By Cally Guerin
I was talking to PhD students recently about how they can’t afford to be precious about their writing – that they need to simply see it as something they do as part of their job (or what Aitchison & Lee call the ‘normal business’ of academic life). After the workshop, one of the participants (thanks, Steph!) sent me a comic that she has pinned onto her noticeboard. In it, an academic is explaining that, in academia, we have a saying ‘publish or perish!’. The other person, who is not an academic, responds matter-of-factly: ‘Yeah, we have that too. It’s called “Do your job or get fired”.’
It’s a harsh message, and one that I would be careful of endorsing without reservation. I am fully aware that some academics’ working lives are well set up to allow them to get on with their research and to publish it, while others have such heavy teaching and administration loads that their research output drops off. Nevertheless, anyone enrolled in a PhD does need to get the writing done, and many also want to see their work published. If they are to succeed in these tasks, I think it is very important to discourage two fairly common attitudes towards doctoral writing: firstly, that writing is somehow special and more difficult than other elements of research; and secondly, that writing requires all sorts of particular conditions before one can get down to the work.
I can’t find the reference despite hours of searching, but someone somewhere talked about a writer (was it Asimov?) whose routine preparation for writing was to “Sit down at my desk within reach of the keyboard, hold my hands over the keyboard, and start typing”. I think this is an excellent way to approach the task. (Please let me know if you have any kind of reference or verification for this attribution – I’d prefer to be a bit more scholarly about it!)
We’ve talked in other posts about establishing good writing habits that help us get on with the job (see, for example, New Year resolution: Get the right/write habit), and clarified that really means ‘good for you’. What works for one person’s life context and commitments is not necessarily the answer for someone else. Rising at 5am to write for three hours before breakfast is ideal for some, but not if you are unable to get to bed early or will be met by a crying baby at 5:30am; large quantities of amphetamines might have aided Jean-Paul Sartre, but this technique is unlikely to be sustainable for most of us.
Increasingly, academic writers are taking a disciplined stand, forming various kinds of writing groups and writing to order. Recalcitrant PhD students – and those who simply want to make some speedy writing progress – are joining ‘boot camps’ (see, for example, University of Melbourne and RMIT), where they are focussed on writing as much as possible during set writing periods. This is a model that is based on more peaceful writing retreats (see, for example, the models developed by Barbara Grant and Rowena Murray. Others are taking advantage of the Shut up and Write! movement, while yet more are signing up for Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo). These are all useful ways of getting on with the job of writing as an everyday practice. What I like most of all is that these approaches are pushing along thesis writing, whether that is in a traditional format or as a thesis by publication.
But if one more person mouths the tired cliché ‘publish or perish’ at me, I might well scream. The situation is obviously far more complicated than that simple dichotomy announces, and there are all sorts of reasons one ought to avoid publishing research prematurely (Paré, 2010). So the challenge I’d like to put to you readers is to devise an alternative motto to take its place. Any votes for the new slogan for doctoral writers that needs to replace this? ‘Write it or regret it’, ‘Write for your life’, ‘Stay calm and write’?
Aitchison, C. & Lee, A. (2006). Research writing: problems and pedagogies, Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3): 265-278.
Paré, A. (2010). Slow the presses: concerns about premature publication. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (Eds), Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond, London, UK: Routledge.