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Archive for the ‘academic writing’ Category

I have a number of academic writing projects on the go. I keep a track of things I’m working on in a mind map version of a to-do list on my iPad. But I also thought it might be helpful for me to make a note here. Partly to help me see the different things I’m juggling, but also as a statement of intent. I find the annual Academic Writing Month very motivational and productive, where I state my goals, and assess publicly how I’m getting on with them, both during the month and at the end of it. So maybe a similar process will kick in here. I hope!

At the moment I have four main writing projects on the go:

  • Write book chapter (invited by editor) for a new book history collected volume. This invitation came at short notice, and suddenly, and I need to finish it in the next month or so. This is proving to be a lot of fun, both in working to fit within the book’s theme and approach, and using elements of my PhD research and thesis that I haven’t published on before. I’m confident I can complete this in time.
  • Continue converting my SHARP Antwerp conference talk about Doctor Who and its fanzines into an academic journal paper version. Again this is time critical. For the journal I’m aiming at submitting it to there is a deadline for submission for consideration for publication next year. And I will have to clear image permissions with the relevant fanzine editors, so that I can have illustrations in my paper. But it’s well advanced.
  • Finish article about early directories as a source for book and urban history crossover piece. This is well advanced, and I hope to have it ready soon to email to my former PhD supervisor for a read through. But it isn’t time critical, and can be pushed to one side while I juggle other things.
  • Write a book chapter version of my upcoming St Andrews book conference talk. Again there’s a time limit on this, but it’s far enough ahead (deadline September) that I can worry about it after finishing the other chapter first. And probably also after the Doctor Who fanzines paper too.

In addition I have a journal paper that I need to rework before submitting to a journal. And two other journal papers are currently in the review process, with the relevant editors.

Looking at it listed like that it feels like quite a lot on! But I am comforted that some things are not time critical (the book/urban history piece and the reworking journal paper in particular). And those others that are time critical are somewhat staggered time-wise, so don’t overlap too much.

I’m also not writing intensively. I’m very seriously ill long-term, and have to snatch good moments here and there. But in an odd hour now and again I can pick a project to work on, and make progress with it.

But I may be quite pleased once it’s October. And after all that writing over the summer and early autumn it’s quite likely I’ll skip Academic Writing Month 2015!

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Next Tuesday, 31st March 2015, it will be five years exactly since I passed my PhD viva. It’s quite a big anniversary, worth celebrating, and I thought I’d look back on how things have gone since then.

It was my second go at a PhD, this time studying history, part-time. In the 1990s I was a full-time science PhD student, but had to leave that after a progressive neurological illness started at age 22, and my funding council wouldn’t support a switch to part-time study. I’ve blogged before about how much of a challenge it was to try for a PhD again after walking away from the first one. There were advantages though: the first go gave me skills and experiences which helped make me a more efficient PhD student the second time around. But I still never really thought I’d complete it, if I thought about it at all. But I crossed fingers and did my best!

My viva was arranged for the end of March, just five weeks or so after my thesis had been submitted. Unfortunately I developed shingles in the run-up to the viva: an agonising recurrence of the chickenpox virus, a consequence of the high-dose chemotherapy and steroid drugs suppressing my immune system so much. It certainly made preparing for the viva a challenge. But maybe it helped me not get too anxious about things.

On the Wednesday of my viva Scotland was blanketed with heavy snow. Luckily both my examiners got to Dundee: the external coming from Edinburgh, the internal digging out his car in south Fife! I didn’t sleep at all the night before, but I got about four hours sleep that morning, before my husband took me in to the university, and helped me get to the venue – I had to use my manual wheelchair that day, and a suitably accessible venue had been arranged. The examiners had also agreed to restrict my viva to an hour because of my disease which means that I get very brain tired very quickly if things go much over that.

I was told that I’d passed with minor corrections as soon as the viva started, which removed the tension a lot. I remember the next hour as a relaxed friendly chat about my research. Both examiners had lots of questions, and even the third academic present, a Dundee lecturer who was acting as chair or convener of the viva, had questions too, which was nice. It was really enjoyable to be able to chat to people who had engaged with my research so closely. I also took the chance to ask their advice about good publishing strategies. After an hour the chair wheeled me out of the room, to rejoin my waiting husband, and we went off to celebrate.

I’m unable to work in academia because of my severely disabling progressing neurological disease, so have ploughed a different path as an academic. It may be worth reflecting here briefly on what it means if going for a PhD, whether or not pursuing a conventional academic path. Firstly and most straightforwardly passing a PhD is validation of your PhD research and thesis, and the many years spent working on it. It is also a mark of your acceptance into the academic community as a fully fledged academic, capable of formulating and completing large research projects. Extremely important, I think, is the huge confidence boost passing a PhD can give you. There’s very much a feeling of “I can do that!” And for me personally it also saw the achievement of a long-term goal, and helping to put to bed the hurt of having to leave a science PhD after my illness struck at just 22.

