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Writing as an iterative process: An interview with Kevin Corley

Kevin Corley

 

Kevin Corley
Associate Professor
W.P. Carey School of Business
Arizona State University
Associate Editor, Academy of Management Journal

This interview was done in a crowded, and very noisy, coffee shop cum bookstore in Boston, during AOM in 2012. We had set up a time for the interview beforehand, and I had told Kevin that I would get back to him with a location once we were there. Following my own advice (see my interview with Denny Gioia here), I had gone scouting out the terrain and found this cute little shop off a side street not too far from the main venue. It was quiet, and they had big tables to sit at. Perfect! So perfect in fact (at least it appeared so) that Kevin even organized other meetings there that same morning. It was like he was running his own little office in situ. Unfortunately, it turned out that I wasn’t the only one who had scouted out this perfect spot, so much so that by the time I met up with Kevin there, the place had turned into a zoo. Moral of the story: during fieldwork NOTHING replaces a top-notch recording device.

What I like about this interview is Kevin’s point blank style. This is a real insider story: no fluff, no background music. Kevin tells it like it is, and it’s great.

So my first question is, where do you get your ideas to write papers? Where do they come from?

Well a lot of my ideas come from two places. One, I’ve come to depend upon doctoral students. I really like interacting with doctoral students because they always bring a new perspective. So I very much started my career around identity, organizational identity, organizational change, identification, those types of things. And because of doctoral students, I’ve now found myself working in areas like passion, moral leadership, respect – things that I never thought I would be interested in, or that I would spend time working on. A doctoral student comes and says, “I’m really interested in this area, can we talk about it?” And they sit down and start telling me – and I’m like, “Wow. That’s really interesting…” Another place is when I’m out interacting with the companies that I do research with. Often times my ideas for the next thing I want to work on comes from sitting down with these companies. So here I am, doing my dissertation on identity change, but in the course of doing my interviews and talking to these executives, this idea that there are things happening in society that impact the organization comes up – and I think, “Wow, that’s really interesting, you know? And you write it down in your little field notebook. Sometime later you’re going through it looking for something else and you go, “Wait a minute! That was a good idea.” And that gets you into thinking about doing something new.

When you say you’re engaging with companies, what is the nature of that engagement?

It’s very academically based. It’s not even action research. It’s like, “We’re academics, we want to study this aspect of your company, and by the way we’ll share what we find with you, and we think these are the benefits that will come to you. You don’t have to pay us. Just grant us access.”

How do you pick which companies to approach? Do you start with some idea about what you’re looking for or is it more random?

Given the type of research that I do, I don’t have to worry about a selection bias. I don’t have to worry about someone saying, “Oh, you hand-picked the context where you would find this.” Well, yeah! I want to build theory on this phenomenon, and so I need to go someplace where that phenomenon exists and is present enough that people can talk about it, and that I can see it in action.

Can you give me a recent example?

Well, for example, I did a project with Spencer Harrison. He’s at Boston College now, but he was a doctoral student at ASU and he came to me one day and said, “I’ve been reading a lot for my dissertation and there’s this idea of a link between identification and identity. You know, people started writing about it, it’s out there, but what about the situation when you have an organization that has a really strong identity, so strong that it’s hard to imagine that company doing anything that doesn’t fit with that identity? And yet, there are such strong individuals inside that company that it’s hard to imagine those individuals doing anything that doesn’t fit with who they are. How would those two match up?” It’s a pretty interesting idea, and if we could actually find that and gain an empirical insight into it, it could be an interesting paper.

Spencer is a rock-climber, and he thought that this type of thing would happen a lot in companies that are very much focused on outdoor activities. A lot of these companies hire people who are world-class climbers, and skiers, and mountain boarders, and surfers. And this is an example of an industry where you’ve got strong-willed individuals working for a strong identity organization. How does that work? So we specifically targeted a certain set of these companies. We went and found an outdoor retail show in Salt Lake City where we knew some of these companies were going to be. We got press passes; members of the media, you know? And we basically wandered around for a day talking to them, trying to find managers or executives – not just salespeople, but someone with decision-making power – and just started talking to them about what their company was about, and what our research was, and what we wanted to do, and one of these companies – Black Diamond – the guy that we talked to was just like, “That’s a really cool idea. You know, why don’t you send me an email and I’ll share this idea with our CEO, and we’ll see where it goes?” Well, we’ve been there for five years now doing research. So for the type of research that I do, you do want a target. You don’t want that randomization of, “Well let me just pick an organization and see,” because the phenomenon might not be there. So I need to find that context where I think the phenomenon will be. But even when you do that and you dive into that context, you’re going to find other things. And so that’s where new ideas come from.

