Academics Writing Too Fast?

Fast Typing

Interesting piece … look out for the words that are used!

We all know that academics, under constant pressure to publish, are writing too fast, with little time and even less inclination to craft their prose as scholars of old might have done. Consequently, it is easy to complain about declining aesthetic standards, but this does not get to the heart of what is going wrong, particularly with academic writing in the social sciences.

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Writing Persuasively?

Image Credit: Sxc.Hu
Image Credit: Sxc.Hu

Fascinating insight into writing persuasively:

I never had a single rejection as a fiction writer, but that was because I spent an eight-year apprenticeship as an advertising copywriter, learning to use words to persuade and convince (I nearly wrote corrupt), everything I wrote subjected to reading and noting tests, every word graded according to efficacy. I learned to identify with readers, the uses and abuses of typography, how one enthusiastic adjective makes three times the impression of two, how to fill a brief, how to write for the press, for the screen, for audio. I had the vague impression when I began that publishers published my early novels un-interfered with because I was a “natural” and grew very conceited, but actually it was because I was properly trained.

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Narrative Trust with Helen Sword

Definitely an article to take on board, as someone who is keen to write ‘clearly and engagingly whatever the audience’:

What theory can be advanced to explicate the propensity of a significant proportion of individuals engaged in the scholarly profession to manufacture writerly texts that exhibit a more substantial resemblance to the technicality-replete discursive formations of androidal entities than to the quotidian narrative artefacts of the non-academic populace?

Or to put it another way: Why do so many academics write like jargon-spouting robots rather than human beings with a story to tell?

As the author of a book optimistically titled Stylish Academic Writing, I frequently hear versions of the following lament from PhD students and early-career colleagues: “I can’t write more clearly, more engagingly, for a non-academic audience, in a personal voice because if I do I won’t get promoted, my colleagues won’t respect me, people won’t think I’m intelligent, peer reviewers would disapprove.”

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From PhD to published…

This has been published from the train – I’ll be back to sort headings, links, etc when on something other than an iPad
In 1991 (I think it was) I picked up a postcard ‘Women of Britain’ at the Imperial War Museum. So started a fascination with British wartime propaganda posters… With an A-Level project, a BA dissertation, and a PhD in the subject, as well as chapters, articles and press coverage, I think you can call me the world’s No 1 authority on the subject.. And with my specialist knowledge on Keep Calm and Carry On, why have I not published?

Why publish?
I work in academia, and publishing is core to moving forward in the sector, but I’m now working outside of my core discipline of history, so the core reason for me is that I want to see MY book on the shelves. I really won’t feel that the PhD is ‘done’ until I see that, although I have put the PhD (minus images) on my website under a Creative Commons attribution licence.

So why haven’t I published before now?
There are two big reasons. Time is one of them. Those of you who know me, know that I have multiple different interests and get involved in lots of things, and for a while the project felt ‘done’, although I’ve always known that I wanted to publish. A bigger reason, however, is that I haven’t had a stable job (well, a stable/horrible job followed by redundancy/world travels, then contracts), and that I keep moving house. At present, I haven’t moved house for 1.5 years, and have 0.5 of a permanent job, combined with variety of interesting projects… So time is still tight, but I’m thinking a minimum of an evening a week will start to move me forward… The other issue is image rights… And I’ll come back to those. I suspect there’s also a fear of putting the material out there, but it’s currently been outweighed by the fear that someone else (less qualified clearly) may publish first!!

What have I already got in place?
Well, of course, the PhD is already written, but needs to be re-written for that elusive ‘non-academic specialist’ or ‘academic non-specialist’ audience! I have already written a chapter for London Transport Museum, and have journal articles in process. I also have a promise from Lord Asa Briggs (who was one of my PhD examiners and described my work as ‘highly readable’) to write the foreword, so I should chase that up! I have some ideas of publishers, and need to pull that together into a list, and decide where to approach. I can do this with the help of my PhD supervisor, Dr Martin Polley, who I’ve helped to create a website for (expect him to be in demand in Olympics year, it’s one of his specialisms), and who is going to help me get to book proposal stage.

So how to overcome the obstacles?
OK, so time: start! I’ve set myself the start of Semester 2 (15th January) to get the book proposal done, and need to organise times with Martin to do that. I have already been told by someone from Manchester University Press that should I get the image rights sorted I I’ll have publishers biting my hand off … And that was before Keep Calm and Carry On kicked off. So, the image rights. The majority of the posters are out of (Crown) copyright, but as I don’t own the originals I would need to obtain materials from the Imperial War Museum or the National Archives – potentially in a deal to co-publish (although the IWM recently published a text, but it’s very much a populist text), otherwise with at least £8000 of costs. I do wonder, however, about an opportunity to crowd-source poster owners, who would probably love to see their images in a book, and Onslow’s may be interested co-publishing. All avenues to be explored when the book proposal is complete. Then there’s the question of developing a timescale/plan to write the book itself… But that can be broken down to a chapter at a time.

Why now?
On our office wall is a quote: “It always looks impossible until it’s done” (Nelson Mandela), and that was reiterated tonight, when I attended Scanner’s Night – which focused upon ‘idea-storming’.

Stage 1) Identify what you want to do in one sentence (publish my PhD as a book)’ and what excites you about that (holding my book in my hands.. And knowing that others can enjoy it). There’s a sheet to write ideas that you want help with – and others can offer that help.

Stage 2) Identify the major obstacles stopping you, and, in a group, storm ideas to get past it/them. (Time/image rights/#getbexwriting required)

Stage 3) On the action sheet write name/sentence/an action that you can undertake in an hour or so. (Break the project down as to what needs to be done, clarify the obstacles, and think through ways to get last them).

There was also a sheet to ‘give away’ your ideas. So, there you have it. I think, unlike #getbexrunning, I’m not sure I want to force people into another ‘cheer Bex on’ group, but do feel free to cheer me on/hold me accountable via this blog… Combined will encouragement to chill out!!

See @ww2poster for more on the subject of wartime posters…


Feel the Rush @timeshighered

Incisive debate on contemporary issues is curtailed by the glacial pace of academic publishing, argues Tim Luckhurst. Adopting new journalistic models would inject vitality into academics’ work

As a journalist, I learned a lesson that many academics consider not just counter-intuitive but heretical: if a job is worth doing it is often worth doing fast. If the job is very important, it may be necessary to complete it at supersonic velocity.

To an editor in national news or current affairs this is axiomatic. The duties to inform the public and beat the opposition are pressing. Good journalists dare not imagine that their obligations to accuracy and fairness permit them to delay publication. Quality and speed must be partners, not antagonists.

It is daunting to begin the day staring at the empty flatplan of an 80-page newspaper. But every editor knows that a professional team will fill it with eloquent, informative news, comment and analysis. And, if an important story breaks late in the day, they will pull the pages apart and start afresh.

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