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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)

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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.

“The bad writing, which I am writing about, has not been produced by too little education.
Quite the contrary, you have to study long and hard to write this badly. That is the problem.” (Billig, p. 11)

Why do so many scholars in the social sciences write so badly? Why don’t they care more about their prose and make it more reader-friendly? In his book, with the ironic title Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (2013, Cambridge University Press), Michael Billig addresses these questions. As he emphasizes in the beginning, he doesn’t just want to rant about the current state of social scientific writing. On the contrary, he wants to analyze in detail how social scientists write. In contrast to what Helen Sword does in Stylish Academic Writing (2012), Billig mainly works with examples that he doesn’t suggest be imitated. He is interested in the rhetorical habits that make academic prose unnecessarily complicated and vague.

The reason why social scientists write the way they do, Billig argues, lies in the circumstances in which modern scholars work. Scholars have to publish a lot, ideally in the most prestigious journals in their areas. While scholars in the past wrote because of a “higher calling” or their dedication “to the pursuit of truth”, today they are “hacks who write for a living” (p. 12). Due to the pressure to publish continuously, even if they haven’t got much to say, and many other obligations, scholars don’t have much time to work on their prose. Consequently, its quality decreases. Stressed by institutional pressures to publish, promotions, tenure, reputation, grants, impact factors, and the journals (with rejection rates up to ninety percent), most scholars just swim along the current.

After discussing the current state of academia, Billig analyzes different texts. He doesn’t look for worst-case examples, as one might imagine. He draws, to a large extent, from texts from social scientists that analyze language, rhetoric, discourses, and the learning of academic genres. Billig shows how linguists, sociologists, and other scholars uncover rhetorical strategies such as using noun phrases, passive sentences, jargon, and nominalizations, while using these strategies in their texts themselves.

Billig argues that ‘passivization’, ‘nominalization’, and similar rhetorical strategies make prose more complicated and abstract than it needs to be. As a consequence, the prose gets less informative and thereby becomes more vague instead of precise (as scholars would argue). Using such rhetorical strategies, scholars often ban the active voice as well as people as the subjects of their sentences. As Billig shows, scholarly prose becomes depopulated, even if scholars claim to theoretically reintroduce subjects or human beings (he analyzes a text by sociologist Ulrich Beck). As a result, scholars tend to reify their concepts while losing sight of people doing the things that these concepts describe (ironically, ‘reification’ is such a concept).

So, what does Billig suggest that social scientists do about the state of their prose? He doesn’t argue that scholars should avoid abstract words, noun phrases, or passive sentences. He does argue, however, that scholarly prose is out of balance. He calls for more moderation and a balanced use of the different rhetorical strategies. Scholars should bring back the real subjects that do something in active verbs. They won’t lose precision and information. Billig argues that the opposite will happen. Their prose will become more informative, lively, and therefore also clearer. I would also like to add that readers might once again enjoy studying their texts.

Next week, I’ll change the topic completely and will write about my experiences as a participant of National Novel Writing Month in November.

Recently I organized a seminar with William Germano for PhD students and Postdocs. He talked about the Anglophone publishing culture and what it takes to get an editor’s attention. Although I could only attend the first seminar day, I learned a lesson or two. In his lively talk, William dissected the publishing process for dissertations. He worked in the publishing industry for almost thirty years (he wrote From Dissertation to Book, 2005, and Getting It Published, 2001). Here, I want to talk about one of his main take home messages: consider yourself a “professional scholarly writer”. Since William freely shared his knowledge with us, I guess I won’t disclose any secrets.

It’s a very simple phrase: professional scholarly writer. William explained the three words individually. First, professional means to make a living with what one does. Second, scholarly refers to the kind of work produced. Scholars do research and write about it. Based on methods, theories, and a wish to better understand a particular part of the world, they produce articles and books. Together with other scholars in the same field or neighbouring (sub-)disciplines, they enter a scholarly conversation to produce and refine knowledge. And third – well, here it gets tricky. According to William, many scholars don’t consider themselves writers. They see themselves as researchers (or maybe teachers), but not writers. They might say that only novelists, poets, or journalists are (professional) writers. So, why would that be a problem? I would like to give an answer.

To be a professional scholarly writer, as any other professional writer, means to take seriously that professional identity or role. If scholars see themselves as writers (among their other roles), they will strive to be good writers. They will improve their writing skills during graduate school to be able to master what they do for a living. Today, most scholars (have to) publish, which takes a lot of time and energy. If they want to be hired or promoted, they need to have many publications in prestigious journals and with well-known presses. There’s no way around it if someone wants to stay in academia (see e.g. Michael Billig’s discussion in Learn to Write Badly, 2013). So, if scholars have to write and publish as part of their daily work, there is nothing wrong with considering themselves professional scholarly writers. There’s also nothing wrong at all about improving their writing skills. There’s no shame in admitting that you need professional help to be a better professional scholarly writer. On the contrary, to me it is worse if scholars pretend not to be writers and therefore do not care about their writing – and yet they publish a lot.

There might also be another dimension to this issue. If scholars don’t consider themselves to be professional scholarly writers and don’t mind, how can they possibly teach writing to their students? If you care about your own writing – and that’s what I would like to emphasize – you also care about the writing of others, especially the development of your students’ skills. But if you don’t, then don’t expect your students to master the tough business of writing on their own. Ultimately, the phrase “professional scholarly writer” not only says something about you, it also says something about your relationship to writing and your interest in the skills of others.

Next week, I start with yet another post series. It’s called “What if…?”.

Mast 31 | Fabian Leuthold

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