Do you have some sort of system for organizing your ideas?

Well it used to be pretty haphazard, and there are a lot of ideas that have gone underneath the bridge, and you know, floated out to sea, never to be seen again. Now with technology, I have an iPad, and an iPhone, and I have the Evernote app. I always have some piece of electronics with me so that if an idea hits me, I can leave a note for myself. And it doesn’t get lost. Whereas I still have physical notebooks from my dissertation that I could go and open up and probably find ideas that I had for projects or for papers, but they’re lost because they’re in a drawer somewhere.

So how do you organize them?

I have different files that are labelled, you know, “good ideas for projects.” Or I have one that’s “ideas about writing.” So as much as we lament technology being everywhere, and you’re always connected, and you can’t get away from it, to me this is one example where it’s actually kind of nice. I had always heard stories about Karl Weick having multiple notebooks wherever he went. And I remember first, second year of my PhD program I was at a conference, and he happened to be there. And he was sitting in the very, very back. It was like a tiered MBA classroom, and he was sitting in the very back and he had four notebooks laid out. And he was more interesting than the presenters. So I stopped paying attention to them and I paid attention to him. And he was literally writing in all four notebooks. I just don’t have the capacity to do that. To have that many notebooks that I know the difference between; to be writing in all of them correctly, and then to remember what’s in what. Now when it’s electronic, you can just do a search, you know?

How many projects do you work on at the same time typically?

It really depends, but it’s always more than I can handle. The times that are most frustrating professionally for me are the times when I feel – you know, if I could just put together a four-hour chunk of time where nothing else was going to interrupt me and I didn’t have to worry about anything, I could get this done. I could write this discussion section and just be done with this. And it’s frustrating when I can’t do that, you know? I’ve only got an hour, and then I know I have an hour tomorrow afternoon. So there are times when I’m not teaching, or when the AMJ decision-letter pile is less, and I can be working on multiple papers at the same time because I’ve got decent chunks of time to devote to them. There are times, when I’m teaching, or when everybody’s submitting papers to AMJ, or it’s spring and all my doctoral students are defending their dissertations, when you just can’t. You have to rely on your co-authors. Every project I’m working on is a co-authored paper. I don’t like working on stuff by myself. And so one of the aspects of me managing my time, and managing having too many projects to work on is trying to get my stuff done and hand it back to a co-author so that the paper is still making progress, but I’m not doing any work on it because I have to be over here working on this thing or that thing. So in terms of how many, I can’t put a number on it, but it’s always more than it should be. But that was part of my training at a top PhD program – you need to make sure your pipeline is always deep enough that there isn’t a lull, right? I mean if you want to be a productive researcher, and get tenure at a top-tier program, and make the type of impact on the field that you want to make, you always have to have these projects out there because not every project is going to be an A-level project. Not every project is even going to turn out to be a publishable paper. And so you need to have a lot of things going on. So for better or for worse, that’s the way I’ve lived the past 12-some years of my career. You always have more things going on than you can probably handle.

What about when you get around to actually writing, how do you start writing a paper?

Well it’s a hybrid again because of the type of research that I do. So I’ve been taking notes and ideas have been coming to me. I’m in the middle of analysis and it dawns on me that I need to have a section of the paper that says this. And again, I think this is somewhat unique to writing up qualitative papers, but I will write the front-end. I will write the introduction to help me frame what I want to say. So this is after data collection analysis is done.

So you won’t start writing before then?

Not in a structured way. I have been writing notes but I haven’t opened up a Word document that’s labelled “new paper” yet. I typically have different Word documents for different parts of the paper. So I’ll have my intro, I’ll have my lit review, I’ll have my methods, and I won’t put them together until later. And you know why? Again, it’s because of a lack of discipline. If everything is in a single document and I’m working on the methods section, I’ve got to scroll through the introduction to get to it. So I scroll through, but wait a minute, I can work on that part of the intro, you know? And then it’s, “Let me read the lit review to see how it flows into the methods.” And I start reading the lit review. And then it’s “Oh wait, let me work on this paragraph here for a second.” So by keeping them separate, I’m more disciplined.

Ok.

