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Shop your ideas early: An interview with Roy Suddaby

Roy Suddaby2

Interview with Roy Suddaby
Professor and Winspear Chair
Peter B. Gustavson School of Business
University of Victoria

I had heard a lot about Roy prior to interviewing him, but had never had the chance to meet him (at least not properly) prior to our interview. I was quite keen to do so though as in 2014, at an Academy PDW (Professional Development Workshop) on writing for the Academy of Management Review (at which Roy was editor for several years) Roy mentioned something rather unusual for an academic: he suggested that academics could improve their writing by taking inspiration from other genres. And the genre that he thought was potentially the most generative was… screenwriting! (And here I was thinking, really?? how far away from academic writing can you get?). He suggested that we all read a classic in this genre, namely Syd Field’s book “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting,” first published in 1979.  Needless to say, I wanted to find out more about what he meant by this, and so was thrilled when I learned that he would be giving a talk at HEC.  Here was my chance! Sadly though (and not entirely surprisingly – any interviewer will tell you that this has happened to them before), we got to talking about so many interesting things, including researcher identity and John Steinbeck as a source of inspiration, that I totally forgot to bring it up! Such it is… perhaps another time!

Let’s start with a really basic question, the same one I ask everyone – where do your ideas for writing papers come from?

That’s a really hard question to answer. I think that the source of a really good paper – and by “good” I mean one that will be well cited – is a phenomenon. If you have a good phenomenon, you’ll have a good narrative. And a good narrative can carry you past a lot of the hurdles that we typically have to deal with as academics, such as a weak methodology, or a weak theory. As long as you have a compelling story, you can deal with those. So based on that, I would say that my ideas come from everyday experience like reading the newspaper or having a conversation with friends and family. In fact, the challenge for me isn’t so much generating ideas, but rather winnowing out the good ideas from the bad.  And I do that by floating a lot of trial balloons.

Meaning?

Unlike many academics who are loath to present weak papers, I present ideas as work- in-progress all the time, because doing that really helps me focus on what aspect of the phenomenon I’m interested in is compelling and convincing to other people. In my PhD training I was told that you don’t want to present a paper that isn’t almost completely polished because it’ll embarrass the hell out of you, but I’ve ignored that advice and it’s been useful to me because some ideas resonate with broader audiences more than others, and we often can’t really know which those are because we tend to get cloistered in our small little worlds. So presenting often, early, and frequently helps.

Ok, so you’ve identified an interesting phenomenon, one that you read about in the paper for example. You’ve tested the waters and everybody is saying, “Oh, that’s a great idea! Love it!”  Then what, what’s the next step?

Then you have to write it down. For some people the writing down part is the obstacle. And that used to be the case with me as well. I used to be a very slow and methodical writer. Writing was like torture for me, but I got over it.  Luckily, my first job was at the University of Iowa, and the University of Iowa is famous for having something called the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (IWW). They had a program there that was started by a group of folks interested in rhetoric, the process of writing persuasive speech. And one of the tricks I picked up there and which I’ve used quite effectively is fast prototyping.  In other words, you write your paper quickly. In academic life, I think we tend to have that ability beaten out of us over time. We become paralyzed because we have all these little voices perched on our shoulder saying, “Oh, you can’t write that because it’s not this, or that or another thing and that often gets in the way of clarity in writing. It’s easier to fast prototype your project, write it out very, very quickly, and go back and fix it later. Fast prototyping helps keep your writing close to the phenomenon that you’re trying to catch.

Not bothering with citations, and stuff like that.

Exactly.  Because when you start writing in that very formal academic style, you end up devoting so much time to building in stuff like citations that your argument starts to take on a certain path dependency, and that’s not good because it will lead you away from the phenomenon toward the theory and what the past masters have written with the end result that you don’t come up with anything new.

And this is before you do any field work?