I asked for an honorary research fellowship from my department shortly after finishing the PhD, after realising that because of university libraries increasingly switching to staff/student-only electronic subscriptions to academic journals rather than print, which aren’t available to other library members including graduate members like me, I would struggle to access the journals I needed to keep up with current research and thinking. This would be a problem as I aimed to publish my own research in academic journals. Fortunately the fellowship was granted, and has been renewed each year since. This helps me enormously, but Dundee University’s history division also gets some credit whenever I have another academic publication with my affiliation noted. I also take an active part in Dundee’s history research seminars, when I’m strong enough to come in.

Publishing academic journal papers has been an important activity for me since my viva. Soon after the viva I met with my PhD supervisor Charles McKean. He was keen for me to aim at very ambitious journals, which was scary, and hasn’t been completely successful, though I think it was worth trying for. But I’ve had a fair number of journal papers accepted post viva, some of which have gone into print since, others are shortly to go into print. I’m also developing four more papers at the moment, and am increasingly moving into new research, some following on from my PhD topic directly, others more marginally connected. As a historian it’s normal to be sole author of your academic papers. This is very different from science, where papers typically have multiple authors, often a very long list of names. So I have all the responsibility of doing my own research, and the writing, submitting to editors, dealing with peer review (ouch!) and any rejection or revise and resubmit offer, and proofreading prior to final publication. One of my post viva publications, in Scottish Historical Review, had to be proofread in Ninewells hospital during a high dose chemotherapy infusion. The editor had hoped to get the proofs to me days sooner, but as it turned out it was a case of my dealing with them on the day in hospital, single handed, literally, with the other hand hooked up to the toxic chemotherapy infusion, or not be able to do the proofs in time, given how sick and tired I would be post chemo. Not a great memory! But I did it, and I’m particularly proud of that paper, that comes from my PhD research. I really enjoy the academic publishing process, and it seems to be something that I’m good at.

I’ve also been giving conference papers since passing my PhD. On the downside I usually have to pay the costs of attending and travelling myself. And since I usually need to use my wheelchair there, and need help, my husband has to come too. But we usually pick events that give us a chance to visit somewhere we want to go to for a little break. I have to rest a lot after travelling, and can usually only attend part of any multi day conferences, but my husband has a good time exploring the relevant cities while I sleep, with camera in hand. Attending conferences isn’t easy for me, but it keeps me part of the academic community, and I enjoy the challenge of giving papers. I’ve attended four conferences in the last five years, and spoke at three of those. I was invited to give a talk at a conference for archivists, fortunately held here in Dundee. I was speaking as a disabled user of archives, sharing my experiences with them re access, getting support from archivists etc. Then I presented a paper about my taught MPhil dissertation research into Melrose regality court. This was presented at the Economic & Social History Society of Scotland annual conference in Inverness. Inverness is lovely and Leakey’s Bookshop is a must see! I attended, but didn’t speak at, the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) 2012 conference in Dublin. It was fantastic to see the city because my great granny was born there. And then in 2014 I went to the annual SHARP conference again, this time in Antwerp – which I have long wanted to go to (oh but the cobbles!) – and gave a paper on TV series Doctor Who and its fanzines. Talk about moving out of my comfort zone as an 18th / early 19th century book/reading historian! But it was fun, and just the sort of thing my PhD gave me the confidence to tackle, and the talk attracted a huge audience – nearly 70 (most panels there were getting 20 or so people), with some having to stand or sit on the floor – who seemed to enjoy it. I will also be giving another talk in a couple of months at a book history conference in St Andrews.

I don’t know how long I can keep doing these journal papers and conference talks. My disease is progressive, even though it’s playing a bit more nicely at the moment, after the summer 2012 high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital. I have significant dementia-like problems with memory and concentration. I also have to sleep for vast amounts of time, up to 18 hours every day in worst patches. Ironically given that my PhD researched historic reading habits I have enormous difficulty reading now due to the brain damage – thank goodness for my Kindle! And I have to do academic work in scattered short bursts, often a few minutes and no more than an hour at a time. But I do plan to keep going for as long as I can. I may not be employed in a paid academic post, but as I’ve said I’m ploughing my own path, and enjoying it.

Meanwhile next Tuesday is a time for celebrating again. I think I’ll get me a half bottle of Moët et Chandon champagne – my favourite – and some cake. Yum!

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As the month nearly comes to a close I’m winding up my AcWriMo activities. And as always around this time I thought I’d look back on how things went.

At the start of the month I had three goals outlined, all involving academic journal papers in various stages of development.

