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When I started out in academe, publication felt like a closed loop that I didn’t know how to break into. But at the same time, I wasn’t focused and deliberate about my research, I lacked confidence, and I was more aware of gaps in my knowledge than strengths.

Over time, my perception changed, and my purpose here is to try to reflect on and share what I do now as a part of my writing and research habits that I never did in my early career. Here are eight things I wish I had done differently when I set out.

  1. Undertake a frank self-audit. Most of us are pretty good at muddying the waters when it comes to self-knowledge. But it’s important to know who you are and understand your strengths and your weaknesses, too. That may involve asking others for their frank assessment, but it may also be an opportunity to challenge your own assumptions.

When I graduated with my B.A., I was pretty confident that I was one of the smartest people in the room. I knew everything there was to know -- maybe even more -- the way undergraduates often do. When I graduated with my Ph.D. some six years later … well, let’s just say that by that time, I had revised my attitude. I replaced my early confidence with a sneaking sense that I had somehow slipped through the cracks and would probably be discovered as a fraud at some point.

Of course, neither of the two extremes reflect an accurate sense of who I was then or am now. They are both distortions, but they are persuasive and come with a litany of self-defeating behaviors. That is why you should conduct an honest self-audit of both your strengths and weaknesses or get the people closest to you to help you do it.

  1. Find a scholarly home. The single most important step I ever took to get my research profile on track was to find an academic home: a community of scholars who help me be productive. It took me some time to find it, but I eventually identified a peer group that has been key to my development. I didn’t think of those in the group as peers at first, because they seemed so established, so erudite and remote. I was entirely nonplussed one day when one of them took me aside and told me how much he enjoyed a fledgling article of mine. They treated me like a peer even when I wasn’t (really).

You might join with colleagues in your department or institution if working with them is healthy and productive -- the right environment for you could even be an intimate writing group. But practically, it’s better for developing scholars to find a group that offers you professional opportunities beyond your comfort zone (via conferences, journals or newsletters) and perhaps writing or research partners if those are appropriate for your discipline. When I found mine, I discovered to my surprise that those names I had only ever seen on the spines of books in the library were and are people who are full of laughter, as well as kind and incredibly generous with their time.

  1. Start small, think big. Set small goals to begin with, and get used to becoming productive. For example, professional groups, if they have an associated publication, are often crying out for book reviewers. The bar often isn’t extraordinarily high for publication of those reviews, and it can be great practice for further writing. It also gets you reading and evaluating current criticism or content that you can model your own work on. In addition, you have a clearly defined something to write about. And finally, yet perhaps most important, success in that arena can break down the mystique surrounding publication.

The jury may still be out for some people on the value of a conference presentation, but I’ve found that a lot can be said for it. It’s a relatively low-stakes environment and a relatively accessible opportunity for most faculty (certainly much easier than publishing in a peer-reviewed journal). If you are lucky with your venue, you’ll be able to network with many like-minded scholars. Think of conference papers as building blocks toward publication.

Early in my career, I treated conference papers and publications as separate spheres. Nowadays, I try to be much more intentional in my writing. I view conference papers as practice runs and thought experiments. With such papers, I’m happy to start writing before I have a clear idea -- I’ll write to find out what I do and don’t know. And while converting a paper to a publication isn’t guaranteed, I usually design it to meet the expectations of the journal where I finally plan to submit.

  1. Target your writing. I usually have an idea of where a piece belongs when I begin it, and I try to tailor my writing for that outlet. I’ve found you are more likely to convert your conference paper to a publication if you have a clear sense of the specific journal’s audience, the general length of articles and the kind of criticism it publishes, and the scholarly conversation around the subject.

I also try to write and think in sequences: a sort of blockchain, if you will, where conference papers lead to publications that lead to chapters in something larger. What I don’t do anymore is write speculatively without a clear sense of where I want a piece to go.

  1. Be entrepreneurial. If I can get multiple results out of a piece of intellectual property, I consider myself very fortunate. And I like to think that I’m in good company. Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent was published as a book, of course, but before that, he sold the serial rights to an American magazine. After that, he sold translation rights and even rewrote the novel as a play, whereupon it was both performed and published anew. Once he had wrung all that he could out of the project, he sold the holograph manuscript itself to a collector in the United States.

Think about how you might be able to use and repurpose your work. Even if you can’t get a peer-reviewed publication out it, consider how you might turn it into a service project within your institution with a seminar or a public lecture.

  1. Learn to finish -- and to start over. At a certain point, you must put a final period at the end of a piece. That is easier said than done. In the frustratingly apt La Peste, or The Plague, by Albert Camus, a character spends the entire book revising the opening sentence of his novel, fretting over that struggle for le mot juste, or the right word. He ends up with a great sentence. He doesn’t end up with a book. Yet along with knowing when to stop, you also need to be willing to burn your favorite sentence in a piece -- the one that used to be and was awesome, that danced on the page but was too distracting.

One of the things that I’ve learned to accept is imperfection, and I no longer invest a lot of ego in my writing. I’m also happy to work with editors, who often bring a much-needed fresh set of eyes to writing to which authors are sometimes oblivious to mistakes when they read. I am especially happy to work with editors who make me look smarter than I am.

  1. Practice saying yes (and sometimes no). You should have a clear sense of your institutional responsibilities and the expectations within your school or department when you take on those responsibilities. You must also be careful, however, to avoid the often-overwhelming glut of work that high-functioning faculty members attract. Part of our job is carving out a space to think in, and our institution has an obligation to us to help facilitate that. If we’re not vigilant, we will lose that space -- and our scholarship, as well.

So, when you need to, don’t be afraid to say no (thank you) to excessive institutional responsibilities while saying yes to opportunities that match your research agenda. It’s perhaps unwise to rise to Jim Carrey-ish heights, but practicing the simple art of saying yes to possibilities and opportunities can be transformational. You can figure out later if and how you can deliver.

  1. Embrace rejection. Of course, one of the things you have to be willing to experience is rejection. I used to take it personally, but I don’t anymore. Ironically, I have received rejections that made me profoundly happy, because they were insightful and helpful -- even, sometimes, hopeful.

If you find yourself in a position where you are actively peer reviewing in your field (again, great experience in your own publication journey), remember the feeling of submitting your own work when you consider others.

Ultimately, gatekeepers are important in our profession. They don’t always necessarily know as much as you -- and they certainly make mistakes -- but they are key to keeping us honest and accountable, and they’re instrumental in our professional growth. Honor the work they do, and continue with your own.

In conclusion, while that callow youth still grins back at me in the mirror occasionally, I recognize that I am no longer wired the same way I used to be when I started out. What are really different, however, are these habits of mind that shape my scholarship journey, and anyone can master them.

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