Writing differently

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I have had a wonderful fortnight of writing.

This is what I did: I submitted a 400 word abstract for a conference paper, submitted a short journal article (I am lead author with two co-authors), and drafted a longer journal article (also as lead author) to send to two different co-authors next week. I also wrote a writing to do list on my whiteboard – divided into upcoming deadlines, to do (writing projects that require some planning), and in progress (writing projects with no fixed deadlines).

This is what I did not do: write in the evenings, write on the weekend, write on my non-work days (Monday and Friday), write alone, aim for perfection, set aside large blocks of time for writing.

I write very differently now – as an early career, part-time, teaching-focused academic mother of two, in a different discipline from my PhD – than I did as PhD candidate.

I think about writing a lot more now. There are some wonderful blogs on academic writing. Among those  I read regularly: Cecile Badenhorst, Doctoral Writing SIG, Explorations of Style, and Mind Your Writing. I have also published reflective work with colleagues on being a part of a writing group, writing as women, and affect and identity in PhD writing. (Some of those links may be paywalled, so feel free to contact me for an author copy – a strategy I always encourage for difficult-to-access academic publications).

My research with early career academics has shown that academic writing can be a struggle:

“I’ve been told time and time again that it’s either ‘publish’ or ‘perish’ and at the rate I’m going I feel like [it is the latter].”

“[My goal is] getting high quality publications in high impact factor journals. The problem is that this takes a lot of time and has been a very slow process since my PhD 3 years ago.”

“At present, I am swamped with publication-related deadlines, and I have to do all of this in my ‘spare time’ because I don’t have time to do it at ‘work’.”

“[My greatest difficulty is] finding a way to generate significant research outputs despite being on a half-time appointment & having family responsibilities.”

Over the past seven years, I have honed strategies that enable me to enjoy academic writing. I think these are useful for anyone wanting to write through periods of transition, for example from PhD candidate to early career academic, as a sessional staffer with limited paid research time, or when changing discipline, job and/or university.

Here is how my writing has changed:

  • I think ‘There’s a paper in that

I say that almost as often as I say ‘There’s a blog post in that’ and I keep notebooks of ideas. Many of these papers are fanciful (or dreadful), but others become a reality. I write things down before I can forget them. Sometimes these ideas connect with other people’s ideas. My ‘in progress’ list of writing tasks (currently six) is usually drawn from these ideas.

  • I co-author

When I counted up my co-authored publications in the last five years, I was shocked to discover that I have written with 19 colleagues. If I add conference papers, the number reaches 31. That makes me sound terribly promiscuous, but many of those co-writing relationships are ongoing (that is, we have three or more publications together). My suggestions for co-authorship: some relationships work, some don’t; discuss author order upfront and share ethical guidelines for authorship; communicate frequently about deadlines and commitments; don’t be precious about your words.

  • I am a member of a writing group

This is hands-down the most valuable hint I can offer. Join – or start – a writing group. Over the last five years, my writing group has ranged from 2 to 8 people, but it has always been a valuable source of support, feedback, deadlines and co-authors.

  • I use up leftovers

Rewriting is often easier than writing. Conference presentations can become journal articles or book chapters,  paragraphs that are edited out by ruthless co-authors can be reworked, and leftover data can be revisited to see if it has another story to tell. I am also willing to share leftovers with others – together we might have the makings of a meal.

  • I align my writing with my work and life

I write about early career academia and academic motherhood. Having joined a working party on graduate attributes, I started writing about them. I write autoethnography.  I have data collection in progress on recent experiences and interests: academic activism, slow academia and change management.

  • I schedule brief writing periods

This has been a game-changer for me. I plan the structure of my writing. I write in small portions in brief windows of time -between 30 minutes (often) and 90 minutes (rarely) during a work day. I don’t re-read what I have already written.

  • I create deadlines

I have learnt that the ‘flexible deadline’ writing tasks are the least likely to be completed. So I do what I can to impose deadlines – abstract submissions, CFPs for journal special issues, or conferences. I promise work to co-authors or my writing group by a particular date.

  • I have fallow times

Sometimes writing only happens in your head, and that’s ok. During my PhD candidature – for over a year after my daughter was born and was ill – I stopped writing. At the time, I thought I was doing nothing, and felt guilt and anxiety. But so many of my ideas came together in this time. Once I returned to actively working on my thesis, the words just flowed. I have learnt from this that I sometimes need to give writing time.

9 thoughts on “Writing differently

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