A couple of weeks ago I headed off to the beach on another DIY writing retreat. I went with a plan and a clear sense of what I wanted to accomplish and I came home with close to 4000 words of an article after my 2 day retreat. I probably could have pushed for more but something for me wasn’t quite working about the article. It wasn’t a writer’s block but more a methodological and conceptual block. When I filled in sections to the pre-determined headings in my head, something wasn’t fitting nicely. The puzzle pieces were there but they didn’t give me a sense of the final image. There was a block that meant that the picture wasn’t clear, the lines were fuzzy, the connecting parts of the image slid over and into each other rather than nestling harmoniously up against one another.
I came home and left the paper for about a week so that when I came back to it, it was with fresh eyes. I needed to have some time, distance and space from it so that I could see outside of the swirl of ideas and the block that I’d written myself into. In order to do this I decided that I needed to take to my paper with the eyes of a reviewer. As I’m writing this paper for a specific journal I already know the kinds of things reviewers will be looking for. I also had the added advantage of having recently attended a conference dedicated to the methodological approach I was drawing from. In one of the opening sessions of the conference, we’d been invited to act as reviewers by taking the characteristics of the approach and looking for evidence of them in some mock abstracts. Applying a critical eye to the abstracts we were looking for the key characteristics and how these had been explained in the abstract. I borrowed from this idea as a way to hopefully unblock my paper. List of characteristics and guidelines for the journal in hand, I created a checklist for myself of the types of things I wanted to see in the paper. Some people might groan at this idea, might loathe the idea that I was trying to reduce my writing to a technical checklist of the things I wanted to achieve in the paper. I’m certainly not recommending a write by numbers approach as the primary way to develop an article, but the reality of publishing in peer reviewed journals is that reviewers and readers will be looking for particular things and as a writer I had a nagging feeling that there was a conceptual or methodological gap that could become a gaping crevasse if I didn’t address it.
None of us can step outside of ourselves and so in adopting this approach I was trying to shift my perspective and lens by using the checklist as a way to check my paper for the conceptual and methodological ideas that I knew would be expected. As I read I realized my problem lay in conceptual framework. I had made an assumption in my paper that the reader was well attuned with the conceptual framework and the way that it connected with the research question and the methodological approach. This then required some rewriting. Rewriting I can do. Rewriting gives me a chance to make things clearer for the reader, to crack the window to my research ajar so that they can peer in, so that they can see what I see and how I see it. It helps if I think about my research like a kaleidoscope – each paper is filled with the fragments and pieces that make a picture, but if I don’t twist the tube and get the mirrors on the right angle then people reading my paper will be left to do it for themselves. If they rotate too far or in a different direction then they will get a different picture and my research won’t seem authentic to them. Stepping back and working out how I got the mirrors and the pieces to align in this way is something that needs careful attention. It’s something that can’t be rushed and here is where the redrafting becomes so important.
The writing retreat got me to a point where I had pieces of material in the tube and it is in the redrafting that I can rotate it before showing it to others to see if they can connect with the image. After I finish my rewriting I’ll do another do-it yourself review and then get a critical friend to look at it and give me feedback.
So the notion of a checklist might not work for you, but in thinking about how we engage in the process of disseminating our research, it’s worth spending some time reflecting on how we move through the process. How do you rotate the kaleidoscope to form a picture of your research?