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“Stream of consciousness” writing: An interview with Bob Hinings

Interview with Bob Hinings
Professor, University of Alberta

Here is a delightful interview with someone who is not only supremely charming, he also happens to have quite a few years of very successful writing tucked under his belt. Bob has visited HEC Montreal on a couple of occasions (he was even awarded an honorary doctorate from us!), and on one of those, agreed to be interviewed for this blog.  Unfortunately, I was not in town at the time, so my colleague, friend and fellow blogger Viviane, agreed to do the interview.  It was then my job to edit through the twenty odd pages of verbatim transcript to give you this little gem of insights.  Enjoy.

 My first question is more concerned with what you do before you start writing. So perhaps we can start with ideas.  Where do you get your ideas for the papers you write? 

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Perhaps I should start by saying that I’ve done very little writing on my own.  I’ve done some on my own, but most of my writing has been with at least one other person, and often with two or three or even four people.  One of these persons is Royston Greenwood. He and I have been working together since 1973. I think the second thing is that my answer will differ according to whether I’m writing a piece for something like AMJ (Academy of Management Journal) or ASQ (Administrative Science Quarterly) or whether it’s a book chapter or a book, or something like Research in the Sociology of Organizations.  So it varies a bit according to what it is I’m trying to write.  So there’s that.

Now as regards specific ideas, with collaborators it usually starts off with conversations around an ongoing stream of work.  So my collaborations with Royston and other colleagues, my collaborations with Trish Reay, for example, are all around the topic of institutional theory.  So it starts with, “What do we think are issues in that area?”  And I think that’s very typical for me and a lot of people I work with.  You know, you’re located in a particular theoretical tradition and because you’ve worked around it for so long, there are topics that you want to work through.  And working through them becomes a matter of just sitting down and talking.  Royston and I for example will work with a white board or a black board and we’ll spend time together and have coffees and whatever and we’ll write things down, themes and so on.  Then we’ll decide, “Okay, so who’s going to take this to the next stage of actually putting a draft together?”

Within that process, when do you actually start writing?

The writing starts early, that’s my style very much.  I mean, I can only take conversations so far and then I say, “Look, we’re at a point where we need something on paper.”  Three or four pages, the introduction, let’s write something where we say, “Here’s the issue that we’re looking at, here’s why it’s important and here’s what the paper’s going to look like.”  And then the rest follows.  It’s not necessarily easy, but we’ll try to get at least those three or four pages written down. Having said that, my early or initial writing is what Royston calls “stream of consciousness” writing. After one of our discussions, he’ll say, “Tell you what, why don’t you go and write one of your stream of consciousness pieces.”  He says that because I don’t mind sharing my writing at a very early, unedited stage.  Royston won’t.  He goes through about four drafts before he will show it to anyone, because he wants it to be as close to what he thinks it should be. But me, I’ll dash off five or six pages and show them to anyone and say, “What do you think?” Mind you, it’s not as if that’s easy. I still find it difficult to get those first few pages down.  Sometimes I can sit in front of the computer for a couple of hours and end up with two sentences. The ideas are kind of all there, but it’s getting them onto the page that is a challenge.  But once I’ve got those first couple of pages done, then I can go on, you know?  Those first pages are really crucial, because they’re saying, “Here’s what I’m going to do.”

How do you get over the bump?  Writing those first few pages?

When I’m stuck, I’ll play some free cell on the computer or stick my iPod on and listen to my music, reggae music in particular.  I have a special sports channel on my television, I might go and watch whatever happens to be on.  I might go out for a walk, anything to get away from just sitting and staring.  The other thing I might do, especially if I know what it is I want to say but just can’t get it down on paper, is I might go back to a couple of articles or a book or whatever and reread something that I know in my mind is important.

How do you manage to find time for writing?

Something I always say to my PhD students is that there are two kinds of balances in our lives.  One is academic, the balance between research, teaching and related service.  And then, of course, there’s the work/life balance which we talk about but don’t necessarily do very much about.  But we have to see balance over a longer period than a day or a week. So I will look at my schedule, and there is probably a week in there when I’m probably not going to do any writing whatsoever.  In my early days, I used to feel guilty about that because I had this notion in my mind that almost every day should have x hours of teaching in it, x hours writing and so on, but not anymore.  I don’t think good writing comes from that.  If it’s preparatory reading, that’s okay, you can fit that into an hour somewhere, but if you’re actually sitting down trying to write, you’ve got to have some time.  So when I’m really busy with teaching or administrative stuff, I might do some preparatory reading and getting my ideas sorted out and that’s where collaboration is so useful, because what that means is you can go on talking about it and sketching out, not just the bare bones of the paper, but the detailed bones about it. And then hopefully when you’ve got more time, a couple of days or whatever, you can really get on with it.

