Tag Archives: academic writing

Rotating the research kaleidoscope

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?

The right journal for the right paper…

After the success of my DIY writing retreat earlier in the year which resulted in a full paper draft that then went on to be accepted with revisions, I was keen to lock myself away for another retreat to begin work on another paper. I’ve booked in days to have a retreat Monday & Tuesday of this coming week when I’m not teaching and this time I’m going for beach writing rather than a retreat on the olive farm. I’m lucky that I have retreat locations built in, living on a farm & having parents who live in a seaside town. The beach based retreat also provides the added bonus of having my parents make me cups of tea while I write! There are a couple of fave food places in my hometown that I will reward myself with as writing breaks, and of course, walking on the beach will be the way to kick start my brain when I begin to flag.

I don’t just head away with the goal of getting a paper started as I figure that’s a recipe for disaster which could involve me sitting at my computer for two days hoping that paper writing inspiration will come. The pre-retreat work involves looking at my publication plan and deciding upon which paper I will write, which data I will use and which journal I will target. I’ve got a framework for a number of possible journal articles based on some of my current research projects and the paper I’ve selected to write during this retreat comes from data collected last year. The main challenge I’ve faced with planning this retreat involves a dilemma regarding my target journal. The dilemma isn’t is much which journal to target but simply the fact that the journal I want to target is a journal that has already accepted one of my papers for publication this year. I’ve got some hesitation about writing another paper for that journal as I feel that I should be diversifying my publications and not sending things to the same journal. I’m torn between the positives and negatives of doing this.

The positives lie in the fact that by submitting another paper to this journal I’m trying to build up a body of work in this particular field, all the people I’m drawing from read this journal and publish in it. I think the topic of the paper is a perfect fit for this particular journal- in fact I tried to think about alternative journals to submit this paper to but it seemed like I was trying to jam a puzzle piece into a space it didn’t go. Most of the work I will draw from has been published in this journal. I think that I’m beginning to understand how to write papers for this journal as well, I read it a lot and have a sense of the structure, style and scope of the journal.

The negatives though lie in my concern about how this might he perceived by others. Will they think I am taking a more comfortable approach by submitting to this same journal? If I only submit to this journal am I shooting myself in the foot by limiting the exposure of my research and the chance to make others aware of my work?

I turn back to my publication plan to help guide me in this decision. Looking over the list of things I want to write, I see that other, future, as yet unwritten papers, have the scope to be sent to a range of different journals. This may be the last article I’m sending to this journal for at least the next twelve months. I could always write a different article during my writing retreat but this article begs to be written. It’s the one I think about when I walk through the grove, the one I’m pondering and planning as I drive to and from work. So the decision is made for me. I will write this article. I will target this journal and I’ll see how I go.

My pre-retreat work then involve some deliberations about which journal and once a decision is made it involves some more pre-reading so that I can flesh out my ideas in relation to the literature in the field and in relation to the theoretical frame of the work.
So the plan for this retreat is to get the bulk of a paper drafted, particularly the intro, lit review, method and analysis section. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to get the bulk of the discussion written as well.

But what about you? What are your thoughts on targeting the same journal twice in a year?

DIY update

A few weeks back I was thrilled to hear that Siobhan O’Dwyer who tweets @suwtues was running a DIY writing retreat. After fostering us through virtual shut up and write sessions on Tuesdays, she had decided to take on the DIY writing retreat as a way of getting some serious writing done, and she was kind enough to say that I’d given her some inspiration in making it happen. I travelled to Warrnambool to meet her during her retreat, where we talked about academia, books, writing, life and of course the DIY retreat. In a nice act of serendipity, a week after meeting her, and while she was on week 2 of her retreat, I got the reviews of the article back that I’d crafted during my own DIY stint. If you need or want a recap on my retreat you can find it in my older posts, but the general idea is that I locked myself away on the farm for 2 days with a target journal, a plan, some data and some food, and walked out 2 days later with an article drafted.

I sent my article to two lovely colleagues who gave me some suggestions and I made some changes before sending it in to the target journal. Four months passed and then the email arrived. Favourable reviews, some minor revisions to be made, but it’s looking likely that my DIY retreat article will be on its way to publication soon. I’ve targeted a multidisciplinary journal and had decided that I wanted to apply a tool from one professional field to my field of education to see how it worked. In doing so, it might give others the ability to apply a similar framework to their own work.

