Friday, October 28, 2011

Taking the Mental Leap: Thinking of Yourself as a Writer

Like most writers, I was an avid reader as a child. It amazed me that a person could weave together a story, keep a reader engaged, and have the imagination to make a story come alive. I dreamt of writing my own book, even though it seemed to be an incredibly daunting task.

Dick Preston, radio, film-maker, April 1951 from Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney / photographed by Brian Bird

It seemed nearly impossible to write a book in part because writers appear to have magical gifts that enable them to create enthralling prose. I have since learned that this is not the case. Writers are not people who are born with natural gifts. Beautiful streams of words do not simply flow from writers fingertips. Instead, writers are people who write. Good writers are those who write a lot. Great writers are those who write a lot, revise often, and consistently push themselves to improve their prose.

Anne Barrett from Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney / photographed by Brian Bird c. 1948-1951

Ernest Hemingway, considered one of the best American writers, famously once said:
“The first draft of anything is shit.” 
He also reportedly said:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” 
Being a writer, then, simply involves letting your fingers loose on a keyboard.

Because we mystify writers and the writing process, it is often hard to think of ourselves as writers. Those of us who are academics rarely think of ourselves as writers, even though writing is a major part of our jobs. The reality is that, if you can make that conceptual leap and begin to think of yourself as a writer, as Robert Boice suggests professors should do in Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, you will write more and become a more successful academic. If you focus on becoming a better writing, your prose will improve and your readers will thank you.

In a recent post, academic blogger, Jonathan Mayhew, wrote:
“One way you know you are a writer is if you are reading other writers for the pure pleasure of style, if you take lessons from the great novelists and essayists of the language in which you are writing.”

As Jonathan implies, thinking of yourself as a writer involves focusing on becoming a better writer. For many academics, thinking of yourself as a writer involves a great mental leap. It is a mental leap well worth taking.

What Does It Take to Be a Writer?

Here’s the deal:

  • You don’t have to look like a writer to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to enjoy writing to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to have been born with a magical gift to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to be an eloquent speaker to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to have the biggest vocabulary in town to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to live in New York or San Francisco or anywhere else in particular to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, have unkempt hair, or wear skinny jeans to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to have already finished a book to be a writer.

To be a writer, you do have to read. And, you have to write.

To be a great writer, you have to write often, persevere through hard times, withstand rejection, revise consistently, and keep on writing.

What about you? Do you think of yourself as a writer? Would you like to become a better writer? What are you doing to become a better writer?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Find Your Prime Time and Use it to Write

For me, mornings are a very special time, because mornings are the best time of day for me to write. At the crack of dawn, before my family wakes up, and a little later, right after everyone leaves the house are the two best times for me to write.

toronto sunrise

Mornings are special because they only happen once a day, and they are the times I can be most productive. I wake up every morning, make an almond milk latte, eat 12 almonds, open up my laptop, and start hitting the keys.

It took me a while to figure this out for myself, but now that I am certain of when my prime time is, I do whatever I can to ensure that I write each morning.

My Prime Time for Writing is in the Morning, so That's When I Write

If I miss out on writing early in the morning, it is very likely that I will not get any writing done that day. In addition, since I know how productive I can be in just 30 to 60 minutes early in the morning, I feel as if it is a waste to use that time any other way. Why spend my most precious moments of the day running errands, responding to emails, shopping online, or filling out university-mandated forms when I can spend them writing? For me, the morning is prime time, and that is when I write.

Once I have done my writing for the day, even if it is a busy day and I can only get in 30 minutes, I can face the remainder of the day knowing that I have started off using my time wisely. I have already made progress on that which is most important to my long-term success: I have written.

Everyone Has a Prime Time. When is Yours?

Everyone has their prime time, and it likely occurs at roughly the same time every day. Do you know when your prime time is? If you don’t, ask yourself the following questions:

When you are most alert?
When is your mind the clearest?
When do you find it easiest to focus on one task?

If you still don’t know, the best way to find out is to try. Spend every day next week, Monday to Friday, trying to write as soon as you get up. If it doesn’t work, try a different time.

Those who have families may find it difficult to write first thing in the morning. Some people are able to wake up very early and write for 30 to 60 minutes before the rest of the family wakes up. Others spend their mornings getting everyone else out of the house and then get their writing done once everyone leaves. Others have to drop kids off at daycare and school, and seek refuge in a coffee shop after dropping everyone off. Still others make sure that writing is the first thing they do when they arrive in their office.

What if Your Prime Time is Not in the Morning?

Some people are not at their best in the mornings, so it is not their prime time. If this is the case for you, perhaps the afternoon will work. One of the problems with trying to work in the afternoon is that, oftentimes, all that has transpired in the morning can be an emotional burden. One way to manage this is to have a lunchtime workout. Physical activity is a great way to cleanse the mind. I knew of one woman who had to teach early in the morning, making it difficult to write first thing in the morning. So, she wrote in the afternoons. After teaching her two classes, she went straight to the university pool, where she swam for 45 minutes. After swimming, her mind was clear and fresh, and she was able to sit down and write for two hours. One great thing about this strategy is that she knew she would write after swimming, so her time in the water was also time she could prepare mentally for her writing session.

