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Helen Sword has done it again: She took the time to perform extensive research on the writing habits of academics and to write a book about it (similar to what she has done for Stylish Academic Writing). She conducted 100 interviews with productive academics all over the world and received answers from 1,223 academics on her questionnaire. I’m impressed and glad that she did all of this to show how academic writers work in a variety of ways. As she emphasizes and shows with quotes from the interviewed researchers, there is not only one way how to be productive. Nor are there two or three ways that lead to success. Rather, she shows how all the academics found their own ways of writing and working in order to become productive and successful.

As a writing coach, I deal with academics all the time and know about their challenges and successes as writers. Although I haven’t yet encountered each and every habit presented in Sword’s book, I know from working with hundreds of clients that there is no recipe to productivity. So there were not many new things that I could learn from the book. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from it.

If you are struggling with writing or finding helpful writing habits, or if you have been trying to find the one and only recipe for productive writing, you should read Sword’s book. She will not only give you a framework called BASE (behavioral, artisanal, social and emotional habits), but also gives you tons of examples from other writers. She will show you what’s possible and – even more important – that there are no hard-and-fast rules. Get inspired by Sword’s well-researched and written book and embark on your own successful writing journey.

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Are you one of those writers who fear writing because they imagine it as a solitary job? There’s no doubt that at times writers might feel lonely. However, if you read the acknowledgments in books, you will see that the bigger picture looks different.

I was reminded of the social nature of writing once again, when I read the acknowledgments in César Hidalgo’s Why Information Grows (2016, Penguin Books). It’s a challenging and, to my mind, eye-opening book about the role and scope of information. Having thought throughout the book that Mr. Hidalgo must be one of the most intelligent people on this planet, I’ve been surprised by his acknowledgment pages at the end of the book (called „Bleeding Words“). Sure, he must have depended on other people for writing and producing the book. But, as I learned, writing was a big challenge for him. Intelligent though he may be, writing is hard for him too. What a relief (no offense intended)!

Whatever book you look into, if there are acknowledgments, the social nature of writing will pop right out. Authors rely on friends, colleagues, families (who mostly suffer more due to the author’s mental or physical absence), literary agents, editors and publishers. They rely on them for logistical support (Hidalgo thanks the baristas working in the coffee shops where he wrote his manuscript), help finding focus or reshaping initial ideas, mental support, giving feedback on various drafts and so on. So far, I’ve not seen any books, in which the authors didn’t thank anybody and did everything themselves. All authors need a social network. And it’s only fair that they thank most of the people in the acknowledgments (at least those they remember as having been supportive).

Before you despair, because you need to sit down again all on your own to write, remind yourself of your supportive writing network. And if you’re stuck with your thesis, PhD or book, start drafting the acknowledgments. Then, at least, you’re writing something you have to write anyway.

Writing alone is challenging; writing with others even more so. You deal with the same writing problems and decision making, but this time, you have to solve them and make them together.

I write this post because a colleague and I just finished the first draft of a book. We’ve been working on it since last spring, when I came up with an idea and wanted him to be a part of the project. Since then, we worked on the project, negotiated with the publisher and then started to write. You can find some books that describe collaborative academic writing (see chap. 3 in Paul Silvia’s Write It Up), but I would like to share some things that I’ve learned in the past few months.

I can definitely recommend writing a text with someone else. On the one hand, you will learn more about the topic than you would have if you had done it yourself. On the other hand, you will learn a lot about yourself as a writer and your abilities to adapt to someone else’s writing habits and quirks.

Here are two aspects of writing together that you need to think about:

Organizing work
Regardless of how many people are involved, which text genre you are writing and how long the process will take, you need to find ways to organize the work. The better you plan, the fewer the troubles you will encounter.

From the outset, we created a shared online folder with a Cloud-supported service. In the folder we began with simple text documents in order to document our first ideas. Having found a structure for the book, we created sub-folders for each chapter and others for administrative tasks. I guess there are other solutions to do this, but this method did the trick for us. As collaborative writers, you need to have your ideas, decisions, plans, texts and other documents in one place, accessible to everyone in the team. Later in the process, when it comes to giving feedback on one another’s texts, shared files are crucial and make your writing life easier. Only towards the end of the first revision round, however, did my colleague tell me that we could have simplified our feedback process by using the same writing program.

Having a shared folder isn’t enough, though. You need to make written plans and define who is responsible for which tasks. Whatever you decide and talk about, make sure you document the important things. With the first conflict, you will be glad that you can go back to your files and check.

Work strategies
If you have the opportunity to choose your fellow writers, choose them wisely. You should know and accept your coauthors work strategies and style. Even if your work style differs from theirs, you at least know what to expect. You will profit from this knowledge, for example, when it comes to planning the project in the long term. I wouldn’t have asked my colleague to write this book with me, if I hadn’t known or couldn’t accept how he works and writes. Sure, we had some discussions about some minor questions on the process and the content, but nothing that would have interrupted our work.

If you do your job well, you will be able to enjoy writing with others. And as a side effect, you will learn new things about writing, the topic and yourself. If you neglect to prepare the process as a team, you will be in for a rough ride.

