Mastering academic writing, with a little help from my friends

Like many other academics, I have strong perfectionist tendencies, and I am prone to anxiety. While this has helped my career in some ways, encouraging thorough and conscientious research (or so I like to think!), it has also been a major problem at times. It has been a particular problem with regards writing, in particular academic articles. Knowing that my articles would be peer reviewed has always made them much harder to write than reports. Writing an academic journal article feels like defensive writing, where you are trying to anticipate all the possible flaws your research may have, demonstrate you have tried to deal with them in the best possible way… and still manage to convey that despite all this your work is worthwhile. This is very hard for an anxious perfectionist.

A few years ago I led a piece of work that took four years to go from report to submitted journal article. There was a baby too, during that time, but that was not the main reason for the delay. The main reason was that the project, which was a deviation from my usual “research comfort zone” had not been straightforward and, although the results were interesting, I was convinced that reviewers would be horrified by all the not-so-perfect bits of the project and I feared humiliation. I am grateful to my co-authors who pushed me write it up, to make a feature of the methodological challenges encountered and to finally submit it. Of course, the paper was accepted and it has been widely cited. I should have learned from that, but I didn’t.

Journal articles carry no deadlines and usually they are not an obligation towards the research funders. But, no matter how good your research is, not publishing articles is the best way to ruin an academic career. Over the years, I have accumulated quite a large backlog of articles that have not seen the light of day. Quite a few are nearly finished, and have been nearly finished for a long time. The perfectionist in me has been resisting exposing them to peer scrutiny and of course I have been very busy, like everyone else.

But things are changing now. Journal editors, be prepared for a substantial number imperfect submissions from yours truly hitting your inboxes in 2015. And this is how it has happened:

  1. I have addressed major other sources of anxiety. Anxiety is pervasive, it can spread from one area of your life to all the others. It has a huge effect on concentration, it encourages displacement activity and it is probably the worst state of mind for writing. Various stints of counselling have helped me identify the real reasons behind my anxiety and, eventually, understand how to address them. I have also learned to recognise quickly when something is likely to trigger anxiety and to deal with it before the anxiety sets in. Mindfulness sessions helped me understand just how much I was relying on displacement activities and thoughts to get through the day, and how much that was cluttering my brain. Sometimes it seems a real wonder that I got anything done at all.
  2. I have started to learn about academic writing. I was well trained for research, but never had any training on the process of writing. I am enormously grateful to my colleague Lisa Trigg for making me read Paul J. Silva’s book “How to write a lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing”. If, like me, you have used the excuse of a lack of “clear diary” time to be able to write, this is the book for you. She has also sent me a link to Pat Thompson’s blog, which has a great section with resources for academic writing and even a section on writing for journals.
  3. And last but not least, I have joined a writing group. It is early days, but we are trying to meet weekly. We start by sharing our writing goals, compare notes on progress, and do a couple of “shut up and write” 25 minutes session, using a timer. We do this away from work, in nice quiet places where we can take our laptops (and it works even better if there is no wifi). Sharing the goals with my writing group is forcing me to think explicitly about them, and the “shut up and write ” sessions seem to work specially well to tackle the papers that have been pricking my conscience the most. And we will go out for dinner to celebrate each submission (secretly, or not so secretly, hoping it will be me).

Of course, I cannot rule out that in my quest send out to the world all my backlog of imperfect articles, there may be some bad days along the way…


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