There are some people who truly are night owls and can write late in the evening after everyone in their family has gone to bed. Honestly, I know many people who tell me this is the best time for them to write, but who find it difficult to make it happen every day, especially once they have children. However, I know it can work for some folks.

The trick is to find ways to make writing happen. If your prime time is late at night, an evening walk, workout, cup of hot tea, or yoga session might be a useful pre-writing routine. It is also probably a good idea to have a light dinner and to figure out a way to make lunch your main meal of the day as a large meal may make you sleepy and less productive. If you plan to write at night, it is best to avoid the after-work happy hour, although I do know a woman who writes at night with a glass of red wine on her desk. If you do write in the evenings, allow yourself time after writing to relax and clear your mind before going to sleep.

One of the keys to writing every day is to figure out when your prime time is. Once you know when the best time for you to write is, and you make it a habit to write every day at that time, you will begin to see that time as non-negotiable. If you only have a prime time of 60 minutes each day, why spend it on anything other than the most important task of your day?

Friday, October 14, 2011

How to Write an Effective Literature Review: Distinguishing between theoretical and contextual literature

Literature reviews of articles, books, theses, and dissertations often can take an enormous amount of time to complete. One way to complete a literature review more quickly is to develop reading strategies that help you move forward.

Reading (30th/52)

Reading strategies can be just as important as writing strategies.

In Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, Wendy Belcher argues that it is just as important to develop effective reading strategies as it is to develop effective writing strategies, because it is impossible to read every published work in your area of research. One of the distinctions Belcher makes is between contextual or background literature and theoretical literature. I have found it very useful to make a similar distinction when reading for and writing a literature review.

Conceptual vs. theoretical literature

When writing a literature review, it is crucial to distinguish between 1) theoretical literature: scholarly writing that helps you to build and sharpen your conceptual focus; and 2) contextual or related literature: articles and books that are closely related to your area or subject of research. Making this distinction is important because you will have to read closely every work that forms part of your core theoretical framework, but can often do a quicker read of those articles that are part of your background literature.

For example, I recently wrote an article on the transnational ties of deportees in Jamaica. The literature on transnationalism is expansive. I thus had to choose a few key theorists in the field and use their works to define transnationalism. There was no way I could read everything that had been written: a Google Scholar search turned up 31,700 results for transnationalism. Instead, I chose: 1) highly cited and foundational works in the field and 2) recent articles and books on transnationalism. I used these sources to develop my own conceptual framework. In all, I used about a dozen sources to form the basis of my conceptual framework. Once I chose the key sources on transnationalism, I had to read those closely and make sure that my understanding of the concept was clear and in line with the most prevalent and recent thinking on the topic.

The article, however, has many more citations than those select few sources that make up the conceptual framework. The difference is that I did not have to read and ponder these background sources as closely. This background literature situates my arguments and findings in the field and consisted of works that deal with:

  • Deportation: Other academic studies of people who have been deported as well as government reports on the numbers of people deported.
  • Jamaican migration: Other academic studies of Jamaican migrants.
  • Jamaica: Books and articles on Jamaica to allow me to talk about the contemporary situation in Jamaica.
  • Other studies of transnationalism: In addition to reading about transnationalism to build my theoretical framework, I read other studies so that I could compare how Jamaican deportees experience transnationalism with other transnational actors.
  • Methods: I cited a couple of articles that use similar methodologies.
  • Secondary conceptual frameworks: Transnationalism is the primary theoretical framework, but, while writing, I decided to also talk about gender and stigma, and thus cite works that deal with those concepts.

In all, I skimmed and read scores of articles to write this one article. However, I did not closely read every single article or book that I came across. Instead, similar to the process I described in last week’s post, I searched the literature, took notes, and develop a schematic framework for the literature review.

It was only when I was developing the conceptual framework – transnationalism – that I had to read the articles closely and engage with the literature on a deep level. I also had to take time to think about transnationalism and allow the concepts to simmer in the back of my brain. Distinguishing between background literature and conceptual literature can be useful as it will help you to figure out what articles and books you need to read closely and think about deeply and which ones you can skim or read more quickly.

For me, writing this is a helpful reminder, as I am currently writing a new article about citizenship. A search on “citizenship” in Google Scholar turns up 817,000 sources. Of courses, I never will be able to read all of those. Again, I have to decide what the core literature is and draw from that to come up with my own working definition of citizenship to make my own conceptual framework.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing a Literature Review: Six Steps to Get You from Start to Finish

Writing a literature review is often the most daunting part of writing an article, book, thesis, or dissertation. "The literature" seems (and often is) massive. I have found it helpful to be as systematic as possible in doing this gargantuan task. This post describes one system for writing a literature review.

