We are writing all the time: An interview with Jennifer Howard-Grenville
Interview with Jennifer Howard-Grenville
Associate professor of Management
University of Oregon
I had the good fortune of meeting Jen at an Oikos conference in 2011. The conference took place in that lovely part of Switzerland known as Appenzell. Included in the program were half-day hikes in the mountains (amazing!) and it was on one of those hikes that Jen and I started talking. We discovered then that we had a lot in common and we’ve been talking and bumping into each other pretty regularly ever since. I view this as a real privilege.
On my post about the genesis of this blog, and in particular on this series of interviews on how academics write, I mentioned that one of my goals was to obtain interviews from writers at different stages of your typical academic career. So my idea was that over time, our roster of interviews would include early career researchers, mid-career researchers and researchers with 30+ years of writing under their belts. Jen fits that middle category, where several years of hard, slogging work have begun to reap big dividends, and you’ve (finally! some might add) got the wind blowing in your sails. The work doesn’t get any easier, as several of the people interviewed on this blog have mentioned. But at least now you know what you’re doing, and you know how to keep things in perspective. Jen is at that stage where those early years are not so far behind her that she’s forgotten what it’s like, but she’s also gained a lot of experience such that she now has a clear sense of what it takes to succeed in this highly competitive environment that academic publishing has become – experience that she is articulate about, and very happy to share with others. This is a thoughtful, clear, and very insightful interview. I hope you learn as much from it as I did.
Where do your ideas for papers come from?
My ideas always come from the data. I’ve actually thought about that at times. I was looking at somebody’s CV the other day and I noticed they had AMR, AMR, AMR and I thought, “No kidding!” because I’ve never been able to just write theory without data. I look at other people’s publishing histories and it’s very clear that they are all about routines, or they’re all about identity. Maybe once in a while they’ll stray outside of it, but by and large, they’re in a specific domain and I’m not. I’m someone who sees a context or a phenomenon that is happening in the world and thinks, “This could be a really cool research project” and goes with it.
When you go into a new field, do you have any ideas about what you’re looking for or are you one of those people who kind of dives in and figures that it’ll all come together at some point?
It’s a bit of both. But you know, when people say in their papers that they’re using grounded theory and they entered a setting with no preconceived ideas whatsoever, I think, “You’ve got to be kidding!” That doesn’t really happen, or at least it’s never happened in my experience. What I do is look at the world and go, “Wow! That’s interesting or puzzling” and I wonder, “Why is that?” So when I go into a setting, I’m already thinking in semi-theoretical terms.
I’ll give you an example from this piece we recently published on community-level identity resurrection. Within a year of moving to Eugene (Oregon), every day I walked to campus from my house, and partway on that route is Hayward Field, a track and field venue which has basically been on that site since the early 1900s. Several years earlier, it had been announced that the US track and field Olympic trials were “coming back to Eugene” for the first time since 1980. Because of that there was a ton of activity around the field. They were updating the track, putting in this fancy new scoreboard that had a big Nike swoosh on it and so on. Around the same time, my colleague Alan Meyer had been talking with doctoral students about a special issue he’d recently done on field configuring events. He’d been walking past Hayward Field on his way to work too, and we both started asking, “Well could this be a field configuring event about to unfold in front of us? Maybe we should study it.” Eugene used to be known as “Track Town USA” in the 70s, but that identity had since become essentially dormant. So we thought, “What’s happening here? Is it going to be the same or different from what happened here in the heyday?” Because of that, there was this real sense of, “Maybe this is a resurrection.” So from the get go we had this notion of resurrection bouncing around in our heads. So we thought, “Let’s start watching this now, before the event takes place.” So that’s an example of where inspiration can come from.
What about your routines paper, was that a similar process?
