Friday, May 30, 2008

School of Hard Knocks

I suddenly realized something. I started the "working weeks" regimen on January 14. By my count, that means I just finished my nineteenth week. I think that explains why I've been feeling low on energy lately. (My physical injury doesn't really count as a cause. I was already feeling worn out before it happened. Indeed, I think it would be best to say that actual injuries are normally effects, not causes, of work stress.)

I have been aiming for 16 working weeks. When that goal was reached, I should have stopped, reflected, and regrouped. I didn't. And sure enough, I started to wear myself down, finally breaking my collarbone in a stupid accident.

Having overshot the mark, the end was no longer in sight, i.e., up ahead, and I lost my focus. So that's another lesson I've learned. The hard way.

Shadow Stabbing #13?

"I thumb the cool blade but I know this can't last."

I'm not generally a superstitious person, but my luck appears to be following some kind of system these days. (Live by the sword, die by the sword, I guess.) I had already decided to reduce my video posts from 16 to 14 episodes this semester. This week, I have reduced my goal further to 13. I haven't had the time or the strength to make the season finale yet but I'll hopefully get it done next week.

The good thing is that I'm learning. This semester, I've been trying to concentrate my work into sixteen working weeks, and I am gettting a much better sense of what is actually possible, given both predictable and unpredictable interruptions and distractions.

Establishing a schedule and carrying it through gives you a way of keeping track of how you work. It lets you learn from experience what you can realistically expect to accomplish. Next semester, for example, I will definitely only have one 16-session workshop (this semeser I had two); I will make only 12 (not 16) videos. I am also going to pay better attention to how much time I actually spend on my core service: editing journal articles.

The semester is winding down, and I'm looking forward to the summer. Episode 13 is on the way, I promise. I will be offering an interpretation of the theme music, i.e., Cake's "Shadow Stabbing". Until then, keep searching, and keep writing ... "Yeah, adjectives on the typewriter, he moves his words like a prize-fighter..."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Start Procrastinating Today!

Seth Stevenson's "Letter to a Young Procrastinator" (Slate, May 12, 2008) makes an interesting suggestion.

Stop resisting and embrace your procrastination. Don't agonize in front of a blank computer screen. Don't sit around for hours—intending to start your work any moment now—only to find that in the end you've accomplished zilch, save for ruining your own day.

You could instead, for instance, work on a small, tangential aspect of the assignment. Some weird take on things—one that doesn't make you miserable. This may be of little direct application, but there's a chance it could also pay off, kick-starting a new line of thought or adding nuance to your final result.

There's obviously a bit of irony in his tone, and I am, to be sure, not recommending this approach, but there is something about the idea of not putting off your procrastination til tomorrow and getting it done today that appeals to me.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Accidents Happen

"Clavicle fractures are usually the result of accidents that cannot be prevented."

I broke my collarbone on the weekend. I am also alone with the kids and the kindergarden staff is out on strike. So this week I'm going to be accepting the Universe's apparent suggestion to slow down a little. Truth be told, I've been feeling more like I was spinning my wheels.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Sequence & Iteration

In Artful Making, Rob Austin and Lee Devin emphasize the difference between two ways of doing things: the sequential approach and the iterative approach. Given my theme of planning and scheduling, one might think I suggest doing one thing after another until you're finished. That is, first you write an abstract, then an outline, then you make a schedule, and the schedule tells you to write your introduction and conclusion, then your theory, your method, your results, etc. But that's not likely to work.

It is better to see writing as an artful, i.e., iterative, process. Just as reading properly always means rereading, good writing requires rewriting. That means that your writing process should always return to what you have written and rework it. Your schedule, then, is much more about planning to return than planning to proceed. When will you look at a particular section again?

One of the recurring examples in Artful Making is the theatre. In theatre, there is usually a lot of rehearsal. Getting a play up is all about rehearsing it. Each scene has to be acted out many times, not just to practice the lines and actions, but in order to see how those lines and actions work together. During rehearsal, you end up changing the way the scene is played. You rethink it.

Rehearsals, however, are normally working towards opening night. That is, you can't keep working on a scene forever; you have to make sure that the whole play is coming along at a reasonable pace. So you have a rehearsal schedule that ensures that you get through each scene at least once and leaves enough time to do it over a until you are satisfied that it will work in front of the audience.

On opening night, you have to go out there, ready or not. It's the same when you write: make sure there is a deadline. Plan to get through each section several times. But in the end you have to submit that paper. Let the critics howl.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


I don't have much time today, but here's an idea that might help you focus a paper. Write one sentence that states what your field expects you to discover. Now write a sentence that states what you have actually discovered. Look at those two sentences. Work on them until there is an interesting tension between them. That tension may be more apparent to you than to your reader, so the next thing to do is to unpack it. Write three sentences, each of which identifies a way in which your discovery is related to your field's expectations.