In their book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, Sonja Foss and William Walters describe a highly efficient way of writing a literature review. I think it provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature for any purpose: in a doctorate program, for writing an M.A. thesis, or an article in any field of study.

Academic Book Stack

Step One: Decide on your areas of research

Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in those areas, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas.

Step Two: Search for the literature:

Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and/or print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out. Set a specific time frame for how long you will search. It should not take more than two or three dedicated time sessions.

Step Three: Find relevant excerpts in your books and articles:

Skim the contents of each book and article and look specifically for these five things:

  1. Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating
  2. Definitions of terms
  3. Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project
  4. Gaps you notice in the literature
  5. Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating

When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as summarizing takes longer than simply typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following each excerpt. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out your excerpts.

Step Four: Code the literature

Get out a pair of scissors and cut each excerpt out. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes. Place each excerpt into a themed pile. Make sure each note goes into a pile. If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories. When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.

Step Five: Create Your Conceptual Schema

Type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the titles into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them. Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense. Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper!

Step Six: Begin to Write Your Literature Review

Choose any section of your conceptual schema to begin with. You can begin anywhere, because you already know the order. Find the envelope with the excerpts in them and lay them on the table in front of you. Figure out a mini-conceptual schema based on that theme by grouping together those excerpts that say the same thing. Use that mini-conceptual schema to write up your literature review based on the excerpts that you have in front of you. Don’t forget to include the citations as you write, so as not to lose track of who said what. Repeat this for each section of your literature review.

Once you complete these six steps, you will have a complete draft of your literature review. The great thing about this process is that it breaks down into manageable steps something that seems enormous: writing a literature review.

I think that Foss and Walter’s system for writing the literature review really can work for a dissertation, because a Ph.D. candidate has already read widely in his or her field through graduate seminars and comprehensive exams.

It may be more challenging for M.A. students, unless you are already familiar with the literature. It is always hard to figure out how much you need to read for deep meaning, and how much you just need to know what others have said. That balance will depend on how much you already know.

For faculty writing literature reviews for articles or books, this system also could work, especially when you are writing in a field with which you are already familiar. The mere fact of having a system can make the literature review seem much less daunting, so I recommend this system for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a literature review.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

How to Enhance Your Writing Productivity with a Pomodoro Timer

It is definitely not the beginning of the semester anymore. Nor is the end in sight. It is thus the perfect time for me to introduce a little trick to boost your writing productivity: the pomodoro technique.

Pomodoro timer

Using a timer is a great way to keep track of your writing. I have used timers for years to measure how much time I spend writing, and to minimize the amount of time I spend surfing the web or checking email. The pomodoro has turned out to be the best timer I have used.

I have been using the pomodoro for about a month now, and am consistently amazed at how productive I am when I use it. In addition, I have shared this technique with several people, all of whom seem to become instant fans of it.

I decided to download a pomodoro technique app to my iphone after hearing the buzz about it for a while. Two academic productivity experts I follow, ProfHacker and Gina Hiatt, recommend the pomodoro timer, and I heard a few people mention it on Twitter on Facebook.

At first I thought it was just another timer, so there was no need for me to check it out. However, the pomodoro is more than a timer. It is actually a time management and productivity system. And, it is remarkably effective.

Here is how it works, from the Pomodoro Technique website:
1. Choose a task to be accomplished
2. Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer)
3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
4. Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)
5. Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break

Pretty, simple, right? Here is why I think the system is so effective.

The pomodoro timer ticks.

The pomodoro timer ticks while you are writing. I find that ticking sound to be effective at keeping me concentrated. It is like a subconscious reminder that I am supposed to be writing. Of course, my fingers are never keeping pace with the tick-tick-tick of the timer, but I can always try.

25 minutes of concentration.

There are many different theories out there about how long people can concentrate on one task. I used to think I could concentrate for 50 minutes; I have tried concentrating for 90 minutes to no avail. However, now that I am using pomodoro, I am finding 25 minutes of concentration to be optimal. I definitely can concentrate for 25 minutes.

The 5-minute breaks.

Oftentimes, I feel as if I could go longer than 25 minutes of concentration. However, I decided to try out the system and take a conscious break after 25 minutes. It turns out that, if I take a 5-minute break every 25 minutes, I actually can get in more 25-minute segments. Thus, even though I don’t always think I need the break every 25 minutes, I take it anyway, as it permits me to have longer writing endurance. Amazing.

One other reason I like the pomodoro iphone app is that the app keeps track of how many pomodoros (25-minute sessions) I have done for the day. That way, I don’t have to worry about keeping track myself. I can just look at my iphone and see how many pomodoros I have completed.

It may turn out that the pomodoro technique does not work for me forever. It might just be a new trick that has energized me for now. However, the effect has lasted long enough that I am confident in recommending this technique to you, especially if you feel as if you are in a writing rut and would like to get out of it.

Let me know in the comments section if the pomodoro technique works for you.