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Three Phases of Writing for Publication

Tomorrow's Research

Message Number: 
1374

A well-written article that has shortcomings is returned with helpful suggestions for revision and resubmission.  A badly written one is rejected outright because the reviewer never really grasped what was being communicated.  

 

Folks:

The posting below, a bit longer than most, examines in some detail the three important phases in academic writing.  It is from Chapter 2, Towards a Theory of Writing, in the book, Inspirational Writing for Academic Publication by Gillie Bolton with Stephen Rowland. SAGE Publications Ltd. 1 Oliver's Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP. [www.sagepub.com/‎] © Gillie Bolton and Stephen Rowland 2014. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Mindfulness in the Classroom

 

 

Tomorrow's Research

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Three Phases of Writing for Publication 

 

Academic writing can helpfully be thought of as involving three different approaches or phases.  A key to successful and positive writing is undertaking them all.  The role of each phase is clear, simple and straightforward to grasp and practice. 

1. Write for yourself to find out what you know, think, feel and want to say. 

2. Redraft to communicate with your reader. 

3. Edit for posterity to offer clarity, clear language, structure, grammar, correct references.

Each of these phases involves the writer in critical thinking and research (albeit different kinds of research).  Each phase and stage develops the argument, the theory, as well as the exposition of the facts; none of the phases merely reports. 

I give these phases in order 1-3: working through them in this order is valuable.  Writers, however, move through these phases in very different ways.  Some work straight through and complete, as if the phases were steps.  Most revisit earlier phases to revitalize their writing as they go through: it is often a dynamically reiterative process.  Many writers return to Phase 1 again with new material to insert into the text; they then work on this new writing through Phases 2 and 3.  Some, moreover, do some of the initial phase in their heads, only writing when they are fairly clear what they want to say.  Leaving out a phase, though, can make a publication dull, muddled, incomplete, and prevent it speaking to the appropriate audience. 

Phase 1: Write for myself to find out what I know, think, feel, and want to say 

Phase 1 is explorative, tentative and uncertain: Claire's "scribbled mess".  The only thing that matters now is the content of what we jam down on the page: grammar, proper construction, intellectual ways of expressing stuff 'properly' are dealt with in Phases 2 and 3.  What matters is that we now capture valuable content.  We search for our theory by reflecting freely, as well as reflecting upon the data, and by sifting in an unfocused way through the literature (journal papers, books, internet sites, etc.) for material which informs the development of ideas and offers examples.  This experimental and explorative stage enables me to grasp what I think, and what my data and research are telling me; it enables me to draw upon the wealth of my experience with a width and depth no other process can offer. 

This phase is essentially relatively unfocused; a vital attitude enabling the capturing of insight, as well as marshalling thoughts and theories.  One of the reasons academic writers miss out on this inspirational phase is perhaps because it goes against our training and all our perception of what being an academic is.  I was forcibly taught to think in a logical and structured way, and to stop dreaming and reflecting.  Yet critical thinking, as used by scientists, social scientists and all the arts disciplines, involves exploration and experimentation.  Attempting to stay within the box and only use a small part of our thinking capacity (the logical), cramps and constrains our thinking to the boring.  Here is what one writer found liberating: 

Because you can only learn by doing it. 

(An academic writer) 

This can feel frustrating at first to those who have never experienced it previously.  I do, however, find writers take off with these methods, once they've started.  Starting writing is the key, rather than just reading and thinking about what I'm saying. Most people these days do experience writing with no pre-thought: texting, tweeting, emailing, blogging, for example.  If we think of this as speaking to the other person on the screen, well Phase 1 writing is not so very different.  Here is Clare's experience: 

These writing techniques make a channel in the sand with a stick, 

Water wells right up from underneath immediately, 

Sometimes faster than others. 

Like discovery rather than creation. 