In that case, it was my dissertation, and it was probably more premeditated than the above example. At the time, I was very interested in environmental issues, and culture, and understanding how organizations actually worked as opposed to how they told us they worked. So I knew I was looking for a place where I could study how organizations made sense of new environmental issues or demands. In that case it wasn’t about walking past somewhere, but about knowing people. So someone I knew worked for this company, and this person worked for someone who was personally very interested in these issues, and because of that I was able to get access as an intern there for nine months. This happened to be an organization that had a very defined culture and they were recently grappling with these questions and so my question as a doctoral student became “How do companies make sense of environmental issues within their cultures? And what are the consequences of them doing so?
Let’s talk a little but about your actual writing. What kind of a writer are you?
Well, for starters, I can’t write just anywhere. I have to write at my office with my door closed or at my house. So I either write in my home office or I write in my office at work. And I need a block of time. I used to think I needed a block of time that was very long and that extended over multiple days, but as life goes on you realize those things just become less and less frequent. So now I feel like if I have two to three hours, I can write. I mean you hear these stories about people who say they can take 45 minutes and write but I need some time to get my head space into it. Because of that I need to write earlier in the day, not later. I’ve written stuff at any hour and in any place, because sometimes you just have to, but my preference is to get up at five am and write for however many hours I can manage. If you’re a morning person, it’s great. You know you can get on with your day and you have this incredible feeling of accomplishment. I’ve met people who can disappear to their hotel room in the middle of a conference and spend an hour on their AMJ revision, and I admire them because I can’t do that. This is also why deadlines are crucial for me. I’m always working to deadlines. Deadlines trigger this last, final burst of writing energy – I joke with people that all papers are really written in about two weeks. I mean, not two weeks of cycle time, but two weeks of intense effort. You’ve spent months and probably years collecting the data, thinking about it, reading other people’s work, being exposed to other ideas, presenting versions at conferences, getting feedback, seeing what’s interesting, piecing things together, but you really manage to pull it all together in those two weeks.
We think about our writing time as this discreet thing, like, “I’m going to close my door and I’m going to do writing with a capital W”. But in reality, we are writing in our heads all the time. That’s actually the key. And I don’t think, certainly not as a doctoral student, or as a junior faculty member and maybe not even now, that I’ve recognized or appreciated that enough. As people get more experienced, they probably appear to be faster and better at writing but it’s only because they’ve had a longer time to assimilate and play with ideas and make connections. So when I’m working on a paper, I know my brain is working on it way, way more than when I’m sitting down with a sheet of paper as it were.
Any quirky rituals, any habits?
I drink a lot of tea and coffee and I go back and forth between the two. At some point over the last year I’ve noticed that I have to have a really good and strong British black tea, with milk. I just have to have that. I can do an early morning session and I’ll have my coffee, but then when the house is empty and I’m at my office and everyone has had breakfast and gone off on their merry way, I can’t do anything next until I have a cup of tea. Sometimes I’ll get caught in stuff and I’ll realize that I haven’t done that and then it just doesn’t feel like the morning has started. And I don’t think of it as highly ritualistic, but now that you mention it, I think the act of getting up and going to make a cup of tea is a kind of ritual. It’s like a timed 5-minute break. If you actually read tea packages, you’ll see that they say three to five minutes brew time. I used to think this was insane, but now this is probably the only area in my life that I’m really quantitative about. I actually set my phone on a five-minute timer, depending on the tea. And while I’m doing that, I’m still processing.
The other thing is when I have the entire day to write, which is increasingly rare, I also feel like I have to exercise in the middle of the day because otherwise I just go insane. It’s hard though, because you want to go out, but then you stall, “I’ll go when I’m at the end of the lit review or when I’ve worked out this particular couple of pages.” Then you get too hungry and so you have to have lunch and before you know it, the whole day has gone by. I’ve learned however that if you just force yourself to get out the door, it can be quite productive. There have been so many times where I’ve been running and suddenly I realize, “Well, it’s a really good thing I didn’t write those two pages, because they were wrong.” And it’s not like I try to think when I run. But there is something about running that makes things click. I remember one time we were going back and forth on this paper and it was pretty intense. But then, while I was running, everything kind of slotted itself into place in the model. It had sort of come together by itself in the background while I was doing this other activity. So I really do think that there is something to be said about pulling yourself away and doing something physical to generate new ideas.