So you need more than half a day then, to really get into your writing?

Yeah, I think so, although actually now I mean I basically work half days. But you do need substantial time. Partly because of the amount of time I waste when I’m trying to write. So you know, for every hour I’m going to write, I need two hours when I’ll not write.

What about editing what you write?

I edit as I write, in the sense that when I’ve written something, I tend to go back over it and read it to see whether the sense is there and whether it’s flowing.  One of the things I do to help my writing, and it’s something I do when I’m reviewing as well, is that whenever I write something like, “Here are the three objectives of this paper” or “In this paper I am going to deal with this,” or if I’m reviewing a paper where there are statements like that, I actually copy and paste them to the top of the page where I’m going to write my comments. That way, as I go through the paper, I can keep asking the question, “Did they do that, or did they lose their way somewhere?” And I ask myself the same questions with my own writing.

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

Two, three at the absolute most.  And that’s as much as I would like.  And this goes back to my original training. All the projects I’ve been involved in have been long-term.  I’ve never been involved in a project that was over and done within two years.  I’ve been involved in projects that have had money for three years and, and once we get the money, the first thing on our minds is to get money for the next three years. So I’ve been involved in projects that go on for many, many years. And eventually we don’t continue with them because we’re just fed up. So I’ve always been involved in what I think are research programs instead of projects.

So what kind of projects… or programs rather, do you tend to work on?

If I think about it, and it’s been nearly 40 years, everything I’ve done has been around organisational change and institutional theory. I can’t think of anything that I’ve done in the last 20-30 years which has not been within those two themes and that’s because the people I work with, like Royston Greenwood, and other people as well, like my PhD students, tend to study organisational change and/or institutional theory. So people like Nelson Phillips and Tom Lawrence, for example.

Why don’t we talk a little about your writing habits. Do you have any? Any special place where you write? Any rituals that you follow?

I don’t really have a special place where I write. I mean, I work in my office and 90% of the time that means working at home. At the office, there were always too many distractions. I just couldn’t work there.  So early on I started working at home.  I don’t think I have any special rituals. I mean, when I switch on my computer, the first thing I do is check my emails; but then doesn’t everybody? The second thing I do is check Facebook, to see what my grandchildren are up to. And then the third thing I do is check the BBC Sports page.  Now are these rituals?  I don’t think of them as preparing me for writing as such, it’s just the way I get into my game.

What about writing and analysis? Do you use writing to work out ideas or do you wait until you’ve done most of your data collection and analysis to really get into the writing?

I usually wait until the data analysis is done, but of course it never is. And that actually brings up another point. What I’ve often tried to do in writing, and it is something that I always try to do and have been reasonably successful at it, is to first write a theory piece. And in fact, two or three of the best things I’ve ever been associated with have been pure AMR (Academy of Management Review) type articles. I’m thinking of a piece in 1980 in ASQ (Administrative Science Quarterly) and a piece in 1996 in AMR in particular, just those two. So we try and do that because then it really gives you a focus for the data. With an empirical paper, I work on the assumption that the data analysis has been done but then as I write it, I usually find that I need to ask some more questions about the data. I love data.  Royston’s not so keen. But I love data. Actually, one of the things I often have to watch out for is that I don’t over-analyse it.

So you’ve submitted your paper. Now what? How do you handle the responses you get?

First of all, I find it very difficult to look at an editor’s letter without knowing its content.  So it’ll be several hours before I’m prepared to open the decision letter and look at it. And if it’s a reject, then that’s very difficult to deal with.  You never get used to being rejected.  And I know some people believe that there are some of us who kind of have a key to being able to write a paper for AMJ or whatever and get it published; but it’s not true.

Now if it’s an R&R, then the process is one where co-authors say okay, “What are the reviewers saying, what are we going to do with it?”  And the crucial thing is, “What does the editor say?” Another thing I might add is: don’t make the mistake of trying to answer or deal with every comment, with every reviewer.  If you’ve got 12-14 pages of review from the reviewers, plus a three-page letter from the editor and you wade through every bit, you’ll get lost.  If it’s a revise and resubmit, you have to ask yourself, “What is the editor pointing out at us? What is he or she saying?” If it’s a reject, you’ve got to go back and say, “Do I really believe the paper is worth going forward?”  It’s quite rare to get a reject where all three reviewers are saying, in the kindest possible terms, “This is nonsense,” you know?  So what is it that’s really core to this paper to make you want to take it forward?

