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Transitions: Transforming your students writing with feedback for future work by Christopher Hill
January 18, 2017
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chris_h_post-3_futureDr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the third of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.

It’s the long holiday weekend and everyone is posting their day on Instagram while you are chained to your desk grading your students work. You tell yourself it’s worth it. Your students’ written work deserves your detailed analysis and feedback even if it means sacrificing your holidays.

The day arrives when you finally return said work to your students. You watch in horror, as students glance at the grades on their assignments and then shove them in their bags. Your comments succumb to the darkness never to be glimpsed again.

It was after one such episode that I started to rethink my approach to feedback. Clearly, something wasn’t quite working. Perhaps, my feedback was arriving too late, and maybe what I had to say or how I was saying it wasn’t resonating with my students. I began searching for new strategies for writing feedback. I found inspiration in an article on written feedback by researchers Chris Glover and Evelyn Brown, who point out:

‘Where feedback is given, its prime function is to inform the students about their past achievement rather than looking forward to future work.’

I had always adhered to the traditional model of imparting my “expertise” on students’ work. Before students submitted their work, I would review drafts and offer comments when solicited, but would reserve most of my feedback for after an assignment’s submission.

The idea of reversing this approach and giving feedback for future work rather than past achievements was one that resonated with me. I also had in mind a method which would enable students to take feedback into their own hands, so that it wasn’t just me imparting knowledge, but student’s discovering it for themselves. Finally, I wanted to incorporate blended learning and enable students the flexibility to interact with each other within and without the classroom.

With these goals in mind I hoped that feedback would be less about me defending a grade and more about students learning and engaging as they thought and wrote. I decided to trial these strategies on a first year writing assignment – an argumentative essay by asking my students come up with an argumentative topic in the form of a statement or question and a thesis outlining their position.

The students posted their topics and statements onto the announcement section of our class Blackboard (the online platform not the chalkboard). I asked each class member to give critical feedback to one other student by analysing their topic and statement and assessing whether it was arguable.  

Although I chose to use blackboard any online platform would have worked: Canvas, Turnitin, Google docs and Facebook could all be employed for this type of activity. With educational technologies there is no perfect bullet for solving education challenges.

A mistake I made early on with blended learning was to try to fit my classes and goals around the technology. Instead, I now think about how technology can help achieve the learning outcomes I set for the class. In this case, I simply wanted to give the students a virtual space to share and critique their ideas and blackboard served this purpose just fine.

The results of the activity were encouraging. The students’ feedback on each other’s work was insightful and accurate. Colleagues had warned me of the time danger that these type of activities can involve. For example, it can be easy for an educator to lose hours giving feedback on an endless list of comments.

To avoid this, I told the students I would only give them feedback via email if I thought they were off track. I then looked through the statements and the peer feedback comments and identified a few outliers 4-5 students in a class of 25 whose comments or feedback confused or astray and offered some suggestions. I then asked these students to re-post/re-critique afterwards.

An unexpected effect of this trial was that some students put some extra work in and added claims to their topics and statements, and their peers in turn gave feedback on whether these claims were strong or weak and some even come up with counter claims. This was not planned at all, but it got me thinking about how to expand the approach further.

As a result, I am planning to expand the activity, so that it becomes a weekly homework activity in the month running up to the submission date. Students will upload a topic and thesis statement, followed by claims, and then counter claims and brief outlines of examples to support claims. Each week students will offer their peers critiques of these posts, guided by some questions and approaches we study in class. It would also be possible to have students give feedback on entire drafts of each other’s work depending on your university’s policies. To ensure my students stayed motivated I let them know their peer feedback would go towards their class participation grade.

My initial impression of this experiment is that my students have produced better work. Previously, I often had a few students who submitted assignments that weren’t arguable, were off topic or poorly structured. By employing this feedback for future work approach I saw an instant improvement.

The process of giving feedback and working through the stages of writing in steps, also helped to enhance the students understanding of academic writing processes and meant that even if they decided to write the essay at the last minute, a lot of thought and effort has already been put in. They had been critiquing other’s work for several weeks and had been thinking about their own topic, had a clear structure, and in some cases, examples to work from.

This type of activity can be implied to a wide variety of writing contexts simply by thinking of strategies for putting feedback in students’ own hands, making sure that the feedback happens for students’ future work and giving students opportunities to participate both within and without the classroom.

In most cases university policy around the world dictates that there still must a grade and a justification, so no promises that this approach will save your holidays, but possibly at least you can grade with the confidence that your students have already discovered much of the feedback they really need.  


Glover, C., & Brown, E. (2006). Written Feedback for Students: Too much, too detailed or too incomprehensible to be effective? Bioscience Education, 7(1), 1-16. doi:10.3108/beej.2006.07000004

 

Transitioning Fields: Turning and facing the strange of a new academic specialization by Christopher Hill
January 11, 2017
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Dr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the second of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.

You dedicate 3+ years of your life to graduate studies that promised to make you an expert on something. But what happens at the end when you can’t get a job, or you don’t care anymore, or you feel like a change? The question of what to do next, can be a little scary.

Last week, I wrote about transitioning countries, and in this article I explore some of the reasons behind why you might change or develop a new academic specialization and a few strategies that have helped me make the transition from one specialization to another – because, yes as crazy as it sounds, I did change countries and fields at the same time.

There is an antiquated culture in many university departments around the world that believes if you can’t make it in your specialization you are a failure. There is also a huge amount of pressure on PhD graduates to transform into tiny little diamonds of expertise. There is a logic behind this model, we can’t be experts in everything. In the past, if a graduate didn’t make the cut he or she was discarded. There was no discussion of alternative careers or of new possibilities, you were deemed a failure and that was that.