(Clare Shephard) 

A power of Phase 1 is that ideas, theories and examples can bud and form under our scribbling fingers, seemingly on their own.  Clare says 'Like discovery rather than creation'.  Academic writing is always based on a foundation of strong scholarly and original research.  We have already created what we are going to write.  The actual writing process is one of rediscovering what is already there, and helping it to find its communicable form on the page.  It's finding a pointed stick strong enough to channel down through the sand of everyday functional thinking and being, to the clear water of what we already know, have reflected upon and even theorized.  This 'rough' writing generally comes out very clearly.  Peter Elbow says that he can often understand his students' rough writing, whereas he frequently can't their carefully revised essays (2012: 97). 

 

Emotion: a powerful resource 

Writing and research are emotional processes (Kara, 2013); writing is also personally risk-taking and exposing.  Accepting and working with these emotions rather than struggling against them can enhance writing, rather than constantly dragging it back. Even worse than struggling is denying them, working doggedly to put awareness of such vulnerability out of mind. 

PhD or doctoral writing, although similar to writing for publication, imposes specific forces often according to rules or instructions not of students' own making, which can engender strong feelings.  Writing for publication is emotionally charged because I am working on my own: I am responsible for saying what I want and need to say clearly and fully, and it is up to me to get it published in as widely read and prestigious form as possible.  Further than this, my research, and therefore my expression of it, fires me: it's my life's work and I am emotionally involved in it and in its expression. 

What do I mean by saying that working with my emotions can enhance my writing?  I mean that I can beneficially use my emotions as data.  Emotions are a gift to inform humans about how things are for us; we ignore them at our peril.  A symptom of leprosy is loss of pain in the skin and below; patients do not experience burning or cutting and so injure themselves seriously: pain is a gift to prevent injury. 

We need to make the most of every resource, and emotion is a strong, if frequently overlooked, resource.  I feel apprehensive about writing something: this means I need to take particular care, perhaps research the surrounding field in the literature extra thoroughly, or be more vigilant scrutinizing my data so I make as few assumptions as possible in my results and discussion sections.  I feel elated and want to celebrate because a section has flowed from my fingers to the screen in just the right way (perhaps I'm a writer after all?).  Well, can I look back and work out what were the conditions which enabled this best possible of all writing situations, so I can repeat it as often as possible?  Feelings, including pain and anxiety are a gift, but a gift which needs attention and awareness. Pat Thomson talks usefully about this in a blog post with responses (Thomson, 2013). 

Stephen 

 

I think anger is really important in academic writing.  I find much of my writing is a consequence of my feelings 'against' social injustice, ignorance, prejudice and so on.  An interesting biography of the philosopher Sartre (who explored his ideas through plays and stories as well as 'academic' writing) was titled Writing Against (Hayman, 1986). For Sartre, and I think many writers, anger and similar emotions are the fuel which feeds their writing.  The text is the fire which results. 

But while anger may often fuel writing, I think it is vital that anger is not expressed in academic writing (at least, not normally).  To do so would be to confuse the fuel with the fire.  Anger needs to be reflected upon, worked through and explored until I can hold myself at a distance from it and then marshal my argument.  Often potentially good articles and powerful writing are spoiled because the reader is more struck by the writer's anger than by what the writer is angry about.  And it is the object of anger that is important if social injustice, for example, is to be addressed.  At its worst, I have felt like suggesting a prospective journal contributor consider visiting a therapist rather than writing academically. 

So Gillie's Phase 1 type of writing is really useful for making use of powerful feelings which may be an important motivation for writing but must not overpower it. 

Phase 2: Redraft to communicate with your reader 

Phase 2 is when I move focus from what I have to say, which is what Phase 1 is about, towards to whom I wish to address it.  I already have a draft to work upon; now I envisage my reader and what they want to know from me, and how to say it appropriately to them.  Different readers need to be addressed in different ways.  This means choosing and shaping material for this specific reader, modifying and even rejecting certain strands.  It also means something more general: ensuring my writing is clear and communicative, positive and coherent for that audience. 

