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Writing as a social activity: An interview with Nelson Phillips

Nelson Phillips2

Nelson and I have known each for quite a long time. Prior to undertaking a career in academia, I worked in university administration. I was an administrator at McGill University when Nelson first started working there and we both sat on the faculty’s strategic planning committee. He was always very friendly (and still is!) and we sort of stayed in touch all through my graduate studies even though I was pretty much a nobody within academia and he was the much-admired rising star. When I moved to the UK to do my post doc at Oxford, Nelson introduced me to various people, which considerably facilitated my integration into the academic community there. So naturally, when my co-authors and I came up with the idea of interviewing academics on their writing habits, Nelson was one of the first people I thought of approaching. This interview took place over a noisy and crowded lunch at Imperial College. We were a bit pressed for time, so I could not ask Nelson all the questions I would have liked to. But I think our chat makes for a most interesting interview nevertheless (especially the writing collectively bit, which was quite the revelation for me! It would never have occurred to me to write with others in that way). Some months later I also interviewed Nelson’s good friend and frequent co-author Tom Lawrence – readers might enjoy reading that interview as well (I’ll be posting that one soon), as it provides an interesting “other side of the coin” take on some of the stories being told here.

So why don’t we start with something general – like where do your ideas for papers come from?

That’s a very good question; where do I get my ideas? Lots of the ideas I have generally come from conversations with friends when we’re talking about things and noticing that there’s something interesting about them. Sometimes we have data; I mean many of my co-authors over the last few years have had data and then we’ve been having conversations about how a particular instance can be reframed as something more powerful. Sometimes it just comes from noticing patterns, things that are happening.

In the data?

No, in the literature. I think following data is actually quite dangerous. I mean it’s okay, if someone has data, to work with them to try and find the theoretical point, but it’s much easier to start with a theoretical observation.

So for example, Tom (Lawrence) and I have just started talking about a paper. I emailed him just because I was noticing lots of people using the term ‘work’ in the literature. So I’m seeing more and more kinds of work: boundary work, narrative work, narrative identity work, institutional work, tons of kind of work. So I sent him an email and I said, “This is interesting.” I could see this happening, why was it happening? I knew he was thinking about work as well, obviously given that he has a book on it and he’s doing a special issue in Organization Studies. So we’ve started now kicking back and forth thoughts around what’s going on with work; why work? For us it’ll be a theory paper, we only write theoretical papers. So it would always start out as a theoretical paper. Other times, I have little questions in my mind, especially around institutional theory, aspects of institutional theory, areas where I think things aren’t very clear. And then you bump into someone, have a conversation, they have data or they have a theoretical interest that helps it click and you kind of develop a topic. But it’s always an evolution, right, it always takes years.

Let’s go back to this idea around work, so you’ve got this inkling of an idea. Then what? How do you start pulling together a paper?

What we’re doing is, basically we said, “This is interesting, let’s both think about this.” We’ve been sending some emails back and forth, just to see what we both think. And now what we’re both going to do is watch for people talking about work, presenting papers about work at conferences or organizing workshops about work. The question we have now is: “Why are so many people talking about work? Why now and why in these areas of social theory? And is it just management people or is it more general? Is there a turn to work happening in the social sciences? And that’s sort of a semi-empirical question, but obviously it’s a theoretical discussion as well. But whether this is actually happening or whether we’re just seeing it because we’re working in these areas, I don’t know yet. The question is also, “Why now?” Why are people suddenly all using this term ‘work’? Our initial ideas are around people being interested in agency but not wanting to use the term ‘agency,’ because agency’s so loaded and usually gets you into huge problems. On the other hand, you can talk about work and no-one reacts. So right now, it’s a concept that doesn’t have a lot of political conflict around it, so you can use it. So we’re starting to think about that.

So how do you keep track of all this? Do you just keep it all in your head or do you have some kind of method?

