How Early Career Researchers experience the writing process

Sep 3, 2016 - 3:16pm

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 One of my favourite meetings each month is our ECR mentoring lunches. A dozen or so early-ish career researchers (ECRs) from the School of Geography gather over lunch to discuss different issues. As the supervisor of most of them, it is great for me to meet them all in one place and help build a supportive work environment. They are a diverse group that includes continuing and fixed-term appointees, in teaching & research and research-only positions, both human and physical geographers. More than half (both male and female) have young families. (More on work-life balance in November!)

This month, September, we are thinking about the academic writing process, facilitated by colleague Dr Rachel Hughes (@rb_hughes).

Here are some thoughts I have distilled from our discussions.

1.Teaching can help with your writing

It’s common to think of teaching obligations as a part of the job that constitutes an obstacle to writing for publication. Rachel reminded us that teaching can help because it reminds you that ‘you can synthesise a diverse and difficult literature into a series of linked, meaningful points under time pressure’. That is, you know you can do it, and when you have immovable deadlines you do it on a regular basis.

2. Writing is a very emotional process, and the blocks are almost all emotional.

Again, Rachel offered her own experience here, and it led to a discussion with many examples. People feeling anxious about writing because it is never good enough (quite a lot of perfectionism in the room); feeling deflated at reviewer comments (emotions of grief and blame surfaced here also); feeling frustrated.

While some people talked about positive emotions (the excitement of telling a story), these examples were in the minority. As someone who enjoys writing, albeit I often find it difficult, this was a salutary experience for me. To hear such an accomplished group of researchers voice many more negative than positive emotions about such an important part of their job raises challenges for me as a mentor. Perhaps the task is not to help them find time to write, but to help them enjoy writing?

3. How to start from the blank screen

This group had diverse and sometimes contradictory strategies. Here are the most popular – there’s a suggestion to suit everyone!

  • Start with a brain dump
  • Write methods and results sections first to get yourself runs on the board
  • Start with a contradiction you find interesting
  • Start with a whiteboard and a mental map
  • Start with the abstract then go to topic sentences
  • Start with stories that excite you
  • Start with immersion (in literature, in discussions with peers, in your own notes)
  • Don’t forget you’ve already done a lot of thinking up to now (when you wrote the grant application, when you did the fieldwork, when you did the analysis). Don’t waste this thinking.

4. How to deal with blockages and being stuck

  • Talk to fellow academics – co-authors or the wider academic community
  • Talk to people who know nothing about the subject
  • Blocking often happens when there are too many ideas in there. The most difficult papers are the ones where you try to do too much.
  • Re-read something you’ve published to remind yourself you can do this
  • Go and read something enjoyable, often not academic
  • Exercise – go for a walk or swim
  • Do something with immediate reward and a self-esteem boost because you actually complete something (see emotions, above). For example pottery, cooking, knitting.
  • Draw pictures
  • Know when to abandon
  • Remind yourself of your research participants and your responsibility to them (no pressure!)
  • Establish routines – a particular type of tea, a particular piece of music
  • Leave yourself a note for next time – don’t finish right to the end

5. How to use fragmented time

For many in this group, the luxury of uninterrupted time in which you might have writer’s block seemed a distant abstraction. Far more pertinent is the question of how to effectively use small bits of time – 30-45 minutes – in life routines that feeling very fragmented, being built around family responsibilities and teaching obligations. 

We didn’t really solve this one. It requires quite a lot of planning beforehand, so that you have small modules that can be ready when you have the time. You need to be able to pick up one little writing package and do it without having to re-think the entire project.




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