Perhaps the Phase 2 focus has been routinely overlooked because academic writers tend to focus on the message to be imparted, rather than standing outside ourselves enough to perceive our readers as specific people.  Yet a message not only has to be carefully constructed, it also has to be constructively received, if it is to have any impact.  Focusing upon our specific readers can ensure our vital material is understood by them, absorbed into their own research and referred to in their ensuing publications: those precious citations every academic needs. 

I've just peer-reviewed a paper which ideally should be accepted with no revision.  The content seemed so fascinating, yet at the same time strangely elusive and disconnected from me, the reader.  I reread it and realized the author was writing entirely to himself, not to his reader at all.  I recommended he redraft with his specific readership in mind, giving the paper a good solid form and structure with a communicative introduction and conclusion. 

Phase 3: Edit for posterity to ensure clarity, grammar, correct references ...

Phase 3 is preparing the carefully worked manuscript for publication by paying attention to the way I use language, both for euphony and correctness, to ensure ease and joy of reading.  I now turn to studying matters such as the choice of words as well as the particular needs of my publisher (with regard to house style, references, etc.). 

This phase often gets skimped or missed out because, although many academic writers get very anxious about grammar, punctuation and so on, they have no idea how to tackle it positively.  Many feel it's knowing how to do it right.  By 'right' they mean by the book; and yet they don't have the book, don't know where to find it and don't know how to make use of it when they do.  There are academic writers who are so focused on getting their research findings or theories out there into the big world they forget that how it is expressed is vitally important.  I think many feel: if my message is important enough it will be heard, understood and acted upon (acknowledged and cited), however I write it.  This is not so.  Much that is potentially useful, in all the disciplines, is rejected by journal editors or read by only a handful because it was impenetrable to its readership, inappropriate to that journal or just plain boring. 

Stephen 

When I examine a PhD thesis or review proposals for publication I often find that I cannot remember what I have just read, or that I've lost the gist of the argument.  My former habitual response was that it must be my fault; I was not concentrating hard enough; or I was not really a very good reader; or I'm not familiar enough with the subject matter.  Then it dawned on me that I wasn't at fault, that in academic life one is expected to read text which is, quite simply, badly written. 

There seems to be an assumption that what matters are the ideas communicated, not the means of communication.  Writing is just a clerical or technical matter whose mastery is unproblematic and a natural accomplishment of any academic: we are ideas people not wordsmiths. 

My difficulties with reading articles (both published and for review) is more often the consequence of their being badly written.  But what is striking is that well-written articles are invariably reviewed more favorably.  A well-written article that has hortcomings is returned with helpful suggestions for revision and resubmission.  A badly written one is rejected outright because the reviewer never really grasped what was being communicated. 

Most journal referees and PhD examiners - just like most other academics - have no idea the writing process is important.  It's the ideas they think they are looking for, not the means by which they are expressed.  However, in actual practice, they are invariably impressed by a well-written paper even though they don't realize it.  I can recall, on several occasions, refereeing a group of papers with a team.  On those occasions we would invariably reach a large degree of agreement.  While most of my colleagues saw this agreement in terms of the quality of the ideas, I became very aware that the well-received papers were invariably well written. 

With this in mind I sometimes think writing is like seduction: the reader is seduced by the text, but unaware of the seduction. The seducer (the author), on the other hand, knows exactly what he is doing.  The seducer never loses sight of the person to be seduced. 

The reviewer or examiner feeling lost in poor writing is often because the writer loses sight of the reader.  That's easy to do when writing: I get absorbed in my own thinking and take my mind off the reader.  This is where I find the idea of three phases helpful.   I don't usually follow them step by step (although some prefer that), but apply myself to the three different purposes of writing: to clarify for myself; to communicate with my reader; and to contribute to the field of knowledge.  When I lose the gist of the text as a reader, it is usually because the writer has failed to appreciate all three. And the achievement of the final purpose of academic writing, which is to contribute to the body of knowledge, demands the achievement of the other two. 