Absolutely. Just sit down and write out a five-page treatise of exactly what your paper might look like.  It should not take a tremendous amount of effort for you or for me to do something like that. You tuck that little piece of paper away for a few days, sometimes a few months. And then, what’s interesting, is that there is this weird focusing of attention that takes place. Like, you’re shopping for a new car and you think you might want to get a Volkswagen. Then suddenly you’re driving around and all the Volkswagens in the world pop out at you.  It’s the same thing. If you’ve identified a phenomenon that you think is interesting and you’ve framed out a kind of approach for how you might go about researching it, suddenly bits of information start rising to the surface everywhere you look. You can then assimilate those and incorporate them into what you’re doing. You notice people who are doing stuff in the same area and you build on it.  I would say that at any given time, I’ll have a half dozen of those things going on at the same time.

At various stages of development.

Absolutely.

Including some that you never use.

Lots that I never use. And that’s another skill that’s actually hard to learn: when to abandon a project.

Yes, that can be quite difficult. I’ve noticed that people tend to fall into one or the other of two main camps on that.  One is, “never let a paper die”. Every paper has a home and just keep at it because it’s an idea and you should see it through.  Don’t give up, no matter what. The other is, “some things just weren’t meant to be.” Don’t waste your time. Just move on to other things that have better promise.  How do you deal with that? And how do you know when to stop?  Because that can be tricky, especially when you’ve invested a lot of time and effort in a paper, like when you’re on your fourth round review, the paper no longer looks anything like the original version you wrote, and you don’t like it or even believe in it anymore.

That’s a really good question. I think the answer really depends on what phase in your career you’re at. Obviously, if you’re under a lot of tenure pressure, then you have to try and make the best of what you have because you’ve devoted a lot of time to it and you’re clock is ticking. Personally, post-tenure, I would tend to fall in the camp of abandoning projects early or at least try to resist the pressure of having reviewers write my papers for me just because I want to get published. As academics, I think that unfortunately we live in this culture of production where your self-worth is based not on the content of what you have to say, but on how many lines you have on your vita. But it doesn’t have to be that way.  As an academic, I think you can have two kinds of careers. One is where you have a lot of incremental publications and you keep churning stuff out, and the other is where you have a handful of really, really good publications that get highly cited. It’s really a lot less effort to be in the camp where you have a few papers that are highly cited. Yeah, it takes more work to publish those, but then you don’t feel as though you’re on a treadmill of having to produce something every six months.

But then, it’s not like you can predict in advance whether a paper is going to be highly cited or not.

No, you can’t. But you can have a sense of it. My experience both as a writer and as an editor has shown me that it almost always boils down to connecting back to an interesting phenomenon. We have this sort of unfortunate herd instinct in the way that we do research where someone will publish an influential paper on, let’s say, the wine industry and then suddenly 10,000 papers on the wine industry will be produced that nudge that conversation forward incrementally. You really don’t want to be the last person to pile on to that thread. You want to do something interesting, different. Discover a new phenomenon and hopefully advance the theory in a slightly different direction.  And the way to do that is to be very, very close to a practice, an organization, a phenomenon.

Ok. So let’s talk about the actual writing. Do you have any routines?

I do. I try to write something every day. That’s the routine. I don’t always succeed and it’s not always good. Again, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff on the craft of writing and the common denominator is that people who are successful write every day. I take a very blue collar approach to writing. It’s a job and you’ve got to do it and you come in and you do it. It’s not always inspirational, it’s not always fantastic, but you should do a little bit of it every day.

What do you mean by a “little bit”?

If you can squeeze out four pages, that’s a lot. So a little bit is less than that. It’s not always great stuff, but at least it’s something I can work on.

As Paula Jarzabkowski said to me in her interview for this blog:  You can always do something with something.

That’s absolutely true. I often have conversations with people, particularly PhD students, who have these brilliant ideas that they can articulate verbally, but these can’t be real to me unless they’re on paper.  So I encourage them to write them down. And it’s strange how sometimes what sounds like a good idea orally doesn’t always translate into a good idea on paper. Sometimes you have a cacophony of voices in your head, each saying somewhat contradictory things and it’s really only by putting them down on paper that you can distill them into a meaningful argument. And it’s that translation process that I find valuable actually, almost meditative really.

