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Posts Tagged ‘academic writing’

Two of my history journal papers recently went online freely under green open access rules. Prompted in part by that I thought I’d look back on the first of those.

Entitled “Glimpses into a Town’s Reading Habits in Enlightenment Scotland: Analysing the Borrowings of Gray Library, Haddington, 1732-1816”, this paper was published in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies in 2006. At the time I was about half-way through my part-time history PhD. Every year the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland runs an essay prize for postgraduate students, with a money prize, and the winning paper published in their journal, the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies. History postgraduates at Dundee were encouraged in my time to enter. I wrote up my then research, but didn’t complete it in time for the competition deadline because of being particularly ill at the time, causing a delay. But I sent it in anyway. The then editor, one of our Professors, asked me if I’d like him to hold it back for the competition in nearly a year, but I said no, please just consider it as a journal paper submission now. With my life-threatening condition I was keen to get on with things sooner rather than later, and a delay would not help.

My paper was accepted without any revisions, which is rather rare in academic publishing. With hindsight I think it gave me an unrealistic impression of journal publishing as an easy thing to do! I’ve certainly found it harder since, not least as I’ve aimed for more and more ambitious journals. But it at least gave me confidence to try more publishing, and it was a delight to see my research in print, only halfway through my PhD. I remember how thrilled I was to hold the print issues. Even the digital PDF was exciting. I had earlier co-authored publications from my computer science time, including some published after I had to leave that full-time PhD as my neurological illness struck. But this was the first time I had a sole-authored history journal paper, and it was a huge achievement.

The paper was based on research I was doing as part of my PhD on Scottish reading habits. In particular it looked at the borrowing records over 80 years or so of a free town library in Haddington, East Lothian. It was very unusual to have a free library at that time, and one that was open to the whole inhabitants of a town. It opened up all sorts of possibilities for contextualising the borrowings, and also researching the borrowers further.

The core part of the research involved transcribing the Haddington library’s borrowing registers and building up a database of library borrowings. For this I used the relational database system MySQL, drawing on my computer science degree and training. I had three linked tables: one recording the details of borrowers, one recording books in the library, and a third table linking the two, recording details of borrowings. And then I could write SQL queries to interrogate the database, and quickly produce answers to different questions.

For the borrowers, about 700 of whom could be identified, I researched in other local records to find out more about them. Parish registers, both Church of Scotland and other denominations, were useful, as were tax records, wills and inventories, later census returns, and so on. For this I was able to draw on my skills as a genealogist, used to working through such records, and was able to discover significant new information on over 240 of the known borrowers.

This extra information, such as occupation, age, family connections and so on together with the relational database allowed me to analyse the borrowings in a number of different ways. A simple analysis was to look at the numbers of borrowings over time, or, having categorised the library books roughly by subject, the changing subjects borrowed by the library users. Another analysis let me pull out the most popular titles, borrowed the most frequently, in specific decades. But I could also analyse the borrowings of specific occupational groups, or, for example, young girl borrowers. All were easy to pull out using the database structure I had built, allowing queries that would be impossible otherwise.

Results, such as differences between male and female borrower choices, could be compared with findings of other scholars elsewhere. And because I knew so much about many of the borrowers I could also write meaningfully about them. For example I was able to identify a watchmaker father and his daughter borrowing books together. As an added bonus this pair were my own direct ancestors.

I was able to show borrowers working through a multi-part title in sequence, getting hold of successive volumes as best they could, and clearly reading them. Clearly there was often competition for different volumes in the same sequence, but I could trace readers trying their very best to borrow the next volume they needed, and this wasn’t an isolated example. Some other book historians, particularly those associated with the Reading Experience Database, are sceptical about the use of library borrowing records as evidence of reading. But I would argue that the records I studied, with their clear evidence of reading sequentially like this, are very much evidence of that, and should not be dismissed so readily. Significantly they also cover a very sizeable local population, which permits a much greater range of analysis than a single isolated reading reference can.

Another nice thing that the Haddington library records showed was the extent of female reading. Many other Scottish reading institutions at this time were restricted in their membership, and often dominated by men. But the Haddington library was open to all genders, and asked borrowers to indicate when they were borrowing a book for someone else. So there are many loans recorded for female readers, allowing a comparison between male and female borrowing choices – and there was quite a difference – and, as noted already, a study of young female readers, who seemed to congregate in the library, particularly on Saturdays.