Do you do outlines?
I do because I feel like I should, and I feel virtuous. It’s like flossing. But unlike flossing, where I always get that affirmation from my dentist of how fabulous my teeth are, with outlining I feel like I never get that kind of affirmation. So I go through with it because I believe it’s the right thing to do, but once I’ve done it, I tend to largely stray away from it. I think other people are much better outliners and followers of outlines than I am.
Do you write linearly, or do you write in pieces and kind of pull everything together afterwards?
It depends. If I’m working with co-authors and one of us is really on top of the literature and the other one is really on top of the data, we might try to parcel it out that way. Other times I’ll say, “Let’s just write the findings and then we’ll figure out later what else we want to say.” My sense is that I do tend to write linearly, but in reality, it never really comes together that way. So for example, hard as it is, I do try to at least pull a fairly decent introduction together before doing anything else because it gives me a kind of anchor – three or four pages that say, “This is the question we’re asking, these are the data that we gathered and analyzed, here’s what we found and here’s why it matters.” And I do that even though I know that 90% of it will change over the course of writing it. But at least when I do that, I have something to start with.
Next, for better or for worse, I’ll usually start writing the lit review. I also do a ton of rewriting. Sometimes I think of how many lit reviews I’ve written over the years… tons! For certain papers, it’s like you have a lit review one day and then two days later, you have an entirely different one. This can be so frustrating! Once, I was working on this paper with one of my doctoral students and you could just see it in her face. We’d have these conversations, and she’d be getting increasingly concerned that the entire paper was shifting over the course of our 45-minute chat. She was like, “But we’re redrawing the model again!” And I would say to her, “It’s okay, it’s normal. This is how it’s done.” Karen Golden-Biddle always had this term, “We’re writing our way to clarity” to describe this. And although it feels like we’re shredding everything apart and throwing it on the floor and starting all over again, it just looks that way. It’s a normal part of the process. You have to be comfortable with that.
How do you know when a paper is ready to be sent out to a journal?
That’s a good question. This isn’t going to sound very savvy, but I think the reality is that for junior faculty it tends to be quite schedule driven. You have a sense of when you need to send in a paper, and for that I try to have deadlines. If these are not firm though, they’ll tend to slip which is why I’ve often done things for special issues. Special issues force you to write. They have firm deadlines, and so you inevitably end up sending off a paper that has intriguing ideas but that is not yet fully baked. Earlier in my career, I was convinced that a paper had to be really good before you sent it in. I’ve realized since that reviewers are always going to find fault with a paper. So now I tend to send a paper off knowing that it’s imperfect but feeling like it’s ready to get a new set of eyes on it. I haven’t thought through this carefully but I think that a) we’re always aware that these papers need to be getting out and b) we spend so much time and energy working on them that at some point we just need to let them go. We actually don’t have the stamina to engage with them anymore and we need someone else to look at them now. Ideally you should send it out for friendly review.
How do you find friendly reviewers?
I tend to send papers opportunistically. I’ll think of someone or I’ll run into someone and I’ll say, “I’d really like your eyes on this.” Recently I’ve had a couple of colleagues who are fantastic at exactly that. They don’t sugar coat it. They put in very detailed comments saying, “You still haven’t told me what your research question is. What the hell is this terminology?” Or “I don’t know what the heck you were saying for the first seven pages.” You look at it again and go, “My goodness.” In my head this argument was so tight and so clear that I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t defining that construct or doing some other thing.
That’s an interesting point you were making just now. You know your paper is not perfect, but you think it’s good enough to attract the attention of the editor and reviewers. So you send it in.
Well, pragmatically I just don’t have the sheer number of hours that I used to have, so I have to work a little faster. This doesn’t mean cutting corners, but it does mean saying, “You know what? We think we have something interesting and we think that the puzzle is there and we think that some sort of an answer is there and yes the discussion is underdeveloped, but it always will be, right?” You hope that the reviewers and the editor will share your opinion. They don’t always, at which point that’s helpful to know too.
