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The painful process of writing academic book chapters/articles November 22, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, food for thought, writing.
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I love writing (as you can tell from my more than 1,260 blog posts so far) but sometimes, it is just hard to get started on the subject matter at hand. I remember that, when I presented a talk in 2001 in Berlin (Germany), I started writing the paper at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, using my then Compaq laptop (my brother and I bought matching laptops at the time, before they were acquired by HP).

It took me the whole afternoon, evening and I seem to recall that I was up until about 3 or 4 am that night. My brother had gone away for the weekend (at the time, we were living together) and I had the whole evening/weekend to focus on the paper. I got it done at around 11am on the Sunday. That conference paper became the cornerstone of much of my research agenda to this day.

Many people seem quite impressed that I can write as much on my blog as I do. To tell you the honest truth, I write on my blog as I think. That is, if you read any of my entries, you might as well be sitting right beside me listening to my unstopping chattering. I set that as the goal of my blog: it should read in the same way as my normal conversation.

Sometimes I crank anywhere between 1 and 6 posts in a day and writing all that content doesn’t really take me much effort in terms of how long it takes me to write or even research and do the links for a post. This is not because blogging is oh-so-easy, but because I am so familiar with my own writing and the general links I use as sources, etc. that my writing now flows with ease.

The only problem tonight is that the writing isn’t flowing as much, so what I decided to do was to create the EndNote style (I use EndNote for academic reference management) for this specific book chapter. I also created the general heading structure and laid out the overall argument I am giving in the chapter. Finally, I pulled text that I had already written in other academic papers, making sure that I noted that it wasn’t all original text. Then I added a substantial amount of original thoughts. Now all I have to do (which I plan to do all Saturday) is to print it out, edit the language so that it’s not a direct cut-and-paste, insert enough original content as to make the argument flow, and then send it for proofreading/editing with some of my colleagues.

This last bit is a piece of advice I am happy to pass along. Despite the fact that I am an academic (or I guess, precisely for that reason), I *always* make a point of asking for advice and input on anything academic I write. ALWAYS. And my journal article/book chapter acceptance rates are really good. I think that this comes as a result not only from writing good research, but also being humble enough to ask for advice from your peers. That’s the only way you can get better. So I always ask my friends to edit my stuff, even if they are not academics, because they are always able to provide a fresh perspective.

Musings from Raul’s very tired mind at 3:30am after having cranked out a really good first draft of an original contribution (book chapter).

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1. enkerli - November 22, 2008

(Came here through the “possibly related posts.”)

Excellent advice and very efficient strategy.
In your description of the difference between blog and academic writing, something could be said about the assumptions of academese.
Formal academic writing should not read like a conversation. It should also be fully referenced (especially in English-speaking academic contexts). And there’s an expectation that every statement has been carefully weighed.
Nothing wrong about these assumptions. They make sense in the current academic climate (especially with publications in English). But isn’t there some room between blog-style conversations and academic publishing? A place where we can discuss academic issues without needing to use the most formal style possible?
In my experience, academic mailing-lists have often been the most adequate context for these. And private conversations (on- or offline). Maybe we’re ready to integrate these informal models in other settings?


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