Overall I’m very proud of the paper, and still think that the research it presents stands up to scrutiny. I’m also pleased that I was able to use my computer science training in building up the databases that it relied upon. And although it gave me perhaps an overly optimistic view on academic publishing, I think without its experience I probably wouldn’t have gone on to do so much more.

The open access PDF copy of the paper is available from my publications page in my personal website.

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Another seven days down, and checking in once more on progress so far.

I’m really pleased with how the week has gone, though initially I moved away from the two main goals. For the conference paper proposal I was still waiting for some more academic textbooks on the subject to arrive, some bought, some borrowed from university libraries. They’re now all here, in house, so I’m going to have a good look through them over the coming week, and look at producing my final paper proposal, tweaking the first draft I produced earlier this month.

I also put the journal paper revising a little to one side, to give me more brain time to ruminate over things, before tackling it properly. I’d annotated the first submission PDF on my iPad, and printed that out 2-up with a blank side on the back for scribbling new versions / revisions. And I’ve been carrying that printout about with me, in an envelope in my bag, ever since. So when husband and I found ourselves in the Old Union Coffee Shop at the University of St Andrews yesterday, I was able to spend a good few minutes, with cup of tea on one side, working through my revisions.

I have 13 items on the revisions todo list. There are now just 2 left to do. In the last few minutes, sitting up with my printouts and a pen, I worked on the 4 hardest items that I’d been putting off until I’d figured out how to tackle them. Once I got my brain into gear it was really easy, and I wrote out new text for the relevant parts of the paper very quickly. I should definitely be able to finish this in the next week or two, and certainly resubmit the paper in November. Yay!

Another thing I’ve been doing this week is putting up a person index to participants in court cases in the Melrose area of the Scottish Borders between 1657 and 1676. This is a massive index, of nearly 9000 names, including often occupations, addresses, and names of relatives. I compiled this in the process of building a database of the local court records for this area. And I’d been meaning to put the index online for other genealogists and local historians to use. It’s now online, so massive I had to split the web pages for the name index into three sections, and I blogged about it here.

I’ve also been doing more IF Comp judging. Still not as much as I’d like, and judging closes tomorrow. But I’ve now raised the number of games I’ve judged and rated from 5 to 9, which is quite an improvement. Still a bit of a drop in the ocean out of 35 games total, but I’m happy. I may manage another couple between now and tomorrow night.

Something else that’s been good this week is that two of my old academic journal papers have gone freely online, under green open access rules. Green open access is very rare in humanities, so I was very pleased to get confirmation from Edinburgh University Press that I could put the final as-published PDFs of both papers in my personal website. I blogged about this. It also gave me a bit of a boost while I’m preparing more journal papers for submission, not least that one I’m currently revising.

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Well it’s a week in, and as is normal with Academic Writing Month I’m reflecting on how things have gone so far.

It’s been a great start. Neither main goal is fully achieved yet, but both are well on the way. The conference paper proposal has a first draft written, which came in at almost perfect length even before tweaking/editing. I need to check a few more academic books, and give it a couple of weeks distance for final editing, but I should definitely have a proposal ready in time. I still have to decide whether to submit it, but that’s a separate decision. Main thing is I can if I want to.

My other main goal was to revise and resubmit a journal paper. I’d been quite ill and weak for several months after getting the response from the editors, which caused a delay. But it also helped because the reviewer’s comments were quite harsh, and a bit of distance helps deal with that positively! But a few weeks ago I turned the editors’ requests and the reviewer’s critique into a to-do list of improvements to be getting on with, and I made a proper start on that last night. There were 13 items on my to-do list, and I completed 6 of them in about an hour. The tweaks are all quite surgical, not too lengthy (which is good, because I’d need to cut other words if I add any more), but needed that bit of distance and focus. And Academic Writing Month has encouraged me to finally bring this to completion. I’ll be working on the remaining items over the coming week or so, but am confident I will have it ready to resubmit this month.

On the downside I haven’t done much more IF Comp judging. I have reached the 5 game threshold, i.e. 5 games judged and rated, which means that my votes will count towards the final ranking. But with over 30 games entered in the competition that’s only a very small minority of games judged, and I would like to judge more. The deadline for judging and voting is 15th November, but I am confident, given how my other goals are going, that I should manage some more.

No more work yet on my own text adventure game, but I finished reading After Flodden, which gave me lots of ideas. And in my urban history research I’ve already started looking through and assessing the late 18th century Scottish shop tax lists, to see which would be suitable for further more detailed analysis. So that is a good start in itself.