So you’ve sent it in and now the decision letter comes back. Are you one of those people who needs to open the letter right away?
Oh yeah. When I see a decision email, it doesn’t matter where I am, I have to read it. And it’s happened, I’m travelling, it’s 3:00am, I can’t sleep and I happen to check my phone by my bedside. If it’s decision letter, I cannot NOT open it. I need to know.
When I first open a decision letter, I’ll always read the editor’s full letter because I want to know what they made of it. Depending on whether I have time or not, I’ll then read the actual reviews. I try to understand them, but I don’t act. I might discuss the reviews with my co-authors, you know, if it’s a revision, fantastic. We might have a high level sense of, “This looks doable; we’re being challenged on x, not surprised about that.” Or, “Surprising they really didn’t like y, we thought they’d pick up on that.” Or, “Isn’t it odd that nobody commented on this aspect of our argument which we thought was fairly good, so does it mean they like it or not?” So we’ll have a little bit of that Monday morning quarterback or whatever they call it.
Then, the following week or so we’ll set up a call where we’ll go through the reviews again. I’ll carefully read and make margin notes on them, I’ll deconstruct them and try to understand what they’re saying. I’ll try to notice things like, “Is there a pattern? At face value, reviewer 2’s suggestion around this doesn’t resemble what reviewer 3 is saying, but actually if I think through it, they’re quite connected, so maybe we can address this concern this way…” Then I’ll have thoughts about which comments are more of the type, “Thanks, but I respectfully disagree.” So I do follow some sort of process. But definitely, when that decision letter email comes in, I have to look at it right way. I can’t wait.
What about a reject, how do you respond to that?
Not with the same excitement, obviously!
We recently had a rejection on a paper that had gone through one round of revision. We’d massively revised it, even collected more data, but it came back rejected, which is one of the more difficult outcomes. Like every set of reviews, there was stuff that the reviewers had picked up on that we had not articulated well and that needed more thinking through, which was helpful. There were also other things that were driving a wedge between us – things we didn’t convey clearly or because the reviewers were coming from a different perspective. As much as I would have liked this paper to have been published, in this particular case, I found the outcome to be freeing. It gave us food for thought about what we needed to get straight in the paper because we think our core ideas are still there and they’re still valid, they’re just hard to express. We got help in thinking through how and how not to address them. We have to start again, but I think we’re starting from a higher place.
I’ve heard stories of people doing two rounds and then getting rejected, sometimes even three rounds. At that point, the paper sometimes takes a life of its own, as it is now being co-constructed with the reviewers. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that your paper had changed so much that you no longer felt that it was your paper anymore?
I don’t think that I’ve have ever been in that situation. I think I should be grateful about that, actually! Have I been rejected after a major revision? Yes. In that case, you reach the conclusion of “Well, that’s a bummer,” but I still feel that this our paper, these are still our ideas. We tried to re-craft it, it didn’t work either for that set of reviewers, or for that journal. I have been in situations where our paper changes so much over the review process that sometimes my co-authors worry that we might be losing the heart of the paper. But I’ve also been in situations where the editor and the reviewers have been so helpful and so much on your side that the paper came out far better than I could have imagined at the beginning. I’m thinking about one paper in particular where we knew what was at the heart of the data but we didn’t really know the literature.
Which paper is that?
This is the “Voice of the Faithful” paper at AMJ (Academy of Management Journal) that Mike Pratt edited. We knew the core thing that we were trying to say empirically. We had originally couched it in institutional theory, but it came out in the end as a paper about identification. It took several rounds and Mike was so patient in terms of helping us, because we made some goofs in various versions where we weren’t quite getting the nuances in the new literatures we were using. I distinctly remember at the end of that process, when he sent us the final revision letter, and he laid it out in a paragraph and a half in his letter and said, “What I think you’re trying to say is…” I remember reading that and thinking, “Yes! That’s exactly what we’ve been trying to say all along!” It was more like a feeling of relief that we’d finally nailed it, in the sense of being able to help another person see what we saw, in a language that was sensible, but that we hadn’t had previously.
