Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What I Do

I help scholars develop in the craft of writing, and I advise university administrators about how to build stronger writing cultures. While I do sometimes talk to undergraduates and their teachers about academic writing, I work mainly with PhD students and faculty. This morning I thought I would take a few minutes to explain what this work involves.

The most important thing is to get scholars and their administrators to see writing as a practical problem to be solved by organizational means, i.e., managing the writing process. Scholars have a finite amount of time to accomplish a range of tasks, and one of those tasks is to publish their results. In one sense, then, writing is just one task among many. But as the slogan "Publish or perish!" suggests, it is also an existential dimension of research. Scholars who don't write aren't really being themselves.

The importance of writing for the progress of an academic career, that is, fosters a close connection between writing and identity. The quality of the writing process has deep, but sometimes unacknowledged, effects on a scholar's sense of self. What I do is to convert the resulting anxiety into useful energy. It is precisely because writing is universally acknowledged to be important, by scholars themselves and by their peers and administrators, that it can be given high priority.

As I said on Monday, my approach begins with a shift of focus from the problem of "getting published" to the problem of submitting work for review. The immediate goal must not be to have a particular impact on the literature but to submit work to that literature on a regular basis. (The well-known principle here is "If you want to increase your amount of publications, you have to increase your amount of rejections.") I have a variety of ways of showing authors that they can produce a paragraph at a time, thirty minutes at a time. If they work in this way on a daily basis, their prose will get stronger. They will write more effectively in the long run.

On the ground, then, I help authors outline their writing projects and develop weekly writing schedules. I also serve as a coach over a number of weeks (usually 8 or 16) to keep the process running, and as a kind of motivational speaker, holding talks and seminars for academic departments. In some cases, I provide editing services and language instruction. I also talk to deans and department heads about how best to make such support available to their staff, and advise them about the development and implementation of publication strategies.

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