Tell your Mom. This is an idea inspired by my friend Gil Rodman, who challenged his students to write complex concepts in readable terms. If you’re struggling to sort out your theories or ideas, pick up the phone or sit down with someone who is not familiar with what you are researching and tell them about it. There’s no better evidence that you know your material than being able to explain it to someone…and perhaps even interest them in the topic at the same time.
Set early deadlines. A brief anecdote: my cousin asked if I could drop him off at the airport to travel home. When I asked what time his flight was scheduled to depart, he wasn’t entirely honest with me. By modifying the flight time, he built in a cushion of comfort so there was no panic about getting to the airport on time.
Set early departure times for your abstracts and article submissions. Putting something on your calendar the week before it’s due will bring it to your attention earlier. Additional time to start thinking about and working on your submission might potentially alleviate last-minute, rushed writing.
Have your day of hate (bear with me). Mentors will say you should select your research topic carefully. If you choose to study something you love, you might end up hating it. It happens. Should you find yourself having a serious wrestling match with your topic, wanting to scrap the whole thing, and wishing you had made a different choice, go with it. Throw yourself into the negative space until you exhaust all of the possible complaints. Then go for a walk, play a video game, or engage in some other activity you enjoy. Don’t think about or go back to your project until the next day. See how you feel when you come back to it, and plan to have a day of reconciliation with your work.
If there’s one thing I do a lot of, it’s write. Everything from my diary (which only I read), to my PhD thesis (which if I’m lucky three people will read) to my blog (which is open to all). I’ve always rather enjoyed writing; a helpful quality in a social scientist.
I haven’t always wanted to be a social scientist though. Growing up, I was dedicated to a career in fashion and planned my subject choices and work experience around being a fashion journalist. In my sixth form leaver’s book my English teacher wrote that he looked forward to seeing me as a future editor of Vogue. Now my main ambition is to publish a social theory text on consumption or material culture. Sometimes people find it difficult to comprehend the path I’ve taken to date, but actually, is a fashion journalist all that different to a scholar of material culture?
I recently attended a career and leadership development course and completed a MBTI psychometric questionnaire. The report suited me perfectly (apparently I come across as mysterious, which I like, so I won’t spoil it by saying which type I was) and matched me up to jobs such as writer, sociologist, teacher, artist, counsellor. I’m a conceptual thinker, creative and value driven. Being a fashion journalist would have suited the creative part, but perhaps didn’t fit with my values. This is clearly the case, as I directed my undergraduate dissertation to ethical fashion, followed by an MPhil on the same topic, leading to a PhD on consumption and its social role. I am very fortunate to have had the space to explore this; I doubt fashion could have ever fulfilled my inquisitive nature and desire to make a difference.
So now I’m able to do the two main things that I enjoy—I’m writing up my PhD in human geography and planning an academic career in the social sciences, whilst I continue to blog about ethical fashion for my own blog and others. Both roles stem from a desire to investigate the wider world, to find out about stuff that interests me. Both involve desk-based research as well as getting into the field for interviews and observation. Both involve writing up that research in order to communicate on a broader platform. And both allow others to engage with my ideas, provide feedback and become part of a wider conversation. Clearly, there are huge differences too and I’m sure many academics would be livid to hear me comparing academia to journalism, but I do believe many of the processes are the same.
Starting a PhD in human geography was a steep learning curve, simply due to the change in subject matter, not in the way I approached writing. Yes, I had to learn some new lingo but now I’m nearing the end of my PhD, I can see that an interdisciplinary background has helped rather than hindered in the long term. It allows me to draw on a broad range of literature, using them as I see fit to build up my argument. One thing I did struggle with at the start was the use of first person. I had been trained before to take a more report-like, business style approach to writing which becomes difficult when you need to discuss and highlight reflexivity as a researcher. My cultural/social geography PhD research draws strongly on ethnographic techniques; hence I had to learn to adopt a narrative approach to my writing and not be afraid to situate myself within my topic.
The fact that I was blogging in a fashion role before my PhD meant that blogging about academia was a natural progression. Not only do I write about PhD life for our departmental postgrad blog, but I also use my academic work as a basis for popular writing on consumption and shopping issues. I’ve found a happy medium where I can have two interlinked elements of my life, and both feed into each other. I hope in the long term my broad networks will lead to interesting collaborations both inside and outside of academia, and mean that my research has a use outside the ivory towers (which is happening more and more across academia anyway). Sometimes I still feel like I have a lot of catching up to do in the social sciences, but no academic knows everything and I intend to make the most of my interdisciplinary background as a strength rather than a weakness.
Keep a recycling file. Whether in the process of moving material from an outline to the document you’re writing or editing a piece toward completion, it’s likely that you’ll be deleting some significant chunks of text. Instead of trashing them, put those sentences and paragraphs in a recycling file. “Unused” or “save for later” work just as well. Later in the revision process, you may find a place for that concept or quote. Or, it may spark a new project or be just the idea you need for the next essay you’re writing.
