Q: What process do you go through when writing an academic paper?
A: I write my academic papers in fits and starts. Certainly I never follow the classic formula of doing all the research before beginning to write. On the contrary, I use writing as a way of figuring out what I think, often amending or even completely reversing an argument part way through the writing process. So it’s rather spasmodic and intermittent. Never smooth and even.
By fits and starts I really mean a series of intermittent, self-imposed deadlines: abstract, conference paper, revised paper, submission to a journal, further revisions. I generally propose an academic paper for presentation at a conference, writing the abstract even before I’ve started the project. The abstract is simply my best guess at what I’m going to do with the material. The conference presentation is an opportunity for feedback, but also is a chance for me to hear myself actually speaking the argument aloud. It’s a strange thing, but sometimes it’s only when I hear myself present a paper in public that I can really gauge if it’s compelling. In other words, I judge it almost as if I’m listening, rather than speaking. It’s akin to an out-of-body experience.
The next stage involves revisions following the conference experience. This might include comments received from others who heard the paper (in the regular way), or just my own private critique of what I presented. And this is the crucial deadline. I give myself one year from the conference date to submit the paper to a journal. That twelve-month period means a chance to re-order the material and often to make it much longer. Sometimes I contact a journal editor at this point to see if the topic interests them; if so, I take the opportunity to tailor the final paper to a particular publication’s style and theme.
Writing doesn’t come easily to me. When I have trouble writing I try to write spontaneously, as if writing a letter or explaining what I mean to a friend. I like writing that is straightforward, like conversation, and I almost always ask one or two colleagues to read my papers before I submit them. My goal is to write clearly, saying what I mean and nothing more. At the same time, I enjoy reading the work of other would-be academic writers and have likely learned the most about writing by reading critically.
The twelve-month rule really works for me. Sometimes papers just aren’t worth pursuing, so I let them go during this intensive year of writing. But mostly this regime works for me because without it I would simply revise forever and never submit. I guess that’s why I rarely read my papers when they are first published, afraid I’ll find something that should have been improved. Eventually I read them and sometimes even think they’re not half bad.
Photo credit: Lea Grahovac
My favourite writing resource:
Alexandra Lange. Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012.