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Posts from the ‘The craft of writing’ Category

And what if we “thought differently” about academic writing?

In large measure, academic writing is two-dimensional and, short of the odd figure here and there, composed almost exclusively of text. Add to that the fact that academic writing is highly formalized – think IMRAD – and what you end up with is hardly any room to maneuver when it comes to creatively sharing the results of our research. What you also end up with are texts that, for the most part are – dare I say it? – extremely boring to read. But what if we thought differently about academic writing? More and more academics are reading journal articles on their tablets and Ipads (some even on their phones!). I think it’s been two years now since I’ve actually printed up a journal article to read. Before long, this will probably be the norm across academia. We might deplore this innovation and long for the printed page, but at the same time, can we not see in this trend an opportunity? A way to better communicate our findings to our readers – in ways that are more evocative, memorable, and… transparent? Technology now allows us to do this, but academic journals (and their readers!) have been slow in incorporating what new technologies make possible.

Recently, I wrote an article on academic writing based on the interviews featured on this blog (see here:  How I Write). In the original version of the accepted article, and with the encouragement of Journal of Management Inquiry editor Nelson Phillips, I attached live hyperlinks to each quote featured in the text so that readers could access (if they wished) the original transcript from which a quote had been extracted, bringing a new level of transparency to my work. Readers could judge for themselves whether a quote was taken out of context, or they could come to their own conclusions about how “accurate” they judged my interpretation of these accounts to be. Of course, offering up my analysis and interpretations in this way put me in a vulnerable position, but it also provided a potentially interesting forum for reflection, debate and deeper thinking about a subject. Think of all the discussion and debate that has taken place in the wake of Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” partly fueled by his rendering the data upon which he based his analysis and arguments openly accessible (see here Piketty – DATA1 and Piketty – DATA2). Such debate is exactly what science is all about, and we need to seek and support ways in which to encourage it. I recognize that for confidentiality purposes, such a high degree of technology-enabled transparency is not always practical nor desirable – but these concerns notwithstanding, can we not make at least some room within our publication outlets for more novel ways of presenting our data?

In looking for ideas in this regard, we can turn (once again!) to what the innovators in new media communication have been experimenting with. In this, I refer to authors and publishers of long-form journalism. Our readers will recall that it was interviews with renowned long-form journalists that sparked the idea for this blog (see here: Project Scrib – About and here: The New New Journalism). And here again, we turn to them for inspiration. What might our work look like if we could let readers not only read about, but also get a feel for – thanks to visuals and sound – the empirical settings we study? What if we could truly “show” and not just “tell” readers about our data?

If you wish to get a sense of what is possible, check this story out: Tunnel Creek. And if you wish to experiment with this form of writing, there are tools available to do so:
Atavist.

Sadly, despite our efforts (mine and Nelson’s), my article was published without the hyperlinks, which I think is unfortunate. Perhaps next time!

Many thanks to Katharina Dittrich, a friend and colleague who is based at the University of Zurich for pointing me in the direction of several of these links.

Writing Groups: Harnessing the Power of Groups to Improve Your Writing

Last August at the Academy of Management annual conference, I was invited to talk about writing at a PDW (professional development workshop) entitled: “Empowering Words: Achieving High Quality Writing in Management and Organizational Studies” which was organized by Otilia Obodaru and Erik Dane, both at Rice University. After the presentations, the organizers asked that participants break out into small groups and each panelist was invited to join a group and answer any questions that participants had about writing. All of the other invited panelists were current or former editors of top journals, and so were in an ideal position to answer questions about the publishing process, which, given the turn our field has taken of late, is what people are usually most interested in. I’m sure the people at the table I was assigned were a bit disappointed to not “get” Kevin Corley or Tim Pollock at their table. All they got was the blog lady. This of course put me in a bit of a bind. What could I possibly talk about?

I decided to ask whether anyone had experience with writing groups. To my surprise, no one had. So we talked about that. Our conversation was an animated one, so I like to think (maintain the illusion?) that it compensated participants for not being able to ask Belle Ragins what it takes to get published in AMR (Academy of Management Review, where he is currently editor).

So what is a writing group? A writing group is a group of authors with similar interests who get together on a regular basis to discuss their writing projects. Meetings can be done on a weekly, monthly or ad hoc basis; they can be more or less formal; they can take place face to face (in an office, cafeteria or coffee shop) or virtually over Skype, but the key is to have a group of people with whom to share your writing: a group of people who will carefully read what you write and who will give you honest feedback on how good/bad they think it is.

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Helen Sword on stylish academic writing

Helen Sword is the author of a book on academic writing, Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard Press, 2012), and she recently gave a talk on this topic. She starts from an observation that many of us share: academic writing is rarely stylish – and by stylish, she not only means elegant, but also engaging and effective. In fact, she describes writing – especially research journal writing – as “wooden and dry” (at best) or “spongy and soggy”. In her talk, based on research she has conducted, she describes what stylish writers do.

If her conclusions may come as no surprise to anyone who has read on writing, it’s always good to be reminded of them. For example, stylish academic writers are deeply concerned with communicating complex ideas in a clear way, they find pleasure in crafting their text, and they display creativity in their work. It’s also interesting to hear her on the reasons why so much of academic writing is bad (let’s not be afraid of the word!). Helen Sword suggests that many academics feel that they need to impress other academics with their writing… and that they are ruled by conventions and fear. Instead, she invites us to strive for elegant and personal writing that serves to illuminate our topics of inquiry and to push the boundaries of knowledge. So here’s her talk:

Information on her book can be found here: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674064485

Publishing Qualitative Research Video

In June 2012 a small group of us hosted a workshop on how to publish qualitative research in top journals. We invited a roster of editors from top journals in our field, and invited them to come to HEC and demystify the publishing process for the rest of us. The workshop was broken down into two parts – in the first part, both author and editor discuss their respective experiences in getting a paper through the review process at AMJ (The Academy of Management Journal). In the second part, our roster of editors comment on two burning questions about publishing qualitative research (well, they seemed “burning” to us, given that we thought them up!):

  • What is the literature review suppose to do in a qualitative paper?
  • When and why does an R&R not make it?

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