So to me, a good review process is one where you either see anew what your data are about, or you go, “You know what? That was the heart of the thing that was so intriguing empirically and that needed explaining and now we finally captured the right language for offering that explanation.” I think if you don’t remain committed to that core or to what attracted you to the data in the first place, it is going to fall flat. It is going to be taken away from you through the review process. You have to believe in the story that you’re trying to tell in the face of people who don’t see it the way you do. If you’re convinced it’s there, you want to keep working on it and bringing it out, yet balancing that with being very pragmatic. There is this pragmatic sense of accommodating and adjusting and abandoning some things that you would initially have attached to the paper, but not abandoning what you think makes it special. Which again can evolve but I found in most cases, with my papers, the thing that I thought made it special or was interesting or intriguing to me from the beginning, is still the thing that is the core puzzle at the end. Probably expressed differently but that’s the point. I’m not saying I don’t believe in this story of life being sucked out of the paper, I’m just saying that I’ve been lucky enough to have review experiences where I think, frustrating and difficult as they are, the core idea is enhanced.
When you write your response letter to reviewers, do you do the table thing where you put all the comments in a table and then plan responses to each one? Or do you go about it differently?
On one or maybe two papers, I’ve had coauthors who’ve done that which I thought, “That’s interesting, that’s helpful, that’s kind of cool.” Inevitably when we do that, we don’t return to it that much though. I mean, I remember talking to someone once years ago who said that once they’d read and digested the reviews, they would then just set them aside and rewrite the paper. They didn’t keep going back to the decision letter through their revision process. I think I’ve evolved to the same process. I do spend a lot of time going through the decision and review letters – I almost code them the first time around. But then I think I internalize and make decisions that capture the essence of what is being asked. So when our response letter is being written, I don’t need to check against a table, “Have I done column one or row two yet?” I’m not saying it’s perfect and it does evolve, but I think we’ve internalized what the reviewers are asking for. I can guarantee you that when we go back to the letter, for probably 80 or 85% of it we’ll go, “Yup, did that, did that, okay that’s how we addressed that.” There are also times when we’ll write, “This is what we did to address x” in the response letter. But then, because we’ve just articulated as cleanly as we could what our point is in the letter, we figure, “Why don’t we just lift that out of the letter and use it to replace this garbled paragraph in the paper?” And finally, there might also be things where we think, “Do we really want to do that? Does it make sense to do that?” And we’ll provide some kind of explanation in the response letter for why we chose not to do something.
Why don’t we talk a little bit about how becoming an editor has changed your outlook of the review process? Are you going to respond differently to reviewers now? Are you going to write differently?
I don’t think I would write my papers differently now, but I certainly have more respect for how the review process works. I don’t think it changes my approach to writing because I still believe that the fundamentals are the same: you have to have something interesting to say and you have to land in the right literature and you have to tell it quite well, and you have to convince four other people that there is something there. On the other hand, I’ve gained a more nuanced understanding of the challenges associated with editing, in the sense that often as an editor I will look through a new paper I’ve been assigned to review and I’ll get all excited because I think, “Such and such person would be fantastic as a reviewer!” because the paper is citing their work and it’s trying to build on it. Of course, we always write with the sense that, “Oh! perhaps this person will review it. I need to make sure I’ve covered what they’ve done, I’ve showed them what they haven’t done and what puzzle this still raises.” So I’ll scratch names down as I go, just the names of people that come into my head as potential reviewers. It’s very helpful if the authors write a short cover letter that identifies potential reviewers. I’ll take those into account but then inevitably, when you take a closer look at what you think is this fairly long list of names you think, “Oh no! So and so is a senior editor at Organization Science right now.” You then go into the system and you type in a name and realize, “So and so would be fantastic but she’s tied up with a paper already.” So what often happens is that you just can’t pull together the seemingly obvious star review team you imagined for the paper. I’m not saying you can’t pull together a really good review team, but rather that you have to look a little bit more creatively around to do so.
