback and realize that like every other writer, I am in a constant process of revisioning and rewriting.

Today with Maryann, we unpacked the ways the paper might be stronger, the ways I might play with the structure to lead my reader through my argument more effectively. In this paper, I’m adapting the work of someone from a different discipline and applying it to my own field and in my draft, I’ve found it difficult to find the balance between acknowledging that I am adapting someone else’s model and claiming the space for my own argument. Maryann sat while I talked through the way I could revise and reshape the paper – and I was struck again by the importance of critical friends in the writing process.

I walked away and scrawled all over the hard copy of my paper. Some parts need to be moved, some need to be tweaked, one needs to be chopped out and another new piece slotted in.  Once I have a clear sense of what I want to do in the rewriting process, I’m keen to throw myself into it. Any initial discomfort I had about not writing a perfect draft vanishes after chatting with my critical friends, and with a coffee in hand I’m ready to tackle the next part of the writing journey.


DIY Writing Retreat

 This week I’ve been holding a do-it-yourself  (DIY) writing retreat at home. The idea began on Monday when I read a book from another discipline and was taken with the notion that one of the ideas could be adapted for application in teacher education. I played around with it using some existing data and it seemed to work well. This article wasn’t on my publication plan for the next couple of months, but I’d just submitted one paper, sent the beginnings of another writing project to a colleague for feedback and was about to start work on one of the papers from my publication plan. Instead this idea grew bigger and I thought of a journal that might be interested in publishing a paper on how the approach could be adapted and applied. Next step then was to write a paper exploring it. Easy hey?

Tuesday I was off to Melbourne for a meeting with a research colleague from another institution so I thought I’d start the day with a solo shut up and write to get my ideas down on paper. I began with ideas for the skeleton abstract using some of the prompts from Pat Thomson’s blog post of a writing course she ran to get me started:  Just free, spontaneous writing, putting in references where I could pull them from the top of my head, but otherwise, just writing the ideas knowing that I could build the literature and references in later on. 1000 words later I was ready to hit the road, feeling smug and self-satisfied at my morning.

Sitting in a busy Northcote café my colleague told me that she was heading off a 2 day writing retreat that she had organized and the faculty had funded. They were running 4 parallel sessions, 2 keynotes, everyone had written draft papers and they were locking themselves away from campus in a picturesque location to focus on writing and talking about writing. I was almost sick with jealousy! 2 days to talk and think about writing and only writing. I’d been following the tweets of some UK researchers who had been on a writing retreat, and I’d also followed the thesis bootcamp tweets online as well. There seemed to be something incredibly productive that could come from having a couple of days designated to writing and writing alone, removed from the shackles of normal academic life and perhaps normal life in general. I drove home, wishing that I could have been there, wishing that my faculty had the same thing, wishing, wishing, wishing.

Wednesday I woke up and an idea had been infiltrating my sleep. I live on a picturesque olive farm having moved here only 5 weeks ago. I’m surrounded by peaceful, still surroundings. Why do I need to go anywhere else? I could run my own writing retreat. I had a quiet study, a trusty writing companion in the form of a dog, paddocks to roam in and trees to gaze at when I needed inspiration. I had two clear days in my schedule due to an all day meeting being cancelled. I drove into the office and left a note on my door saying I was off-campus writing and to email me and I headed home. I had in my head Inger Mewburn’s write a paper in 7 days, you can check out the slideshare here if you haven’t seen it

I began picturing a magazine for academics, no glossy headlines about dropping a dress size in 7 days, or boosting your sex life. It’s all about boosting your output! Increase your writing potential! Write that paper in 7 days!  Hmm  – I reckon I could be onto something here!

Image Image

I turned back to my 1000 words from Tuesday and I didn’t hate it. I kept writing. I searched for articles to fill in gaps, I read them, I gap filled. Oh, how I love journal databases and a speedy internet connection. I took a break and cooked a proper lunch and ate it while reading the Weekly Times and gazing out the window. I returned to my desk and kept writing. I tweeted about my progress and the tweet community gave me support and encouragement to keep going. I participate in a fortnightly shut up and write and regular tweeters whizzed words of encouragement through cyberspace. At 5, I pushed my chair back, grabbed my sleeping canine companion, laced my runners and ran through the paddocks, blood cursing through my veins and ideas swirling in my brain. I came back in, cooked dinner and kept writing. I wrote and tweaked and at 8.30pm pushed my laptop away, declaring enough for one day. The word tally sat at 4, 359 words and once again, I didn’t hate them.

I woke Thursday morning looking forward to my day of writing. I sent some emails, responding to the most urgent and telling others I’d get back to them on Friday. I sat down at my desk and began. Today things weren’t as easy as yesterday but I was beginning to get to the end of the paper and trying to draw the threads of my ideas together in ways that might be meaningful for readers. Soon I was finished a complete draft of 4900 words. I was hoping for an article just over 5000 words all up and I figured that a starting draft of 4900 wasn’t bad in getting me on track.


I picked up my pen, clutched a cup of tea and began to read through, trying to adopt a critical reviewer’s eye, picking faults and holes in my argument and process. Pages scrawled on, I returned to the computer screen and made some changes. It was then that I started to think about the flaw in my DIY writing retreat- I’d done a chunk of writing, I had a draft paper, but I had no colleague with me to talk through the ideas, to share a paper with and to get feedback – I had no critical friend on hand and I needed eyes other than my own on this thing! I emailed it off to a friend and colleague and hoped that they might find time in their busy schedule to have a read.

 As a process the DIY writing retreat has been hugely productive for me and has kick-started my academic writing year. I started with an idea, some data and a space in my calendar.  I ended with a fully formed draft of a paper and a commitment to trying to find the space in my calendar to do this more often. I’ll keep you posted on how the paper goes!