Monday, May 19, 2008


We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there.


Palinurus was Aeneas's pilot, who fell (or jumped) overboard and washed up on the shore, where he was robbed and killed and, unburried like Elpenor, doomed to wander the earth until his shipmates erected a proper monument to him. But that is in many ways another story. Palinurus was also the pseudonym of Cyril Connolly when he published the minor post-war classic, The Unquiet Grave, about an editor grappling with "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within", which, properly speaking, is also another story.

I want to talk about an experiment in writing process reengineering. At the end of this month, I will be accepting applications from researchers at the department who want to subject their writing process to a somewhat rigorous programme of discipline. It is an attempt to establish a social context for the Sixteen Week Challenge.

My aim is to get people to vizualize their year as oscilating between periods of intense intellectual excitement and gentle mental recreation. The latter includes both rest and "lateral" inquiry, i.e., unstructured creative work. A Palinurean year starts with a Christmas break, passes through a 17 week writing semester (interrupted by a one-week Easter break), followed by a 14 week "easy living" summer, and then another 17 week writing semester.

In order to make this possible, authors will have to define their writing projects explicitly, first in terms of an outline:

And then in terms of a writing schedule that derives from this outline.

There should be one outline and one schedule for each project. Writers then imagine each week as fourteen half days (morning and afternoon):

And they make a realistic plan about how to use those halfdays to realize their writing projects. Note that the red area is the writing time. There should be a maximum of five of these per week.

The blue circled area holds a place for a weekly meeting to discuss the writing process with other members of the group. Like I say, the researchers at the department will be encouraged to sign up by the end of May for the semester beginning at the end of August. That means getting the planning done well before the summer begins. A number of PhD students have expressed interest in running something similar. The idea, in either case, is to establish a "there" to coordinate.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #12: PowerPoint

In this instalment of Shadow Stabbing I introduce my approach to the PowerPoint presentation. Part of my inspiration came from Teppo's post at Early on in the process, I try to decide on a key image that I want to leave the audience with. I had had some vague ideas in that direction before seeing Russell Davies on YouTube making the same point (the video seems to have been removed). In this case, the key image is the weekly writing schedule; the presentation is designed to impress that image upon the audience.

In fact, listening to people's comments after the presentation suggests that it worked: the idea of dividing the working week into three-hour blocks stuck. Another thing that worked quite well was to use the opening and closing sequences of this instalment of Shadow Stabbing (with modified titles) as the first and last slide. I also experimented, more or less successfully, with musical elements in the presentation (which can be inserted straight from your music library).

Making this video forced me to finally learn how to interlace still pictures (PowerPoint slides in this case) with my running monologue in front of the camera. I'm now starting to have a broad enough repertoire of effects. Though I intend to learn even more over the summer, I'm already feeling confident about next season (less formal experimentation and more actual content). It will start on Friday, August 26, which is also the end of the first of week of Project Palinurus. More about that on Monday.

Don't let the future distract you from the present. There are still two instalments left in the Spring 2008 season. Until next week, then, keep searching ... and keep writing.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Visiting Card

On Friday, at the department's monthly brunch meeting, I will be presenting an ambitious idea I call Writing Process Reengineering. I have written about it before and I am grateful for the feedback I have received. It is related to the Sixteen Week Challenge, for example, and one of our work-life balance researchers has cautioned me not to leave it as an individual self-management project (which will only cause stress). In this post I want to say something about how to make publishing an integrated, social part of the department's intellectual life.

If writing really were a purely individual matter, there would be little a department head or research director could do to "support" the process. Just giving researchers more time is unlikely to affect written output (mainly because of the truth of Parkinson's Law). On the other hand, research managers don't have time to micro-manage writing processes in the manner I am going to suggest. Enter the middleman.

I am happy to be a specifiable feature of the writing process at our department. All the researchers and PhD students have access to the Resident Writing Consultant (a title I bumped into in this description a similar function in a law firm). Hiring someone specifically to support the task of presenting research in good English is a good way to send the message that publishing is important. It is not just a demand to produce deliverables; it is an allocation of resources to the end of increasing production.

Writing Process Reengineering (WPR) takes the function of the writing consultant to a new level. It is of course an (only half ironic) allusion to Business Process Reengineering (BPR), an infamous consulting product from the 1990s. It was seen by many as a revival of Taylorist ideas, i.e., "scientific management". Indeed, the idea of the "scientific management of science" resonates nicely with Steve Fuller's idea that philosophy of science should be realized in science policy, and should be based on the scientific study of science.

An in-house editor, glorified as a resident writing consultant, is in a great position implement a variety of collective projects to foster academic publishing and build writing competences. At the brunch, I will be presenting something I am calling Project Palinurus, which will hopefully run every semester, bringing together a group of about five researchers who want to discipline their writing process.