However, there are now communities of PhD graduates, researchers, and professors who are reinventing themselves in new ways. The term “recovering academic” has been a prominent one over recent years. The twitter hashtags #postac and #altac feature inspiring stories of academics that have found new paths.

For those not quite ready to walk the plank and take a dive into the unknown, academia offers opportunities beyond the specialization you trained for. This is because academia is changing; the new technological landscape of education and research is evolving new roles and possibilities. Among these are new interdisciplinary fields. You may not be able to switch from psychology to biology without further training but as a psychologist you might be able to work with a biologist on an interesting project that braids the two disciplines together.

There is also the prospect of developing a second stream of research or moving into a related field as I have recently done. Like many PhD graduates I had a tough time after I finished my degree. My family had just survived my studies, and so, I wasn’t about to drag them through more lean years as a post doc. I needed a job. This required an honest assessment of my career prospects.

I think it’s fair to say that I am an extraordinary academic, but not in the way that you might think. If you were to pass my CV to your supervisor, or a colleague they would probably shake their head and mutter, “There’s a cautionary tale, whatever you do, don’t be that guy.”

That’s because I never intended to be an academic, so I didn’t exactly plan my career. Over the last twelve years I have earned degrees in philosophy, communication studies and literature and have worked in a variety of institutions teaching a kaleidoscope of humanities subjects from creative writing to business English. My CV embodies the chaotic lights and noise of a Hong Kong night market in full swing.

During my PhD studies I dreamed of being a literary theorist. But after one year and 50 odd job applications I knew that this wasn’t going to happen. Not only was my CV a mix-and-match collage, but I wasn’t exactly setting the world alight with trailblazing research. Universities wanted focused academics, with degrees from prominent universities and a small ton of journal articles. I felt frustrated and a failure.

The ‘a-ha;’ moment came after many months when I started thinking about myself and my CV differently. After all, Hong Kong night markets are wonders to behold. I thought about how my ridiculously eclectic CV might be relevant to jobs in academia beyond literature. Often we think we have attained expertise in a subject and ignore all the valuable skills that we learn completing a PhD such as research, computer and communication skills along with project management to name a few. These skills are valuable and can help you move into administrative or consulting roles and new areas of research and teaching.

To guide me in a new direction and reimagine my career, I spoke with senior colleagues, my supervisor, friends and family. They pointed out that because of my experience I knew a lot about writing styles in different disciplines and genres and could teach a variety of different kinds of students. They also pointed out that Academic English was in high demand among universities, especially in Asia – my adopted home. I had worked for a couple of years at an editorial assistant at an Academic English journal so I had some ideas about this field even though the applied linguistics research it involved was very different to literary theory.

It was clear that I wouldn’t get a research track job in this new discipline. Research track was a dream installed in me since my first days of graduate school. It was and remains hard, but I had to let this dream go at least for a while. I set my sights on academic English lecturing jobs. I interviewed for a few and accepted a job at a good university. Although my new role was primarily concerned with lecturing I was also expected to do research, so the door was still open.

Six months later and I am on my way to developing a second stream of research. I am still writing up articles from my PhD, but I have also just finished my first grant application for an Academic English research project. I won’t pretend it’s been easy, teaching is one thing, but there is a steep learning curve to the research. I am embracing it anyway, jumping in the deep end and have been surprised by how much overlap there is between my existing skills and knowledge and the new field I am working in.

Nobody said it would be easy, but in the words of the philosopher Bowie, “turn and face the strange.” Consider all the things that are “wrong” about your skills and experience and see how they might be right for other specializations and opportunities.

Transitioning Abroad? Insight on Working Overseas from an Academic Rolling Stone. By Christopher Hill
January 4, 2017
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c-2-metroDr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the first of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.

In this age of adjunct academic positions and relentless competition for jobs, the temptation to cast off for exotic shores and low-tax salaries is an alluring one for many young academics. Before taking that leap consider this testimony on the trials and tribulations of transitioning between academic jobs in different countries.

In 2005, fresh from my master’s degree, I decided to leave my hometown of Auckland and take my OE (Overseas Experience). The OE is a mandatory rite of passage for those of us who grow up closer to Antarctica than the rest of the world. At the time I was convinced that London did not need another Australasian, so I headed in the direction of Shanghai convinced that it was destined to be the New York of the 21st century. As so often happens with adventures I never made it, and still haven’t ever been to Shanghai. Nonetheless, I also haven’t returned home either. Instead, I have lived and worked in universities across Asia.

People often ask me “Why did you choose to live abroad?” There is often a subtext to this question: “You grew up in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet so why the hell leave?” It can be difficult to offer an honest answer. In such situations I am reminded of a quote from The Odyssey which roughly paraphrased goes something like this: “A person who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his or her own sufferings after a time.” I will admit that living abroad has been hard for me, but in the end worth it. And I have managed to get by focusing on one challenge at a time.

So what kind of problems can you encounter working overseas? There are a number of professional challenges involved in transitioning between academic jobs. However, academics that make the move often overlook the injuries to their health and happiness that such new environments can present.

As an example, I consider myself a person who lives reasonably healthy, avoids excess for the most part, and grew up without any significant health issues or allergies. Yet each time I have moved country my body has been dealt a brutal blow. In Indonesia, within a 3 month period, I suffered dysentery and 3 separate bouts of food poisoning that left me 12kg lighter and with a chronically irritable bowel that took several years to recover. In Hong Kong the pollution brought on a lengthy bout of bronchial asthma. I recently moved to Singapore and my first semester of teaching has coincided with an extended battle with pneumonia inspired, my doctor tells me, not by age but by allergies and the climate.