When I teach people how to give and receive text feedback in a group of researchers, I always provoke some of the participants with my opinion about editing. First of all, during the workshop, the participants are not allowed to edit the texts they have received from the others in the group. Instead, they should stick to the task and give feedback. Some of them, however, are not used to the differentiation between editing and giving feedback. That’s why they end up doing both. When it’s their turn to give their feedback to the author, I stop them from presenting how they would edit the text. Why am I so strict? Giving text feedback is a different activity to editing. They are two different ball games, if you like.

In the case of giving feedback, you point out words, phrases, sentences you don’t understand; passages you stumbled upon; logical holes in the argument; problems you have with the structure; concerns about the language or style; or anything else that the author asked you to give feedback on (see the posts on feedback from the writer’s and reader’s perspective). Whatever you give feedback on, it suffices to say what kind of problem you have and where exactly in the text. You don’t have to indulge in how you would solve the problem – that’s up to the author. That also means that you don’t change the text yourself.

In the case of editing, that’s exactly what you’re expected to do: to alter or improve the text. You delete and add words, phrases, sentences; you rearrange paragraphs because the structure is not right; you fill in logical holes; and you polish the language and style. That’s what you do when you’re asked to edit – not to give feedback.

Do yourself and the author a favor and stick to what you’re supposed to do. You save time and energy for both yourself and the author. How do I know? I mixed up giving feedback and editing at the beginning of my career as a writing coach. Only after learning about feedback and editing did I realize my mistake. Since then, I give feedback, because that’s part of my job as a writing coach. I do not edit, however, because I am not an editor.

This ebook comprises most of the posts I published on this blog. Download it for free and read about the various aspects and challenges of academic writing.

Mind Your Writing Ebook

 

Table of Contents

Introduction

Part One: Mindful Writing

Part Two: The Writing Process from Start to Finish

Part Three: Challenges of Academic Prose

Part Four: Dealing with Academic Genres

Part Five: How Famous Researchers Work

Part Six: 10 Reminders for Academic Writers

Bibliography

 

Although she had wanted to become a literary writer as a child, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) changed her major during college from English to Biology. She would later become one of the most famous science writers (e.g. Silent Spring, 1962).

When writing, Carson seemed to have been her own biggest hindrance. She did her research as carefully as possible. Her working pace was slow because she revised her texts again and again – even after having given it to the publisher. Among other reasons, she worked so diligently, because her audience was laypersons from a general reading audience. She tried to convey the information in an understandable way, without simplifying it too much.

While being occupied with office work, she found the time and space to write a new book. But this freedom turned into a prison, as one of her biographers wrote. Having no other obligations besides writing, she couldn’t use the time as planned. Reality didn’t match her expectations.

Writing Silent Spring took Carson four years. On the one hand, she continued to work slowly. On the other, her work was interrupted by different diseases, among them cancer. Yet, she still worked on and tried to convey the effects of pesticides on the environment for a broader readership.

As if her different struggles weren’t enough, Carson was repeatedly confronted with sexist reactions to her books. Some male readers didn’t believe that Carson, as a woman, was capable of writing about complex scientific topics. Nor did they believe that her master’s degree in zoology would suffice. Despite these reactions, Carson continued to write about science for a broad audience, receiving several prestigious awards.

Source
Steiner, Dieter (2014): Rachel Carson. Pionierin der Ökologiebewegung. Eine Biographie. München: oekom.

If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t assume that this man in the electric wheelchair is one of the most accomplished scientists. Stephen Hawking (born 1942) suffers from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a disease that has worsened since his diagnosis at age 21. Despite the fact that he can no longer move and relies entirely on other people, he is still able to think through complicated math and physics. He wrote and co-wrote several books, one of them a bestseller.

Despite being talented, he was lazy during his studies in Oxford. Only later, during his PhD, with the spark of inspiration, did he began to work harder, even though his disease had already started to worsen. Soon after, however, he was no longer able to write. He relied on other people to get his writing done. The math he still did in his head, while talking with colleagues helped him to clarify his ideas.

Due to his dependence on other people, he developed daily routines. As a professor, his daily routine included preparation at home, getting to the office, going through the mail with his secretary, working at his computer or reading, having coffee with his colleagues, dealing with correspondence, eating lunch, working again until tea-time, counseling students with the help of assistants, and working some more before going home in the evening.

Working on a book with a co-author, Hawking had to dictate the text. In one case, it took them six years to complete the book. In the case of his book A Brief History of Time (1988), Hawking closely worked with the editor. In the beginning, the manuscript was too complicated and technical for a broader audience. Hawking wanted to publish the book with a publisher, who also would sell the book at airports, so he needed to rewrite the book. Other people assisted him during the revision process. Due to a treatment for pneumonia in the mid-1980s, Hawking lost his voice. Only when he received a computer to aid in writing and talking, he could resume the work on the book.

What Stephen Hawking accomplished is astonishing, despite his disease and the limitations connected with it. In other words: There are no excuses anyone could use for not writing. If Stephen Hawking can do it, everybody else can do it too.

Sources
White, Michael/Gribbin, John (1992): Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science. Viking.
Hawking, Stephen (1993): Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays. Bantam.

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