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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.

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.

I just finished my second book. The writing process was completely different from that of my first book.

For my first book, I contacted the publisher before I had even written a word. I described my idea, which I had, all worked out, in my mind. Since the publisher was interested, I filled out a questionnaire and sent it together with the book’s table of contents. The publisher was still interested and wanted to see two chapters. I promised two chapters within the next two months. In those two months I had written half of the book, but only sent the publisher the promised chapters. While waiting for the reply, I continued to write. It didn’t take the publisher long to offer to publish the book. In the next few weeks I finished the first draft of the book and sent it to two friends for feedback. After getting their feedback, I revised the manuscript several times. The editor responsible for my book gave me feedback as well. After revising the manuscript once again, I sent it to an external editor for editing and proofreading. After another round of revision, I handed in the manuscript. Except for another and final look at the proofs, my part of the production process had been finished. Half a year later the book was published.

Of course, I thought that I would write my next book just as quickly and nearly effortlessly as the first one. That was not the case.

For my second book, I waited a few months until I knew what it would be about. I didn’t have a plan so much as a general idea about the book’s goal and some of its chapters. That’s why I started out by writing everything I knew about each chapter topic – myths about academic writing – without yet worrying about the book’s structure. Writing like this for several weeks, I ended up with fifty pages of the first draft. Because I didn’t know what to add and didn’t know whether it was any good, I gave the manuscript to a friend for feedback. His feedback showed me that I had not yet discovered the basic issues of the text: Whom was I writing for? What tone and style should I use? What’s the main goal of the book? With these questions in mind, the publisher contacted me about a second book – talk about coincidence. The publisher asked me, whether I could write a book about one topic or another that they had in mind, I told them that I had already a book project running. They wanted to know more so I sent them a brief description. Since they were interested in the project, I sent them a table of contents and an exposé some weeks later. While waiting for their answer, I continued to work on the manuscript. It almost doubled in length. I received feedback on the expanded manuscript from another friend. The publisher decided to publish the book, so I sent the manuscript to their editor. After receiving the contract and an external edtior’s assessment, I finished the text and sent it for proofreading.

The first book developed according to a writing strategy we could call the planer’s strategy. The second book developed according to one that we could call the writing-away strategy. The planer’s strategy starts with a clear plan and structure and is followed by writing and revision. The writing-away strategy starts with a vague idea, which is written down as quickly as possible. Having a first draft, the writer revises the text, trying to find its structure. In my case, the second feedback helped me to determine the text’s structure. In contrast to the first strategy, writing and revision may alternate more often.

Whatever strategy you might use to write your texts, it’s a good idea to choose it deliberately. And whenever you think that the chosen strategy doesn’t work out for you, don’t hesitate to change it for the better. I don’t know what my next book project will look like and what strategy will fit it best. Therefore, it could be entirely different to the two I’ve used so far.

My Books
– “Der Schreibzeitplan: Zeitmanagement für Schreibende“, 2015, Verlag Barbara Budrich/UTB (“The Writing Schedule: Time Management for Writers”, translation pending)
– “Mythen des wissenschaftlichen Schreiben” (“Myths of Academic Writing”; working title, in press)

Max Weber (1864-1920), originally a legal scholar, became one of the founding fathers of sociology. Today, students around the world must struggle through his texts if they are to understand his definitions of social action or the influence of protestant ethics on capitalism. But what many may not know is that Weber only published his dissertation, habilitation (postdoctoral qualification) and few articles in his lifetime. All the other collected works and books we read today, have been edited and published by his wife Marianne, after Weber died. But where did all these works come from? In order to understand that, we need to look at how Weber worked.

Weber wrote copiously and consistently. Besides the many letters he wrote – often several a day – he constantly took notes on everything, especially while reading. He took his notes on the back pages of old galleys that he had received from the publisher (large sheets of paper). After his death, his wife discovered stacks of galleys filled with entire manuscripts. Today, it’s not possible to decipher all of his notes because he used abbreviations of his own creation.

His notes on what he has read did not reflect the careful nature we would expect from a researcher. While paraphrasing or even quoting someone else’s work, he didn’t always note the sources properly. However, at that time, researchers knew the same books and knew when an author was referring to someone else’s ideas without quoting them. But even for his contemporaries, Weber didn’t work as carefully as he should have. Ironically, he criticized others for not working carefully enough.

Weber wrote in longhand. After the turn of the century, he dictated his texts to someone. After receiving the galleys, he revised them, thereby annoying the publisher. He also revised the next round of galleys, which annoyed the publisher even more, to the extent that Weber had to pay for the extra costs. Weber’s problem was that he had trouble finishing his texts. There always was something to fix or change. His perfectionism, however, cost him money and the publisher a lot of stress. Due to the many revisions, his texts became more complicated than most sociology students might have wished for.

Weber was a relentless writer, whether writing letters, notes or manuscripts. Except for one article he himself called the “sigh”-article – he had trouble finding what he wanted to say – he didn’t seem to have writing problems. Being a hypchondriac, however, meant that during phases of illness he wasn’t able to do anything, not even write. Despite these phases, his perfectionism and the lack of recognition during his lifetime, he kept on writing. Today, thanks to his wife, he is one of the pioneers in the social sciences.

Source
I had the chance to talk to Prof. em. Dr. Dirk Kaesler, who wrote several books on Weber’s work and life.

 

Whether you are a psychologist or a researcher from a different discipline, do yourself a favor and read Paul J. Silvia’s Write It Up: Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal Articles (2015, Washington, DC: APA LifeTools). The book provides the essential information that every researcher needs to publish in peer-reviewed journals. If you think, “Yet another boring book about academic writing and publishing, please spare me!” then you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s not only well written – based on Silvia’s own experience as a writer, reviewer, and editor –, it’s also highly entertaining. (I probably laughed out loud every other page or so.) This is the kind of book you need to read: written with humor, but providing serious and helpful information (similar to the books by William Zinsser).

As the key message, Silvia asks researchers “to write for impact and influence, not merely for publication” (221). He discusses the big and small decisions every writer has to make in order to be published, read and understood. And he shows with many examples from his and others’ work what you should avoid to do.

Even if the book is written by a psychologist for psychologists, its main messages hold true for all academic writers. Grab his book and have fun while learning about the craft of writing for impact.

PS: I know, the blog post above reads like an advertisement. But rest assured: I don’t get paid for writing this – I’m simply excited about the book.

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