writing for publication – some beginning strategies​ …

This week – in fact, as this post publishes – I’m running a workshop on academic writing. I do run these kinds of workshops relatively often.

And I do really like an opportunity to have a bit of fun. Always. Writing is so often seen as hard work, so it’s important to try to make at least some of it seem a bit on the playful side.

So for this workshop, at the Undisciplining conference, I’ve gathered together some strategies that work well with a group that’s up for a bit of serious messing around. The strategies are ways of setting yourself up to write a journal article. They are designed to help you to clarify what you want to say before you start the really serious head down text work.

You might want to try some of these things out for yourself, or perhaps organise to do them with a friend.

Posted in academic writing, journal, journal article, journal publication, writing workshop | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

why is writing a literature review such hard work? part one

simson-petrol-110900-unsplash.jpgYes, a literature review means reading a lot. Yes, a literature review means sorting out how to bring the texts all together, summarising and synthesising them. And yes, there are lots of ways to do this.

But this post is not about any of these important and essential literature processes. No, this post is about the knowledge work that underpins the processes, knowledge work that makes your literature review successful, or not.

The literature “review”, as it is called, is not simply about reading and sorting and then writing. It’s not really a “review” per se. It’s critical evaluation, categorisation, and synthesis. And using writing to help. And then constructing the text. Authoring. This is all about thinking – and writing. And thinking and writing are not two distinct things.

In literatures work, writing and thinking are inseparable. Just as it’s hard to separate out the colours in a marble cake, it’s the same with thinking-writing about literatures. Thinking and writing are melded.

When you work with literatures and write your “review”, you are doing very difficult conceptual and authoring work – you are extending and consolidating at least six domains of knowledge. Yes, six. They are:

  • Substantive knowledge from your discipline, or disciplines. This is sometimes called subject or content knowledge and it refers to the actual topic of your research – history, physics, psychology, geography and so on. When you read, you are building on what you already know about your subject, reflecting critically on it, adding to it, and perhaps reframing the ways in which you think about it. Knowledge about your discipline also means learning its language, the very specific terminology that is used to shorthand concepts. Knowing your discipline may also require you to learn particular ways to write – see (3).
  • Knowledge about your readers – supervisors and examiners – and the scholarly community that they belong to. Disciplines have particular ways of explaining what they do, have been, and are, to themselves and others. There are key texts, writers and moments which are generally taken as important. Your readers are familiar with these texts, people and events, and they expect that you will be too.
  • Knowledge about the kind of text that you are writing – often called genre. You are expected to follow the conventions of writing about, and with literatures to suit the genre you are working in – a paper, report or thesis. The conventions may be shaped in part by your discipline – see (1). But in essence the literatures “review” is where you locate your study in its field. You aren’t writing a long book review or an essay showing everything you know. It’s usually an argument.
  • Knowledge about the kind of rhetoric that you have to use. Rhetorical knowledge is not the same as knowing about grammar, it is a given that your work has to be grammatically correct and your citations accurate. Knowing about rhetoric means understanding the ways in which language is used to construct an argument for your work, through explaining the work of others. There are some traps here, the most common is writing a laundry list. A long listicle of your reading is problematic because lacks the kind of meta-commentary that is needed to guide the reader through your interpretation of the field, and the texts most relevant to your research. You have to know how to write without laundry-listing.
  • Knowledge about the process of writing. Writing process knowledge is built up over time, as you develop your own set of strategies to diagnose issues with your texts, and to revise and edit. You build up a set of strategies that work for you, as well as a set of criteria that you can use to judge the quality of your own work. You come to understand that writing a thesis or paper may also very well involve un-learning some processes that have up till now, worked OK.
  • Knowledge about scholarship and you as a scholar. Writing about and with literatures is part and parcel of forming an identity as a scholar – you make yourself as this or that kind of researcher through who you cite and how you write about them. But you also build your understandings of the ways in which the academy functions, and take up an ethical stance, through writing yourself in relation to the work of others. And you develop a writing “voice”.

So it’s no wonder that writing a literatures “review” is so tricky. There’s a lot going on. You are learning, using what you already know and authoring at the same time. This is complex work which can’t be rushed.

And understanding what’s involved, what you need to know, the six domains you’re working with, can be helpful.

Part Two, on why literatures reviews are hard, looks at locational work. That’s coming next week.