Two of these goals were fully or better accomplished. One was revising an accepted paper, which I turned around in the first week and emailed to the relevant editor. Another was starting to convert a conference paper from spoken talk with PowerPoint slides to a written version suitable for an academic journal paper. I set out only intending to start this process, the first draft of converting the spoken text to words, with much further development and enhancement required later. But as things turned out I went far beyond this, developing many sections of the paper more fully, and having it much closer to possible submission to a suitable academic journal.

The remaining goal was to finish developing an already mostly written academic paper, ready to send to a colleague to read through and give suggestions before I develop it further prior to submitting to a journal editor. This was the only goal not fully completed, although I managed to overcome a major impasse, working out a new strategy for approaching one of the main case studies in the paper, which I then largely wrote up. There are many sections still to be finished off and polished, and it’s not ready for that read through yet. But it is well advanced, and I should be able to get it ready to email off by Christmas, with hopefully the aim of submitting it to an academic journal paper sometime early in 2015.

All this was achieved against the backlog of struggling for much of the month with my neurological illness, more so than usual. There were several weeks when I could barely manage an hour of writing total. And then there were better weeks when I might manage 2-3 hours total if lucky, again done in 1 hour bursts.

The main strategy I found for keeping going when well enough was to think in terms of which goals I would target in specific weeks. So I had in mind key activities for the first week, and the second week, and so on. This broke down what might still have been quite a daunting task – three quite ambitious goals for the whole month for someone so very ill with so limited time – into more manageable chunks. And if I put in the time, even in isolated one hour chunks here and there, I could make slow but steady progress. Breaking it down into week by week goals also helped to keep the momentum going, and that I had to get on with things, lest time slip by and be lost. But I did have to rest when too ill.

Academic writing month can be a wonderful focused time, but for me the best thing about it is the good habits it can help to develop, which can be applied throughout the year. So the importance of making achievable goals and to-do lists, breaking down larger tasks into manageable chunks, and keeping going, even in small bursts, to make progress in spite of time and other limitations.

So I’m very glad I took part again. I look forward to taking part in 2015!

 

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Well it’s a few days later than I’d intended to post it, but it’s still roughly the middle of the month, so I thought it would still be a good time for a post looking at progress so far.

On the downside for the last two weeks I’ve been struggling a lot with my neurological disease. However I’m coming out of that bad patch now. And despite that I’ve still managed to make progress with my writing goals.

Goal 2 – to revise and submit an accepted prizewinning journal paper – was finished by 7th November. Lots and lots of changes made to the paper, and the revised version emailed off to the editor.

Goal 3 – converting my SHARP Antwerp conference paper into the first rough draft of an academic journal paper – is well under way, and I hope to have it completed by next week. This is very much only the first step in the process, and I will need to develop it further in future. But it will be a great start.

Goal 1 – get a journal paper in progress ready for a colleague to read and give feedback – is under way too, though more in the early stages. The paper itself is already well developed, but I still have a few sections to flesh out. In particular one, a case study of the Perth book trade circa 1825, needs me to learn a lot more about Perth then to do it justice. So to that end I’ve been reading a number of old books about the town, including several written back then and fortunately available in digitised PDF form from the Internet Archive, to better acquaint myself with how the town functioned then, and its layout of streets, and shops. I should be able to move on to writing up the case study more next week, with a fair amount of confidence of completing this goal by the end of the month.

So all very encouraging I think. As I’ve said before I can’t do AcWriMo in a hugely intensive way. Rather I have to write in short bursts, often no more than an hour at a time, a few times a week if I am lucky. But I stick at it, and give myself achievable goals, and that way get things done. So I’m very encouraged.

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I’ve taken part in Academic Writing Month for the past two years. Some academics use this as a period of very concentrated intensive writing, writing for many hours each day they can manage it. That isn’t an option for me with my neurological disease, which wipes me out for most of the time, and means any writing has to be fitted in occasionally, in short concentrated bursts. So instead I use it to prioritise finishing off some outstanding projects, getting them done and dusted, and out of the house. It’s also a good ritual to go through to build up good writing practices, fitting in writing in limited time around other things.

Academic Writing Month starts on 1st November. For a good description see here.

Because it’s coming up soon I’m going to declare my AcWriMo goals in this blog. I will then blog about my progress during November, including a reflective blog at the end of the month looking back on how things went.

My three goals for AcWriMo 2014 are:

  • Get a journal paper in progress – a cross of book history and urban history – ready for a colleague to read, and thus that bit nearer final submission. At the moment it still has a few too many sections still to fill in, including some relevant historiography.
  • Produce a revised version of an accepted prizewinning journal paper, based on the editor’s suggestions. This will get it nearer to being published. I will have it ready to email to the editor by November 30th.
  • Produce first rough draft of a journal paper based on my SHARP Antwerp conference talk about Doctor Who and its fanzines. This will involve converting my spoken talk (largely improvised on the day, with slides supporting) into written text, and seeing how long that is in terms of words, and which areas might need further development post November.