Matters of the heart can also be difficult for academics transitioning to new countries. Trailing spouses of academics often learn too late that finding work can be difficult and even impossible in certain places. Life is not necessarily easier for singletons either. For every tale of cross-cultural love you might hear there are several other stories of souls left lonely and distraught by the enigmatic dating scenes of foreign shores. While these matters are not limited to academics they merit mention because even when your health and sense of wellbeing are tested you are still expected to bare the intense intellectual demands of our profession.

There are a number of often hidden professional challenges you can face working in a new country. Job interviews and university tours often don’t reveal the nuance of a foreign university’s culture, which can quickly leave newly hired academics perplexed and estranged from their employers. In Asia, for example, the bureaucratic nature of many universities can make you feel like you are trapped in a scene out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

In the UK, North America and Australasia your specialisation and research are respected to a certain extent. You expect to be hired to do research and teach on subjects related to your own field. In overseas universities this is not always the case. Academics are frequently expected to be more flexible: “Literary theorist you say? This makes you a perfect candidate for developing our English for business communication course. By the way, what do you know about social science?”

While living in a foreign country, social, cultural and language differences can impact your everyday interactions with students and colleagues, and this can take a toll over an extended period of months or years. Some find these experiences engaging and invigorating, while others feel as if their souls are being sapped of vitality.

Whether you see working overseas as a short jaunt or a long term move, consider carefully your exit strategy. My career outside New Zealand has involved living and working in three different countries and developing a specialisation in an area that is not in particularly high demand back home. I may find it difficult to get work should I ever decide I want to return to New Zealand one day. However, I have other friends and colleagues who carefully managed the development of their research, bided their time and leveraged their overseas experience for better positions on their return home.

For all the laments and sufferings described above, there are many advantages to moving overseas. In places like Asia and the Middle East salaries are often higher and taxes low. Universities may have more money for conferences and grants which can provide you more opportunities to develop your research. Living in a new country offers the chance for you to establish new perspectives and insights into the world and your own work. And, if there is anything that I am truly grateful for it is the friends I have made along the way—a network of people that now spans the globe. A group who have helped shape me into a better human being than the one that left home.

Writing a book – when life gets in the way by Astrid Bracke
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Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is her final post for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_4_edits-laptopSo far in this series I’ve written about the difference between writing a dissertation and writing a book, about planning the book and about the actual writing. In this final post I want to talk about two things: when things don’t go as planned and, related to that, communicating with your editor(s) throughout the process.

Although I loved working on the book, around seven months into the process my work life outside of the book became increasingly difficult. Looking back things hadn’t been going well for months: I had struggled with boredom – even though I kept busy – and disinterest in teaching, my colleagues, basically everything. And I just couldn’t stop talking about it: about the things that went wrong, about the things that annoyed me, about the issues that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Sunday evenings became horrible: I’d sit at home stressed and worried about the week ahead. I suffered headaches and a lingering sense of nausea, had nightmares about work, felt tension in my legs and neck, and became much more emotional than I usually am. The turning point came when one day I spent all of a lazy Saturday breakfast with my boyfriend complaining about work, did the same over lunch with a friend, and then over drinks with another friend. By the evening I realized that something was wrong.  

This story perhaps really isn’t part of a series on ‘how to write a book’. But at the same time it is. It’s important to me, though difficult, to tell this part of the story. Yes, I enjoyed writing the book, it went well and I am pleased with the result. But at the same time I also ended up having to take a break from writing and suffered from burnout. I know – and I’ve learnt since – that many, if not most, people working in higher education and academia experience extreme stress or burnout at some point. It seems to happen especially to people early in their career. Particularly people in their (late) twenties and thirties experience high levels of work-related stress. What weighs on many of us is the stress of trying to live up to high standards – usually our own.

By early May I was off work sick. Even though my burnout was not related to my book, I ended up taking off time from writing as well. Originally I had agreed to submit the finished manuscript to the publisher by the end of July. I was on schedule when I became ill, but had to ask for an extension. Many authors end up needing an extension on their book – either because of illness, because of work obligations or simply because of not being able to finish on time.

It’s important to be realistic when you draw up a plan – either at the beginning of the project or when asking for an extension. No one is served with you making a plan that is too optimistic. If you’ll only be able to submit the book on time if you work faster than you usually do it’s not a good plan. And even when you’ve been realistic in the beginning, things might happen that keep you from finishing on time. Sometimes people don’t communicate, or communicate too late with the publisher. They are ashamed or try to persuade themselves that they could still finish as agreed. This strategy really helps no one and will put you under (even) more pressure. Also, publishers depend on authors delivering their work on time: they draw up publication schedules in advance, and when an author is very late in asking for an extension this can affect the schedule.

Once I realized I had to take a break from writing the book I contacted the publisher and the series editors. I told them I was ill and that I would be unable to deliver the manuscript on time. But I also, importantly, gave them a date on which I thought I’d be done (three months after the agreed date). This was a bit of a gamble: in early May I honestly didn’t know for sure that I’d be feeling better, but with being off work and the summer coming up I assumed that I’d finish the book by the new deadline, September 30th.

It’s been two months now since I submitted the manuscript. It’s currently at the reviewers, with publication set for 2017. The process has been good overall: I enjoyed writing the book, and am generally pleased with how it turned out. At the same time I also had to deal with things not going as planned. What saved me in the end was drawing up a new plan and being clear with the publisher about the delay. And now, all I have to do is be patient for the reviewers’ comments and the published book!