Further assistance:

See more on literatures work on my wakelet collection.

Graf and Birkenstein’s They say, I say, is a very helpful introduction to the rhetoric of writing about other people’s texts.

Image by Simpson Petrol on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, knowledge domains, literature review, literature reviews | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

writing a bio-note


Dr F. E Line is researching which humans are attracted by a fixed gaze.

Most of us have to produce bio-notes. The bio-note is a little verbal selfie that goes with a book chapter, a journal article, or sometimes a conference presentation. Book authors also have to provide brief bio-notes which might go in their book as well as on the publisher’s website. The bio-note tells the reader some key information about you, the writer.

Most bio-notes are short. They often have a word limit of 100-150 words. So there is not much space in a bio-note to communicate a lot about you. And there’s not much room to be creative with them either.

Many doctoral and early career researchers struggle with bio-notes – they think that they have nothing to say about themselves that is particularly noteworthy.

But quite often, when you look at bio-notes, say in the beginning of an edited book where all of the contributors are listed, it is the early career researchers who write most. The more experienced researchers write less about themselves. This is perhaps because they don’t feel anxious, or maybe they figure a lot of people already know who they are.

However, those newer to publication, the people who write all the words, can be read by mean readers as trying too hard to make something out of not much, or of elevating publications or activities to a level of prominence they don’t quite merit. (Am I making this up? No, I’ve heard this said, a lot. There’s a lot of mean out there.) But I think that the problem of not knowing what to write is not about this. I reckon it may be related to understanding the bio-note.

So what’s the bio-note actually about?

Bio-notes do lots of work, but they’re not primarily about self-promotion. They’re not an opportunity to tell people everything you’ve done and how good it all was. They are not the best place to peddle your wares, if you are so inclined.

The bio-note serves multiple purposes including being (1) a small service to the reader and (2) a way of adding ‘street cred’ to published writing.

Let me explain:

  • Bio-note as a service to the reader. The bio-note helps the reader to situate the writing – be it chapter or paper or book. When the reader understands key points about the writer, they have an idea of where the argument in the text is coming from, and perhaps something of the reasons the text has been written. In finding out the writer’s motivations and experiences, the reader can, if they choose, see the text as something that is located in time, space and an ongoing research agenda.
  • Bio-note as a service to the publisher. Publishers like to show that the books that they publish are written by reputable people who have conducted research in a real university or social research organisation, or they are a legit independent researcher. One way for publishers to do this is to use the bio-note as a kind of assurance – as a way of showing the provenance of the text.

And of course, thinking about the reader additionally points to the fact that there might be different bio-notes for different readers.  Bio-notes not only change over time, as the work you do changes. They also change because different readers may be interested in different things and it may be important to foreground some things and not others.

I’ll just make this personal as a way of illustrating this point.


Professor Quokka has been studying tourist behaviours on Rottnest Island for several years.

While all of my bio-notes start much the same way, with my name, what ‘s in and comes after varies. For instance, when I am presenting at a conference or writing about academic writing, I always mention my blog in my bio-note. If I am writing about schools, I sometimes mention my former life as a headteacher. And if I am writing about the arts, then I signal the ongoing research I have been doing and the arts organisation partners I have been working with.

Here’s three of my bio-notes, to show what I mean, written for different readerships and to different word lengths.

  • Conference keynote about the doctoral contribution, for a postgraduate audience which included a lot of part-time professionals.

Pat Thomson PSM PhD FAcSS FRSA was a headteacher in Australia for twenty years. After a brief stint in a senior public service position she hightailed it into higher education. She has been a Professor in the School of Education at The University of Nottingham for the last fourteen years, researching entanglements of school and community change, the arts and creativity and alternative education. She also researches and writes about academic writing and doctoral education. She has twenty-one published books, a further four in various stages of completion, and she dreams of her very own library bookshelf. She blogs at patthomson.net and tweets as @ThomsonPat.

So here I’ve highlighted my qualifications and esteem factors to show that the university I am speaking at invited someone who knew what they were talking about. And I talk about my own professional history as a means of connecting my experience with that of the audience, but I also say I’ve been in higher ed for quite a bit of time too. And I’ve tried to be a bit lighthearted to indicate that the presentation might not be completely dull.