The easiest part of the paper to start writing is the methods, right? Because as you’re collecting data, you write what you’re doing. Then I’ll write an intro that basically frames what it is I think I’m going to be writing about. Then I typically work on the findings section and discussion section. Once I have a good draft of that discussion section, I’ll go back and write the literature review around what it now needs to be, based on the discussion. Because again, doing inductive research, you can’t write your literature review beforehand. You know, in a deductive paper where you’re testing hypotheses, the lit review has to be solid because that’s where your theoretical contribution lies, right? It’s the justification for your study. In an inductive paper, not so much. The lit review should be supporting why you are asking the research question you’re asking and giving support to what your findings say, but oftentimes you can’t write that literature review until you know what it is that you really found. That’s why the backend of the paper is usually where I spend more of my time. Then I’ll write a literature review based on what I’ve now written in the backend, go back, finalize the findings and the discussion section, to make sure they really say what I want to say. I make sure the methods are correct; I make sure the literature review supports what I’m saying, and then the final thing I work on is the introduction, to make sure that the introduction really does set up what I deliver in the discussion section. So it’s not linear, and I don’t think it can be because writing an inductive paper is not a linear process; it’s too iterative. It’s such an iterative thing.

So this way of working helps you make sure everything gels together?

Yeah. I mean, a typical inductive paper for a top-tier journal is going to be like 40 pages of text, right? Well to read your introduction, and to then linearly follow through the rest of it, by the time you get to your discussion section, well…you’ve forgotten. At least for me, I’ve forgotten. Doing it this way makes it easy because each section is in a separate document which you can have on your screen – here’s my introduction document and here’s my discussion document. And here’s the punch line in the introduction: does it match-up with the punch line in the discussion section? They kind of do, they kind of don’t, you know? Do I do what I say I do? And so on.

How about rituals? Do you follow any writing rituals when you write?

Banging my head against the wall. Just joking! I need quiet, relative quiet. I used to write at home before we had kids, and now I haven’t been able to do that. I think writing in the office is very difficult, and so both in Illinois and at Arizona State I actually arranged to have a study carrel or an office in the library that I could go to and be completely secluded.

Shutting your door is not an option?

You’ve got the phone, you’ve got – here’s the bad thing about being connected. If I’m in my office, my computer’s most likely connected to wireless and email, and you know, the light is on, people can knock. So if I really want X amount of time where it’s only about writing, I need to go somewhere else. I’m one of those people who fondly look back at my PhD program. Like if I could have stayed a PhD forever, you know – because you got to focus. One of the best times of my career was those three months when my data collection and analysis were done and I spent almost every day in the library working on my write-up. Penn State’s library – they had just opened up the Paterno wing, it was a brand new part of the library, and their stacks were gorgeous. They had these huge book shelves, they were like 10 feet tall and they created these spaces where they just put a table with a couple of chairs. And if you got there early enough, you could grab one of these tables and you were surrounded by the best sound dampening material in the world, books! Paper! And so I would get there in the morning, and I would bring a lunch, and I would write for six, seven hours. And I didn’t have to worry about teaching, I didn’t have to worry about service because I wasn’t a professor yet. My pipeline was not huge at the time. That was one of the best times in my professional career. I could sit there for an hour, completely brain-dead, write absolutely nothing and not be stressed that I just wasted the one hour I had this week to write because I knew I had more. I mean it was just everything that I don’t have now as a professor, right? But I try to recreate that. So like I said, this afternoon I’m not doing anything else, I’m going to go where no one can find me, I’m going to make sure my wireless is off, and I’m going to shut my phone off, and I’m just going to write.

Do you schedule time to do that?

You have to. You have to.

How often can you manage that?

Over my sabbatical it was pretty easy. Before that it was tough. The past couple of years have been pretty tough, because I was PhD coordinator and I started doing this AMJ editor thing. You know, in some ways the AMJ writing has helped me because it’s very discrete writing. You know, I know that this decision letter’s going to be about three to four pages. There’s still some analysis involved in the sense that I’m analyzing these texts, right? And I’m pulling themes out of them, and I’m trying to get those themes down in such a way that a reader can understand them, and that they make logical sense. So I’m hoping that all this writing that I’ve been doing, even though it hasn’t technically been academic writing, helps me in the sense that the next time I get into a period when I have a lot of writing to do, it pays off a little bit. I’m in a lull in terms of writing right now. I’m doing a lot of data collection and analysis, and not much writing. And that’s the other thing that I hope this editorial position does for me, I hope I’ve gained some insight into what makes a good paper and what doesn’t, since I’m making decisions about what’s a good paper and what’s not.