How long do you wait before you start working on a paper again?

Well, it needs time to distil. You need time to get over that first emotional reaction of; “These reviewers are jerks.” Or, “Did they really read the paper?!” Then you have to decide what it is you’re going to do because all the reviewers are saying different things and they’re all asking for a new paper out of the original paper. So there is also thinking that has to be done around that. And that’s where the editor’s comments are so important, because the editor should be giving you the real signposts.  So don’t try and do something that is not really being asked for.

Sometimes though, based on letters I’ve seen, the editor just seems to be synthesizing the reviewers’ comments rather than pointing out what needs to be done…

Sure, absolutely.  I’ve even had letters from editors that say I think the comments are self-explanatory.  So yes, sometimes you’ll get a four-line letter from an editor, which is totally unhelpful.

Do you outline? 

I’m more of a start-to-end kind of writer, although usually when Royston Greenwood and I work together, we do sketch out the whole paper.  But essentially I don’t take too much notice of that when I write and I don’t think he does when he writes.  It just gives us an overall framing of what it is we’re trying to do and where we think we’re going to end up. But the writing itself is such an important part of the process of thinking you know, it’s not that you think and then you write.  You think and you start writing, which means you have to start thinking again.

In fact we’re doing a paper at the moment with a visiting professor at Leeds University Business School in England and there are a couple of people involved and they’ve produced a draft of the paper and I went through it and I thought, “Well, it’s alright, but I think we need to reorganise it in this way.”  And I said I’ll take responsibility for that. Well I tried to reorganise the front-end and I thought initially it was just a matter of reorganising what I had written but it turned out that as I reorganised it, I couldn’t follow through in the way I thought. So I had to start thinking about it again, and ask myself, “Ok, so now, what’s the paper really about?”

Also, I tend to think in terms of boxes and arrows.  At some point I’ll do that, a box and arrow diagram, and even if it doesn’t make it into the final paper, it at least helps me organize the front-end of the paper.  So for me, the introduction is critical to help me know where I’m going.

How do you select which publications to submit your papers to?

Well we always, always want to publish in journals that will have maximum impact. That’s the first criteria.  So our strategy is to aim for the top and drop down. Don’t start with the second or third tier journals, although you’ll probably end up there in the end. If you aim at the top journals, you’ll get excellent reviews. You learn a lot from that process in a way that you don’t necessarily learn from going with lower tier journals.

What advice would you give to people just starting out in this field? 

Know what it is that you’re trying to say: “What contribution are you making?”  I mean, I’m always surprised when I’m reviewing a paper, and I get as far as the methods section, and it’s still not clear what the research question is. You know?  So what is it that you think you’re going to contribute?  What’s the hook?  That’s absolutely critical. And then use that to organise your paper.   I mean, one of the most common things I get these days, are reviewer comments like, “This is a really interesting proposition or question or whatever, however I think it needs a lot, lot more work.” Keep in mind that if it’s interesting, people will give you that opportunity.

My first ever major conference experience as a junior faculty member was at the American Sociological Association in San Francisco in 1969. Mine was one of three papers being discussed.  There was a guy there called Charles Perrow. And these are very tough guys and he started his thing by saying, “I always think of papers in terms of “Are they dealing with something interesting and do they do it well?”  We’ve got three papers here. One of them has an uninteresting question and doesn’t do it well. Another one has an uninteresting question but does it well.  And we’ve got one that has a really interesting question but doesn’t do it very well.  And for him, that was the one with the best outcome. So I’d asked an interesting question, but it was badly worked through.  Later he came to me and said, “I think it’s worth taking forward.” So the key is that you’ve got to have something that is really interesting.  Aim for that.

Interviewed by Viviane Sergi and edited by Charlotte Cloutier.

ADDITIONAL REFERENCES

Ranson, Stewart, Bob Hinings and Royston Greenwood (1980); The Structuring of Organizational Structures; Administrative Science Quarterly; 1-17.

Greenwood, Royston and Bob Hinings (1996); Understanding Radical Organizational Change:  Bringing Together the Old and New Institutionalism; Academy of Management Review; 21(4); 1022.

Greenwood, Royston, Roy Suddaby and Bob Hinings (2002); Theorizing Change: The Role of Professional Associations in the Transformation of Institutionalized Fields; Academy of Management Journal; 45 (1); 58.

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