5 things I think about writing and publishing (academically speaking)
For me, writing has never been easy. I don’t publish very much, partly because it is difficult. But also, I don’t think that everything I do warrants a publication. So I have hundreds of polished lectures, dozens of unpublished studies, piles of draft pieces. Here are five things I think about publishing, at least at this stage of the game.
1. Post your article drafts somewhere, to get feedback
I put a lot of works in progress out on Academia.edu, as blog entries, on Facebook posts, or as Twitter threads. I do this for several reasons. First, I get some friendly and positive feedback from friends, whether or not the piece is very good. This gives me an extra push to keep going. Second, I get my intellectual property out there into the public sphere. I tend to give dozens of invited talks and lectures in the classroom on the material long before I publish any article about the idea. I tend to speak very casually as well, and I do a lot of thinking aloud as I give talks. I also don’t end up publishing very much about my ideas. As a result, I’ve been burned by students thinking the idea is theirs for the taking, since I mention my concepts so casually. Third, I get unexpected advice from strangers on my work, which is almost always very useful. As an addendum to this idea of putting your ideas out there in blog or Twitter thread format: It can still be published elsewhere, so you don’t lose anything by putting your work out in multiple ways and sites. It also means that people can and should cite your public sphere writing, just as if it were peer reviewed and published by an official academic journal. Case in point: One of my most cited frameworks on metaphors of internet is a conference paper, published on my blog in 20(13?) with the original 2003 date.
(side note: date everything you publish and if in the future, there’s an updated version in official format, add a note with the link to the more formal work to your blog entry )
2. Write in both digital and analog form
My favorite semiotics guru Dan Chandler wrote a small piece on the phenomenology of writing by hand many years ago on his blog (later published). His blog styling at the time was telling; its spiral bound notebook background looks very late 1990s, but for me parallels what he was trying to say about writing: that there’s a significant difference between writing analog, by pen and paper, and digital, by tapping keys on a keyboard. These two forms have their own merit. I get literally more words written if I work on my laptop. And when I’m in the zone my writing is how I learn what my argument might want to become. But often, when I’m writing by hand in a notebook, I find more smooth wording and less cluttered sentences. It’s not just the pace that makes a difference, if you trust those who study such things. It’s about how ideas transition from the mind to the hand, or vice versa. And the challenge of writing by hand (in the digital era) can make my writing more sparse. Often Cleaner. Odd.
I keep a notebook next to my laptop to sketch patterns, block out ideas, visualize how an argument fits together. I have years of training in argumentation and taught public speaking and argumentation for years. Trust me when I say I know how to outline an argument. But there’s something about my own academic writing that eludes me. I have more trouble than you can imagine organizing my ideas in a simple or sensible way. This is partly because i’m thinking in many registers at once and, likely, trying to make too many arguments simultaneously or in parallel, before they’re fully baked ideas. So I find the visualizing helps me recognize when I’ve gone down too many paths
3. Build quality versus quantity
I’m glad that for some reason, I have never felt pressure to publish. If pushed or goaded (and believe me, I have been), I just back away. I would rather quit my job than be pressured to do things that I don’t want to do. So this advice is qualified. I am very picky about my work. This only works if I don’t worry about quantity. And it also is a painful feeling, since perfectionism is rarely the most healthy practice. It takes at least six weeks of solid attention to produce a draft worth submitting. My publishing record will always look ‘lightweight’ to my more prolific colleagues. I just don’t produce at the same pace as others. And I cannot differentiate between encyclopedia entries, book chapters, or top tier journal articles. They all get the same level of attention to quality. This means I am always behind schedule and bumping up against deadlines, which is a consistent problem I am working on. So why do I advise quality versus quantity? Because in the end, it only matters if your work is read, used, understood, helpful in some way. Especially now, when so many things compete for attention and knowledge is produced by people both inside and outside the academy, we academics no longer own the means of production, so to speak, on written knowledge. And as a side note, this was never true, of course, but certainly the ideology and structure of “The Academy” maintained over the past 2-3 centuries is predicated on this idea). In this era of fractured attention and global crises, what is the role of the scholar? If it was about quantity, I guess i would choose a different career path.
4: Be inspired to write in the style of authors you like to read
This took me a long time to learn. I finally recognized that we are heavily inspired in our style of writing (not just ideas) by who we read. (i know, maybe this seems like common sense to you, but for me, this was a revelation). No matter who I was reading before I sat down to write, I ended up weaving their way of talking into my own work. Instead of thinking of this as an act of plagiarism or absence of my own voice, I realized will inform how I write my own piece. So if I am reading reports of social science experiments, I’ll write like that. If I read Gregory Bateson, Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, or Diane Ackerman, I’ll end up writing like them. So to get into ‘the zone,’ I have realized that I need to focus on reading what I want to sound like. This is a recent advancement in my own work. It helps me get out of my own voice, which means that I find more sentence variety, broader word choices, different patterns of argument. And
5: Target your writing to an audience and build the argument with them in mind
I wrote my MA for the company I studied. I wrote my dissertation as a book my mom could read. For me, it’s a good use of my time to build the argument for the specific occasion and for the imagined (ideal) audience. This means that I’m thinking about a specific publisher, editor, or journal when I write a piece. This has benefits in that the work is more ready for the target journal when it’s completed. I cite works that have been previously published in that journal, for example. And I build arguments in ways that I think are relevant to the venue (and audience) I’m targeting. This often works, and I might get tough reviews, but these reviews are likely to be quite meaningful because there’s a closer relevance and connection between my argument/essay and the journal and their selected reviewers. At the same time, it means that the scope may be overly narrow and then requires significant adjustment for use elsewhere. This means, for example, that when I give a keynote lecture, it’s rarely suitable as a published text. And I can’t give the same lecture over and over, since each is prepared specifically for that moment. So there are tradeoffs.