Good Habits: Ensuring Rewards for Your AcWriMo Effort by Dave Hare
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Dave Hare is currently a part-time lecturer at City University of Hong Kong. His research work concerns film studies, specifically contemporary cinema stereoscopy.

This is the fourth and final week of AcWriMo 2016. Words have been written, edited, and proofread; ideas have been noted down; and work has been tallied (by The PhDometer 3.0 app!). The leaderboard shows an impressive amount of effort. This work should act as motivation to reach your personal AcWriMo targets. It prompts a sustained effort.  Alternatively, finish the month by thinking about the ways that this effort can be efficiently transformed into tangible rewards (publishing or submitting).

Establishing a good, productive writing habit is one of the main benefits of participating in AcWriMo. Paul Silvia, who writes more broadly on the subject of productivity in How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, makes the simple point that ‘productive writers don’t have special gifts or special traits – they just spend more time writing and use this time more efficiently’ (funnily enough, this idea also reflects Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘don’t break the chain’ advice to young comedians, which you can find here and here). AcWriMo essentially helps participants do exactly that: its finite time span encourages a form of intense focus, and its social media presence, PhDometer app, and leaderboard provide positive feedback to reinforce good, productive behaviour. It provides a short cut to more productive drafting, editing, proofreading and note taking processes.

This short cut leads to more publications. So, while AcWriMo mainly focuses on writing, publishing is one of the main goals of participation (that is, getting recognition for all that AcWriMo effort!). Achieving this result involves understanding and making use of a variety of services and tools for sharing and tracking research output. These services and tools are what Geoffrey Bilder, Jennifer Lin and Cameron Neylon call ‘infrastructure’: identification, storage, metadata and relationships. They enable the smooth production, distribution and publication of scholarship. Put a different way, establishing the right writing, researching and publishing infrastructure is another form of shortcut that will help you become more productive.

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One important piece of infrastructure that Bilder, Lin and Neylon cite as an example is ORCID (or Open Researcher & Contributor ID). ORCID is a non-profit, online registry. It identifies researchers and connects them to all of their work and ‘affiliations, across disciplines, borders and time’. It is a unique number allocated to individual researchers, which, when used actively, removes problems associated with name ambiguity. What is significant about ORCID is that it can be integrated with Scopus, ResearcherID, LinkedIn and other academic profiles, which means it removes the need to update multiple profiles each time you are successful in being published. It will save you time (when, for example, you finally publish all of that AcWriMo work). ORCID is free to register, and is increasingly being used by universities as a way to streamline internal research reporting (which means you might eventually be asked to register an ORCID by your institution anyway).

Combining a focus on writing with the right infrastructure will help you develop a more productive (writing and publishing) habit. This habit is exactly what AcWriMo and PhD2Published are about. It will serve you until next academic writing month, when it will be bigger, better and even more useful!

Writing a book, from start to finish II by Astrid Bracke
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Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the third of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_3_2_chapter-revisionSo you’ve drawn up a plan for the book – now it’s time to write!

When I started I thought I knew really well what I was going to write. After all, I’d written a detailed book proposal. But while I was writing I decided differently on a few things – and, to my surprise, discovered connections between chapters that I hadn’t seen before. I’ll discuss that in this post, and share my revision checklist for making the manuscript ready for submission.  

It’s fine and totally normal to divert from the proposal you submitted. Even though the publisher offered you a contract based on it, it’s really not set in stone. I had planned to write four chapters, each on what I call a narrative of nature. Beforehand I had decided that the chapters would form companion chapters: pastoral and urban were a pair, and so were environmental collapse and polar. But I discovered another connection between the chapters: in both pastoral and environmental collapse narratives, time plays an important role. Urban and polar narratives share an emphasis on space.

A bigger change was that I decided to take out two novels and replace them by two others. I doubted for a while whether I would run this change past my editors. The novels discussed in a book also partly determine the audience so taking out an important author like Ian McEwan might make an impact. I ended up discussing it with a colleague who has experience in publishing and decided not to tell my editors. If I’d wanted to make a bigger change, though, like taking out or adding a chapter, I would certainly have told them.

When I started I believed my focus would be on four narratives of nature that show how climate crisis is imagined is twenty-first-century British fiction. As the project progressed it slowly became clear to me that the real argument of my book is slightly different. It’s not, as I thought, just that these books depict certain narratives, but rather that they participate in and reflect a wider cultural awareness of climate crisis. In practice this meant that at the beginning of every chapter I explicitly referred to a film or other non-literary example to show this cultural awareness, and that I did that even more in the introduction. My book now starts with a reference to Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 Oscar-speech.

When I drew up my plan I made sure to include plenty of time for revision. In general I don’t edit as I write – I very much believe in the principle of shitty first drafts and try to keep my internal editor at bay while I’m writing.

 

I’m a list-maker so naturally I made a revision-checklist for myself:

astrid_3_1_book-checklist

  • Make back-ups in more than one place!
  • First read-through and edit, paying attention especially to structure;
  • Second read-through and edit, with special emphasis on the argument on section and sentence level;
  • Revision based on first reader’s comments;
  • Revision based on feedback of other scholars in the field (this revision includes the next steps);
  • Is the argument of the chapter clear?
  • Do all sections contribute to the chapter’s overall argument?
  • Does every chapter have a strong conclusion?
  • Do the chapters contribute to the argument set out in the introduction?
  • Does the conclusion follow logically from the chapters?
  • Do the parts of the book taken together feel like a whole? Have I signalled shared themes and other connections between the chapters? Is the overarching argument reflected in each of the chapters?
  • Final revision: publishers’ stylesheet (spelling and punctuation preferences; reference style); final spell-check.
  • Manuscript ready for submission, including all the preliminaries requested by the publisher.