It should!

Well, not necessarily. There’s the understanding of what a good paper is and what goes into a good paper, but then there’s the actual writing of it, you know? One of the biggest challenges I have is that often I get so into a paper that it’s hard for me to see the bigger picture of, have I really created a set of arguments here that make sense? Have I really written this in a clear enough way that someone who hasn’t been looking at this data for the past 12 months would understand it?

How do you deal with that?

I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s still something I’m working on.

Do you get other people to read it?

Yeah. You get a lot of – I mean it helps with coauthors, but you also get a lot of friendly reviews. You have go-to people that you can say, “Hey, will you just read my discussion section and just make sure that it makes sense?” Or, “Can you look at the introduction? It’s four pages. It’s not going to take up a lot of your time.” You know, “Does this sound interesting? Does this sound like we’re on target?”

How many go-to people would you have?

Do you mean go-to, go-to people, who I know won’t say, “No”?

Right.

Three or four. But there’s probably seven, eight, nine, maybe even ten people that as long as I don’t ask too much of them, I’ll probably be able to get some sort of feedback from them and it would be helpful feedback.

When do you know a paper is ready? When do you decide that, “I’ve done everything I can, and I’m submitting”?

This is tough to put into words because it’s kind of a gut feeling. You know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to getting the words right, but I’m not one of those people who can’t let go of a paper. So there’s a middle ground between, “I need to work on this paper more,” and, “I’m sick of this paper and I never want to see it again.” And it’s somewhere in that middle ground when the paper’s ready. And the reason that I say that is that I’ve had experiences where I’m sick of the paper and I don’t ever want to see it again, but it’s not ready. And I need to set it aside, and come back to it in a couple of weeks, a month later. There are times when I have that sense of, “Okay, I’m sick and tired of this paper because I’m just working on the margins.” I’m really not improving the paper much. That’s when it can be sent off. I’ve had those times where I’m not happy with it; it needs more work, and I need to work on it more. And I’ve had those times where I’ve said to myself, “You know, this needs more work, but I just don’t have the time, or I don’t have the data that I need to do more work on it, so this is as good as it’s going to get.” I think it’s a little easier for an inductive researcher if you recognize that the writing process has to continue within the revision process. I’ve talked to a lot of my deductive quantitative colleagues, and there is a sense of, “I can write the perfect paper, and I can have the hope that I’ll get a really easy R&R that just involves little things here and there, and most of it is in the replies to reviewers.” Now whether or not they actually ever experience that, they have that hope because there’s a sense that a deductive paper can be that way.

I think one of the key learnings about being an inductive researcher is that will never, ever, ever, happen. No matter how “perfect” your paper is, the three people that review it and your editor are going to see things a little differently than you because it is an interpretive process, and it is very much a social construction – what is valuable and what’s not. What is a contribution and what’s not? And so, as an inductive researcher, you have to have this capacity for…what’s the right word? Maybe it’s not a word…This capacity to be able to feel comfortable submitting a paper when it’s not perfect because you know that you’re going to have to do changes anyway. To recognize that more writing, more creating, more constructing is down the road. What you’re shooting for is, “Do I believe that this is good enough to get a revise and resubmit?” And that is something that you can never know for sure because every review team is different, right? I can think of situations where I submitted a paper and I was just thinking, “Wow, this is dynamite, and my friendly reviewers think this is terrific,” and I get it back and the decision letter – you get the sense that you barely scraped by with an R&R, right? Like if my data hadn’t been this interesting, they would have rejected this thing. You know? And I’ve had situations where it’s not where I want it to be, but I just don’t know what else to do. And you get back an R&R that doesn’t seem that hard and you’re like, “How is that possible?” So I think it’s just the acceptance that you are submitting an incomplete piece of work, but it’s incomplete in a way that the potential is going to draw those reviewers in, and that you’re going to complete it with their help. I honestly believe that if you want to publish inductive work in top tier journals, you have to have that attitude. And if you go in trying to write the perfect paper and get the conditional acceptance right away, you’ll never submit that paper ever. So the question you’re asking is a tough one because it depends on each paper. It’s kind of a gut feeling. My data story is interesting enough that I think I could hook them. That’s when you submit the paper, and it all flows right.

What about rejects? How do you deal with those?

I don’t get rejects. [When he said this, Kevin kept a straight face just to see how I’d react. My pained look, the result of an awkward mix of awe on the one hand, and “you must be joking” on the other, set him off laughing…]

But really, you’ve submitted your paper, and we’ve all had that, God knows, you get that email. Do you open it right away, no emotion, or do you have some kind of ritual for dealing with response letters?