When tackling revisions I normally begin by rewriting what it is the reviewer is seeking clarification on, thus setting myself a to-do list for action. This morning, however, I tried something new having seen that Raul Pachecho-Vega had shared a great blog post on twitter. The post is from 2011 from Get a Life, PhD (http://getalifephd.blogspot.mx/2011/03/how-to-respond-to-revise-and-resubmit.html?utm_content=buffer20554&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer) and examines how to respond to revise and resubmit feedback. I really liked the suggestions in this post about putting together an excel spreadsheet with columns for reviewer, suggestions, response, done, and I used this as the beginning step of my revisions by identifying what exactly it was that the reviewers were seeking. In putting the suggestions into this document, I realized that the reviewers had similar feedback relating to clarification of terminology, something that is crucial in an international, multidisciplinary journal. It became the central focus of my revisions and involved adding more clarity around terms and moving these to earlier in the article so that readers had a base to work from. There are a number of steps in the blog post and I recommend checking it out when tackling your own revise and resubmit. One of the things I also liked was the way it made resubmission much easier. With my document clearly showing which reviewer had made which suggestions and my notes on how to address them, along with changed text, I was able to slot in my response to the reviewer feedback really easily in the online management system.

I think a process such as this is a really valuable one in enabling you to take feedback and process what it might mean for the paper, you can begin to build a sense of what the changed paper will look like and how it might hang together to give the reader a better understanding of your research. I find the table process also enables me to move beyond an emotional response to the feedback (what?! They didn’t love everything about my paper?), and instead to step outside my paper to see what readers find confusing or need clarification on.

One of the other things I have also started is a file that traces the kinds of feedback I get from reviewers on my papers so that I can begin to see common areas for improvement in my writing. In this paper the common element was terminology, in anther paper it was setting the international context more effectively. By creating a table that contains this kind of tracing of my writing I can be alert to these areas as I write to try and stop myself from falling into my own writing cracks. So with my paper revisions sent off and my file started, it’s time for a new paper, and a new DIY retreat project. Stay tuned and I’ll fill you in on that tomorrow!

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 http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/good-academic-writing-its-about-revision-not-editing/ 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 (https://sharonmcdonough.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/diy-writing-retreat/)  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.


Learning the art of story during #AcWriMo

 As part of #AcWriMo I scheduled myself in to attend a writing workshop held at work today with Arnold Zable. If you haven’t read any of his works you might want to check out his website and learn more about him at http://www.arnoldzable.com/

 Beginning in academia, he moved into full-time fiction writing and now finds himself back as a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He tells us about his early days working with Margaret Mead in America and he rollicks through anecdotes, books, highlighted quotes from articles, all the time drawing us in to the story of him as a writer. With three hours ahead of us and a group of  9 of us, we set out to explore the art of writing with Zable telling us that he faces the same challenges as us, he ‘faces the blank screen or page every day’. He began by asking us about what drew us to the session and when I said that I use narrative in my academic writing, but was also drawn to the session as I like to do creative writing ‘on the side’, he fixed me with a steely gaze and said ‘it should be in the centre’. I was suddenly cast back to watching episodes of The Voice where Seal and fellow coaches argue that if you want to be a singer then there is no alternative, you have no back up plan. I thought again of Pat Goodson’s book where she questions if we describe ourselves as writers or not. Claiming a voice is something that will reoccur as a thought throughout the day.

 Zable begins by talking about the art of storytelling and he reminds us of the quote from Jung ‘We all have a story to tell and the denial of that story leads to despair’. He argues that the heart and soul of storytelling is the art of scene construction, contending that no matter if we write creative fiction, creative non-fiction or academic writing we can apply some of these principles to the construction of our work.  His eyes flicker with intensity as he tells us that storytelling is a sensual art, driven by the imagination and he unpacks the word, focusing on the notion of the image, the building of the sentences through the painting of images with words. He moves on to unpack the word fiction, from the Latin, ficto, meaning to make and to shape. As he says this I wonder why it is that I have not ever thought of the Latin origin of the word before. His passion for story leeches out through every pore, he is at heart a storyteller, peppering his talk about writing with examples from both his and other people’s stories. He reminds us of striking beginnings to stories, picking out Anna Funder’s All that I am as an example “When Hitler came to power, I was in the bath’. He chortles with delight at both the simplicity and genius of that phrasing.

 I’m lost in his soliloquy about writing, soaking in his words and in my brain neurons are zapping and colliding as he speaks. I’m captured by his description of text versus texture, as he talks about the fact that is in writing the specifics that we see the richness of the tale, the specificity of the naming of things makes them live, makes them ‘vibrate’ more. He holds up his writer’s journal, a black journal with red corners, each page written in longhand and illustrates the mix between planning and inspiration. On the left hand side the page is blank, save for a line or two which is planning, on the right hand side is the pure inspiration of writing. In setting out to write a story, he argues that he knows it’s working when the story is leading him, saying ‘All I can do is begin, enter in the journey and in the course of the journey I discover the story’. Every sentence is littered with adjectives, each word is portent with meaning and I am once again reminded about how striking his vocabulary is in evoking images and concepts.