I left writing the introduction and the conclusion until the very end. First I read all four chapters again and revised based on the feedback I had received. This helped me immensely to get the distance and perspective I needed for the introduction and conclusion. More than once I complained that I thought the introduction was the most difficult part of the book to write (that is until I started on the conclusion and I complained about that…).

The introduction is where you probably make – and write about – most of your choices. This is where you concisely set out your argument, but also where you decide how much you want to write about the wider field, how your book fits in with other work. My book ties in with two fields of literary criticism. Choosing to focus on four ‘narratives of nature’ means explaining why these four are important. Focusing on twenty-first-century British fiction means explaining why British literature and why twenty-first-century fiction.

The conclusion is really about finding that sweet spot where you don’t summarize too much, but still bring together the main points, and showing the wider relevance of your book without going off at a tangent about other directions.

And then, much faster really than I had anticipated, most of the work was done. I put all the chapters in one document and set out to check whether it followed the publisher’s stylesheet. Although they recommended using it from the beginning, I hadn’t. I ended up writing the four chapters according to the stylesheet I used most often, and had to make the changes at the end. It wasn’t too bad though: I was going through the individual chapters again anyway and had made a list for each chapter of the things I had to change.

The publisher’s stylesheet also specifies what you should include when you submit the manuscript – not only the text of your book, but also preliminaries (or prelims). Depending on the publisher, preliminaries consist of one or more title pages, a series page, acknowledgements and the table of contents. At this stage you don’t yet have to provide the index: your contract will specify if and when you’ll need to provide it, generally a few weeks after receiving the final proofs.

Once you’ve submitted the manuscript it’s time to congratulate yourself for pulling this project off. And that’s when the wait starts to hear back from the publishers and the reviewers. In my next post I’ll write about the final element of writing a book: communicating with the editor(s) and publisher.

Academic publishing query letters: should you bother? by Joanna Hare
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Joanna Hare is currently a Subject Librarian at City University of Hong Kong. As a research-practitioner, Joanna’s interests include information and digital literacy, research support for Humanities and the Arts, and innovative models of customer service. She continues Dave Hare’s series blog posts in the AcWriMo 2016 series.

dave_3_1As a librarian, I often attend presentations by representatives of academic publishers about ‘how to get published.’ These usually cover broad, basic advice like checking the journal’s scope before making a submission and using the correct academic style. One thing that is mentioned is to ‘pitch’ your article to the editor directly via a query letter. Book authors use query letters and academics can use them too. These letters typically include a brief (usually one to two paragraphs) synopsis of your academic writing, which is then sent to the journal’s editor asking if it is something they might publish. You can see a sample here.

Query letters are work. Thinking about them prompted me to reflect on whether they are actually worth the effort and if the letters actually do lead to higher publication rates. To find out, I contacted the editors of a few of the highest ranked Communication journals according to the Scimago Journal Rankings (SJR) and asked them about their thoughts on query letters:  

Steve Jones, editor of New Media and Society, does not mind receiving query letters. However, he makes it clear that he ‘cannot “pre-review” manuscripts on the basis of a query, which is something writers often seem to want’. Jones adds that ‘there is no advantage to sending a query letter, ultimately, unless an author is truly uncertain about whether a manuscript’s topic is or isn’t a fit with the journal.’

Jonathon Hess, editor of Communication Education, is ‘happy to get letters from people who are familiar with the journal… and are asking about specifics that couldn’t be answered by looking online.  But general emails pitching papers for which it’s clear the author has no familiarity with the journal aren’t a good use of my time.’ Hess goes on to say that if after reading the journal’s scope statement the author is still unsure if their work is suitable, he would ‘prefer that she or he just submit the article rather than sending an inquiry.  It’s much easier for me to see the paper and offer a clear response than to try to guess based on a description. I screen most submissions within a week, so authors will find out promptly if the paper doesn’t fit or isn’t strong enough for review.’

Tuen A. van Dijk, editor of Discourse Studies, says he does not receive query letters that often, which is perhaps due to his journal’s practice of pre-review: ‘prospective authors get an automatic reply when they submit a paper, in which they are asked to pre-review their own paper on the basis of very detailed criteria of the journals… so they already know what kinds of paper we publish or not.’

Rasmus Nielsen, editor of The International Journal of Press/Politics (IJPP), says ‘the majority of the query letters I receive are not very helpful, because they either (a) reflect that the author has not actually read the journal, or just consulted our aim and scope or (b) is trying to flog a sub-standard manuscript. A minority of query letters are interesting and useful for me, but in that case almost always reflect the fact that the author already knows that a given manuscript may not be a good fit for IJPP.’ ’

So, what should you do?

It is clear from these responses that if you only do one thing before reaching out to an editor prior to submitting your article it is:

Read the journal’s aims and scope first!

An editor’s receptiveness to a query letter has a lot to do with personal preference, with most stating that they do not mind receiving letters. However, it is critical that you demonstrate that you have an understanding of what the journal is about. You can make this clear in your letter (for example, ‘I have read your journal’s aims and scope and my work fits these guidelines for reasons A, B and C’).

If you are not already very familiar with the journal you are submitting to, I would recommend going further than reading the aims and scope to reading several of the articles published in the journal. This will give you an idea of the writing style and topics covered, and how your article would fit in an overall volume. Referring to specific articles in your email to the editor is also evidence that you are familiar with the journal and committed to publishing with them.