If I forget about an idea it wasn’t a very good one. And that’s okay, it’s sort of a Darwinian process. I mean some people keep track of their ideas. I remember one friend telling me he has a file he’s kept since he was a PhD student, which has every idea he’s ever thought of written down because he forgets them. And then when he gets to a place where he has some time and doesn’t really have anything new, he goes flicking back through his old ideas to see if something is still interesting. That would seem to me to be quite a sensible idea but I don’t do that. For me, it’s much more of a social process, so the ideas exist in between and they just get negotiated and changed over time. I do write some things down. But also, I probably start three things for everything one thing that actually becomes a paper. Lots of times you realize that someone else has already done it, it’s not interesting, the answer’s obvious or it can’t be done. So those ones, they just drift away. Or you set them aside for awhile. Plus the academic world shifts pretty quickly and you have to kind of keep track. So you may have an idea or a thought, but the front-end of the conversation is already moving past that idea. So you need to set it aside or refashion it. Like I think right now it would be very difficult to write anything on institutional entrepreneurship. It’s just that so many things have been written on it and there are so many papers around right now and the journals are only going to publish so many papers on that topic. Plus, I’m not sure what questions are left that are really, really interesting. Yes, there’s institutional entrepreneurship in this context or that context, but how different is it? So for now, I think it will be hard. It may come back, like institutional logics kind of died down for a while and then came back. They’re real hot right now, but I think that they’re getting overexposed, people will lose interest and we’ll see what the next thing is. I think lots of stuff about what happens in institutional theory, lots of attention now is being paid on what goes on across fields and between fields – so moving out of these intra-field discussions and more to inter-field and multiple fields, hybrid kind of things because that’s the sort of next step in making things a bit more complicated.

What about the writing process as such?

I’m incapable of working alone. Both figuring out ideas and writing is a very social activity. Much of the time I write with my co-authors, so in the same room. So I’ll go to visit a colleague somewhere, and we’ll spend five days sitting in his study writing. Or another colleague will come down to London and we’ll spend twelve hours sitting in my apartment. We just did that on Friday, we spent the day on Friday working on a paper.

So what does “working on a paper” involve for you?

We write together. I mean, we don’t write, write together. We tend to divide it up, but having the other person there means you can talk about it, as you’re writing it. Some of it is brainstorming, lots of it is brainstorming. And we do go away, like right now I’m writing a section and we’re going to meet back up again and he’s writing a section. But it took a lot to get to that point. It depends on who it is, but with most of my co-authors we spend a lot of time together. And when my co-authors work with each other they do the same thing. It’s very creative, because you’re talking and finding problems, figuring out things and brainstorming as you try to write it out. And then you can go spend a couple of days working on stuff separately and that works fine if you have a very clear idea of what you’re doing. Other people seem to have a very different style, one person writes it and the other person kind of rewrites it and it seems to work for them. A lot of people are like that, they just want to have a meeting and then go away and work for a couple of days. But for me, it’s very much like Japanese decision-making. By the time everyone has gone around the room, the decision’s made. You don’t have to formally make a decision and you don’t have to implement it. It’s the same thing, working in this very interactive way, no-one has to read it, there’s no reading it and arguing over it because you’ve already agreed on everything when you were writing it. It also means we don’t ever have a paper where you can tell which section was written by which person.

So how do you pick the people you work with?

Well, if people don’t share your way of working, then the collaboration probably won’t work very well. I tend to write a lot with a few people. So I have a few co-authors that I write a lot with and then I have lots of projects which didn’t come off well, which were kind of one-offs with people where we never gelled, the whole process didn’t gel. We got a paper out of it but it wasn’t as much fun.

Let’s go back to the writing process. You and your co-author have been tossing ideas around, then what?

