When people give their tips for academic publishing, they don’t often focus – or maybe don’t focus enough – on the dispositions of successful academic writers. Here’s a trio of writerly and readerly dispositions that I think are important:
- be ambitious
We all know that academic writers benefit from thinking about their contribution – what you have to say – and your audience – the readers you are writing for. But it’s also useful, I reckon, to think about what you want to be known for.
So, humour me here:
(1) Imagine yourself in twenty years time looking back at your accumulated body of work. What do you see as your major contributions?
(2) Now imagine someone else discussing your work in their doctoral literature review, what will they write? (Your surname here, 2015-2035) shows that…
While these are completely hypothetical exercises, the two questions do ask you to imagine, to dare to think about, the process of building up a set of publications over time. They ask you to consider the publications that are the end result of all of your hard work. This is not to say that each or any one article you write will be The Definitive Word on the topic. Rather, it’s to say that a life-time’s academic work can amount to much more than the sum of its component parts. And the point of the hypothesising exercise is that once you’ve established this overall rosy picture of your potential academic future, you can come back to your immediate writing tasks with ambition and with a realistic sense of what any one paper can do.
So, keep humouring me…
(3) In the light of your imagined corpus of writings, think about how your very next publication might kick off – or continue – this long publishing trajectory. Ask yourself, What does my next paper need to focus on? And the one after? And the one after that? How will each publication add to what has already gone before ?
(4) And now, think about what journals your papers must go in to reach your target readers, to help you to get into the scholarly conversation …
- be patient
It’s terribly tempting to rush the process of writing. There is a lot of pressure to publish a lot and often, and there are good reasons for early career researchers to focus on building up a publication record in order to be in the running for funding and awards. However, it’s important to balance this press against the temptation to send things off too soon.
It’s helpful to remember that some papers just take longer than others. There is no timetable for how quickly or slowly a paper is written. Sometimes papers come together almost straight away. At other times they are painfully slow. This variation, fast and slow, is normal. So it’s important to keep in mind that, with writing, it takes as long as it takes. As long as you keep at the writing then it’s likely to fall into place eventually. Slowness is often just the sign that you are doing hard intellectual work; it isn’t a sure sign that you can’t write.
Of course, slowness isn’t the same as inertia created by the urge to make something perfect. There is no perfection in writing. And no amount of sitting on a text will make it so. It’s important not to mistake slow working for a fruitless search for the ultimate paper, the immaculate sentence, the impeccable paragraph. What you are aiming for is the best you can do at the time. The corollary of accepting some slow writing can be the decision to multi-task… don’t put all your academic writing eggs in one basket. If you find that you’ve got a slow paper then start another one at the same time, one that it likely to go more quickly. Write slowly, but also write something speedier.
But DO, please, resist the urge to send any paper off too soon. There is undoubtedly a sense of achievement when you get past the messy first draft. You want to get rid of the writing and send it off, just as you did when you sent wrote a big piece and emailed it to your supervisor. Writing the PhD can sometimes establish a habit of sending things off quickly – the draft is 80% done, now let the supervisor have it. If this 80%ness is the case for you, then you do need to find a way to get over and get past the nearly-finished stage.
Consider working in a writing group or with a writing friend so that you have a process for getting and giving feedback on the papers that are nearly cooked. If this isn’t possible, then use all the self control you can muster and put the paper away for a week or three, and then come back to it again. Remember, the more polished a piece is, the more likely it is to get through the reviewing process relatively unscathed.
- be generous
Academic life is highly competitive. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of doing the academic equivalent of putting your hand over your work so your neighbor in the next desk won’t copy. It’s also not too hard to fall into the trap of being negative about everyone else’s writings in order to make the space for you own work – everything out there is complete and unadulterated crap and this is why you have to do this particular paper. Approaching other people’s work and your own from a position which is more positive is, in the end, and at the time, a much more ethical and healthy place to be.
And that generosity can be expressed in all kinds of ways – reading other people’s work and giving feedback, working collaboratively, co-writing (you don’t have to single author everything and there is a lot to be gained from working with others), mentoring and supporting those who are where you were a couple of years previously, making your work available open access on academic platforms, setting up writing and reading groups, organizing seminars and so on. These scholarly generosities won’t do your cv any harm at all.
But the real point of generosity is that it’s setting out to be the kind of scholar that works both within and against the competitive performative university. Generous scholars work, through their own writing and publishing practice, to assert – and bring into being – counter-competitive ways of doing and being scholarly.