A caveat: in my experience it can be worth reaching out to the editor for advice on writing an article if they are producing a ‘special edition’ of the journal, such as a special topic or an edition dedicated to a recent conference. The scope and type of article accepted for special editions may be slightly different and the editor might be able to guide you in a direction that is more likely to lead to publication. But of course, check the website to make sure this information isn’t already easily available!

Thank you to the editors who provided valuable advice for this post.

dave_3_2

Writing a book, from start to finish I by Astrid Bracke
astrid

Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the second of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_2In the previous post I explored the differences between writing a dissertation and writing a book. In this post and the next I’ll write about the process of writing the book, both in terms of practical matters and in terms of deciding on the kind of book you’ll write.

There are two ways of going about writing a book: either you write a book proposal first, submit that to a publisher and wait for them to accept it (fingers crossed!), or you write the entire book first, and then submit that to the publisher. While some people go for the second option, most academic publishers don’t want you to send them an entire book immediately. If you do want to write the book first, or you want to publish your dissertation, you could write a proposal based on the finished manuscript and submit that. All academic publishers have a section on their website with details, so make sure to check that out first.

There’s a few risks involved with writing a book without having secured a contract from a publisher. The publisher might not accept it, or will require changes to be made to fit the book in with a series. Most importantly, though, having a contract in hand can be stimulating: having a deadline adds a sense of accountability to a project that can be quite lonely at times. Also, even though you haven’t yet written the book, having the contract gives you something to be proud of (and it looks much better on job and funding applications to have a book ‘under contract’, then just to be working on it as anyone can say that).

At the same time, I know of a few publishers who will express interest based on a proposal but won’t offer a contract until they’ve read a substantial part (i.e. a few chapters), or all of the manuscript. In that case it’s really up to you to if you want to proceed: if the publisher is renowned, if your book fits their list well and/or if you feel secure enough to go through with the book without the contract, you should.

I spent a few months researching and planning the book and then submitted a proposal with detailed chapter descriptions to a publisher. I was lucky to immediately be offered a contract. In my final post of this series I’ll write a bit more about this process and communicating with the publisher in general.

By the time I was offered the contract the timeframe that I had sketched in my proposal didn’t fit anymore. Hearing back from the publisher had taken longer than I had anticipated and I had decided not to start on the book until they had accepted it. Before I could start on the project I also had to write two articles I had committed to. With this in mind I asked for the delivery date of the manuscript to be pushed back a few months, which wasn’t a problem.

The process of writing a book has a practical dimension and a more content-focused dimension. You’ll have to figure out when you’re actually going to write it and, even though you’ve already written a proposal, you’ll have to figure out what kind of book you’ll write. Although I thought I had a pretty good idea about this going into the project, it did take quite a lot of work clarifying what I wanted to write, and what my emphasis would be on. I’ll discuss that process more in the next post.

First, though, the practical side. Once I actually started on the book I had about ten months in which to write it. In the beginning that felt like forever – I had all the time in the world to write this book! It would be fine! By nature I’m a very disciplined and organized person so despite feeling like I had plenty of time I drew up a detailed plan first.

My book consists of four chapters (13,000 words long each), an introduction (10,500 words) and a conclusion (5,000 words). I also needed time for revision at the end, as well as after every chapter, and wanted to schedule enough time so that I could ask other scholars for feedback.

My preferred method of making a plan for any kind of project is to use both a paper calendar – I currently use this one by Moleskine for my research projects – and an app, OmniFocus. I need to see on paper how much time I have available, so I began sketching out my plan using my paper calendar. I started off by planning in big chunks: around average 2½ to 3 months per chapter. When I began work on a chapter I drew up a more detailed plan, which I added to both my paper calendar and OmniFocus.

The benefit of my paper calendar for me is that I get a month at a glance – and I find it easier to plan on paper. OmniFocus, on the other hand, syncs with the app on my phone and iPad, so I always have it with me, and allows me to create projects. My book was one of those projects, and I could add to it even tasks that I didn’t need to schedule immediately but that I didn’t want to forget. Using the review-function, I was able to go back to these tasks and assign a date to them when they became important.

While planning, try to be realistic. The first chapter I wrote was the sample chapter I had submitted with the proposal, so I was rewriting more than writing from scratch. Consequently, this took me about two months at most. The next chapter’s subject matter was already very familiar to me from my PhD, so I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t be needing that much time for it either. Chapters three and four, on the other hand, were on new material, so I needed about three months for each.

Using my calendar helped me to keep other commitments in mind. I knew that by the time I had to write my introduction and conclusion I wouldn’t be teaching so I planned one month in which I wrote both. In practice, though, I wrote the book on one day a week.

While I wrote the book I used the proposal as the basis, but as I went along I ended up making changes and had to figure out in more detail what kind of book I was actually writing. I’ll discuss this process in my next post, as well my revision process.

A simple start to a publishing strategy: journal lists by Dave Hare
D-41-notes

Dave Hare is currently a part-time lecturer at City University of Hong Kong. His research work concerns film studies, specifically contemporary cinema stereoscopy. This is his second blog post in the AcWriMo 2016 series.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14594792869/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14594792869/

So, following last week’s post, you’ve decided to use AcWriMo to finalise and submit your work to a journal. The next thing to do, according to almost every academic blog ever, is to create a ‘publishing strategy’ or ‘publishing agenda’. You can read about strategies and agendas here, here, here, here, here and here, and also here (and basically everywhere else*).

Publishing strategies don’t always come about in the prescribed way. For me, it was made clear in a job rejection email that I wasn’t being considered for a position because I didn’t have enough Arts & Humanities Citation Index (A&HCI) and Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) publications. I knew that I needed more work published, but I applied for the job anyway and (Surprise) got rejected. The upside of that downside was that I got specific feedback on how to shape my publishing strategy: to look to journal ranking lists, which university departments obviously use to gauge job candidates (as well as a bunch of other stuff, as in exchange knowledge, apply for funding grants, evaluate staff performance, build careers etc.).