Go ahead and clean the kitchen. Many academic writers talk about how when it comes time to sit down and write, they are distracted by the whole list of things they have to do first. Instead of sitting down with a clenched jaw, determined to stave off distraction, take a few minutes to review your draft or your notes. Then go clean the kitchen, wash the car, or tend to whatever physical task distracts you. If you do that mundane task or put your space in order while you are already thinking about your project, you might find yourself coming up with epiphanies rather than distractions.
Use Post-its. Many years ago, I read an article by the author Michael Ventura in which he talked about writing bits of scenes and dialogue on Post-it notes and putting them on one wall of his office. As he used a bit, he moved it to the other wall. He could also easily stand in front of the wall with the notes to see where he might go next, and move ideas around, physically. Being able to step back and take a long look at your ideas can help tackle difficult organizational issues.
Consider your props. If changing your shoes and putting on a sweater like Fred Rogers seems a bit much, consider changing your outlook with a small change. Years ago I saw Anne Sexton’s eyeglasses on display at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center. Oddly, it was deeply affecting. What does your writer’s outfit look like? Try a hat, a headband, a particular piece of jewelry, and see what works. If you have a lucky shirt that you wear hoping your favorite team will win their game, why not a lucky writing shirt too?
Today is the day. This week has been a bit of a blur of teaching and thesis work, and all I wanted to do today was make sure that everything was ready to go for the final submission of my article. Earlier in the week I crafted, and then redrafted, and then edited, and then reedited, and then rewrote entirely my cover letter according to Belcher’s instructions. The first draft sounded altogether too needy. The second draft sounded too caviller. I was starting to think that I was completely written-out. But then, I went back and re-read Belcher’s advice from this week (and some of the advice from week four, when we drafted a query letter for the editor) and sat down and just followed her formula. It turned out to be fine – not over the top, without an undertone of ‘please, please, please publish my article!’ even though that’s exactly how I feel. I also went back and thoroughly checked over the style notes from my selected journal, and then spent two afternoons going through every single stylistic point that Belcher mentions (in a very handy table) and that was on the style notes and making sure that each of these things was correct in my article.
I have been told numerous times (and Belcher mentions as well) that making sure your article is in the correct house style is pretty important, so I wanted to make sure this was right. It probably didn’t need to take two afternoons, but I have put so much work into this article that I’m not prepared to trip at the last hurdle (if only I could put this much care into my thesis!) I don’t have any illustrations, tables, figures or similar so I didn’t really need to worry about permissions and getting good quality images, but Belcher has some great advice about this process.
This week I was a bit worried that the whole chapter would be devoted to preparing print versions of articles. Even though the edition of the book I have is from 2009, I imagine that a lot of journals are increasingly moving to online submission systems, or – at the very least – to email submissions, and the journal I have chosen has such an online system (where you upload everything via a webpage). While Belcher doesn’t specifically mention online-based applications systems I think this is pretty much covered by her electronic-version advice (there isn’t very much difference between submitting via email and an online system after all.) I wish she’d mentioned a bit more about email etiquette (for example, should you upload your cover letter as an attachment, or paste it into the body of the email?) but as it happens, it wasn’t that necessary for me in the end. I was a little bit dismayed by some of her advice in the ‘Preparing the final electronic/print version’ checklists. Namely, she very emphatically says ‘never use footnotes’ (rather you should use endnotes). This is probably sound advice for many people, but might be a bit confusing if a journal’s house style notes specifically request footnotes (she mentions that you should follow house style to the letter, but doesn’t say anything about following this style even when it conflicts with her own advice). So, it’s all done and dusted.
Final version finished, style updated, edited, rewritten, loved, hated, cried over (okay, not quite – but there were some close calls!). Cover letter ready to go. All that remains is to upload the lot of it onto the submission system and wait. And wait. And wait. I finally wanted to say a few words about how I found the programme as a whole, and the last chapter of the book (titled ‘Week X’). There were parts of this process that I found overly tedious – I noted those along the way, but specifically I found parts of week four (Selecting a Journal) and parts of week five (Reviewing the Related Literature) to be tedious and excessive. Having said that, I can understand why some people would find these tasks to be both timely and interesting. I have always been in the habit of reviewing literature as I go, and keeping on top of that as a matter of priority (in articles, conference papers, theses, essays etc.).
The week I found the most useful was Week ten (Editing Your Sentences). I think it’s worth getting this book (or checking it out from the library) for this chapter alone – looking at the microstructure of my article has improved my writing much more widely than any of the other exercises in this book. The book ends with Week X. I haven’t read though this section is great detail, but it deals with waiting for the journal’s decision, how to read the decision and how to respond – basically a ‘where to from here?’. I like the idea of including this information because the process certainly doesn’t stop once the article is submitted – there is a whole new process to go through, and Belcher’s informative (and extensive) advice on things like types of acceptances and rejections, how to go about revising or restructuring a rejected article, how to respond to reviewer’s comments will certainly be something that readers of this book will benefit from. I’m looking forward to getting to that stage, but for now – I think I’m ready to take a break from my article. Thanks for following along with these blog posts – I have learned a lot in the last twelve weeks, and I have a lot of new awareness about how I work and why I work the way I do (and I now have a much healthier writing habit!)