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Now it’s the eve of Academic Writing Month 2013, which runs through November, I’m going to state my goals up-front. This is with the hope that doing so will encourage me to complete them.

Goal 1 is to finish revising an academic journal paper I have a revise and resubmit offer on, and email the revised version to the editors by the end of November. The editors haven’t asked me to do any new research, or read further around the subject. Rather they want me to introduce my work more clearly, state the thesis up front, etc. That should be doable, if my brain gets into gear, in a relatively short time. For some of the material I add I will probably have to hack out some other content to keep within the 10,000 words (including footnotes) word limit. But, again, that should be manageable.

Goal 2 is to research, plan, write and submit a conference paper proposal for the 2014 SHARP conference in Antwerp. I am considering putting in a proposal for a paper based on Doctor Who fanzines. I’m still slightly undecided about doing this, given my neurological disease which is very disabling. I will make a final decision on what to do later in November. But I am gathering relevant academic books on the subject around me, and also brainstorming ideas for my own paper in my favourite mind mapping app on my iPad. The process will take a little time, but I think should be doable before the CFP deadline.

Those are my two goals. Alongside them I will be doing other writing, with an emphasis on having fun. And I will continue to judge the 2013 IF Comp entries. But these things will be done as and when I can, rather than towards fixed goals.

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I’m doing another one of my occasional posts here about things I’m working on research and writing wise. I find these useful for my own purposes to keep a note of what I’m up to, and I’ve found that declaring goals somewhere like this can be helpful for getting things done.

I’m planning on taking part in Academic Writing Month again this year, in November, but probably in a more low-key way than last year. I have a particular goal for the month, to get a revised journal paper completed and sent on to the relevant editors before the end of November. But that’s probably my main goal for then. I need to finish some relevant reading for that, as well as work on the paper directly. So I need some thinking time, before doing my final revisions.

Beyond that I want to focus on doing things I find fun. For example, inspired by my much missed late PhD supervisor, I want to return to urban history research, and am planning a variety of things I can get started with. I have a number of ideas for academic urban history things I can do from home using both trade directories I have access to in digitised form and the detailed 18th century Scottish tax records available online at Scotlandsplaces. I’ve been jotting down ideas for research possibilities in a mind map on my iPad. All would be fun to research, and could potentially lead to more academic journal papers.

Urban history research ideas mind map

I also want to carry on with my series of crossover history and roleplaying game articles, which I’m planning to compile into a book once I’ve written enough. I completed my 10th and 11th articles for this the other night, and now have the challenge of figuring out which places to write about next. I’ve generally been writing about two Scottish places for every one English place. To be honest I’m impressed I’m managing to write that much about England, ranging from Northumberland, down to Suffolk, and over to Somerset and Cornwall. I like writing these pieces, and find them enormous fun.

And I really must resume my text adventure work in progress. Though I could argue I’m doing research for it at the moment, because I’ve just started reading Rosemary Goring’s After Flodden, a novel set in the same area at about the same time as the interactive fiction game I’m writing. Hopefully it will help inspire me and give me more of a feel for the time, which I need for continuing developing the plot and interaction side of my game. Writing text adventures in Inform 7 is enormous fun – like playing them, not like conventional programming – but I find the more traditional aspects of writing harder.

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Another to-do list for my own benefit. I find it helpful to make a note of things in progress, not least because it gets my thoughts and plans in order, and records it somewhere I can find it again in future.

My immediate priority is to write a talk for an academic conference in a month’s time. I’m speaking about my taught postgraduate Masters dissertation research into Melrose regality court records of the late 17th century. I did this research a decade ago, and have completed a part-time PhD on a quite different topic since then. So it is a little bit distant for me now, but I should be able to prepare it well. Actually squeezing it into 20 minutes is something of a challenge, but will be fun, and I hope the audience will enjoy it. I gave a longer talk (about 90 minutes) about the same research in Melrose years ago, and that proved popular.

Alongside that I have a revise and resubmit offer on a journal paper based on this Melrose research. I should get on with that, and perhaps tackling the journal paper revisions alongside the talk writing might kill two birds with one stone. I’m aiming at quite an ambitious journal. They may yet decide to reject me, but things are promising at the moment, and I always regard a revise and resubmit offer as a good one that must be followed up on. Basically you have your foot holding the door open, and it would be silly not to try to get to accepted.

Another priority for me is to write my talk for the Guild of One-Name Studies regional meeting at Perth in just over a month’s time. I’m going to be talking about my Cavers one-name (surname) study, which I’ve been doing since the late 1980s, and has been registered with the Guild since the late 1990s. We can use PowerPoint at this meeting, as I will do for my Melrose talk, and I’m hoping to cover a lot of ground that will be of interest to other Scottish one-name studiers.