Like BPR, the important thing is to define your goals and clarify your resource situation. How many papers do you want to submit to which journals over a given sixteen-week period? And how many hours do you have to devote to that project? You then work out a realistic process by which to achieve your goal under the constraints specified. This takes a little bit of planning and a lot of discipline. It is selling the planning part that is difficult, at least in my experience, and that will be my challenge on Friday.

A department can encourage process management among its writers by offering incentives. These could take the form of reduced teaching load for those who commit themselves to well-defined writing goals to be realized through explicit plans over a specified sixteen week period. These "first class researchers" (shades of Taylor!) should meet once a week to share experiences and remind each other why they are doing it. As I have said before, I am firmly convinced that a significant benefit of hiring an in-house writing consultant consists of a Hawthorne effect.

I should add a little self-promotion here. My department has worked out a way of offering my services, both as editor of the work of individuals and consultant to whole departments. I have put together both a one-day and a two-day departmental seminar on international publication based on my experiences. There is also a way of "retaining" my services. If you are interested, you can use the contact details in the image above, or click on the link under my name on the sidebar.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Paramount and Tantamount

I don't write very many posts about the usage of individual words. But let's refresh the difference between the adjectives "paramount" and "tantamount", which not only mean different things but are used in different grammatical constructions. "Paramount" means "supreme"; "tantamount" means "equivalent to". We normally find the first in sentences like the following:

It is of paramount importance that we all work for a resumption of negotiations between both parties.

But "paramount" can also contain the suggestion of importance on its own. It then means "requiring first consideration", as in:

The best interests of the client are paramount.

"Tantamount" is different. It describes the relationship between two things rather than the status of a single thing.

Breaking off negotiations at this point is tantamount to a declaration of war.

That is, the two actions are equivalent.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #11: Editing

According to my plan, I am supposed to make another five videos before I take a break for the summer. I wanted to make sixteen in all; that is, I had given myself a kind of sixteen week challenge, which I thought would run to the end of May. In order to stick to that deadline, I'm going to lower my ambitions a bit and settle for 14 altogether. That is, I have three more to go.

(Something similar is happening with the writing group I have organized. As we near the end of the semester, we have renegotiated the ultimate deadline for submissions to journals. I am also trying to get the authors to rethink how many papers they will manage to submit. In all cases, it's about whether or not a realistic plan can be made through which to realize their ambitions. The idea is to cut your losses early.)

At least one more of this season's videos will use the same format as this one. And next year I want to make half of the videos like this, i.e., as real-time examples of actual editing. One of the most satisfying (and fun) parts of my current job is running a weekly writing workshops with two groups of PhD students. For an hour and a half, we edit a short sample of text provided by a participant, displaying the Word document on the wall using a beam projector.

I'm sure there's a better of way of recording the screen image, and even the method I settled on here could be executed better. (If you blow the image up to full screen you should be able to read what it says. I wrote a post about it on Wednesday.) I'm also going to decide on a quick and easy way to make the lead-in and the sign-off.

In any case, I hope you enjoy it. Do keep searching.

And keep writing.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Understanding Turgidity

Since I work mostly with writers in the management sciences, I should say something about adminstrative "mumbo-jumbo" or "management-speak". In Compose Yourself (Penguin, 2003), Harry Blamires approaches this style as the ultimate form of "turgidity", i.e., swollen or inflated language, stylistic pomposity and bombast.

The business world has perfected its own brand of word-spinning, a category of the phoney, which consists in saying little or nothing as noisily as possible. It has given us the brand of usage known as management-speak, which has spread into many departments of life where meetings have to be held and business has to be done. (239)

As business scholars, we not only have to learn to see through it, we have to avoid the influence of this kind of writing. Blamires provides the following as an example:

[This] will require a partnership between a logical, integrated and comprehensive methodology that focuses on creating a well-grounded plan for action, and a business mind-set that appreciates both the issues and opportunities inherent in the current situation. (240)

As Blamires points out, the problem with this sort of statement is that it expresses what ought to be a general norm as though it were a specific recommendation. It says, essentially, that

success depends on a combination of planning and improvisation.

Now, it is possible to say something non-trivial about planning and improvisation, and it is even possible to say such things using concepts like logic, integration, comprehensiveness, methodology, action, mind-set, issues, opportunities and situations. But I think Blamires is right to single out the passage as "turgid" because it simply "inflates" the underlying idea with a lot of empty verbiage. The writer probably was not trying to say something more.

Note that the swollen phrasing conceals the basic tension (between planning and improvisation) implicit in the statement. If we assume that the other concepts are somehow necessary, the best way to rewrite it is to make the core statement first, and the unpack each side of the tension:

Success here will depend on a combination of planning and improvisation. While a plan of action should be grounded in a logical, integrated, and comprehensive methodology, it must be executed with a business mind-set that appreciates both the issues and the opportunities in the current situation.

