30 Writing Tips
A friend just sent me an e-mail asking for writing tips. Her question is a common one -- I get this question every month from one of my doctoral students, one of my former students, or someone outside of the university where I teach. As a result, I thought that I might summarize some of the 10 suggestions I gave my friend, as well as 10 additional ones that I thought of while writing this up -- and then 10 more later on. It is now 30 ideas! Perhaps more people can benefit from the list or add to these ideas.
Edit your papers a lot (but, in truth, better to be a Combiner than a Mozartian or Beethovenian): A well-written paper is half the battle. If you are not sure about your writing (grammar, style, content, etc.), have someone read through it. Perhaps two people (I come back to this issue in the next point). But edit and edit and edit some more. Sculpt a finely crafted work! I feel fortunate that I have become a pretty good editor -- perhaps as a result of editing two huge book projects, including my recent Handbook of Blended Learning. Six to 10 edits is not unusual for me. My most recent paper that was accepted for publication went through 17 rounds of edits over a two-year span, and one that a colleague and I submitted yesterday had about 9-10 revisions (so you might label me a Beethovenian; see below). If the paper reads well, then you have tackled a major hurdle.
Writing research in the area of keystroke mapping (which allows you to play back papers long after they are completed), which was published about 20 years ago by Lillian Bridwell and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota, indicates that there are two types of writers. Mozartian writers plan their writing in advance and can write, in just one or two sittings, very elegant text. They can compose complete sentences, paragraphs, and entire papers in their heads. And then there are Beethovenian writers, who tinker at the point of utterance. Beethovenians obsess over every little word or phrase and edit and edit and edit some more. Combiners do both. Some of you are more like a Mozartian, and pace back and forth before writing and then let it all go with your coherent plans and organizational schemes to create a lovely melody. And others (like me) are more like Beethovenian, and continue to edit and polish the text for long time. But, as a young scholar, it is best to be a combiner and do some of both: plan out your papers and write as much as you can at that first sitting, and then, as the points below indicate, you can share it and tinker with it. Still, at some point you must send it in for review. You will not get tenure with many nearly-completed papers. I can testify to that!
- Get feedback: Sometimes you can get feedback from colleagues and experts on a topic -- as well as new graduate students and other people -- before sending it in. This helps to sharpen the focus of the paper. It is a test of the coherence and creativity of the ideas in the paper.
- Stay current: For instance, read current news related to your field and save it. You never know where you might be able to use it. I get a weekly list of current issues in e-learning, educational technology, technology, and simulations and gaming from Judy Brown at the Academic ADL (Advanced Distributed Learning) Lab at the University of Wisconsin. This gives me tons of new ideas for keynote talks, workshops, and papers. But it is a struggle trying to read through it all the time. I also get many articles from USA Today and from papers in foreign countries when I travel. I have an online PowerPoint file that I expand each week wherein I scan headlines and cool pictures and findings in hopes that those visuals might be used later in the year. Last year I accumulated over 500 slides of current topics. It helped with writing a book that I did in the fall.
Be part explorer: Explore new journals and resources when you can. Part of this keeping current is to occasionally walk through the current journal issues in your library and see what is being published. Also, take time to explore an educational Web site that you read about in an article or that someone sends to you. We are all explorers when we write. Personally, I am forced to read more when I write than before I write (see points on being a reader below). If you are not an explorer, you will not likely be a good academic writer, or at least not one whom I would like to read.
Roger von Oech, a creativity consultant, in his books, A Whack in the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seats of the Pants, indicates that this explorer stage is perhaps the most vital one in the creative process, and the one many of us too often disregard; especially since we are so-called "too busy." Please do not be "busy" -- instead, make a contribution to life. Kindergarten kids are busy; you are not. Now go off and explore a bit.
