Getting control of the writing process

In an effort to get control of the writing process, I realised that I was abandoning the first rule I learned as a university student – RESEARCH!

What are we told day 1: ‘the lectures will help you, so go to class but you will be set reading and tasks, so go to the library’. In fact, this is the number one idea I try to implant in my students. ‘It is not enough to check some random internet sites. Find quality scholarly material to find the answers you seek’. I came to the realisation that I was not practicing what I preached, when yet another article was rejected and I descended into the pit of despair. ‘I don’t know what I am doing wrong’ I said repeatedly, getting more and more frustrated. It was only at that point I decided to Google ‘Dissertation to Book’ and what popped up was a scholarly book entitled Dissertation to Book.

How could I have been so dense not to realise what I was looking for was in my place of sanctuary all along. The library is my second home; the place I have gone to for answers (to more than just academic problems) and yet I had completely neglected the idea that a book would exist on this very problem! And not just one, but many. At Christmas, I put many of these books on my Amazon Wish list – a subtle commitment to get better at writing and I was so pleased that my family responded by purchasing all of them.

I am under no illusions that self-help books on academic writing will yield results, unless I actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard!). But, I was tired of swimming in a sea of uncertainty, longing for the wisdom of others. Colleagues certainly help, but most conversations are an exchange of similar troubles and holistic resolutions. Even these ‘resolutions’ are aired with some doubt as I am carefully reminded that these approaches aren’t always successful. I also added my own sceptical notion to such advice, privately thinking my troubles are quite different. A newly minted PhD with many, many commitments, adding pressure and time limitations, are surely solved with the security of full time employment? I know this is a foolish idea but these books further highlight that I am not alone. Everyone is acutely aware of these pressures and they don’t stop once a permanent position is secured.

William Germano is very open about the realities of the dog-eat-dog world of academia. An experienced publisher, his writing is frank (though repetitive), telling the would-be first-time scholarly author the downfalls of the dissertation, and the likelihood of publication. The advice is both useful and honest, providing key checklists to enable the scholar to effectively revise their dissertation into a book manuscript (if that is indeed what the dissertation is supposed to become). He makes no secret that many dissertations are not through-composed books and will never be conceived in that way, dogmatically declaring that the scholar should think very hard about the work they have produced ‘in the cold light of day’. Personally, the advice is inviting and has helped me to understand why my first attempt at revising was doomed to fail. Why did I not read about how to do it before doing it!

That being said, while his method of revising is pragmatic, informing the scholar that a clear plan for revising needs to be devised and stuck to, the approach paints the image of a tweed-jacket wearing scholar, working 15-18-hour days and toiling at their dissertation at all hours of the night after a heavy-duty teaching day. I want to be that scholar, but there are times I also want to come home and spend time with my husband and cat, watching The Grand Tour and planning holidays. I feel guilty for abandoning scholarly duties for domestic and vice versa. Is this my reality? To get the career I want, do I have to push myself to breaking point? (Oh, and by the way, lectures don’t write themselves!)

Well, entering into New Year and a Facebook event popped up New Year’s Writing Challenge for Academic Women. I am going to do another post on this at a later date, but Cathy Mazak specifically highlights the dangers of the 18-hour day, particularly for those scholars at an early stage of their career. It is an unrealistic expectation and causes more harm than good. She too promotes regular writing and a pragmatic approach, but one that is more holistic and flexible to current circumstances.

I have just picked up my second book on the subject Air, Light, Time Space: A guide to academic writing by Helen Sword and in the initial pages she points out the difficulties with Germano’s advice. Her opening introduction describes her journey as a scholarly author: identifying her struggle, seeking a solution, carving out a regular writing practice and putting it in motion, attempting to convert others to this enlightened way of working and ultimately realising that many colleagues simply didn’t stick to it. Reading her carefully crafted words forced me to ask a difficult question: Am I the type of person who will burn the midnight oil or who will get up at 5am and put worthwhile material on the page EVERY DAY? I might be this sort of person for a week, a month even but eventually, I would break the practice, telling myself ‘I am too busy to stick to this’. Ultimately, this is the conclusion the Sword has come to, hence the reason for her book. I am enthralled to find out what happens next…

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