  • Edited book – editor – book about alternative education – publisher’s website

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, UK. Her work centres on the ways in which educational practices can be made more equitable; her research currently focuses on arts and cultural education in schools, communities, galleries and museums. She is a former school leader of alternative and disadvantaged schools.

Again as this is a book about practice, I am saying that I know about this topic from both research and practice perspectives. And that while alternative education is not my main area of research it fits with my broader agenda.

  • Edited book – description in a book about arts and creativity, in-text bio-note.

Pat Thomson is a Professor and Convenor of the Centre for Research in Arts, Creativity and Literacy (CRACL) at the University of Nottingham, UK.  Pat is known for her interdisciplinary engagement with questions of creative and socially just learning and change.  Much of this work has been in collaboration with Professor  Christine  Hall.  Pat has had a long-term research partnership with Professor  Barbara  Kamler with whom she writes about academic writing.  Her academic writing and research education blog  ‘patter’  is archived by the British  Library and posts are frequently republished elsewhere.  She tweets as  @ThomsonPat  and has an academic writing  ‘patter’ facebook page. Her research activities can be seen on a range of websites  –  the TALE  project,  the  Signature  Pedagogies project,  I  worked at  Raleigh,  the Get Wet project, Performing  Impact,  Cultural  Value and  Live  Art, and Quality in Alternative  Education.

More words here, but written in anticipation of a reader who might also be interested in academic writing as well as arts and creativity. I’ve established my street cred by listing a research centre and a number of research projects. I’ve also laid claim to inter-disciplinarity, again like the reader I imagine buying the book And there’s talk about long-term collaborative work, something that is key to a lot of arts activities.

I’m sure you can see in my three bio-notes that I’ve deliberately selected some things to say and some to leave out. You’ll also see the difference in the formality of the writing.

But how does knowing this help you, if you are wondering about writing your first bio-note?

Well, first of all you need to concentrate on a bio-note which helps the reader. Forget the publisher, forget self-promotion. Think about your reader.

The reader wants to know a bit about where you are, and perhaps how this particular text is related to your research track record and your general research and/or professional interests. They may be interested in other things you do that are related to what you’ve written. Or they may like to know about your long-term research agenda.

The conventional bio-note format meets these readers’ interests. It says who you are, your stage of career (position) and any institutional affiliation you have. Then there is something about how this text relates to other work – your research interests, current projects and any other publications. The bio-note signposts all these things – but it doesn’t explain them in great detail.

So what’s the content you need if you are an early researcher writing a bio-note?

  • name, maybe qualifications if it’s relevant and /or expected
  • current institutional affiliation if there is one, and what your work is. If you are working casually 😦 then say what the work is you’ve done and are doing – researching, teaching, administration etc.
  • your doctoral research and its topic, together with where it was done
  • your wider research interests.
  • your previous professional history if it’s relevant.
  • a publication, if there’s more than one, list the best one or two. (If this is your first publication, don’t feel bad. We all have to start somewhere. And we all had a first publication. Pat yourself on the back and move on.)
  • social media – put that down too!

String that information together in a few sentences and that’s it. Bio-note done.

And because the bio-note is just headlines, it doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to take up all the words. It’s not all there is. It’s not all you’ve done. It’s not all there is to you. It’s just a verbal selfie taken on a particular day to do a particular job.

Image: cat – Frederica Diliberto; quokka – Natalie Su, both on Unsplash.

Posted in academic selfie, academic writing, bio-note, chapter, journal article, paratext, reader | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

blog as text – a bit of meta-bloggery

In a few weeks, Mark Carrigan and I are going to convene an experiment in blogging as a live research method. We’re doing this lab work at the Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges conference in Newcastle. (Registration closes on June 5thby the way – it’s not too late to decide to come. There’s films and walks and performances and interventions of all kinds, including ours. It’ll be fab. )

Mark and I, together with volunteer coo-researchers, will produce a collective exploration of the conference experience. As a blog. And because this is coming up pretty soon, I’ve been thinking about blogs, blogs as text, as a text form.

Now my most usual conference blog connection is when I talk with people about starting to blog. I discuss all the things you’d expect – why start, who is the blog for, who is the ’you’ that is writing, what do you have to say that isn’t already out there, is it better to blog with other people or go solo, would writing for magazine style blogs be better and so on. Very often we get into the tricky bits about blogging – time, trolling, privacy and plagiarism.