Be part bumblebee in gathering ideas from different places (and later part butterfly, moth, or bird): In addition to an explorer, you might also be a bumblebee and get ideas from different sources. For instance, at conferences, you might walk from room to room (stand in the back) and see what other researchers are talking about. This assumes that you can do this without being disruptive to the speaker (e.g., when it is standing room only and you are standing in the back of the room with the door open or in a large keynote session in the back). Normally, most speakers at conferences are boring. But if you listen to someone for five to eight minutes, you can get some useful things in terms of what is current and what might be publishable down the road. In one hour, you might visit four to five different sessions. Take notes and compare them. Be courteous if you are to try to be a bumblebee. Bumblebees can also serve a purpose in cross-pollinating ideas, and move from room to room. Being a bumblebee also helps your social networks and gives you freedom to explore. Those looking for depth in a topic or discipline might shy away from being a bumblebee and sit in the entire session.
You can read more about bumblebees in Harrison Owen's 1997 book called Open Space Technology. He also talks about butterflies. Butterflies do not attend any conference session, but attract attention and additional discussions. They are the conference within the conference, sitting outside the door of sessions or in the pub most of the time. Junior faculty are more likely better off as bumblebees than butterflies, moths or some type of bird (soaring above the rest) until they become experts in an area. Again, this strategy may not work for all people or all situations. The point, however, is to find many places or spokes from which to gather information.
Be a voracious reader (and ponderer): Reading is the most important aspect of an academic writing plan. Alvin Toffler, who wrote the books Future Shock (1970), The Third Wave (1980), Power Shift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence At the Edge of the 21st Century (1990), and Revolutionary Wealth (2006), says he simultaneously reads seven books and compares them to get novel writing ideas. You can do the same thing -- read different articles from multiple journals. See what new connections you make.
People make discoveries at the intersections of different disciplines. For example, a recent article I submitted with Hee-Young Kim from SUNY Cortland incorporates a model from another field that we use to help explain instructional immediacy. Hee-Young found this article and made the creative link. And one of my research teams presented a comparison chart of Randy Garrison's Cognitive Presence/Critical Thinking in Collaborative Critical Inquiry model and a scaffolding model from the Creative Waves project at the University of New South Wales, which we were researching. They explored online discussion using each model as a step of the creative process. It was just what we needed to start on the road to publication. If they had not read Garrison's work as well as the work on creative thinking, they would not have made the connection. Read! And also reflect or ponder and take notes on what you have.
Persist like an ant: Did you ever watch an ant at work as a kid -- or as an adult? It is fascinating to watch ants navigate around things in their pathways and still get their job completed. When I was around 6 or 7, I used to make it difficult for those ants by putting up water barriers, rocks, and mud in their way, and, I hate to admit it, but I smashed a few with my basketball as well. I have some bad karma to repay yet. Anyway, they still completed their task. They were task-focused. Now, as a young scholar trying to publish, so must you be. There will be many things standing in your way to make if difficult for you. Higher education is replete with hoops and hurdles. Somebody above likes to make it difficult for us (i.e., the dean and academic provost and your colleagues and so on with all their forms and criteria, but they also want you to succeed or they would not have hired you or admitted you into graduate school and invested in you).
So what can you do to persist? First of all, when you get feedback on a manuscript, make the changes recommended and send it back in -- even if it looks doubtful. And send a list of what you have changed. Heck, get to know the editor personally a bit and build rapport with him or her. Rich Lehrer, a former mentor at Wisconsin who is now at Vanderbilt, once told me that every paper he worked on and addressed the reviewer comments was accepted for publication. My first years after graduate school, I did not do this. Instead, I used to run from conference to conference and never really complete the conference paper in a format accepted for a journal. This tactic nearly cost me tenure. Watch out -- do not go to too many conferences as a new person in a field, unless you turn most of them into journal articles, book chapters, and perhaps even books. It is rare for me now not to have a paper get published, but 10 years ago, that definitely was NOT the case. Persist! Be optimistic. And address those reviewer comments! Abide by most, if not all, of the journal guidelines (sometimes a paper can be longer than they state in the guidelines). And get things back fairly promptly. If your paper is close to being accepted, the editor may already be thinking about the issue in which he or she will publish it once you get it back. So get it back!