What about outlines.  Are you an outliner?

Yes, I am. I need to have a sense of where I’m going. Now when I say outlines, sometimes the fast prototyping technique that I talked about serves as the outline. In my experience, I have tripped myself up by trying to plot out an idea in point form, right up to the conclusion because sometimes you don’t know where it’s going to end up until you start writing it out. And sometimes the sequence will be a trip-up. So the fast prototyping actually gets all the material on the page at the same time and then it’s easier to reorganize and restructure and see where it’s likely to go after that.

So when you say a fast prototype, you’re actually writing whole parts of an argument.

Yes, but there will probably be big leaps in logic in it.  I’ll have this sense of where I’m going, but I don’t necessarily know yet what the logical connections between point A and F are going to be. You have to be willing to make leaps of faith when you’re doing that, which is good.

But even so, you’ll start chunking things together, putting tentative titles on stuff…

Yes.  I know people who can start writing just from the basis of a good title and then it’s completely stream of consciousness writing that carries itself forward from that. But I’ve never been able to do that.

Other than writing every day, are there any other rituals that you follow?

There probably are some that I’m not aware of. Like for example, I still have the very same Ikea table that I had as an undergraduate that I do most of my writing on.

Like a kind of good luck charm?

It got me through my PhD, it can get me through anything. Or maybe I’m just cheap. I don’t know.

Any particular place where you like to write?

I can’t write on planes. I know that. I can read on planes, I can edit on planes, but I can’t write on planes. I think I’m most comfortable writing at home.

Do you ever get writer’s block?

Periodically, yes. But you just have to work your way through it. Write something else, like a review or emails, and try crafting those in a more intelligent or creative way than you normally would. I think you just have to write through it or switch projects. That’s one of the reasons why it’s useful to have two or three projects on the go at the same time. Mind you, for that to work, the projects have to be at different stages: the fast prototyping versus the editing versus the polishing and the finishing. If you have projects at different stages it’s easier to move from one to another without inadvertently turning them all into the same paper.

So you’ve worked on a paper and you’ve shopped it around and people have given you suggestions as to how you can improve it.  You’ve worked these out and the paper is ready to go. How do you decide or know that it’s time?

That’s the part that I’m probably the worst at because I tend to hang on to papers way, way, way too long.

Even though you’re ready to share ideas pretty early on…

I’m ready to shop ideas early, but when it comes to the actual final product, I’m very slow. Even with co-authors sometimes I hang on to a paper way too long and they have to hound it out of me. I’m not exactly sure why that is. I think that I’m an incessant fiddler at the end, moving this word and that word, which isn’t very productive. Not something people should emulate, that’s for sure.

Let’s talk about the co-writing process. Would you say that you write mostly with co-authors?  How does that work?

Yes, I do often write with others.  And again, I think the more successful pattern for me is when I take the initiative and do the first draft and get that stream of consciousness together. There are some co-authors that I’ve worked with who are particularly good at polishing and grinding and making the connections between the leaps of logic that I’ve somehow set up for them. So those tend to be the most successful projects for me. I’m really bad at coming into someone else’s project and picking it up and trying to work through the issues that paper might have.  I’ve done that on a couple of papers, but much less successfully. In fact, in those cases I think I’m a better contributor if the co-author says, “I need a section here that says roughly this.”  I can write to order. Because otherwise, my tendency when I come in on an existing paper is to want to rewrite the whole thing, and that’s not productive for anybody.

You have written with lots of different people. Other authors tend to always write with the same people. Do you have any thoughts about that?  About what’s easier or more difficult?

Well, I think there is certainly some convenience and comfort in writing with the same people over and over again. You learn each other’s habits and it can make you more productive. I think there’s a tendency for that to exhaust itself over time though and there is the danger that you end up writing the same paper over and over.  I have no interest in that. I’ve always liked, maybe a little bit too much so, to pursue novelty. Maybe it’s because I’ve got ADD. I don’t know. But you can only get to novelty by working with different people.

Let’s talk a little bit about the publication process. So you’ve finally decided to let a paper go and have submitted it somewhere. And now you have that email in your box and you know this is the editor writing you. What next?