Well, there’s always emotion. Much to the frustration of my co-authors, it’s hard for me to work on a paper after a decision letter, at least for a couple of weeks. For most top-tier journals you have four months to turn around an R&R, and I work with several coauthors who as soon as you get that R&R, they want to work on it right then and there. And for me, it doesn’t matter how positive the R&R is. There’s going to be something I’m pissed about, something that the reviewers didn’t understand and that they want me to do differently. Writing is a very personal thing for me, and it can’t be if you are open to your reviewers being part of the creative process. And so it takes me a while to get over the fact that they’re idiots, and I’m right, they’re wrong, and to get to the point where, “Well, no, they have a point.” Or even if they don’t have a point, I can still make something of this by doing what they want. That takes me a while to do, and so I can’t jump right into it. So I have to set the paper aside for a little bit when I get that R&R. And if it’s a rejection, I have to set it aside even longer, right? You don’t have the four-month pressure. So you have to get over that initial reaction of, “I just have bad reviewers. I’m going to submit this to another journal the way it is.”

Okay. Do you do that?

No. You can’t. You can’t because as much as you disagree with the rejection, there are probably things in those reviews that will help you improve your paper. And that’s why I say it takes a while because emotionally, you can’t see that right away. You can’t take an objective eye to those reviews yet and say, “Well, I don’t really want to admit it, but that will help.” Or “that really is kind of a flaw that I need to figure out how to deal with.” It just takes a while to do. It definitely takes me longer to get back to a paper after a rejection than an R& R. But they’re both pretty emotional processes.

So you do get rejected sometimes.

Oh yeah. I have papers that have not and may not ever see the light of day.

Do you have a problem with that? Some people say, “Never let a paper die.”

That’s Denny [Gioia]. I think Denny has never let a paper die officially. As much as I like that thought, and as much as it seems professionally the right thing to do, sometimes you’ve got to let a paper die. Some papers need to die. Other times I just get attracted, I get enamoured by a new idea that seems to be much more important, much more doable, and so it just doesn’t make sense to do this paper. And by the time I come back to it, I’ve got so many things built up, and so it kind of just dies on its own. So I like the idea. I haven’t been able to necessarily follow through on it. And also, it’s not really about letting a paper die, but letting an idea die. And this is one thing that I take from Denny. Sometimes you have an idea and it’s a really interesting idea, but it’s not A-level journal-worthy. It’s just not big enough. You can’t put enough stuff around it. Let the paper die, but figure out a way to get that idea into print, whether it be in a book chapter, whether it be in an invited piece, something like that. Get the idea out there, first because it could have an impact; and second, because you have something to point to and say, “Well look, in 2010 I published this. Someone finally wrote an A-level piece on this in 2014, but I actually wrote on this in 2010.” Right? And you got the idea out there, as opposed to continually hitting your head against the wall of these journals that don’t want to publish this, and then someone else does publish before you, and you’ve got nothing to show for all your work. So it’s not the paper itself; it’s the idea.

And so I’ve let go of papers, even empirical papers, but kept the conceptual idea and published them in a B-level journal, or figured out a way to work that idea into the discussion section of another article that’s been accepted, or a book chapter, or something like that. And then you have something to refer to and you try to build on it in your future research. So you can let papers die, but if it’s a really good idea, you’ve got to figure out a way to get it in print.

Have you ever done a tally of how many papers you’ve submitted since your dissertation? How many have been rejected and so on?

No. You can’t. I don’t know. You can’t do that. You’ve got to let go at some point. I mean, I’ve had papers that have gotten rejected that I’ve revised, sent to another A-journal and gotten accepted. I’ve had papers rejected that I’ve revised, and gotten rejected again, and then sent to a B-journal and got accepted. I don’t really keep track. I don’t know.

How do you choose which journals to submit to?