But this conference will be different. It’s wont be about any old blogging. So I’ve been thinking about how this blog will work. I’ve been pondering about the academic blog as a text. As a genre.

Academic blogs are not all the same. They differ in important ways. A few common types of academic blogs are those which:

  • report research. These blogs might be from a particular research project, and attract readers who are interested in the topic. (See for instance one of my current research project blogs, researchtale) On the other hand, magazine style blogs report a range of research, and readers are often attracted by the variety from which they can pick and choose.
  • report on the research process. These might be diary-like personal reflections, or a series of posts about research related reading and thinking, and/or commentary on related topical events.
  • are pedagogical – like this one. The purpose of pedagogical blogs is to provide resources that are complementary to those provided in workshops perhaps in a home institution.

Then there’s live blogging – less common – where the intent is to use the immediacy of web publishing to allow people to follow a particular event as it happens. Afterwards, the site becomes a static archive (see for instance my recent live blog of a writing workshop). Live blogging allows multiple writers to participate, as will be the case with the live blog that Mark and I will set up. And what the balance will be of reporting research, personal reflection, pedagogical insights – we just don’t know.


But all academic blog types share some characteristics. And these will be important for the live blogging team.

Readers: Blogs have intended readers. This affects how they are written, as well as what they are about. In our case, we expect that people who are interested in social science, in blogs and in research methods might want to read our blogging conference experiment.

Length: Blog posts are usually on the shorter side – anything from 200 to 2000 words, but most are towards the mid point on this scale – so around 800-1000. In our case, we might expect people to write anything up to about 700 or so words at a time. But short and often might be the go.

Elements: Most blog posts include hyperlinks, and some have images, videos and audio content. Academic blogs tend to use hyperlinks – a lot – and images as illustration (like this post). Embedded video and audio are less common. But, given that our aim is to convey a conference experience, we might need to work a bit more on the multi-media side.

 Rhetoric: All blogs make rhetorical appeals – and academic blogs are no exception. Most scholarly blogs work with logos (the exercise of reason) as you’d expect – but many also lean to pathos (they engage emotions) or aim to stimulate ethos (provoke ethical or moral responses). (Note to self: you’ve been meaning to write something about rhetoric and blogging for a long time, just get on with it. ) In a conference blog, we’d expect to see all three types of rhetorical appeals. A conference is never just about the intellect!

Structure: Blogs usually start off with a catchy heading, and then an introduction with a hook – an interest-provoking announcement about the topic and what’s to come.  Then there’s some content which is broken up into readable chunks. A blog post often finishes with a call to action of some kind – a download, an invitation to comment, a plea to do something. However, I don’t think our conference blog will follow this format. As we intend to convey experience, our blog will be something else again – exactly what will have to evolve as we go along. So we will stray from the standard structure.

Syntax and style: Academic bloggers usually write shorter sentences and use more active voice than is usual in formal academic publications. They use less disciplinary specific terms ( I refuse to call this jargon) and explain them when they do. They may take a much more casual stance, using slang and the occasional bit of text speak. Metaphors and similes make the text more lively. (An aside: This is why a blog is often a good place to play with ‘voice’ and with writing in a more accessible form.)

While we hope everyone who live blogs at the conference will write ‘short and catchy’, we really don’t want a house style or a common voice. Quite the opposite. Difference is the point. Not a singular view. We hope for something –  disciplinary word warning – polyphonic. You know, a blog with lots of voices. And perhaps even something that is – disciplinary word again – dialogic – a blog that is in conversation with itself and with anyone who cares to comment. And something that we hope will altogether have rich ethnographic quality  – of that, more later.

So our conference live blogging will be like – and unlike- other academic blogs. I’m looking forward to finding out what will become. I hope you might be too.

Photo by José Martín Ramírez C on Unsplash

Posted in academic blogging, academic writing, blogging, blogging about blogging, Conference blog, research blogging | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

publishing from the phd – make a publication plan

There are two ways to approach publishing from your PhD.

One is to write the first thing that interests you. Or the recent thing that you presented at a conference. Or write the thing that someone very important has invited you to put in an expensive edited collection.

All of that is fine of course. It’s good to write the things that you are interested in. And it might be very strategic to accept that invitation to be in a particular collection of writing.