I want to know the answer right away. I’m the guy that goes to the end of the mystery novel to find out who done it, so I can’t wait.  But once I know the verdict, I’ll sit back. Whether it’s positive or negative, I’ll take a moment to absorb the decision and only then go through the comments.  Typically and regardless of the outcome, my reaction will be to say that the reviewers got it all wrong. I try to be as dispassionate about it as I can, but that’s impossible. So it’s better that I put it away, at least for a bit.

How long will you set it aside?

A couple of days, not more than that. I think that if you have a revision outcome, then you have to get cracking on it right away. One of my experiences as an editor is that I’ve learned that there is a tendency for folks who get a revision, particularly earlier in their careers, to want to do the absolute best job that they can. So they’ll ask for extensions because they want it to be absolutely perfect. And even though I will invariably grant them an extension, I caution them that the more time they let pass between revisions, the more disengaged the reviewers are likely to become which diminishes their chances of success. So a quick return is almost always better. Assuming quality is consistent, a quick return is better than leaving it too long. So I will get on it right away.

What if the letter is a rejection, what do you do?

Well, that takes a little bit more time and a little bit more reflection to figure out what the next steps are. If it is a resounding reject you should never exclude the possibility that it’s maybe just a bad paper and you should abandon it. Maybe not forever, but at least for a while. And I have done that on occasion. But if it’s a reject where it looks like the reviewers haven’t really engaged with the paper in the way that you thought they would or should, that sends a different message to me. In that case, maybe the outlet you selected wasn’t the best one for that paper and you might want to rethink where else you might send it. This being said, you still have to revise it.  You have to take the reviewers’ opinions into account because the worst thing you can do is say, “Well, they got it wrong, I’m just going to send it off to another journal.” We live in very, very small worlds and chances are that at least one of those reviewers is going to be one of your reviewers again.

Has that ever happened to you?

It’s happened to me to have written a review for a paper that was ultimately rejected. Three months later it pops up in another journal and I get the exact same paper to review. I sent in my same review – I was very transparent about it – and wrote, “I reviewed this paper for this journal on “x” date. You haven’t changed your paper and I haven’t changed my opinion.”

What about R&R’s?  How to you tackle those?

If there are co-authors, the first step is to sit down with them and work through it. Junior scholars often feel this compulsion to do absolutely everything that the reviewers say, even when the advice they give you is contradictory and the editor is not providing any direction as to how to address that. That’s a scenario that will drive you crazy and will allow the reviewers to take over your paper for you. Over time and with more experience I’ve learned that you don’t have to do absolutely everything the reviewers say. Sometimes, it’s okay as an author to say, “Well, I can’t do that, and this is why.”

In the letter of response to reviewers, you mean?

Yes, absolutely. In some respects, crafting that letter is as important as writing the paper itself.  The letter is where you say “no” to the reviewers with some degree of sensitivity. The letter is critically important. At the same time, authors may have gone a bit overboard on those, as letters of response to reviewers have now become almost as long as the papers themselves. You see people becoming very argumentative in their responses to reviewers, sometimes even providing empirical data in the letters themselves. Depending on the context, doing that can be helpful. Other times, especially when providing more data doesn’t address the fundamental issues raised by the reviewers or the editor, it isn’t. Now don’t get me wrong: some letters are very, very well written, very succinct.  But a lot of them are just taking a lot of time and space to respond to things that just can’t be done. Sometimes reviewers ask unreasonable things. It should be easy enough to just say no, I can’t do that, here’s why, in a sentence or two.

Ok, but it’s tough for a writer though, isn’t it? Because you don’t know who you’ve got in front of you: how reasonable they are and how much convincing they’re going to need.  So my guess is that authors are just being overly cautious.  They don’t want to take any chances with that.

You’re absolutely right. And the stakes are so much higher now. The pressures to publish are much, much higher now than they were 10, 20 years ago. So people are investing a lot more time and attention in the process, no question.

Right now the typical response letter that I know of is you take each and every line of what the editor and the three reviewers have written…

And you cut and paste it into a table and put a line by line response in.