 He prepares us for the first writing exercise by leading us through 4 devices, referring to Tom Wolfe and the new journalism drawing from social realism. The first of these devices is: 1) scene by scene construction; 2) dialogue; 3) point of view; 4) the least understood – the recording of everyday details/ gestures/ styles etc.  Then he sets us our writing task for the day – 20 minutes to create a scene that VIBRATES. As a lead in he regales us with a tale of a year 10 boy who didn’t like writing but liked surfing and the way he encouraged the boy to ‘get inside the wave’. Our mission, should we choose to accept it is to get inside the wave, to have the courage to begin with the narrative.

 The time passes quickly and inky black words sketch across the page. At times, it feels like my hand is moving independently of my brain and as I write a piece that is associated with many emotions, I feel my heart pounding as if I am reliving the moment, transported back I can feel the moment I’m writing about thrumming through my veins. The 20 minutes is up and he looks at as all inviting us to share what we’ve written. Others begin and I sit quietly, my pulse quickening each time his eyes glance my way as he asks for a new volunteer. Soon I read mine. Voice quavering somewhat, I move through the piece I’ve written, feeling stripped back and bare in ways that I haven’t experienced for quite some time. The academic writing process can remove you from some of this immediacy. You write, you refine, you send off. You wait. You get an email with a response, with feedback, with suggestions, with a rejection. The immediacy is lost. Here in this room, with Arnold Zable sitting before me, there is immediate feedback and he begins to unpick and unpack what I’ve written. My breath catches in my throat and I am frozen, waiting for his reading of the work. He asks me to re-read words and expressions, he talks about my shifting of narrative viewpoint and the impact that has on the work. He asks me questions about the characters and I begin to breathe, reassured that he doesn’t think it is a complete disaster. He is both a patient storyteller and a patient teacher, drawing each of us out he encourages us to follow our stories, he mutters words of encouragement, picking out the phrases that are striking, the devices we have incorporated into our work. In this moment, he sweeps us all along with him, and all at once, we all feel like writers.

 Others read their work, and at times, I’m fiercely jealous, wishing I could have used that turn of phrase, or noticed that piece of detail. I think I rush to conclusions, not building the tension, not reveling in the specifics enough and I wonder if my academic writing suffers from the same shortcomings. I leave the workshop, my head spinning with ideas, plotting ways I can take today’s learning and build it into my work, about the ways I can capture the truth of the stories I tell in my research. I am reminded of the need to work at the craft of writing, Zable’s notebooks, bound collections of works about writing, his knowledge of other writers and their style all reinforce the work of good writers, the dedication and the focus. Here in #AcWriMo, I’m seeing the benefits of this message, of the setting aside to practice my craft and to continue the work of being a writer.

Successes and failures on the AcWriMo road.

As I sit down to write this I feel like I’m writing a survival journal for a zombie apocalypse. Day 5 and I’m feeling good. I’ve had 2 good days and 2 what I consider bad days. I’m getting there though.

Apocalypses aside, I found day 3 and 4 of AcWriMo a challenge, chewed up in a fog of marking and then of working with teachers in a school on professional learning for a whole day, by the time I slumped home on the couch, I could barely remember my own name let alone what I might write about. I needed a better strategy that was going to let me prioritise some writing as Tuesday dawned bright, sunny and tempting me on the calendar was ‘the race that stops the nation’ (the Melbourne Cup for those of you overseas). I’d denied offers to go to Melbourne Cup parties so that I could get some work done and yet by mid-morning, I’d been for a run, been to Pilates and walked around the lake with a friend. Clearly the body stuff was taken care of – now for the writing stuff.

Jumping on to Twitter, I saw I’d just missed the start of virtual Shut Up and Write Tuesday (http://suwtuesdays.wordpress.com/). The brainchild of Siobhan O’Dwyer, virtual shut up and write provides the opportunity for those who can’t get to one in person to participate by doing 2 25-minute pomodoros and tweeting about what they accomplish.  Reading about it, I decided that this was exactly what I needed to get my writing groove going again and rather than wait another week, I decide to do a solo virtual stint.

So better late than never, I jumped onto Twitter to announce that I was going to shut up and write. 25 minutes later and 595 words were taking shape on a book chapter I’m working on. A quick break to tweet about my progress and to check I hadn’t missed the horse race of the year and then it was back to work for another 25 minutes. At the end of my second stint I had 480 words and what I hope will be a pretty nifty metaphor that I can build on. A final tweet about my progress and I’d completed 1000 words and was up to the conclusion of the chapter. I’m sure I’ll find lots of gaps in the redrafting process and maybe I’ll realize that my metaphor is either a) clunky or b) overworked, but without shut up and write I might have just skipped today and slobbed in front of the couch watching horses gallop around a track while women prance in stupid shoes trackside with overgrown objects on their heads.

If you’ve never made it to a face-to-face shut up and write, then a virtual one could be just what you need. Check it out and add it to your list of things to experiment with in AcWriMo!