- Be creative in your figures, models, frameworks, charts, and graphs! This was not in my original list of 10 ideas, but is too important to pass up mentioning (it also links to the story in #6 above). I find that papers that have a unique model, graph, chart, or figure tend to get published much more often than papers without such all-encompassing and creative visuals. Spend some time thinking about what makes your paper or proposal unique. Sit in a closet if you have to and brainstorm all the possible ways. Let's say you want to publish four or five things a year. Well, all you have to do is sit in that closet four or five times a year and think really hard. Or brainstorm with colleagues and students. Conference lunches and dinners are great times for this!
- Try to publish the paper or as a chapter before presenting at a conference (but after your conference proposal is sent in and accepted -- i.e., do not scramble to write your conference paper at the last minute): Do not write up your research just for a conference paper. Once you submit your proposal to a conference and it is accepted, try to publish it. That way, you will have the paper done long before the conference arrives and you will not have to stay up all night writing the paper for the conference. (I am NOT saying to submit to a conference stuff that is already accepted -- that would be unethical.) I have been lucky in this regard during the past few years, especially with AERA (American Educational Research Association) papers. We have had papers published before the past 4 AERAs, or our entire symposium panels have been asked to published our ideas in a special issue of a journal after it. It does pay off to be on panels with well-connected people and with journal editors.
Maintain a list and network of potential research and writing collaborators: Take a moment and write down a list of all your potential research and writing collaborators. If you are a graduate student, be sure to list a least one graduate student colleague. These people will be your support group long after your mentors and advisers have retired and departed. And they will be good people to room with at conferences and to run research ideas by. You never know when you are going to need their support.
I got a call from my graduate student colleague, Veronica Acosta Deprez at Cal State Long Beach, this morning. Appropriately for this point, Veronica helped me with an important research and writing question that I had, and then I helped her think about a study she might conduct on blended learning in public health. It works both ways. Once you have a list, update that list at least once per year. You will see that you likely have colleagues and contacts all over the world (this links to #15 below). This is the lovely part about being a faculty member in higher education today. With the Web, your colleagues can be anywhere!
- Share your publication efforts: Share your writing and publications with people in your network (not blatantly like "look at me," but in a kind and courteous manner and when appropriate). We all have egos in higher education, and have survived many rounds of competition, so we can be prone to self-promotion. And there is often a fine line between self-promotion and sharing knowledge. One solution is to have a place where your articles (those wherein you have permission) are made available to others and people can come and get them if they want. For instance, I have PublicationShare, where people can find some of my articles and give me feedback. When you do that, then the network of potential collaborators grows some more.
- Find emerging areas to research that you are passionate about or at least interested in: Take a moment and think about what the hot topics are in your field today and what they might be in 2, 5, or 10 years. Be passionate about something -- do not just enter it because you can. But if you are passionate about a topic just slightly ahead of most, you will find yourself in a great situation for publishing.
- Think ahead about the publishing potential of each project: And think about the journals where might go before you start, while you collect data, and when you are done. Publishing should always be on your mind. Sure, things just come up and you go with them But you need a publication plan -- i.e., what journal or book might it appear in.
- Treat graduate students as colleagues: I accept students for doctoral committees who already are or who can be my colleagues. My students are my colleagues. If you want to publish, working with really smart people helps. Of course, one can work with faculty colleagues. But I prefer to work with doctoral students over faculty for myriad reasons. Most faculty, for instance, have their own agendas and schedules. Many of the others have cycled through the extent of the creative ideas that they have and no longer publish much; those who have not are focused on their own stuff. In contrast, most doctoral students are hungry to research and publish with anyone. And, more importantly, students are usually nicer to work with than faculty members (smile). I do continue to work with them after they have graduated. They do not typically become mean after the granting of a Ph.D. But for some reason, faculty members who are productive, kind, and fun to work with in one's own institution can be difficult to find. Don't get me wrong, I love my faculty colleagues (most of them). But they are usually working with their graduate students and research focuses.