My planned book of strange history / roleplaying articles continues, slowly. I tend to lurch at the articles: have a gap for a while, and then complete three or more in quick succession. I’ve completed nine so far, and have two more well underway. I am aiming for fifteen completed ones, and will then see if I want to write more. Lurching my way forwards anyway.

My text adventure game is on hold, but I should resume it in the autumn. I’m in the middle section of the game now, and am still writing the core plot. The coding side of things (in Inform 7) isn’t that difficult. But writing the detective story side of things is more of a challenge for me, and is being done slowly, and carefully.

And I continue to blog, in my various blogs. For example I blogged earlier today about my husband’s turkey poaching ancestors, inspired by a very similar case covered in this week’s Who Do You Think You Are programme (UK version).

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I blogged recently about how useful I find using a traditional pen and paper notepad. In my case it’s more a case of jotting down ideas and brainstorming when out and about, rather than for writing any type of extended drafts.

I’ve just been listening to an interview on Radio 4 with Neil Gaiman, who is one of my favourite writers. And even though he is highly technical in terms of using a MacBook Air, and active on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, he still prefers to write his first drafts in a pen and paper notepad. He says that he was finding that when he wrote directly on the computer his words had a tendency to bloat, whereas when he writes in a notepad it is better quality writing. And it also prevents him from getting distracted while writing, for example ending up buying something unneeded on eBay.

I know that many other writers still use traditional notepads in this way, but it was really interesting to hear some of the reasoning and thoughts behind this process. Of course my own writing is somewhat different: not fiction, but non-fiction, which leads to different structures, and a somewhat different writing process. But I still found it an interesting insight.

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Early this morning I sent off the revised version of an accepted journal paper to the editor. So that’s taken care of. Good. But I thought for my own benefit I’d make a note here of other things I’m working on, as an aide-memoire.

I’ve agreed to write a book review for a Scottish history academic journal. I was approached for this, because of the specific book, and my research interests. So that’s next on the list. I have the book in the house – my own copy actually – and just need to read it, and pull together some thoughts. That shouldn’t take too long, fingers crossed, and should be fun. The review is needed by the end of this year, but I should easily finish it many months ahead of then.

In September I’m hoping to go to a Guild of One-Name Studies regional meeting at Perth, and have offered to give a short talk about my Cavers one-name study. I’ve jotted down some ideas in a mind map already, but need to finish writing it, including the PowerPoint presentation I’ll use.

I’ve a series of articles ongoing that are a cross between historical pieces and roleplaying game ideas, and need to resume writing these. They were put on hold, as I battled the illness and completing other things. I’ve done seven articles so far, and am part-way through one on Montrose, with more planned. I’m hoping to publish them as a PDF booklet, once completed.

My interactive fiction game work in progress needs to be picked up again. I’d completed the prologue, and was at a point where I was going to start coding up the main middle section. I should be able to make good progress with this. I find writing the dialogue and interaction quite hard, but the coding side, in Inform 7 – a natural language programming language – is much easier for me. It’s funny, I can’t do much computer programming now, since the brain damage got really bad. But I get on well with Inform 7 – yay!

I have two other academic articles currently with journal editors and reviewers. One was derived from part of my PhD, the other from my MPhil. And I could hear back about those at any time. With luck I’d be offered some sort of revision, even a revise and resubmit would be good. But even if these editors reject the pieces outright I’d want to revise them myself before submitting them to a different journal. So I need to allow a little bit of space to be able to work on that.

I need to put together a proposal for the Community Libraries: Connecting Readers in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850 project. I can’t attend the colloquium in Chicago, about digital approaches to library history. But I hope to be able to attend the London colloquium in 2015, which is looking at libraries in the community. I could put together a good discussion piece for that, based on what I did for the library in Haddington, researching the readers using a huge range of genealogical and historical records, to be able to contextualise their borrowings properly. I’m also planning similar research in future for the Balquhidder Parish Library in Perthshire, and to that end am currently in the middle of a small-scale pilot study of another set of library borrowings. But I need to put something together for the London meeting, and submit it before the September 2013 deadline for abstracts.

I recently blogged about the 17th century poem I’m transcribing. I’d like to publish the transcript in an academic journal, with a suitable introduction and text contextualising it. So that’s another paper idea I’m working on. But I need to finish transcribing the poem first. For the record it’s massive. Three pages of two columns of tight text. Many many lines of poem.