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I’ve been working on a number of journal papers lately. Some are brand new, or in early stages, others are revisions of existing papers, including one to be resubmitted elsewhere. And it got me thinking about how I feel about the academic writing process in general.

When I start a piece of academic writing I find it terribly exciting. There is an element of Schrödinger’s cat to it – writing with masses of potential, that until you start writing it almost has the potential to go anywhere.  You can scribble mind maps and preliminary ideas, and there seem to be so many possibilities for the writing to take, almost infinite at times. That’s quite thrilling, and in some ways it’s a perverse version of blank page syndrome: you can be scared to start writing, not because you don’t know what to write, but because once you start writing the range of possibilities starts narrowing. The hard part is keeping that enthusiasm going as things get pinned down more, and the writing progresses, keeping an open mind, and stepping back at times.

Stepping back is also vital when revising a piece of existing writing, whether in response to reviewer comments, or on your own initiative. Reviewer comments can be really tough to take. I read a good blog post today about various strategies for dealing with academic feedback. I coped well with feedback throughout my history PhD. It’s been harder since finishing, as I aim to publish in ambitious journals. Initially I was knocked sideways by some of the feedback from anonymous peer reviewers, which could be very aggressively expressed and quite personal at times, but quickly learned how best to deal with it, for me anyway. I’ll glance quickly through it on first receipt, then put it to one side for days, possibly weeks. Then I’ll look at it afresh, by which time I’m much happier reading it, and work out a strategy for addressing their concerns.

So that’s partly what I’m working on at the moment: turning reviewer feedback into positive revisions for a journal paper resubmission, and nursing burgeoning new journal papers, trying to keep that initial spark of enthusiasm burning brightly, and not narrow things down too much. But it helps me that I’m juggling multiple things at a time: keeps me from getting bogged down in any one task, and gives me the variety that I need to support enthusiasm and creativity.

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It’s the last day of the month now, and my Academic Writing Month of 2013 is drawing to a close. I thought I’d reflect here on how it’s gone, and lessons I’m taking from it for the future.

This year I had fairly modest goals. Last year I had more goals, but this year I had two main ones: finish revising an academic journal paper that’s been lingering since the summer, and write and submit a conference paper proposal (CFP deadline 30th November 2013) for a book history conference next year. Although they were just two goals, they were big ones. The journal paper was about 10,000 words long, and needed quite significant revisions before resubmission, and that couldn’t be done in a hurry. Equally the conference paper proposal was slightly outside my comfort zone, so I needed to familiarise myself with existing research and writings, before selling my pitch.

I’m pleased to say that both goals were achieved. The conference paper proposal was submitted mid month, and the revised journal paper resubmitted towards the end of the month. I started tackling both of them as the month started, and nibbled away at them, working steadily, as and when I could, until both were finished. So that was really good, and a big result of AcWriMo for me.

Another goal that I added part way through the month was related to my Melrose one-place study, and this was to put a person index, about 9000 persons (names, occupations, addresses, any relatives recorded) who were involved with the Melrose regality (local) court between 1657 and 1676. Although this was primarily a genealogical index it arose from my MPhil dissertation research a decade ago. Again I’m pleased to say this was done, and I blogged about it here.

More minor goals included judging the IF Comp games this year (done, at least 10 of them played, judged and rated), and to move my own text adventure writing project onwards (done: lots of player interaction added and coded up). I also wanted to move on my urban history research, and immediately after I resubmitted my journal paper I started planning a new one, that develops considerably on just a couple of sentences in my PhD thesis, combining book history and urban history in rather a nice mixture. It’s early days, but I will be able to take this forward in the coming month or two.

One thing I didn’t manage was to write any more of my roleplaying / history crossover articles which I am building into a book. But that’s ok, this month was primarily for academic writing projects, and I can tackle that next month. In December I will also be doing another piece of less formal writing: analysing and reviewing the Sapphire & Steel annual for my third article for an upcoming fanzine about the series. Fun.

So overall it’s been a very successful month for me. Although I set myself slightly more modest goals than last year, at least in terms of number and quantity, they were individually ambitious and time consuming, and it’s a big achievement to have managed all the big ones. This helped me finish one project that had been hanging around for too long, finish another that was urgently time critical, and set myself up for the next research project and journal paper I’m working on. And starting working on the AcWriMo projects from the beginning of the month, and blogging my progress week by week, got things done. I never spent a huge amount of time in the week on any one project, but kept working steadily at it, and that way progress was made, and things finished.

All going well I definitely intend to take part in AcWriMo 2014. Looking forward to it. In the meantime I hope to continue the momentum I have built from this year.

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