There are issues, however, with this type of publication strategy. Tseen Khoo, one half of The Research Whisperer blog team, discussed a few of these issues in a post back in 2014. She concluded the post with the thought that ‘you may still end up “publishing to appease” every so often, but don’t let it be your life’; which is to say there are particular times to focus your attention on journals that others favour. For me, given the response to my job application, the time is now.

For the uninitiated, journal ranking lists are LONG. The A&HCI, for example, is almost 200 titles across multiple fields of study. So, you need to start by filtering out irrelevant titles. A friendly academic librarian can help you with this task; I know, because one helped me. Here is a summary of that librarian’s advice:

  • Step one: Create a spreadsheet to list the journal titles you are going to target for your publications. The spreadsheet should include all the relevant information about the journals you plan to target, such as the name, links to the Aims and Scope, recommended article word counts and a ‘Notes/Comments’ column for any extra details about the vibe of the journal.
  • Step two: Skim the title lists to identify titles relevant to your field. My field is contemporary cinematic stereoscopy, so keeping my outlook broad I selected any titles that seemed to be about film or media studies, as my work spans both aesthetic and industrial aspects of contemporary cinematic stereoscopy.
  • Step three: As you find a title that seems relevant, visit the journal website and find their ‘Aims and Scopeinformation. This should tell you if your work will fit in the existing scope of the journal. Add any titles that seem promising to your spreadsheet. At this stage be prepared to be both disappointed and surprised: you may find that the well-regarded journal you were hoping to publish in is actually not ideal, while the scope of journals you are less familiar with might end up being the perfect fit.
  • Step four (optional): Email the editor/s of the journal/s and ask if your work sounds appropriate for their publication (more on query letters in the coming weeks). Suffice to say this email should be short and to the point, with a brief description of your work. A typical response to this email will (1) note that your work is interesting and (2) that you should submit it for consideration, providing that (3) you have followed the journal’s style guide. It may not provide too much information, but it might just help you decide which journal you’ll submit to first.

After following these steps, my list included about 25 relevant journals, five of which stood out as being clear targets. In addition to these, I also included journals that might be useful for future research. Now, I am ready to get on with the task of editing, re-writing, and proofreading. A quick note for those AcWriMo-journal-writing peeps that already have a publishing strategy: Your target journals may have posted a recent call for papers, redefined their aims or have a new editorial board. A quick check to see if journals have changed is a good idea before settling down to write.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3903230097/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3903230097/

Forming a publishing strategy (or agenda), conducting research into a journal index, and creating lists, all count toward your AcWriMo success as well as the goal of journal article publication. If you’re doing these tasks, please share your experiences on Twitter and Facebook using the AcWriMo hashtag.

*because the interwebs is loaded with academic blogs talking about strategies … including this one.

Writing a book, not a dissertation by Astrid Bracke
astrid

astridAstrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the first of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

So you want to write a book. Perhaps there’s an idea that you want to explore and didn’t get round to in your dissertation, or you’re ready to go into a wholly different direction. Or you feel you have to write a book to get the right job, or have a better chance at funding money. A few years ago I wrote on writing a book proposal. This series is about writing the book, from start to finish.

In this first post, I discuss how writing a book is different from writing a dissertation.

Most importantly, writing a book is a much more solitary endeavour. While getting your PhD you wrote under supervision. The meetings with my supervisor were a way for me to check whether I was on the right path and to discuss my ideas. Not working in such a framework can be a real relief to many. Perhaps you fundamentally disagreed with your supervisor, or felt tied to departmental themes. Writing a book frees you from all that: it’s your book and your choices. This can be paralyzing at times, and even lonely.

It also means that getting feedback on your work requires more initiative. And where first you might have gotten the feeling that at least you were accountable to someone (your supervisor), now you’re not really accountable to anyone but yourself. If your book is under contract with a publisher you’ve got a deadline, but that’s not quite the same thing. They might check in with you, but a supervisory relationship, for good or for bad, doesn’t exist.

There’s a few ways in which you can create a supportive environment for yourself while writing a book. The first is to use your network to get feedback – or to expand your network. I drew up a list of scholars who were working on themes related to my book and asked them for feedback on individual chapters. I already knew these people: I’d talked to them about my project at conferences, had provided feedback on their work or published in special issues they edited.

Yet even if you don’t already personally know them, scholars are generally happy to help. There might be someone whose work you use a lot, or who gave an interesting paper at a conference that ties in with your research. Indeed conferences are great places to ask people whether they’d be willing to read your work. Whether you know them or not, it’s important to be clear on your expectations: with the exception of one scholar whom I know well, I never requested feedback on more than one chapter, asked people to reply by a certain date and offered to repay the favour (and of course thanked them again in my acknowledgements).

Conferences are also a great way to create the accountability that is lacking when you’re no longer a PhD student. Use conference papers not only to try out your ideas, but also to make sure that you finish certain chapters by a certain date. The added benefit is that you’re likely to get useful feedback.

Another way of creating accountability and alleviating the possible loneliness of writing a book is by looking for writing buddies. For a while a friend and I would agree to send each other (parts of) chapters and articles. We’d set a clear deadline and meet for coffee that day. We wouldn’t necessarily read each other’s work, but making the promise to be done with something by a certain date did stimulate us. And discussing our work over coffee was often inspiring. You may even get together with a group of colleagues, or join a MeetUp group of academics. Sharing your deadlines with others and having the chance to talk about the writing process provides some of the structures that being a PhD student, often surrounded by other PhD students, offered.

