Thursday, February 04, 2010

Materials and Craft Skills

When I hold academic writing workshops I always ask for three things from participants. First, I want a work-in-progress that is intended for journal publication. Second, I want a one-page (double-space, 14-point, Times New Roman) excerpt from that paper, which I expect them to have edited closely for style and language (to bring it up to their highest personal standard). Third, I want one or two references to "exemplary" work in their field, i.e., work written by established researchers that is "like" the work the participants want to produce in some significant sense.

I was recently asked whether this doesn't rule out participation from people in the early stages of their PhD research. These people, after all, will not have written very much and may not have a clear sense of who the major figures in their field are.

I always try to push back against that view, because I think it empathizes too much with a misconception among PhD students (and even some young researchers). No one is asking them to get published before attending, just to write as-if-trying to get published. A workshop can't build their confidence about writing if we keep letting them say "it's too early to start writing like I mean it". Getting participants to do some writing in preparation for the workshop, not only helps me to understand my audience (and therefore to make the workshop more relevant to the particular needs of the participants), I find that people who have recently selected, proof-read, thought about, and worried (constructively) about a piece of their own writing are much more receptive to the things I tell them. Getting them to select "materials" is the best way I know of establishing the practical "craft" spirit that characterizes a workshop.

So what do you do if you haven't yet thought seriously about writing for publication but would like to attend one of my workshops? Well, spend a couple of hours a day for a couple of weeks making an honest attempt to write 5000 words for publication. Here's a way of getting started:

1. Articulate an empirical claim in one simple declarative sentence.
2. Articulate a theoretical claim that is somehow implied by the empirical one in another simple declarative sentence.
3. Identify a body of scholarship that is interested in the theoretical claim. You can write a couple sentences about this area of the literature at whatever level of generality your knowledge allows. Try to name specific authors.
4. Within that body of scholarship, identify an acceptable methodology to license the empirical claim. This will likely resemble the method you are thinking of using for your own project: will you be reading documents, conducting interviews, doing surveys, or making on-site observations?
5. Identify the general area of human concern (usually some corner of managerial reality) which makes 1-4 important. Write a couple of sentences about "the time in which we live" that anticipates the much more specific claims you have just made.
6. Identify two or three journals that publish stuff along the lines of 1-5.

OK. Now write about 1000 words elaborating each of 1-5 with the journals (see 6) in mind. That ought to give you everything you need to fill out the following outline:


Then work through it for style and language submit that for participation in the workshop. Piece of cake, right?

My workshops are an occasion to show writers what they are already capable of, and what skills they need to develop. If they are not interested in demonstrating their current ability to write for publication, their minds are not yet ready for the workshop. They are not ready to consider who their public is.

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