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.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) wasn’t only famous for his contributions to physics, including his work on the first atomic bomb for the Manhattan project. He was also famous for his character. When you read his “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”, you gain an insight into this unusual physicist’s life.

When it came to his work habits, he had his own idea about what was possible and helpful. While many researchers yearn for a sabbatical, Feynman didn’t want to spend his entire time thinking about his research. He needed distraction in order to find new research ideas. That’s why he wanted to teach. He pitied the thinkers and researchers at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton (e.g. Einstein), because they had nothing to do but research. What if they didn’t have any ideas while sitting there, Feynman wondered. For him, this situation must have been associated with feelings of guilt and depression. The researcher would be chased by sorrows. In contrast, Feynman needed distraction through lecturing, because students asked questions that could initiate new ideas.

Feynman seemed to be able to work anywhere. In one case, he went to teach a course at a different university. During the train trip from Los Alamos to Ithaca, which took several hours, he worked on reports for the Manhattan project and prepared for the course he would be teaching. In another case, Feynman spent ten months in Brasil. Besides working at the office and playing in a Samba band, he worked on theory in his hotel room.

Even someone like Feynman could become exhausted and therefore could not do any research. He was confronted with different job offers, but he didn’t feel that he could meet the employers’ expectations. Eventually, however, he realized how he could get out of this situation: High expectations were the problems of potential employers, not his. That’s what helped him to relax. Although he still thought that he was unable to do research, he found a new research project in a cafeteria by chance. Once again, he enjoyed doing research.

Feynman knew how and in which situations he worked best. Even when he was blocked for some time, he found a way out by himself, beginning with his own thoughts and expectations.

Source
Feynman, Richard (1985): Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character as Told to Ralph Leighton (edited by Edward Hutchings). W. W. Norton.

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.

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) represents one of those cultural anthropologists, who knows exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it while writing. At least that’s the impression he gave when giving an interview to Gary A. Olson.

Geertz considered himself to be a writer. As an anthropologist, however, he spent many years in the field. While doing fieldwork, he only wrote field notes. He didn’t write entire papers, because he wasn’t able to compose texts in the field. For him, writing was something that only happened back home in the office.

When Geertz wrote, he used a particular writing strategy: He started with a text, writing line for line and paragraph for paragraph, and when he came to the end of it, the text was finished. It didn’t matter whether it was an article or a book. Although he worked with outlines, he didn’t use them much when writing. Having finished a text, he didn’t revise it. Thus, Geertz wrote a text from start to finish, spending a lot of time with figuring out what and how to write, before continuing with the next sentence or paragraph. With this writing strategy, he wrote one paragraph a day. He produced many books and articles this way, because during special periods he didn’t have any obligations other than writing.

While this strategy seems to have worked out for Geertz, he nevertheless didn’t want to advocate it. In the interview, he expressed his hesitation to talk about his writing strategy, because he thought that it was a bad one, which nobody else should follow. He thought that good writers write a first draft without caring much about its quality. They also write nonsense if they can’t find the right word, to complete the passage later. Geertz, however, wasn’t able to do that, even though he wished that he could. He suspected that his problems had a psychological origin.

Whether or not Geertz liked his writing strategy and pace, this one seemed to work out well for him. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have written his well-known studies and wouldn’t have become one of the leading anthropologists in the twentieth century.

Source
Olson, Gary A. (1991): The Social Scientist as Author: Clifford Geertz on Ethnography and Social Construction. Journal of Advanced Composition 11 (2): 245-268.

The Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was one of the pioneers of nuclear physics, winning the Nobel prize in 1922. At his research institute in Copenhagen, he gathered a community of international physicists. Bohr availed himself of his colleagues to develop his ideas and theories. He talked to them about problems for hours or even days; his discussion partners took notes. While talking, he could spend a long time on a single statement, refining it more and more. He never seemed to be satisfied with his thoughts, which led to more discussions and more refinements. His texts suffered from this process, because they became complicated and laborious. Biophysicist Max Delbrück, a colleague of Bohr, seems to have said that Bohr’s texts were a “crime for the readers”.

After talking to his colleagues, Bohr used to dictate his texts to his wife Margrethe. It is likely that while taking the dictation his wife revised the text. Bohr seemed to have accepted her revisions, without revising the text again himself. In contrast, however, he did not accept suggested revisions from other physicists, such as Ernest Rutherford.

In one case, when presenting a paper, Bohr apologized for his convoluted prose. He hadn’t been trying to present facts, he told his audience, but intended to pose questions, which could be pondered further. Despite this apology, the audience likely still had a hard time understanding Bohr.

Source
Fischer, Ernst Peter (2012): Niels Bohr. Physiker und Philosoph des Atomzeitalters. München: Siedler Verlag.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek (born 1949) publishes a lot – one or two books a year on different topics such as psychoanalysis, current political events and developments, and the economy. We might assume that he enjoys writing all these books, but that would be far from the truth. Although Žižek admits to being obsessed, it is not with writing, but rather its opposite.

As Žižek said in an interview, he avoids writing because the writing process horrifies him. Instead of giving in to the horror, he found a way to outsmart himself in order to produce text all the same. First, he takes notes of three to four pages, which form units. Second, he takes these notes and puts them in order to create a book. After having taken the notes, he convinces himself that the writing has already been done, although note taking is not writing for him. Assembling the notes, accordingly, is not writing either. With this „obsessional strategy“, as he put it, he succeeds in producing texts without writing.

When it comes to Žižek’s writing style, he seems to be similarly obsessed. He doesn’t consider himself a writer, because he doesn’t care much about style. All he tries to do is get his arguments across to the reader. As long as he succeeds, he doesn’t bother with the exact wording. Žižek’s focus, thus, lies on rendering information, as if he was a „thinking machine“, instead of aesthetics. With this „self-instrumentalization“, he tries to erase all the traces of him in the text. But as most readers of Žižek might have noticed, his neglect of style represents his particular style.

Finally, he seems to also be obsessed with another thing: Žižek needs loud music when he works. As he said, he wouldn’t survive without it.

Slavoj Žižek certainly occupies an extreme position on the writing-strategy-continuum. And yet, his strategies seem to work out for him.

Source
Olson, Gary A./Worsham, Lynn (2001): Slavoj Žižek: Philosopher, Cultural Critic, and Cyber-Communist. JAC 21 (2): 251-286. (the quotes are from p. 254)

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