But there are some risks when you just write all the things. One is that you confuse the writing and presentations that you did during the doctorate – those that helped you get your head around the work and finish the analysis – with the major contributions of your research. The second is that you write lots of stuff, but you don’t actually write the key results from the research, the results that constitute the contribution you sweated over for so long.

The thing about publishing from the PhD is that you want to get your key results out into the right places. You want to be known for a something substantial. You want to stake your claim to be someone you want to hear on a particular topic. You want your research to make a difference.

Now this means writing strategically – writing for those who need to read your work. And what you write will probably include journal articles, but it might also include professional or popular publications. This will certainly be the case if your research arises from practice or policy and you hope to have an influence. And it might be a book, although not all PhDs turn neatly into books.

So given this, you are better off opting for the second publishing option, not the first. And that second option is to plan. Having a publication plan means that you can sensibly respond to invitations, and you can decide when, where and what to write and in what order so you can maximise your contribution to the field.

So when do you plan? Well, when you are at the point where you know what your contributions are likely to be. When you know what your key messages are, then it’s time to spend some time thinking about how you’re going to publish, and where. Even if you’ve already published some things, there is a point in the thesis writing when you do know what you have to say.

If you’re at that point, and you’re ready to make a publishing plan, you might like to self-guide yourself through this set of workshop slides. Or perhaps do them with a peer and talk through your ideas.

Once you have an initial plan, it’s a very good idea to talk it through with your supervisor. They know your work well, and may also have some ideas about where and what you can write. They may well be able to help you with introductions to editors and publishers too.

Oh, and you might also want to look at some of these supplementary posts about publishing.

Writing a book – a collection of posts

A set of posts about writing a journal article

Posted in academic writing, PhD, publication plan, publishing, thesis to papers | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

quick lit – rapid evidence reviewing

This is one of a very occasional set of posts about some of my own academic work that you might find useful.

A colleague and I have just undertaken what is called in the (academic) trade a Rapid Evidence Review. Or, as I have come to think of it, Quick Lit.

An RER is a form of literature review which is popular with policymakers and with organisations seeking to design and/or commission research. It aims to establish what research is available about a defined topic, as well as key results and major gaps. RERs are usually done by academics who already know a field of research well, as was the case with my colleague and me. When researchers bring existing knowledge of the field to an RER it makes for speedier work.

In this post I’m going to describe our RER process.  I’ll use the term evidence throughout, even though you and I know that this is a highly contentious notion. It is however the terminology that is used when you are doing this type of literature work.

My goal in describing the RER is simply to make explicit one strategy for reviewing literature. It’s a strategy that you might want to use – and adapt – if you have to do a roughly similar task.


Steps in the RER (Gough, Oliver and Thomas, 2013 p. 11)

Another message to take from this post is that there is not one way to do literatures work. The literatures strategy you use often depends on the kind of literature review you are doing, what you hope to get from it, and who you are doing it for.

Beginning a rapid review – what’s in and what’s out

The RER begins with one or more focus questions. You may have to define these yourself – in our case, these were already established. Our RER commissioner had six questions that they wanted us to address.

Next, the boundaries of the RER have to be set. In our case, these were negotiated with the commissioner. The decision is about what literatures will be included and excluded and what are the cut off dates. In our case, we were interested in UK literature only, literature published since 2007.

The search terms – key words using for searching – and sources – the data bases searched – are then determined. And in our case, the terms and sources were agreed with our RER commissioner.

Sorting out categories

The difference between the usual form of systematic review and a rapid evidence review is that a systematic review often excludes research of particular types. Because we had to ascertain what kinds of evidence there were on our topic, we had to take an inclusive approach –  our task included categorising research types.

We determined a numerical coding system for different types of research evidence.  We used a fairly standard system for categorising research approaches

1 a. systematic review b. meta-analysis

2 randomised control trials

3 a. longitudinal studies b panel series c cohort studies d. secondary data analysis e. other

4 case-control studies. b. case series c. case reports d. mixed methods e. survey f. interview-based study g. ethnographic study h. theoretical development i. other

5 expert opinion

6 any other (eg thesis)

While this list could be – and sometimes is – read as a hierarchy of research types, we and our commissioners were clear that different research questions often require different approaches.

