I had a problem with academic writing. I thought that any paper I was working on had to be the boldest and most daring theoretical intervention imaginable. Last autumn I sent a paper for review to a well-known geography journal and it got rejected flat-out. No revise and resubmit, no revisions, rejected. If I am honest with myself, I wasn’t entirely happy with the paper. It was a bit all over the place but I was working on it for months and I was grinding it into the dirt. Each paragraph was mulled over again and again, making each section of the paper logically disconnected from the last. Its rejection has been one of the better things that has happened since scurrying out of my PhD defence and into the pub.
Before Christmas, my ever-supportive partner brought home a book about submitting an academic article in 12 weeks. It looked a little too much like a self-help book: 12 steps to a better you! But it was a kind thing for her to do because I was stuck on the notion that I would ever write anything productively again. I ignored the book. It sat languishing among the ‘in-between’ papers on the floor of the sitting room. Among the old newspapers and unopened Irish water bills there in the corner, it would blink at me once in a while, scowling.
And then about three weeks ago, right before the semester at St Patrick’s College started, I opened the book. I was staring at one last semester before impending unemployment and in the full knowledge that preparation for teaching 2.5 modules a week will take as much time as I have. Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks is a real find. Right now I am actually looking forward to Week 3: “Stating your argument early and clearly, and organizing your paper around the argument, is essential.” Because I think now I have a much better argument to make in this paper, doing in two weeks what previously took months.
Belcher breaks down some of the common misconceptions about academic journal articles, makes me confront some fears about the writing process and actually gives me license to make time for writing. Read that last clause again: make time for writing. About five years ago, I got annoyed with Rob Kitchin at a graduate summer school for merely telling us graduates that he writes every day and then shrugging his shoulders. ‘It’s alright for him’ I fumed ‘he’s got dozens of papers in the bag already and a second novel on the way’. What I didn’t realise then and do now – through Belcher – is that daily practice is the only way to write. Putting off writing until the mid term break, until the summer, until I retire is not working. So now I write every day. It is not always easy. She recommends at minimum a fifteen minute period every day. She says to chart how much time you devote to writing and many other activities. I haven’t done that last bit really because it seems excessively controlled. And…well….there’s a Dail seat going in Dublin Central.
In the last two weeks, I have written about 3,000 words and redrafted an abstract for the paper I got rejected last year. Starting out with an abstract, and not rushing it at the last moment, is one of those things that seems entirely logical but no-one really told me to do that before. But writing is now a daily occurrence and I do not resent the words on the screen when I open the document; I dive right in. I want to write everyday. What I write may not be the best thing ever written but it does not have to be. By writing this frequently, I can see the structure emerging in a way that was impossible by writing only periodically throughout a month. Belcher also recommends socialising the activity: by talking with others about the writing I do. Bringing forward the academic tension between doing work for yourself and in the service of others is no more positively illustrated than by her approach. Again, I wish they had made this point more forcefully when I was doing doctoral work.
Writing everyday also means I am far more rigorous about how much time I spend preparing for teaching students and how much time I can devote to administering modules (hint: as little as possible). My partner told me recently that one of the best pieces of advice someone gave to her was “teaching prep will only expand to fill the time you have”. I think in this last fortnight I have managed to control the pyroclastic flow that is class prep. This post (807 words) was rather easier than most to type and to structure properly. Maybe that too is a function of regular writing practice.