- Find international and national colleagues to work with: Your writing and research colleagues do not have to be at your own institution (links to #10 above). Most likely, they will not be, even though your deans and administrators would prefer that all your research grant money stay in-house. I have many fantastic and creative international colleagues with high energy. Go to international (and national) conferences and meet them! Exchange business cards and take them to lunch or dinner to find out more about their work. Create collaborations between institutions. Write this partnership up! This makes life fun. And there are a growing number of international journals to publish in. You can also enter into interesting cross-institutional teaching ideas which may later be publishable.
- Schedule time for writing: Christmas break and summer are huge times for this. I no longer teach in summers, but when I did, I taught intensive courses so as to have time to write. I also tried to teach in bulk and put both of my graduate classes or both undergraduate on the same day, back to back, to save time for writing. This item (#16) may be the most important thing other than #17. You just have time to write. Do not commit to too many other people and their projects. Do what inspires you. not what inspires someone else. Right?
Have a plan or direction for the next few years and beyond -- goals are critical: What are you going to accomplish this year, next year, and the year after? Write it down. Have a goal or set of goals. We all need goals! Humans are goal-oriented creatures. If you have a goal and only get to 25 percent of it, it is better than having a goal and getting to none of it. Perhaps see what you have accomplished each year when you do your annual reports and map it out. Compare your personal growth over time. See if you meet your goals each year. Perhaps reward yourself when you do with an ice cream cone or a night out.
In 2006, I got lucky and reached my long-term goal of 30 articles published or in press. Of course, 14 of those were conference proceedings, but I made my goal. I think I ended up with 24 things published, six in press, and seven other things in review (including a book). But I am the same person who used to published very little back when I started. In comparison, when I graduated in 1989 until six years later when I was preparing my tenure and promotion files, I had experienced many difficulties getting things accepted. In fact, during the 1990s I averaged about five publications per year,and during the 2000s I have averaged nearly 18 per year (of course, this counts conference proceedings). What changed? I am still that same dumb Midwestern kid whom my elementary teachers used to say could not read and write well (perhaps mainly since they could not read my handwriting). I pinch the skin on my hands to see if anything has changed but indeed I am the same person. Perhaps it was more persistence like an ant, and more interesting research as well. Certainly, there are more colleagues. Also, having tenure and being able to say no to some silly committees. And I am better-organized.
- Read a paper on how to create a writing plan: My best advice for a writing plan is to see the home page of my friend from grad school, Cecil Smith from Northern Illinois University, and his AERA article from 3 years ago on creating a writing plan: Advice for new faculty members: Getting your writing program started.
- Organization: Cecil mentions things like organization -- that is implied in some of the other points above. But this is a critical point so I must emphasize it -- without organization, you are academically dead in the water and unlikely to get tenure. You must map out your publications by year, have identified stacks of papers and chapters to help with your writing, and put time in your planner to write. Maybe you write best in the morning. Maybe in the afternoon. Maybe at night. You decide what works for you. I just changed from a late-night person to a morning person (somewhat) in order to wake up early with family and see my daughter off to school (she is old enough to drive herself). You might need a power nap during the day. That is O.K. if it helps with your publication and writing stamina (though I am not a medical doctor). Cecil also mentions things you can do to help write such as writing at home, closing your door at work, forwarding your phone, finding times when you are most alert, trying not to teach every day, and responding to e-mail just at two or three designated times per day.
- Use presentations as starter material: A conference presentation, colloquium, workshop, or class presentation may be a great way to organize your ideas for a future paper. Take advantage of that when you are designing your presentation -- always think about how this might flow in a publishable paper. When you end up doing the same presentation over and over, it is definitely time to think about publishing your ideas. I have a book chapter I am working on today (on Wikibooks), in fact, wherein I am using notes I presented at the University of Oxford a few weeks back. I had to read some new research on Wikipedia for that talk and now I am using the ideas gained from that for my paper. I am also using some of the feedback from the audience to guide my writing. Presentation audience reactions are critical for new areas of research. Use them! Take people to lunch or dinner after your talks and ask for their opinions as to what they liked and what they think is publishable. Heck, they might even join your growing research team.