Well, the idea now is that he’s going to visit here in August, and we’ll spend an afternoon starting to try to talk it through and see if we have something, if we have some idea why this is actually interesting and what is it about it that’s interesting, so we’ll give that a try. I mean the actual technical way we probably would start doing it is to have quite long and detailed discussions over the phone or on Skype. We often use something like Google Docs, so we can both see the document at the same time, and then begin to sort of sketch out some sections and pieces. Ideally we do a bit of writing, merge stuff back together, then have another long call and again, work through and talk through each part. If I can go to where he is, we would get together for a couple of days and try to really structure the argument and get down the main points and generate a bunch of text. Then we’d go back to the Skyping. And it also depends on how well you work. I mean, having calls and meetings is actually a very good way to structure and make sure you get things done. It gives you a deadline. So we’re meeting for these days, the paper or the research is already done and we have to have a basic idea of what we’re going to do and then when we get together so that we can actually make progress.

Do you follow rituals when you write?

I always start at the beginning. We always start with the title and an abstract and an introduction. We know we’re not going to stick with it, but at least that way it summarizes what’s going to be in the paper. We make no kinds of rash promises about contribution and stuff when we’re writing. So it’s quite helpful. And different people are different. Like one of my co-authors can only write from the beginning to the end, paragraph by paragraph. I can jump around, but he really can’t.

But you do that only once you’ve done your title, and abstract …

Yeah, because that way we’ve agreed on what the paper’s about. If we agree on the title, the abstract and the intro, if we can write that, then we’ve agreed on the general paper because then you have a problem statement, you have some claims about your contribution. It’s never going to end up like that, but at least it gives you a starting point. I find it very useful to write those down. And sometimes it takes two days to write them down because we’re arguing about what it is we’re actually trying to say. When you try to write it, you realize: “Well that was a really stupid idea.” When you actually write it on paper, it doesn’t make any sense and then you have to go back and start again. I have a whiteboard at home, so we can whiteboard stuff, mainly because we spend a lot of time trying to order ideas and summarize the logic. I mean, it’s a narrative, a paper is a narrative and it has to make sense.

So do you write mostly from home?

Yeah, I never write at work.

Is there a specific space that you need or are you pretty flexible?

No, it can be anywhere. We’ll write at my place or I’ll go to their place, and we’ve written in hotel rooms and we’ve rented houses on the beach and that’s all fun. It’s creating a space where you can kind of brainstorm and work through and test ideas together. It’s a very social thing.

Do you think of a specific publication outlet before you start out or do you start with an idea and figure the outlet after?

Many of the things that I write are for special issues, so by definition they have an outlet. So often it will be: “Oh! there’s a special issue, that paper that we have, if we reframed it like this, it would fit with that special issue.” And special issues give you a deadline, so they’re very useful that way. So even if you don’t make it in the special issue, then you have a paper. And you can go somewhere else and reframe it again. Because once you actually have a paper then, I mean, you never let it die. You’ve got to get it out somewhere. There are a few papers I’ve abandoned but not very many. Although the paper that ends up published isn’t necessarily very similar to the initial one. One of the papers I’ve been working on, we’ve been working on it for six years. It used to be a paper on ethnic entrepreneurship and now it’s a paper on identity narratives. So there’s still kind of a theme that’s the same but it’s completely different. The whole theoretical frame and the whole contribution are completely different.

What about when you’re not targeting a special issue?

We have a very small number of target journals, so it’s not very complicated. ASQ (Administrative Sciences Quarterly), AMJ (Academy of Management Journal), Organization Science, AMR (Academy of Management Review). AMR has its own thing, all the others tend to be empirical. And only when you fail at those do you go somewhere else. I have written things that I know won’t ever get into those journals, so I send them somewhere where they have a shot. Unless it’s with a student or something, then you can aim a bit lower, it’s fine. For the people I write with, those are the only papers that make any difference now. None of them will write an Organization Studies paper. It may end up in Organization Studies, that’s fine, but it’s got to start at AMJ. Because otherwise for them, if they’re working on research, it had better be for these journals.

And what about you? What’s your take on that?

