Why Scholars Should Never Write Alone

For most of my years as a graduate student, I clung to the image of the solitary scholar. You know the one–huddled over her laptop in a drafty library with a cup of coffee Bonoat the ready. While I’m not promising that reading this post will mean the end of lonely nights or early mornings while you painstakingly craft word after word of your latest piece of academic writing, I am proposing in the words of Paul Hewson that “you don’t have to go it alone.”

If I learned anything from working as an editorial assistant for the American Historical Review, it’s that excellent scholarly writing is rarely a solitary act. A second pair of eyes–and sometimes a third, a fourth, you get where I’m going here–can be crucial for helping to flesh out your argument or just curbing your propensity for em dashes.

So what are some of your options?

The most obvious choice is to share your work with a colleague. The problem: most likely, they are as busy as you are and desperate to find time for their own academic writing.

Another option is to join or form a writing group that fits your specific needs. If you’re looking for a safe place to debut your latest book chapter or draft for a journal article, try a traditional writing group. Whether you’re at a Research I university or a small liberal arts college, you can probably find a few folks who would benefit from getting together and sharing their work.

There are numerous online resources aimed at graduate students as well as professors on how to establish an effective writing group. (For a very helpful article, check out Joli Jensen’s recent contribution to Vitae.) Some items that you’ll want to consider are: group size, structure, frequency, and feedback.

For those of us who have trouble getting started or staying motivated, another great option is finding an accountability partner. Having someone to answer to–whether it’s once a day or once a week–can dramatically improve your productivity!

Write-on-site grcoffeeshopoups and virtual writing communities offer two more options for avoiding the trap of the solitary scholar. The advantage to write-on-site groups, such as Shut Up and Write!, is that they force you to get out of your home or campus office and interact with people in the “real” world. This is also a great solution for folks who work best with some background noise but apps like Coffitivity are no longer cutting it.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking “I became an academic so I could spend big chunks of time reading and writing alone.” I get it; I’m an introvert, too! But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t benefit from a virtual writing community. Thanks to Twitter, you can follow and participate in online groups, such as #acwri and #getyourmanuscriptout. Again, a little accountability–whether face-to-face or virtual–can go a long way toward increasing your productivity.

Last, but certainly not least, is the option to seek out a professional academic editor or writing coach. The advantages to hiring a professional are numerous. Two major benefits are the lack of guilt (you’re not asking for any favors from someone who is as overcommitted as you are but instead are paying for a professional service) and convenience. When you work with a professional, you are largely in control of the terms of the relationship. Maybe you’re wary of the commitment of a traditional writing group and are looking for just occasional feedback from an experienced and unbiased reader. Perhaps you’ve been putting off taking care of those dreaded footnotes and don’t have the time to figure out how to properly format a citation for a webpage in Chicago style.

Professional academic copyediting, however, is more than having a second pair of eyes to catch glaring mistakes–although that is a significant advantage. Based on my years as a scholar and an editor, I approach my editing and coaching work as a collaboration to make my clients’ scholarly writing the best that it can be. Whether it’s a journal article or book manuscript, your final product will be demonstrably more polished and effective when you find the right person with whom to work. In my next post, I will give some tips for choosing an academic editor that’s the right fit for you.

But for now, what concerns do you still have about challenging the myth of writing alone? Do you have any experience with being a member of a writing group or working with an accountability partner or academic copyeditor? Feel free to comment so we can continue the conversation. My intention for this blog is to start an ongoing discussion about the obstacles to academic writing and provide a place for scholars to share strategies for overcoming them.

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How to Overcome Academic Writer’s Block: Writing a “Zero” Draft

It’s 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning–your designated time for academic sunny office windowwriting. You’ve just gotten back from class and your newly refilled cup of coffee is sitting next to the keyboard. The sun is streaming in your small window, and the smell of a spring rain is wafting in. You’ve closed your office door to indicate to your well-meaning colleagues that you are hard at work. Your afternoon is filled with teaching prep and meetings, but the next two hours are wide open. Ahhh, you think to yourself, the perfect time to make progress on that new book chapter. You sit down, move the mouse to wake up your computer, and open to a new Google Doc.

Instead of feeling joyful anticipation, however, your stomach begins to churn. All of the great ideas that have been brewing for the last several days when you didn’t have a second for writing suddenly disappear. You start to write and immediately delete it. You write another sentence and hit “delete” again. The blank screen that seemed so full of possibilities a few moments ago now seems to be mocking you with its white expanse.

You check the clock; two minutes into your academic writing session and a sense of panic is starting to well up inside of you. You find yourself longing for a knock on the door or an email notification from your phone (which you wisely turned off before sitting down to the computer). Even grading seems appealing right now…that’s not a good sign.

Instead of packing it up and waiting for the mood to strike you to start writing, you decide to keep butt in chair and forge ahead. So what do you do now? You start writing a zero draft.