(I even snuck in a classic argot from management-speak: "executed".) Notice how the "while" now emphasizes the tension that is already implicit in the first sentence. Blamires would still say that the second sentence states the obvious, but that need not be the case. The words"logical, integrated, and comprehensive" may set up a three-point checklist of virtues for planning. In that case the three words, while they together refer to something that is obviously true, also give us an opportunity to write three additional sentences to reveal their separate implications. And while Blamires may be right to say that "any sensible human being will appreciate the issues and opportunities inherent in [any] situation", it may be useful to distinguish between "issues" and "opportunities" as such.

In this case, though one can forgive Blamires for missing it, there is even a non-trivial occasion to emphasize the importance of keeping one's "business mind-set" "sensible". After all, too many managers abandon common sense once they have a logical, integrated, and comprehensive plan in hand. Turgidity is not always a sign that the writer is a "phoney". Sometimes it just shows that the writer did not have time to edit the text, that she did not get beyond merely mentioning the key concepts and on to actually using them.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Writing and Teaching

"It was too wonderful a morning to surrender myself to the machine."
Henry Miller

Most academics will teach even if they have not had time to prepare their lesson. They will normally decline meeting and seminar invitations if they are scheduled teach at the same time. Many academics will even teach with a cold or a headache or some other physical disorder.

Writing sessions are much more vulnerable to cancellation. In fact, people rarely even put such sessions in their calendar. There is a general sense that one will write when one has time to do so. And one never has enough time, of course. How often do you cancel a writing session because you are invited to a meeting or are asked to cover a colleague's class? How often do you say, "Sorry, I'm writing at that time. Can we meet later in the day?"

Worse still, even a very strong intention to write can be overridden by a vague feeling that one doesn't quite know what one will say, or by the sunrise of a morning that is simply "too wonderful" (Miller's "machine" is his typewriter). This, it should be noted again, is rarely the case in teaching. If a teacher doesn't "feel like" teaching, or goes for a walk in the park instead, we'd consider her irresponsible. If she cancels class because she doesn't know what she will say that morning, we consider that a kind of personal crisis. And yet, if we get up one morning and are "unable" to put two words together about our research (as planned), we simply shrug it off as a lack of inspiration and read the newspaper instead.

The obvious reason for this is that we have a harder time committing to ourselves than to others. The bigger the group of people that depends on us, the more likely we are to simply show up. (We are also more likely to prepare for class than for our writing sessions, but I think this is in part because we know we will be there for the former and will therefore have to actually experience our own unpreparedness.) The solution, then, is to see your writing commitments as social obligations.

So when planning your writing, keep in mind that your published work informs the research conducted by your peers. Writing is the means by which you share your knowledge with others; it is not just a means by which you further your own career. Your writing responsibilities are as serious as your teaching obligations from a social point of view. When you sit down in front of the machine you are doing important work for the community. If you need reminding of this, try to arrange deadlines with your colleagues that commit them to reading what you've written. Or get yourself an editor like me.

Yes, it is a very beautiful morning in Copenhagen.

Friday, May 02, 2008


This week's video is a rerun. It is one of the least watched of all the videos and I am not sure why. It's actually one of my personal favourites.

I've got about four weeks left in this first, somewhat informal, 17-week plan. After the summer, I am going to work on an even more explicit regimen up to Christmas. I know that my work is starting to look suspiciously like motivational speaking or business coaching. Every time I look into that analogy, the similarities just become more striking.

It turns out, for example, that the 16 Week Challenge is already a reality show. Its creator, Andrew Morrison, described it as follows:

I’ve worked with thousands of people from Hawaii to West Africa. The one thing I’ve discovered is that we all have ideas but very few of us are taking the necessary steps to put these ideas into action. This show will inspire others to start manifesting their dreams despite the lack of money, knowledge or connections. Now you can sit back and learn the insider secrets to turning your ideas into cash.

Well, I have worked with dozens of people from Iceland to Denmark. The one thing I've discovered is that we all have ideas but very few of us are taking the necessary steps to put these ideas into writing. This blog hopefully inspires others to start articulating what they know despite the lack of time, inspiration, or recognition. Now you can sit back and learn the insider secrets of turning your ideas into journal articles.

The key here is the phrase "taking the necessary steps"—in fact, the key is the single word "steps". In my experience, the greatest barrier to becoming a successful academic writer is the reluctance to approach the writing process as a series of steps, each of which can be taken without much thought or drive. Planning that process (and its product) does, of course, take some thought. And sticking to the plan takes a certain amount of drive. But, after they have been planned, the individual steps are something you just "do". (There is no "try".)

There will be a new video and more musings about process and usage next week. Until then, keep searching ... and keep writing.