As a PhD examiner or reviewer of academic journals, once I have committed myself to examine or review a text I am more or less bound to read through to the end.  As a 'normal' reader of a book or journal article, however, I can discard the book or article at any stage.  Under these circumstances seductive power is even more crucial.  Writers failing to maintain my interest lose me for good.  A publisher is therefore likely to give the quality of writing an even more prominent place in their criteria for publication. 

Readers are interested in what we have to say rather than us writers as people.  Academic writing is neither memoir nor polemic; it does not rant.  Either of these, or any other personal involvement, in the Phase 1 writing is perfect, because it can be thoroughly expressed and explored, until a draft focused on the specific interests of a readership can be developed a Phase 2.  George Orwell started the whole discussion about Bad Writing in 1946 with essays 'Why I Write' and 'Politics and the English Language'.  With his carefully worked on command of language he told his readers: 

One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a window pane. (Orwell, 1984: 10)

At Phase 2 a strong argument needs to be developed which communicates.  Readers do not want to be distracted from the argument by writers' emotion; they want to think of their own feeling in response to the writer's critical argument and discussion. They want to know why we feel strongly enough about the subject to write an academic paper.  The writer's response to the reader's all important why is critical argument, not expression of feeling.  Here's my version of an old writers' saying: 

Put your bleeding heart on the page when you first write (Phase 1).  Clean off the blood when redrafting (Phase 2), but yet allow the passion to remain in the final draft (Phase 3). 

How to Use the Three Phases 

Everyone uses the three phases of writing slightly differently.  Unlike Stephen I find it helpful to follow the three phases of writing in order, and circle back to revisit earlier phases as necessary.  Many wish to extend their enquiry by returning to Phase 1 writing, perhaps feeling their theory or analysis of their data is incomplete, or needing to be re-inspired by this dynamic type of writing.  Many sensibly return to Phase 2 methods to check that they really are engaging appropriately with the right readers. The material written by re-engaging with an earlier phase will then need to be subjected to either one or both of the later phases, thorough editing, for example (Phase 3). 

Working in this way will enable my writing to: 

* Draw upon the wealth of my experience and knowledge

* Communicate well to its intended readership

* Give a coherent message/line of argument with good form and structure

* Develop this theme persuasively 

* Have a clear progression, taking readers by the hand from beginning to end

* Say what I want it to say, clearly, succinctly, and as far as possible, correctly. 

Don't just read: WRITE!

Here are activities that will help you move from thinking about writing, to actually doing it. 

1. Tell in writing the story of an inspiration or insight in your research, an experience relative to the publication you are working on now.  It might be recent, or some time ago.  Allow yourself to write about the first occasion which comes to mind, or rather to hand.  Be as descriptive as you like; it might be useful to remember you have five senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste). 

2.  Write in response to this question; it might come out as a list, or a single paragraph, or a lengthy piece - write whatever comes: 

In what way might the publication you are working on create significant change?  

3. Write about your own writing past.  How did you write when you were a child?  Was it different at school than at home?  Think about letters, lists, reports, minutes, exams.  If you speak more than one language, how is it different to write in one or the other? 

4.  Is there anything in your research which makes you feel emotional in any way: angry, upset, hurt, very happy, excited ... ? Write this feeling out as fully as you like: use felt tips on a big piece of paper if you like.  Remember this is a private expression, for no one else to read but you; though of course it is yours to share if you wish. 

And READ some more: 

Carnell, E., MacDonald, J., McCallum, B. and Scott, M. (2008). Passion and Politics: Academics Reflect on Writing for Publication. London: University of London: Institute of Education. 

In this study of academics who are well published, the authors examine seven key themes: the journey to becoming a writer; identities; going about writing; producing a text; engaging in the process; the politics of writing for publication; and writing, thinking, and learning. 

Clark, R., and Ivanic, R. (1997). The Politics of Writing. London: Routledge.  

Although addressed primarily to people who teach writing, this book raises a lot of questions about what lies behind writing and its political significance. 

Richardson, L. (1990). Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences. London: SAGE. 

An extremely good writer on the processes of writing, in this essay Richardson discusses, amongst other issues, approaching and successfully addressing diverse audiences.