The relentlessness of writing for publication

This post comes on the eve of AcWriMo – a month long writing event that happens around the world during November every year. In this post I want to address two things I am (and colleagues and friends are) battling with at this time of year: fatigue, and motivation to keep going in the face of the relentlessness of producing writing that can be published or can go into the thesis, and can help us ‘earn our keep’ as doctoral, postdoc or academic scholars.

This relentlessness is often talked about among students, postdocs and academics – producing publishable research on a regular basis is part of playing the game of academia well, and it needs to be played well everywhere. So, this pressure is familiar to all those who aspire to an academic career. But, we don’t always know how to manage the feelings of frustration, fear, fatigue and even rebellion that this relentless hamster-wheel of writing for publication engenders. Many students and academics battle to find support – either professional or personal – and may then opt out or drop out, slowing down to the point where they get stuck, unable to make any meaningful progress. This is a horrible and overwhelming place to be.

But what to do? I am wondering this now. I have been literally forcing myself into my office and to my desk every day, managing about 15 minutes of concentration at a time as I grind out 100 words here and there, half of which I have to edit, delete and rework later. It’s exhausting. And then, when I have managed to finish one paper out of the many that I really need to write, it takes months to get feedback from journals, and further months to make the inevitable revisions, send the paper back, get further feedback and eventually, please god, see the paper in print.

As a young scholar, in career terms, with a slew of ideas but without a slew of actual papers on a conveyor belt of writing, revising, and conceptualising, this hamster-wheel is flattening me more than I would like it to. I have had one paper accepted this year – last week (which, don’t get me wrong, is fabulous), but the other writing I have sent off is languishing in slow journal systems, and one is at a second journal after having been reviewed, revised and then rejected by the first journal. This is all quite difficult, and I feel that this frustrating process is often too invisible to those in our universities who assign us the brownie points, grant funding and recognition. I certainly feel that there is a glibness about doing research and publishing in journals and books that does not quite tally with my experience as an academic researcher and writer.

Perhaps if we can talk, in public spaces, about how difficult it can be to get onto one’s own research and writing conveyor belt as a career-young PhD or postdoctoral scholar, we can create a dialogue with university research offices and bean-counters that enables more acknowledgement of the challenges younger scholars face. This acknowledgement, and a troubling of the often linear-seeming ‘formulas’ that are applied to research and publication funding and support, can then hopefully lead to new, more developmental support opportunities, in the form of research workshops, writing retreats, and/or peer editing partnerships and writing circles, where written work is swapped, shared and worked on with others.

So much of our research and writing, especially in the social sciences and humanities, is solitary, or done in small writing and research groups. I spend a great deal of time reading, writing and thinking on my own. It is lonely, and the more I am on my own the less brave I feel about seeking out critical feedback and peer review. I really do feel that I need to connect myself more obviously, whether face to face or virtually, with other writers, and I have been trying more consciously to do this over the course of this year especially. I may not always be able to research and write with others, but I can offer to read the work of colleagues and ask them to read mine. Academia.edu, for example, now enables scholars to share drafts of their work with selected followers to enable peer feedback.

AcWriMo is another good opportunity for me to re-engage my tired brain and absent concentration within a supportive and non-judgemental writing community – both face to face and online. I have been invited to join a Facebook page where a diverse and international group of writers can share writing progress and stumbling blocks, and we have a Google spreadsheet where we need to record our writing targets per day or week for the month, so we can hold each other gently accountable. For me, this works well, as I need encouragement, even if I imagine that people around me are egging me on (they may or may not actually be doing so).

Image courtesy of Red Pen/Black Pen - www.jasonya.com

Image courtesy of Red Pen/Black Pen – http://www.jasonya.com

In the end, I know that (at least for now) I have chosen to play the game of academic research, writing and publication. In spite of this whinge, I do actually see great value in sharing my research, and in having other research shared with me. Perhaps the way onto the conveyor belt, to work my way up to having a series of papers in various stages of development, is to be patient and not expect it all to happen NOW, and to keep plugging away – writing as steadily as I can, even if only 100 words a day, and seeking out peer responses and feedback, both from friends and from journals. Perhaps, as with much in life that challenges us to grow and change, the only way through it, is through it.

 

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Weaving smaller arguments into a larger thesis: the parts and the whole

Making your thesis into an argument that is both persuasive and coherent is probably the biggest challenge in doing a doctorate. Argumentation is a craft, and crafting a well-honed, carefully substantiated argument is difficult work. I have written before in this blog about the ‘golden thread’ that weaves the parts of your thesis together, and creates the argument that is, at the end, what your research is all about. Here I want to write a bit more about this tricky beast that is your argument, and how you create smaller and larger, connected, arguments within a thesis.

From pinterest.com

From pinterest.com

A thesis, as we know, is written in pieces and chunks over quite a lengthy period of time – anywhere from 3 to 8 years on average across South Africa, the UK, Australia, and the US and Canada. Some PhDs are research-only, where all you work on for your candidacy is The Thesis (the UK, Australia and South Africa, generally), and some PhDs include compulsory examinations and coursework before students embark on researching a thesis (the US and Canada). There are other forms of thesis writing too, like the PhD with or by publication, fairly popular in Scandinavian universities alongside the more traditional ‘big book’ theses. There may be other forms as well that I am unaware of, but these seem to generally be the primary ways, at the moment, of producing PhD-level research in higher education. The challenge, in all these forms – some more than others – is creating coherence across chapters, and pulling these chapters together around the central thread that is your overall argument. You could think, in terms of a metaphor, about this overall argument as a kind of pattern, guiding and shaping the weaving and knitting and selecting that goes into crafting a well-designed and written thesis.

From waldorfmama.typepad.com

From waldorfmama.typepad.com

Each chapter, though, has to contain a part of that argument – smaller or sub-arguments: taking my own thesis as one example, you may well need an argument for your research aims and questions, and the gaps in your field that your research is located within (chapter 1); an argument for the concepts you have chosen to create and craft the theoretical framework that will be the lens (theoryology) with which you will view your research problems, methodology and data (chapter 2); an argument for the analytical and methodological framework and tools you will use to generate, organise and analyse your data (chapter 3);an argument defending your selections of only parts of your full data set, and how these have been organised and analysed to answer the research questions (chapters 4 and 5); and finally, an argument for the significance of your research to your audience and your field, and what it all means (chapter 6). These arguments all need to keep in mind the Big Argument that your thesis is making, which should be the answers to your research questions. Carrying on with the weaving/knitting metaphor, you could think of all of these chapters as balls of yarn in different colours – each one necessary to follow the pattern you have created.

One way to keep track of this Big Argument as you are toiling away at individual chapters, pieces and chunks of the thesis over time is to keep it visible. Write it on a piece of card and stick it above your workspace. Type it into the header of each page as your write parts of your thesis, as a running header, so that it is always in front of you). Check in regularly, in a research journal or similar space, so that you can track smaller or larger shifts and refinements of the Big Argument as your writing and thinking evolves and grows over time. It is so important to keep reminding yourself of what you are actually wanting to claim in your thesis, and why you think this argument matters, especially, for example, once you get into your data swamps and immerse yourself in everything your data want to tell you. It is easy, at that point, to get lost in all the interesting, rich data and lose sight of your argument, which will ask to you select only some of that data to substantiate your claims within the word limits you have been given.

Another way to keep track of the argument you are making is to find one or more critical friends with whom you can create a writing group, circle or support space, whether in person or virtually. You can undertake to read one another’s work at intervals, and give one another feedback on whether the arguments you are making in each chapter connect to one another and to the bigger argument; whether the parts are creating a coherent, sensible and persuasive whole (and where they are missing the mark). You can, of course, also ask your supervisor very specifically for this kind of feedback, as it is also their job to ensure that you stay on track and make the most persuasive, coherent, substantiated argument you are capable of making within the time and space allowed to you.

In the end, you want to complete a thesis, in whichever form or system you are working within, that represents what Trafford and Leshem term ‘doctorateness’: it is more than a collection of chapters, or ticks against boxes (theory, check; literature review, check; etc). It is a well-crafted, sensibly structured, persuasive piece of work that shows your capability to do research at this level well, and to make a contribution to the development of knowledge (and perhaps also practice) within your field. It is, in terms of the metaphor, a carefully woven, complete and accurate representation of the pattern you created, in all its brightly coloured glory.

From torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

From pinterest.com


torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

From torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

 

From chaos to coherence: logic, linearity and lies in thesis construction

I have written before on this blog about how a doctorate is assembled in chunks and pieces, and comes to together slowly, and (in my case) in fits and starts. It is not a linear, clean, neat process – generally the ideas and brainwaves ebb and flow, and we take two steps forward, three back and five sideways as we muddle through the complexities of managing a research project as daunting and significant as a doctorate is. It is chaos – sometimes organised and manageable, sometimes not. It’s kind of thrilling, a lot terrifying, and pretty exhausting.

Image from userexperience.co.nz

Image from userexperience.co.nz

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could reflect some or much of that chaos and two-side-stepping in the final thesis? It would certainly, as a friend of mine suggested to me this week, feel more honest in terms of reflecting the process of messy discovery and diversions and muddling-through that is the PhD process (for many scholars, anyway). As you write your thesis in these chunks and pieces, you are probably writing in the present or future tense, for example. I will be doing this, and I hope I might find that… . But when you write the introduction (often right at the end, after the conclusion, when you’ve finally pinned down what your thesis is about) you write in the past tense – ‘This is what I thought, so this is what I did, and this is what my conclusions will point to… . It is, as my friend stated quite plainly, all lies.

Researching and writing a doctorate is messy, but presenting and crafting a final thesis draft for examiners cannot be; the final product of all your messy, meandering labours has to be linear, logical, coherent and all in the past tense. Your examiners and readers are coming to what you have written after the fact, not as it is happening inside your own head, and they don’t really need to see all the mess. What you have to show them is a neat, linear story that is coherent and sensible, and takes them carefully through each step of your research. Basically you are following (especially in the social sciences) a fairly standard plotline, even if the form your story takes varies across disciplines, faculties and higher education systems.

Once upon a time people thought that… But I thought that maybe… So what I did was… and what I found was… and this will change the way we think about*… .

(Fill in the … with a few sentences describing your project – very handy tool for plotting out a paper or longer writing project, and for crafting an abstract)

The way you work that story out will vary hugely depending on may factors, like the quality of the supervision you receive, your own confidence as a researcher, time and resources, what research has already been published that you can access, and so on. As you discover, for example, what the field is that you are scoping in your literature review, you may read yourself around in circles, working out who the chiefs and tribespeople are, and what they are saying to one another and how it all relates to your thesis. But, when you write this section, you need not to be thinking about this chaos; you need to be thinking about how you are helping your readers understand what they need to know in order to believe that your research questions are plausible and valid, so that they will see exactly why your research does fill a gap and is necessary and important. You write it with this logic of demonstration in mind, rather than with the logic of discovery you employed when reading, selecting, and situating all that literature in relation to your own research questions.

But, as my friend pointed out rather amusingly, this feels like lies – this linear, coherent, polished narrative you craft, create, edit and mangle into being for your readers feels very far from the messy, meandering chaos that lurks behind the scenes of many PhDs – and some take longer to find their way to that final product than others. Creating coherence out of the chaos is a kind of conceit, but it is a necessary one.

Writing and the thinking behind it can be a bit messy and mad, but reading really can’t be because we read what others have written to help us sharpen, expand, clarify and prompt our own thinking (and often writing, too). The writing we produce and send out into the world for readers to engage with must be as clear and coherent as possible, so that the contributions we are making to scholarship in our respective fields will not be lost amongst the chaos. Our ideas (and we must believe this) are valuable, and they need to be read, debated, hopefully agreed with.

PhD story

Click image to enlarge

Ultimately, a linear, coherent and clean story created out of a messy research process can feel like a kind of lie, but it is a necessary lie given the point of all of that research: to share our ideas and to make a valued contribution to the scholarship in our fields of study.

*I learned this in a writing workshop with Prof Lucia Thesen, from the University of Cape Town, in 2011.