I was really surprised about the time it took me to write the book, compared to writing the dissertation. Writing the book took me about a year, working on average one day a week, versus around three years nearly full time for the dissertation. The reason why it took so much less time is, I think, because writing a dissertation is much more about the process and about learning the ropes.

This is also the final difference between a dissertation and a book. A dissertation is what in the traditional guild-system would be the product of an apprenticeship. In the dissertation you demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about the area you’re working in and that you’ve read (almost) everything. In a book, many of these concerns do not apply. If in writing the dissertation you have to prove that you’re worthy of being part of a scholarly community, in writing the book you show that you are.

In my next posts I’ll write more about the process of writing a book from start to finish, from planning the work to communicating with the publisher.

Quantity or Quality (or Both)? Defining your goals for AcWriMo by Dave Hare
D-41-notes

Dave Hare is currently a part-time lecturer at City University of Hong Kong. His research work concerns film studies, specifically contemporary cinema stereoscopy. This is the first of a series of blog posts for AcWriMo 2016 by Dave Hare.

START

By now, you’ll be aware that AcWriMo is an event that encourages different forms of productive changes. The reference to ‘write-a-thon’ on the AcWriMo about page dek will lead many participants to focus on quantity, or ways that they can produce more written words. Larry Burton’s account of a corresponding write-a-thon event (NaNoWriMo) primarily talks about this form of change. He writes, ‘the important thing at the end of November was that … I had pages and pages of words just waiting on me to massage them and reshape them’. In his case, the completed draft paper was an achievement that reinforced the benefits of his new quantity-based process and routine. This change will work for some, but if you’re like me, you don’t actually need to produce more words; in fact more (mo) words are probably going to lead to more (mo) problems. In my case, I’ve got an entire PhD thesis to shape into publishable articles and I’ve got an article that has previously been declined that needs editing attention. Quantity isn’t a motivating force for the changes that AcWriMo can help me with: quality is (a fact that happily aligns my role as PhD2Published Journal Articles section editor with my current situation as an under-published academic looking for work). My point is to approach AcWriMo bearing in mind the changes in your academic work that you’d like to make.

Keep Your Promise

(Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1917). #467. Telling the folks about France. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-08c6-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)

So, if you’re like me, November work will mainly concern massaging and reshaping words for specific publications; what Raymond Chandler calls cleaning up (‘Throw up on your typewriter every morning. Clean it up every noon’). The blog and Journal section already have a number of excellent posts relating to cleaning up. For example, the final four posts of Ellie Mackin’s series on Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks might provide the exact information you need. They cover feedback (Week 9), writing clarity and argument revision (Week 10 and 11), and polishing (Week 12), which are all necessary parts of the cleaning up process. The posts (and Belcher’s chapters) all sit satisfyingly (like) into the AcWriMo event’s one month schedule (first week, ‘Giving, Getting and Using Others’ Feedback’; second week, ‘Editing Your Sentences’; third week, ‘Wrapping Up Your Article’; and, fourth week, ‘Sending Your Article!’).

Alternatively, you might prefer throwing up and cleaning up (as Chandler did). In that case, Allan Johnson’s PhD2Published post, ‘Writing the Second Book – Week 1’ describes a mixed approach: a daily blend of drafting and rewriting work. The benefit of this mix is illustrated by the fact that Johnson overcame writing work that he says had been dragging on. His major change, which occurred at around AcWriMo 2015, was mostly to do with the energy he spent on this work, specifically Johnson says he learnt to better manage his energy output rather than management of time and this resulted in greater work output and better work practice (note: the work Johnson cites is his soon to be published second book, The Fisher King’s Wound: Sequence, Consequence and a Sense of the Beginning, 1919-1945).

Finally, I want to suggest collaborating with a work friend or colleague during AcWriMo. This collaborative work would be taken up in addition to AcWriMo’s support network of writers, and would aim to change the way you work via processes of negotiation and compromise. In this case, Charlotte Frost and Jesse Strommel’s post, ‘Collaborative and Public Writing Techniques for Google Docs’, discusses processes of collaboration that involve the document (spreadsheets, word docs, presentations) sharing program, Google Docs. Collaboration, they say, provides a range of benefits to workers (including accountability, camaraderie, instant proof-reading and peer-review, less work, progression, and socialising). So, if you haven’t collaborated on a project before, maybe November is a good time to test it out.

The point is to consider how AcWriMo can benefit your work process and situation, whether that means writing more (as in Burton’s case); editing and re-writing more (as in my case); a combination of drafting and re-writing (as in Johnshon’s case); or collaboration. AcWriMo provides a forum to test out new and/or different ideas and processes.

Skeleton

November is nearly here and the write-a-thon awaits, so get to thinking! (the alternative is a ye old timey skeleton holding a whaling spear will appear in your room and threaten to skewer you).

Are you ready for AcWriMo 2016?
oprah-phdometer

As we approach the end of October, it’s time to get ready for Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), the month-long academic write-a-thon that happens every November. If you are new to AcWriMo, or if you wish to refresh your memory on the AcWriMo rules, read this page.

oprah-phdometer

Don’t forget to download the all new PhDometer 3.0 app to participate in AcWriMo 2106, track your progress, and share with the global #AcWriMo community! See you on the leaderboard soon!

 

Storify for Mar 3 #AcWri chat hosted by Dr Jeremy Segrott
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Storify for Dec 11 #AcWri chat hosted by Dr Jeremy Segrott
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Storify for Nov 12 #AcWri chat hosted by Rachael Cayley
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