- Get paid to write and research: He also notes that some writing projects are funded. For example, I have worked for the military as a research fellow and was paid to find and read papers and then write up technical reports. Also, as Cecil notes, some grant funding expects papers from it and so you can buy out some teaching time for research and writing. That is a good feeling.
- Find professional balance: Cecil, in his article, discusses finding balance between service and teaching and your writing and publishing efforts. He is right. Most Buddhists will agree on this need for balance! Back in 1970, the British rock group the Moody Blues noted that all life is just "A Question of Balance." If you accept too much service and committee work as I was forced to do at West Virginia University (WVU) my first 3 years out of graduate school (20 committees in three years, and most of them were teacher education reform, which I was definitely not interested in), you will not likely get tenure. In addition to service, teaching can also consume you. If you spend a day prepping a course and a day teaching it and you teach 2-5 courses, you are sunk when looking for time to write. Think deeply about how much time you spend in service, teaching, and research and think of ways (e.g., not teaching in summer or joining that next grant proposal team or travel committee), that will free you up to write more. End of year reports can help in that regard.
- Find personal balance: Finding balance in life not only includes professional balance but also in your personal life. Of course, if you work 100+ hours a week like I sometimes do, the personal life is not going to be in balance. Here, I need to take this advice as well! Smile! I try to maintain balance by running and working out. Take a break from all that writing when you can! Catch a movie or a play. Try eating in a different restaurant or sit outside and meditate. Do something outside of writing and teaching and service at your college or university or you WILL go Bonkers (pun intended) or, at the very least, get carpal tunnel syndrome. And, if you find some balance, your friends and family will appreciate you more.
- Do not design too many new courses: Some new faculty are caught in the trap of teaching new course after new course or being stuck with the courses that no one wants to teach. Ugh! That will not work. I think at WVU I taught seven different courses in my three years there (perhaps more). And most of these involved the design of a totally new course that had not been done before. Yikes! Do not do that to yourself. One new course per year or perhaps two your first year is OK. After that, do not design too many new courses. You need time to write. Writing will get you tenure. Teaching may at some places, but writing and publishing is typically more important. I say this as someone who got tenure for teaching, so I do emphasize teaching myself.
- Find a niche or direction for your research and drill down: Finding an area to explore or direction for your research and build a career around is vital. At first, you will be reading from the giants in the field. After a while, you will finding a unique research project or two. And only after a few years in the field will you be able to direct it a bit. Still later, you will be able to reflect on the direction of it and provide an overarching framework for it. Find your niche! Find something exciting and novel to research and explore and write about. As I said earlier, find your passion! If you create a model or framework for your course, as in #8 above, you will have more opportunities to conduct a series of studies and lead the field ahead.
- Write all the time: You can be writing anywhere you feel you are comfortable and productive as a writer. This includes church, department meetings, Thanksgiving vacations with the relatives, spring break, on a plane to spring break or in the airport while you wait, in a doctor's waiting room, etc. Some of these will not work for you. I find that church (before it starts, not during) is a good place to write notes for an article on a small piece of paper or Kleenex. I always try to have a pen and small piece of paper in my pocket. Find an approach that works for you. I find airports and airplanes to be good places to write, as well as in the car while I let my son, Alex, drive somewhere (e.g., soccer games, my mom's, etc.). Imagine how much you can write in one to two hours while you let someone else drive. Recently I started taking a limo to the airport for some trips so I can either get some sleep or write. You have limited time -- find ways to free some time up to write. Also, get a laptop with a lot of battery life. This frees you up to write outside, in a car, or on a plane!