Related to this is that I also feel that I can’t just go back to the same people all the time and I can’t just rely on the small handful of people who are dominant in a particular literature because by definition, they are not available all the time. There are lots of other people who could review well. So to me, part of the challenge of being an editor involves expanding out while at the same recognizing and taking into account that reviewers have different levels of experience. So how can I get the right set of people to review a particular paper? This means that somebody they’ve cited and who is clearly central to this literature, along with someone else who really knows this method but might not know this particular literature that well, and then maybe someone who’s relatively junior who you have a hunch is well versed in the literature but they don’t have a long string of publications yet, will become your review team. I’m not saying that’s how I always assemble a review team, but pragmatically, I’m realizing that there’s just a ton of stuff to balance when you’re trying to find reviewers and as a result, as an author, you really should have an approach to your paper that is very humble and that says, “Even though I would love for Steve Barley to review this, the reality is that it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to be him doing it, but rather it might be somebody who knows that work very well.” This means that you have to write your paper in the way that someone who is versed in that literature but not necessarily an expert on every aspect of what you do, can read it. This is really important. You just need to write your papers as holistically as possible, knowing that there will be an appropriate review team assembled, but probably not one with all three of your star reviewers on it.
What sort of writing advice would you give to people who are still either PhD students or early career researchers?
I think PhD students have a challenge in that they don’t have papers, they have a dissertation. Even if they think they have papers, because they did a three paper dissertation or something, they still don’t have papers because it’s a holistic and longer body of work that was designed to do something else. The first thing you have to realize is that the first draft of your paper should neither resemble your dissertation too closely, nor resemble a published paper that’s out. I’m an advocate of looking at published papers that you admire and deconstructing them, in the sense of not just, “I like what they’re saying theoretically” but “I like how I felt when I read that paper, I understand what these authors did, what their point is, and how they presented it for me.”
I also think that young scholars should go and look carefully at award winning papers. There is a whole list of the award winning AMJ (Academy of Management Journal) papers on the AMJ website. ASQ (Administrative Science Quarterly) as well. By doing that you will see that there is a whole variety of ways you can be successful. It’s a matter of figuring out which of those ways you feel are helpful and enable you to use the data that you have in a convincing way and tell the story that you have to tell. I’m not sure that’s very precise advice, but I think the essence of it is: find some things that you can deconstruct. Even the introductions of papers: just read the introduction and ask yourself, “What did the author do in paragraph one? What did the author do in paragraph two? What did the author do in paragraph three?” You will see some interesting things. They introduce the theory in one of those paragraphs. They introduce the empirical setting in one of those other paragraphs. They introduce the core puzzle that makes you go, “Aha!” And then think through how that will work for you. Those are things that as a doctoral student and for many years after I didn’t really know. I knew which papers I liked, but I never had thought systematically about how authors structure an argument. Some people, including very experienced scholars, are extremely explicit about this, “Here is what I do in paragraph one, here is what I do in paragraph two.” Not in the sense that you read their papers and think, “Oh! It’s the same formula,” but in the sense that you are drawn in and you understand exactly where they are going with it. Doing that sort of deconstruction will help you really understand what it takes to publish in these journals, while also maintaining your voice and your message.
Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier
Howard-Grenville, J. (2005); The persistence of flexible organizational routines: The role of agency and organizational context; Organization Science; 16 (6); 618-636.
Gutierrez, B., Howard-Grenville, J. and Scully, M. (2010); The faithful rise up: Split identification and an unlikely change effort; Academy of Management Journal; 53 (4); 673-699.
Howard-Grenville, J., Metzger, M. and Meyer, A. (2013); Rekindling the flame: Processes of identity resurrection; Academy of Management Journal; 56 (1); 113-136.