With this list in hand we then used the two number classifications – research question, and type of research –  to construct a table. Our table also had four other columns. Six in total. See below. The first column was the bibliographic information to be used in referencing. The second was the country in which the research was conducted (where the data was from). The UK consists of four nations and it was of interest to see which countries the research addressed. The fifth column was further details about the research method – its sample, size scope etc. The sixth and largest column was for the key results. Anything we wrote in this column had to be short and pithy so that we could do the required task of identifying key results, debates and gaps.


I must pause here for a caveat.  Our review was designed to meet our commissioners’ needs, but the codings can of course be varied. Different types of search might have different columns. At another time and in a different review we might, for example, look at the gender and race of the researchers. A further column could be added to look at key definitional terms. Or theoretical resources. The point is that using tables and coding categories allows you to do some counting and comparing. This may be useful.

Categorising and noting

It took us a few days to complete our first wave of searching. And when we had all of the relevant papers in hand, we went through them systematically, firstly recording their bibliographic information and country. Note, we didn’t search and note, search and note, search and note. We did one big search and then noted the corpus.

We didn’t sort our list of papers, reports and books alphabetically, but we could have, although in our case it wouldn’t have made things much easier. I would also advise using bibliographic software for this section of the task, importing papers and reports as PDFs with associated bibliographic information into a project library. Only some books are likely to need to be entered manually. But the software entries do need to be checked for accuracy.

We read the methods section of each paper in order to categorise the type of research used (as above, types 1-6). We then read as much of each paper as we had to, to ascertain which of the six pre-set research questions an individual item addressed. And then we sorted and summarised the key messages. Sometimes this meant we read the abstract, introduction and discussion/conclusion, often more.

Once we had all this information we were able to fill in the table we had constructed. Item by item.

We used a word document for this task, but we could alternatively have used an excel spreadsheet. However, as most of the items we found addressed more than one of our six key research questions, we would still have ended up doing a lot of counting by hand.

Looking for search omissions

We had to make sure that our initial search had located all of the literatures. So we added a few more terms just in case. In our RER we had two more waves of searching; the first to catch any recent literatures we had missed, and the second to pick up some key international literatures of research types 1-3. We looked outside the UK because we suspected, on the basis of our first wave search, that the field we were investigating had very little of type 1-3 type research at all, not just in the UK.

Sorting the master list

We eventually had a master list of publications. Every item completely categorised. We were then able to sort this master list into six sublists – each one addressed one of our specific six questions. These six lists then became the basis for a very critical evaluation – much discussion between us – and this led to a written summary of the literatures.


Writing the report

Our written report began with a description of our approach to, and process of, undertaking the RER. We then described the overall body of evidence, giving numbers and types of research for each of the six questions. A summary of key results for each of the six questions was provided. We concluded with a description of the gaps in the research and strategic possibilities for further inquiry.

Our RER, done.

The RER approach forces you to be quick and succinct. It is obviously not a process you want to use if you are seeking to get deep into the literatures. Even the usual systematic review takes longer than an RER. However the RER approach can be adapted – for example, for an initial scoping exercise of a field.

Maybe this is a process you could use. But a little reminder, mainly for my sake, not yours.

The Rapid Evidence Review is not a process suitable for all literature reviewing, although there is a family resemblance between all types of literatures work. Pretty well all lit reviews aim to sort, classify and summarise patterns. Questions and tables are often key to how this work gets done. However, a quick lit approach may not be what you want or need. But it could be helpful to you at particular times and for very particular tasks.


Gough, D., Oliver, S., & Thomas, J. (2013). Learning from research: Systematic reviews for informing policy decisions: A quick guide. The Alliance for Useful Evidence, 1-38.

The entire website in which this OA report is located was down as I revised this post so I have temporarily linked to my copy  Alliance-FUE-reviews-booklet-3

Posted in academic writing, literature mapping, literature review, literature reviews, Rapid Evidence Review | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

writing and stuck? try a “ventilation file”


I am sure that most of us have experienced that feeling of guilt and dread that comes from not getting down to a writing task. We find lots of other things to do instead. More important things. Like looming deadlines. Like people asking for our help. Like new and interesting writing. And when we do – finally – sit down to write, the words don’t come. Despite being determined to crack the nut, the writing just doesn’t happen.