Avoid high-quality journal fixations: I talked to Grace Lin at the University of Houston about this issue (not that it was a problem for her or anything; it was just a conversation). Do not be so fixated on quality that you fail to publish or submit something. When in Thailand a month ago during an e-learning conference that I was keynoting, Randy Garrison (one of the other keynotes), from the University of Calgary, and I discussed problems that new Ph.D.s face. Randy and I concluded that new professors and postdocs and visiting scholars and so on are told to go after the top-tier journals and do the highest level of research that they can. I know my training at the University of Wisconsin was to always read from and look to publish in Tier #1 research journals. High standards are great, but adopting such an approach may not get you tenure or even published. (As an aside, Randy's expertise is in social presence, inquiry learning online, Dewey’s inquiry model, asynchronous discussion, blended learning, etc.). We both cited former students who have become caught in this trap to be the best that they can be. They will not try to publish it unless it can compete theoretically and methodologically with the top people in the field.
I had the same problem as a new academic. I think my best writing was from the years 1988-94, but little of that ever got published and it nearly cost me tenure. I was one 30-minute edit away from a major publication on cooperative reading for Review of Educational Research, which is the best journal in the field. I still shed tears about that one every so often. But I had writer's block and a sense that the paper could still be better and I was jumping to a different paper and conference every few months. Later on I just dove into data (less planful I know) and I lowered my standards a tad (not a lot) and poof, the publications flowed. I also switched fields and found something to be more passionate about -- online and distance learning. I simply am not smart enough to compete with the highest-level brains in psychology and my interests are much more pragmatic -- I want to see things make a difference, not simply dream up new theories that have little relevance to life. I found out that I have some pretty good creative ideas that are publishable. And so do you. Look inside. I have faculty colleagues who also have suffered from this focus on tier #1 journals and they struggled with the tenure process as well. My recommendation -- get some stuff in high-quality journals, other stuff in books, and publish the other stuff where you may. Quality is important but so is quantity. Do not let anyone fool you. Everything counts!
- Quantity matters as well as quality (sometimes more so): As I noted above, despite what almost everyone says (i.e., that quality is the most important variable in tenure), quantity also matters. If you are one publication away from tenure and people like you at your institution, they will make a case for you. At that time, they will use conference proceedings, book chapters, books you have written or edited, technical reports, and so on, to help build that case. Now, they prefer not to do that, but these things all matter and help in the end. Of course, having a coherent research path and focus will help when making such a case. In my opinion, 10 or 20 publications in a year in Tier 2 journals outweigh one or two Tier 1 journal publications. Others will, of course, disagree and note that it depends. O.K., I agree. But my point is to not listen to all the people who tell you that a book or a book chapter will not help you get tenure. In the end, it will. And it cannot ever hurt you.
- Prioritize: Cecil notes that if you want many publications from your dissertation research, you need to prioritize them. What is the most publishable? What is the least publishable? What could appear in a high-quality journal? What might be a minor publication? What might be spin-off projects?
- You are just a grasshopper, so get a mentor and use him/her: Last point -- so read carefully! As in the 1970s TV show (about life in the 1870s), Kung Fu, featuring David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine or just "Caine," you are just a grasshopper, hopping from one research project and idea to the next. Hop, hop, hop, hop and off you go. As I pointed out earlier, you need to focus some of that hopping behavior. Don't get me wrong, it is better to be an inquisitive hopper young grasshopper than to be perpetually dormant like an old volcano or spending an exorbitant amount of time hibernating like a bear in winter. However, sometime the little hopper must also listen. So, my final piece of writing advice is to get a mentor to help with all the points mentioned of the above! A mentor can keep you on track and focused on your writing and publishing goals. A mentor is a great one to run ideas by. A mentor can lighten up conversations and make your problems with teaching, research, writing, etc., seem less severe. A mentor can also contribute to your research in a minor or major way. And that mentor can help you out at promotion and tenure time and when looking for a new job.