I have another couple of paper ideas in progress, but they are at early stages, and unlikely to reach editors anytime soon.

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I do a lot of my research planning and writing on my iPad. For example I’ll always have a to-do list on the go there, of things I want to work on, of all sorts, ranging across academic history, through genealogy, miscellaneous writing, and computer game design.

To do list on iPad

And whenever I start a new research project I will brainstorm it, again in iThoughtsHD on my iPad.

But I was struck today by some of the advantages of an old fashioned pen and paper approach, even in a digital age.

I carry a red notepad with me all the time. It’s like a Moleskine, but a fraction of the price, lovely texture, and nice to write in.

Notepad with pen

It’s compact, and easily fits in my bag that I take out with me. So it’s always there, which is more than can be said for my iPad 2, which is too big for me to carry around all the time, though it’s great for working on at home. So when today I had a few minutes in the supermarket cafe, with a cappuccino beside me, I took out my notepad and had a look.

The first thing I spotted was a set of notes I’d made on a similar occasion, but hadn’t transferred to my iPad, and had totally forgotten about! These are notes of genealogy things I want to work on soon, such as transcribing a court case for my Cavers one-name study, and digitising the many paper receipts I have from around the wedding time of my great-grandparents at Melrose in 1905. I must get on with these!

Genealogy notes in notepad

After that initial shock, the next step was to use the notepad to develop new material. I’m writing a series of articles at the moment that are a sort of crossover between historical pieces and roleplaying game ideas, and once I’ve finished my current one about Montrose I’ll want to move on to the next couple of places. One of the upcoming articles will be about Inchtuthil in Perthshire, a Roman fort. So I took the chance this afternoon to brainstorm some ideas for this. I will move this planning at some point to my iPad though, into iThoughtsHD, and then write up the piece in WriteRoom.

Inchtuthil notes in notepad

I really like working with a pen and paper notepad like this, but I must make more of an effort to transfer the notes to my iPad, to work on them in future, and not completely forget them. Of course this brings to mind the integrated Evernote/Moleskine notepads. But I don’t think I want one of those, even though I use Evernote a lot. I think I just need to be a bit more organised about opening up my notepad when I get home and have my iPad to hand, and transferring the ideas from one to the other.

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Another to-do catch up here.

I’ve put my chapmen research project on hold for now, because I’ve been too knocked out lately to move it forward. In particular I’ve not been able to move the necessary reading forward, and there’s an awful lot of that I need to work through effectively. There is also the issue of what I can include in any resulting paper, given the costly open access implications. I haven’t quite worked out what to do with that yet. But other things are looming more quickly, and must take priority.

I’ve sketched out my talk for the archives conference next month. I only have to speak for 10-15 minutes, in quite a packed panel, so will need to be concise and to the point. But I think I should have just the right amount of material for that. I’ll be practising to check on the timing issues nearer the time. Again I used my iPad to develop my ideas, creating a mind map of what I’ll cover, using the iThoughtsHD app.

The other looming thing I need to focus on is working on necessary revisions for a paper that’s been accepted by an academic journal for publication probably next year, subject to the necessary revisions being done. I’ve got the reports from the two readers, and have drawn up a list of the key things to focus on. And again I’m doing the main work on my iPad, having transferred the readers’ reports to there, as well as the latest working version of the journal paper to annotate using my stylus in Goodreader. The revised version of the paper needs to be with the editor in a couple of months, so I’m prioritising working on that now.

I’m also resuming work on my interactive fiction game. I’ve sketched the overall plot in a mind map using iThoughtsHD, and am coding up the game in Inform 7. It has a lovely integrated development environment, which in many ways makes programming like playing a game, and is ridiculously good fun. But large games are still complex entities, so I’m growing mine slowly and steadily, in careful steps. I’ve found that sketching out the overall plot in advance has been really helpful, to keep me focused and productive.

The other thing I’m working on is a series of articles about places with strange histories and much potential for roleplaying ideas, especially horror games like Call of Cthulhu. This developed from a series of articles that I’ve been writing for the Yog-Sothothery magazine for patrons of the Yog-Sothoth website. But I’ve so many possible articles that I could write that I may end up working on something standalone, in anthology form. Anyway I’m having a lot of fun writing these places. Two-thirds of the articles completed so far are about Scottish places with strange histories, and the other third about English things. Generally, though, I find it best to write about things I already know quite a bit about, hence the leaning towards Scottish subjects.

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