I don’t think I ever cared as much. I do care, but I mean, for me, it’s more about balance. So if I never submitted anything to those journals, I would be concerned. But I’m happy to also know that some of the things I’ve written, those that have been the most cited, have been in Human Relations and in Organization Studies. There are lots of AMJ papers that have hardly any citations. It’s important on your CV, and it gives you kudos, so that people know you’ve published there. But what’s more important is the quality of the paper and the quality of the ideas. That’s what gets papers cited. It has to be interesting. And we have a big advantage because I think qualitative papers get more citations than quantitative papers because they’re easier to remember. Qualitative studies tell a story and you remember the story. Tom (Lawrence) and I wrote a paper on whale-watching, it wasn’t even any good, but everyone remembers that paper. Why? Because it’s on whale-watching, right? So people remember those papers. So I think it’s an advantage to do qualitative research in terms of the impact of your work.

How do you handle rejections or R&Rs?

Poorly. It’s funny, I used to be very bothered and now I’m not bothered at all. Rejection is just fundamental to what we do. And if you’re going to submit to the big journals, you’re almost always going to get rejected; you just deal with it. Move on. I tell my students: “Read the editor’s cover letter, put it in a drawer, leave it for a week, go to the gym, have a beer, whatever it is that calms you down, come back when you’re ready.” And now, the most important thing for me is just don’t take too long when you get rejected: take the paper, take the things that the person says that you can actually do, do them fast and get it back out. Because the biggest factor in your life is the amount of time your papers spend under review. These review periods are getting longer and longer and the most important thing is to keep things cycling. If you get a rejection, that better be out again in six weeks. I mean don’t mess around, that’s the worst thing you can do because you have a paper, you have feedback from a good journal, it’s already been developed, you’ve put a lot of time into it. The most important thing in your life is doing a revision if you got an R&R and the second most important thing is turning around the paper that’s got rejected. And don’t be working on new papers if you’ve got those things that haven’t been dealt with. You’ve got to keep that pipeline moving. You’ve got to have four things under review all the time; I mean that’s your life. If you want to publish two papers a year, keep four things under review; easy.

But you also have to have some emerging stuff. I mean you’re probably working on more than four things?

Right now, I’m probably working on ten or twelve things. Two of them are books. And I have maybe four or five R&Rs, so those are taking up a lot of my time. Writing new papers should sort of happen by itself, because you can write lots of new papers but then they get stuck in the review process for years, so that’s where your focus has to be. You’re always writing a paper. Papers are fun, so there’s a tendency to always want to work on them. And if you’re a data person, you’re the worst because all you do is collect data, you never actually go write anything, let alone deal with your R&Rs and your rejected papers. There’s nothing wrong with data collection, I mean different people do different things, but if someone is doing all the data collection, then someone else needs to be writing. It’s very hard to get started. But you get faster and faster at it and it’ll get less and less stressful. It’s much easier for me now. I mean it takes me much less time to figure out how I need to fix a paper. And it’s just because of practice. You know? It takes seven years to be an expert at anything. So it’ll take you seven years to be an expert at revise and resubmits!

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier


Phillips, Nelson and Cliff Oswick (2012); Organizational discourse: Domains, debates and directions; Academy of Management Annals; 6 (1); p. 1.

Phillips, Nelson and Thomas B. Lawrence (2012); The turn to work in organization and management theory:  Some implications for strategic organization; Strategic Organization; 10(3); p. 223.

Phillips, Nelson and Thomas B. Lawrence (2004); Discourse and institutions; Academy of Management Review; 29 (4); p. 635.

Phillips, Nelson and Cynthia Hardy (2002); Discourse Analysis: Investigating Processes of Social Construction; Sage; Thousand Oaks: CA.

Hardy, Cynthia, Ian Palmer and Nelson Phillips (2000); Discourse as a strategic resource; Human Relations; 53 (9); p. 1227.

Lawrence, Thomas B., Nelson Phillips and Cynthia Hardy (1999); Watching whale watching:  Exploring the discursive foundations of collaborative relationships; Journal of Applied Behavioural Science; 35(4); p. 479.


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