Now I’m not talking here about a bit of trouble getting going. The faltering beginning and stuttering start… well, that happens a lot – and to all of us. Usually, eventually, after some false beginnings, perhaps some free writing or some brainstorming, the words begin to flow. At first, there aren’t many, and then the pace picks up. And then you are writing. I call this writing-your-way-into-writing – sitting down and working at what needs to be said till what has to be written becomes clear and possible.

Nope. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about those times when you can’t actually even bear to start. When the project you were working on is stalled. It’s dead on the screen. Inert. Static. Going nowhere.

These are times when it might be useful to recognise your own resistance and try to figure out what’s going on. Rather than self-diagnose a block or some other writing syndrome, why not just work with the feelings of not-doing-it? Ask yourself – what is the logic behind this inactivity, this resistance? Why can’t you, and won’t you, just write?

David Sternberg had a solution for this kind of stuckness. Sternberg wrote one of the first books about doing a doctoral thesis – How to complete and survive a doctoral dissertation (1981). He suggested that thesis writers keep a ventilation file for those moments when they are bogged down.

The ventilation file is a place to write down every negative, angry, frustrated and  self-sabotaging thought that you have about the writing that won’t happen. The ventilation file is a place to say why you think this particular piece of writing is pointless, dull, useless, downright tedious, yawn-making, irritating and going nowhere. The ventilation file is a place to say why this piece of writing is scary, could cause you to be ridiculed by your colleagues, get you into all kinds of trouble with your supervisor and examiner, and make you a laughing stock if you don’t get it right.

Actually, Sternberg had a file for just about every aspect of the doctorate. He believed that one of the primary problems that dissertation writers face is organisation. Getting better organised ahead of time significantly increased the odds of completion, he argued. He advocated keeping a timetable file, a meetings with supervisor file, a contacts and arrangements for fieldwork file, a troubleshooting file, an inspiration file, a random serendipity ideas and thoughts file, a devil’s advocate anticipating thesis objections file, a “how am I doing” self-assessment file, a dissertation support group file and a master review of progress and audit reports file.

Among this panoply of files, the ventilation file had a particular purpose. According to Sternberg, venting about the writing you don’t want to do – or any other doctoral issue you can’t face – acknowledges the problem that you’ve got. You don’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, you don’t shovel it under the carpet – that pretence usually fails.  Sternberg says:

Whenever a strong dissertation emotion comes upon you— be it impatience with an adviser who is holding you up by reading your chapters at a maddeningly slow pace, anger with your husband (sic) who isn’t keeping up his commitment to take over the children and household chores to give you your full time in your office, outrage over how one of your fieldwork samples was treated by a superordinate that day, frustration with inability to find a satisfactory analytic statistic for a key section of your data— get it down. (p 68)

Venting helps you to come to terms with what’s not happening. You face up to life, the universe and/or writing. Writing about the troublesome chapter, or talking about it into a recorder (another one of Sternberg’s ventilation strategies), can be a way to work out what the problem actually is. Writing about the not-writing makes it seem more manageable because it is now tangible, Sternberg says, it’s something able to be written/talked about. Writing about the emotions attached to the not-writing may be a way of putting the resistance into perspective, making the feelings of anger, despair and anxiety seem less scary and utterly impossible to control. The problem has been domesticated, tamed. It’s now named.

Sternberg notes that there is no come-back from anyone if you let off steam or moan about your writing stuckness – no one is there to sanction or censor you. You are your only reader.

And because writing about doctoral stuck points and traumas can also lead to problem-solving, this means that it is possible to review your ventilation file or recordings if and when the next writing problem comes along. You can see that you got over it. You can examine what worked last time. Ventilation is a kind of self-help.

I suspect that Sternberg’s ventilation files won’t work for everyone. And I’m sure that they have limited use. They won’t work all of the time. They aren’t a magic bullet. But I also reckon that they might be one strategy to try out, one way to come to terms with some of the logics underpinning writing resistance. There are often pretty sound reasons for actions that first appear to be negative and self-defeating. Venting can help these surface.

So what’s not to like about the ventiliation file? What is there to lose but a few moments trying it out? If you have a piece of writing that you just can’t get going on, why not have a play with writing-talking-venting to see if it will help you get to grips with what’s really going on.

Photo by ibrahim kusuma on Unsplash.

Posted in academic writing, being stuck, David Sternberg, ventilation file, writing to get unstuck | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments