Thursday, September 14, 2017

Top Tips from Published Authors - Professor Kalpana Shankar

Professor Kalpana Shankar
When I was reading tips from other authors on this blog to see what they’d written about (So that’s my Tip One: First read works in venues you are interested in to see if what you want to write will fit the topics, style, and length), I realised that some of my ways of working differ significantly from tips posted here by other academic writers.  (Tip Two: Find what works for you and embrace it).
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  The first myth of academic writing is that productivity is effortless, or, worse, that writing well comes “naturally” or not at all. Good writing is work, and perfect writing does not exist. All writers expend effort to produce good work.  That effort is expended at different places in the process by different writers (go back and see Tip Two).  Ultimately, the writing process is messy, but developing a process that works for you is a source of self-knowledge.
For example, John Cox of NUI Galway wrote in his post that he likes to set himself up for what he calls a “strong first draft”.  He reviews his notes, with several outlines with different purposes at the ready, keeps necessary references to hand, and gets into the flow of writing, often from writing.  What struck me from his description is how much he prepares and how much significant effort that takes before he can write that strong first draft. His process to my mind looks very much like an iceberg where nine-tenths of the berg is below sea level.
On the other hand, I subscribe to the doctrine of what writer Anne Lamott (in one of the best advice books for writers  - academic and otherwise - “Bird by Bird”) calls “shitty first drafts” (her words, not mine). Giving yourself permission to write that bad first draft is her cure for perfectionism.  Like many academic writers, I have a strong streak of perfectionism that keeps me from writing as much as I could. I procrastinate on writing in many creative ways.  When I have a writing deadline looming, my closets are perfectly organised, my pets are well groomed, and there is fresh-baked bread to be had in my house (even sitting down to write this blog post only happened after I baked a loaf of whole wheat /buckwheat bread). 
Why all this drama?  Because after all this time, I still need to give myself permission to not be perfect. To get started, I make some notes, do some mind mapping, and scribble down shorthand for some references to include but most of all I write before I am ready to write since I am never REALLY ready to write. Nevertheless, I just write and don’t stop (but only in sprints: read below). If I don’t know what to write next  I write notes like “fill out this section later”.  If I don’t remember exactly who to cite (or just remember a surname) I will write “REF here”.  As a result, the bulk of my effort, rather than preparing to write, goes into rewriting and editing and polishing that bad draft. 
The second myth I would dispel is that you need to work in large blocks of time to be a “successful” writer, however you define it.  Large swathes of time are fantastic if and when you have them (I’ve taken several writing retreats of several days to work on specific projects and they’ve been excellent).  Most of us don’t have those blocks of time; we are squeezing our writing in between other professional and personal commitments (even those of us for whom writing is a significant component of our job description).  For me, this goes along with not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good – I write in sprints.  Three uninterrupted hours (or days or weeks) are all well and good, but when such time is not forthcoming, I work in “pomodoros”.  Francisco Cirillo, a writer and entrepreneur, used the technique to track his work at university (and named it after his tomato-shaped kitchen timer). 
The method is straightforward: break your writing (or other large task) into subtasks and short time intervals (most people work with 25-30 minutes, one “pomodoro”) with short breaks between them (about 5 minutes).  Then, after three of these, take a longer break.  That’s it. All you need is some kind of timer, on a phone, a watch, or on a computer.
I love this approach because it gets me out of the cycle of thinking that if I don’t write for one hour or three hours or three days that I’m not a “real writer”.  The beauty of this system is that even in particularly harried weeks, I can spare 25 minutes a day to work on writing.  Some days, I want to keep going and have the time to do so. Nevertheless I still break up my writing into pomodoros.  I set myself to write effectively for this short time by having a goal for each pomodoro (“Work on introduction”, “edit the conclusion”) and after the end of the writing period, writing a brief reminder as to what I need to do next.
Tip Four: Employ creative strategies for rewriting and editing.
 I will often take out sections of text that don’t “fit” my argument and put them in another document (or even at the bottom of the same document but change the colour) instead of deleting them. Sometimes they go back in, sometimes they get discarded, and on some occasions, those bits of text go into other pieces of writing or even become the foundation of a whole other piece.
Another editing tactic I love is to read my paper/article out loud. You can even use speech programs, some built into popular word processers, to have it read out loud for you).  This approach is an excellent one for catching awkward phrasing, overly long sentences, and other problems. 
One of my favourite techniques that I don’t see discussed enough is “reverse outlining”. It requires setting aside your work for a while till it’s a bit fresh again and then treating it as if it were a paper assigned in a university class. I develop an outline from the paper and I set aside the outline I started with.  The paper theses, headings/subheadings, topic sentences, and content from the paper get turned into a nested outline and compare it with the original.  When I do this, I quickly realise where the problems in structure are. Does the paper hold together as a whole?  Is the thesis clear?  Are there points that are misplaced?  Do I go off on tangents that I don’t resolve?  Did the original do what it needed to do, or was tweaking it necessary? And most of all, have I answered the questions/substantiated the claims I set out to answer/do? 
I edit once I’ve finished writing, but that may not work for you.  If I edit as I go along, I get into this cycle of re-writing the same paragraph over and over, or what my husband, a professional writer, calls “polishing a brick”.  So no brick-polishing for me, at least not at this stage.  I edit the whole edifice before focusing on the bricks.
My other tips:
Find the right venue Remember that journal articles aren’t the only outlet for academic or professional writing.  Book reviews, brief communications, conference papers, posters, workshops, professional newsletters, even professional or academic blogs are useful outlets, depending on what you want to write about (see Tip One).  I’ve often turned a poster presentation that presents preliminary results into a journal article with more complete work (note this practice is journal-specific; some journals will accept a poster that has been rewritten with at least 30% more content).
Don’t be afraid of reviewers’ rejections or requests for revision/resubmission Even highly prolific academic authors get their work rejected for a wide variety of reasons.  Rejection always hurts, but peer review (usually) makes work better.  Lick your wounds, make the responses needed, or find another venue.  Responding to reviewers’ comments is for another post, though.
Sharing is caring Find colleagues with whom you can share your work before you submit it.  As hard as it can be to let other people see our work before it’s “ready”, it goes along with the write before you are ready to write manta.  Share before it’s ready to share (within reason!).  A writing group or circle can be a game changer.

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