Literally. And by the time you’re done, you’ve got 45 pages.

Yes.

But can you afford not to do that?

No, you can’t. It has become institutionalized. I think we could agree to do it in a much more concise way, though. But perhaps this is just wishful thinking on my part.

Mind you, an editor can play a big role in improving this process.

I agree.  Part of the problem is driven by managing editors not taking a directive role. That’s a problem. I’ve seen letters from the editor from some journals that just say, “Here are the reviews.” That is an abdication of responsibility. Editors should say, “I’ve read the reviews. The reviewers are not voting on your paper, they’re making suggestions and sometimes those suggestions are contradictory to each other.” On those points the editor should say, “I want you to do this, this and this and I don’t really care about those other things.”

Ok, let’s move on a bit with a slightly trickier question. How would you say your identity influences the kind of research that you do?

I think it influences it a lot and it should influence it. I think that even from the very beginning, when you start writing your thesis, you have to recognize that this is not an episodic one-off game. You’re in a marathon, not a sprint. You’re not going to be able to sustain a thesis or a career if you’re not engaged in what you’re doing. You have to have that degree of connection and the only way that you can do that is by doing stuff that you identify with in some way. Kenneth Burke, who is a rhetorician, has this idea that persuasion, or the ability to produce persuasive rhetoric, is intimately connected with identification. You have to talk to your audience as if they identify with you. If you don’t have a strong sense of your own identity, you’re not going to be able to impose it on your audience. So yeah, identity is critically important.

How would you describe your own identity?

I have actually thought a little bit about this. Your identity as a scholar shifts over time, there’s no question, but it has to shift in a kind of logical, consequential fashion.

You’re making it sound like a deliberate process.

No, this is retrospective sense making. I don’t think it actually happened deliberately. I like to advise my students to think of their identity in three sorts of concentric circles. One refers to the empirical context that you do. The second refers to the methodology that you identify with most strongly. And the third has to do with the theoretical apparatus that you use. So very early in my career it was pretty clear that I did research on the professions. That was my empirical context. I used institutional theory or institutional change to do that. My methodology was qualitative primarily through interviews. You can’t change two of those circles at the same time without losing your identity and without causing yourself a great degree of grief. If you change your methodology and your theory for example, you’re going to have a lot of catch-up to do. But you can move incrementally on those things over time. So in terms of my movement, I’m still very interested in the professions, but I’ve recently developed a whole stream of research on the role of corporation in society. That has very clearly changed. There is still a professional component to it, but it’s not front and centre. The other two things haven’t changed.  I think it’s very important for a junior scholar to be able to say emphatically, “Well, this is who I am,” and you can actually diagram it that way.

Any other advice for emerging scholars?

One thing I would encourage emerging scholars to do, particularly on the writing front, is to find and try to mimic the writing of someone they admire. Everyone has their own style of writing, but you only come to that by mimicking other writers. Sometimes that mimicking can be overt and illegal. You clearly shouldn’t do that. But you can learn a lot by identifying with an author that resonates with you, reading everything that they’ve written and then trying to write like them without plagiarizing. I’ve certainly done that.

Like in terms of style or tone or structure, stuff like that?

Exactly.

And are you talking about academic authors, or other authors as well?

Both. I think that all of us should have writing mentors. You may never actually talk to them, only learn through them through their work.  But we should all have a mentor in each of the worlds that we follow, and these need not be only academic worlds. For example, I think that there are authors who are titans of fiction who actually do ethnography very well. One of my favourite authors is John Steinbeck. His book The Grapes of Wrath was actually based on a series of interviews that he did with the Okies. When I took my qualitative methods course, they had us read The Sea of Cortez, which is a very scientific description, related in a profoundly literary way, of his experience on a biological expedition off the coast of Mexico. So the line between fiction and ethnography is sometimes blurred in that context. I think that we can learn a lot from that.

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier

REFERENCES:

Burke, Kenneth (1950); A Rhetoric of Motives; University of California Press; Los Angeles, CA.

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