I’m on tenure track and our department was recently, in some ranking, the number one research department. There’s a lot of pressure to publish, you know? And I’m the only qualitative person in our department, besides Blake (Ashforth) who does both qualitative and quantitative. I mean there are people in my department who publish four or five papers a year, you know, because they’re dealing with surveys, or archival data, and they’re data collectors, a lot. So anyway, there’s a lot of pressure to publish in top journals, and so immediately anything that I do is going to be either AMJ (Academy of Management Journal), ASQ (Administrative Science Quarterly), Organization Science, or conceptually AMR (Academy of Management Review). It could be SMJ (Strategic Management Journal) if I’m working with someone who is in strategy. I would really like someday to have a JAP (Journal of Applied Psychology). I don’t know how that’s going to happen, but I’d like to work with someone on that. But anyway, it’s those four: AMR, AMJ, ASQ, and Org Science. So globally, everything that I do I would love to have published in one of those four. And then, you know, there are other possibilities that come up. Like I have an ROB (Research in Organizational Behaviour). A big hairy paper that is kind of a hybrid. It’s got some empirical stuff. I’m working on an Annals (Academy of Management Annals) piece right now, but that’s very targeted, you know?

Aren’t they by invitation only anyways?

That’s what I mean. So you have these other opportunities that pop up, but in terms of, “Oh wait, I have an idea.” Okay, can I write an AMR paper? No, probably not. I need to do something empirical. Okay. I’m going to do this project, and at the end of that project I’m hoping it’s going to be good enough for ASQ, AMJ, or Org Science. And if it’s not good enough for the first one, then I’ll revise it and try the next one. If it’s not good enough for that, I’ll try the next one. And then from there, you’ll go, “What other outlets can I put this in? Because at this point it’s not going to help my career to have anything less than an A.” The calculation might change a little bit if it’s a doctoral student, right? So sometimes simply getting a doctoral student a publication that they’re first author on, even if it’s in a lower-tier journal, is what’s important. We don’t need to put in the effort to turn this into an AMJ. We can put in the effort to have this be a lower-tier journal, and that’s what they need right now, so that changes the calculation a little bit. I don’t know. But specifically, I mean there are some papers that just feel more ASQ-ish than others.

Ok, last two questions. I think most people think of you as an identity guy. Is that a good thing? Is it good to have – you know, Martha Feldman, routines, or Kevin Corley, identity?

Well they tell you to do that. I was told when you go out in the job market, you have to be able to sell yourself as something because as much as you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself, schools will want to pigeonhole you. They tell you that it helps when you go out for tenure to be able to frame your research in a way that makes sense, right? Or using my terminology, that you have a consistent narrative that allows whoever’s looking at your body of work to say, “Oh, okay. I see – not only do I see why they’ve done this, but I see where they’re going. They have some potential.” So they tell you that. And it has been useful. I spent a lot of time, both going out on the market twice now and going up for tenure once luckily, that it does help to develop that narrative, that theme so that someone can say, “Oh yeah, Kevin’s an identity person.” Believe it or not, I actually thought identity was too small of a narrative to build a career around, and so in terms of going out in the market and in terms of going up for tenure, I’ve sold myself as a change person. I study change. And one of the key things about understanding change is identity, right? Change was a broad enough concept that made it easy for me to take some disparate papers that had nothing to do with identity and pull them into this coherent story of who I am along with the identity stuff. Now I’ve got this project that’s going to be on moral leadership, I’ve got this thing on respect. It’s going to be very difficult to sell those as change. But I think I’m at the point in my career where that’s not as important.

What tips would you give to people who are starting out in their academic careers, from just a purely writing perspective?

Read a lot. The more you read, the more you get a sense of what good writing is. And also, I’ve found that when I have writer’s block it’s often because I don’t know enough to write yet, and reading helps. So if I’m stuck, the way I usually get unstuck is to go and read something in that area, something someone else has written, something I’m trying to build on, maybe even something completely different and the ideas pop into my head. So I would say that to become a good writer you have to read a lot and be a good reader. But I don’t always follow my own advice.

Do you collect articles to read? Do you receive feeds of journal tables of contents which you follow? How do you decide what to read?

I’m really bad at it. It’s just the time. When you get asked the question, “Do you have tips for others?” half the time they’re, “Don’t do what I do,” tips. And this is underneath that category. I need to be better at this. I need to, you know, when the next ASQ comes out, I need to take time aside and read some of those articles, and I just don’t do a good job with that. I’m much more a just-in-time kind of reader. I’m working on this project, I need to read these articles now.

So you do a search and collect a bunch of papers that you think are relevant for that project, and you keep reading until you’ve gotten over your block?

It’s never an “Ah-ha.” It’s gradual. So you’re reading, and you have an idea. You capture that idea, you read some more, and then you have another idea. I’m beginning to get a sense that this might be connected to that. Okay. Now I need to set the reading aside and get back to my writing because I’ve just figured out something important.

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier

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