You’re probably acquainted with the concept of a zero draft and might even have recommended it to your students, but you might not have tried one as a step in your own academic writing process. If you’re not familiar, a zero draft is all about creating a safe, non-threatening space to get your thoughts down on paper and start writing.

There’s really only one rule of writing a zero draft, but it’s often fairly difficult for writers to adhere to: you must resist the urge to revise in any way, shape, or form at this particular stage. Although the idea of writing incomplete sentences or making a huge leap in your interpretation of the evidence is abhorrent to most academic writers, denying your urge to edit as you write is crucial. Trust me, there will be plenty of time to revise, revise, and revise some more (which I’ll be talking about in future posts), but this is about getting your ideas flowing and down on paper.

I first learned about zero drafts from Joan Bolker’s amazing book, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, when I had to write three chapters in three months to secure a tenure-track position back in 2003. Since then, I’ve identified some additional tips for incorporating zero drafts into your academic writing process.

  1. Make sure you save the document specifically as a zero draft and write “Zero Draft” at the top of the page. For some writers, that extra step of calling something a zero draft immediately alleviates some of their anxiety.
  1. If you’re feeling particularly stuck or just want to “warm-up” a little, I highly recommend taking some time (five- or ten-minute increments seem to work notebookbest) for free writing. Depending on my mood, I’ll type directly into a Word doc or write my ideas in a notebook. Think of a particular idea or piece of evidence that you know you want to include and just start writing about it. Don’t worry about tone or grammar, just write, and keep writing until your timer goes off. Whether you’re relieved when your initial time is up or want to keep writing, you no longer have a blank page staring back at you.
  1. To resist the urge to stop and edit as you go, type “REVISE” or “REVISE ALL” at the beginning of particularly problematic sentences and paragraphs and then keep moving. Although theoretically the whole draft is a work-in-progress, I’ve found that including this extra signpost that a particular sentence or section will need some additional work helps me not to get stuck.
  1. Another great strategy for writing a zero draft is creating an outline for the whole piece or a particular section. I am a huge proponent of using outlines for academic writing. Most of my zero drafts eventually take the form of an outline. Clearly and succinctly identifying your arguments and major themes not only provides a rudimentary framework for your writing but will result in a stronger piece over all. As you develop your outline, make sure that all of your headings are directly related to your main argument(s). Once the hard work of creating the outline is finished, all you have to do is fill it in and you’re on your way!

Pro tip: at this stage, do not allow yourself to get too caught up in writing an introduction or a conclusion. Usually both of these sections undergo so much revision over the course of future drafts that I’ve found that leaving them until closer to the end saves precious writing time and results in more effective introductions and conclusions. It is fine at the zero draft stage just to make a placeholder for the introduction and conclusion and move on.

These are some ideas for how to push past writer’s block. What about you? What strategies do you use that would be helpful to other academic writers?

Clarity in Academic Writing

Welcome to the inaugural blog post for MargaretEdits. I thought it made sense to start off with an issue that I find absolutely critical in good writing yet doesn’t receive a whole lot of attention: clarity. Let’s face it, what is the point of writing if your readers are going to struggle to understand what it is that you want to say to them?

Tip #1: while clarity is comprised of numerous components—sentence structure, organization, and proper grammar, just to name a few—there’s a very easy and reliable way to double-check for clarity and that is simply to read your work out loud.

It sounds obvious, but I’ve been surprised by how reluctant people are to take this extra step during the editing process. Thankfully, you don’t need a PhD in English to know when a sentence simply doesn’t sound right. And folks, if you need to take a few breaths as you read a single sentence then it is probably a run-on or at least suffering from being overly wordy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a critical sentence whose main points got buried due to verbose writing. In fact, nine times out of ten, being succinct is going to serve you and your reader much better.

clarityWhen we talk about clear writing, however, what exactly do we mean? I think it is writing that communicates an idea in the simplest and most precise way possible. For your writing to be lucid, you as the writer need to know exactly what you’re trying to say. When I ask clients to rewrite a sentence using the most straight-forward and simplest language possible, it sometimes takes them a few minutes to identify exactly what they were trying to say.

Which brings us to tip #2: if you don’t know what your main point is (whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole document) then the reader will be that much more clueless. The purpose of academic writing is to communicate your ideas as clearly as possible while still engaging the reader. Make sure you are using effective topic sentences to  identify your main points and to give the reader a sense of where you’re going next.

Tip #3: related to this idea of clarity is knowing exactly what is the purpose of what you are trying to write. For example, when I sat down to type this blog, my goal was to explain to other academic writers the importance of clarity in writing. Always take a few seconds at the beginning of a writing session to evaluate what exactly you want to accomplish; maybe even jot down a short list that will also serve to get you into a good writing flow.

The bottom line: nobody has ever been criticized for writing that is too clear.