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Posts from the ‘The craft of writing’ Category

Five Years Already!

Five years already!  ProjectScrib was created in 2012, and I started posting interviews with academics on “How I Write” in January 2013.  Earlier this week I posted our 25th interview (an interview with Hari Tsoukas).  When we started this blog, we were still new to academia, pre-tenure, not entirely sure about what we were doing, prepping courses and teaching, writing and submitting papers to journals, sometimes successfully, often not.  So much stress!  So much emotion!  I look back and wonder, “Where did all that energy came from?” I did get tenure in the end – yeay!  That was two years ago.  It was such an enormous relief.  At the time I thought, “This is what ultra-marathoners must feel like when they cross the finish line.”

In retrospect, there is no question that the stories posted here were a big part of what kept me going throughout the tenure process. Anytime I hit a rough patch, it was always a relief and deeply encouraging to hear that even seasoned academics, who have been doing this work 15, 20, 25 years, still struggle, still get angry or frustrated with reviewers and still get their papers rejected.  And yet, they persevere.  It gave me the confidence to believe in myself – in this field, it is too easy to question your abilities, your ideas, even your career choice when things are not going as well as you’d like.  When you get rejected on a third round review. When your teachings evaluations tank.  To know that others have gone through the same thing, to recognize that it isn’t “me”, but the system, or the “game” as some like to call it.  Because it is a kind of game: the game of science.  When I’m frustrated, I call it “the criticism game” and when I’m feeling somewhat more generous, I call it “the convincing game” (because ultimately, this is what we do – we seek to convince a group of very smart and very skeptical others about something we think, or have found).  There are rules, some of which are explicit, others less so.  There is skill involved, which you need to learn and hone.  There is craft, and creativity.  And there’s also, let us not forget, nor underestimate it… luck.  Because luck plays out in this process as well.  Sometimes, having a great idea, sound methods, great data, a cool story, an intriguing insight doesn’t cut it.  It could be that you’re ahead of the curve, or your timing is off (the journal just published three articles on this topic the month before), or you land on three reviewers who don’t like your topic, or your approach, or they are just in a crappy mood because they got rejected the day before and are not feeling particularly generous right now, thank you very much.  Sh@!# happens.  And because of this, you have to persevere, persevere, persevere.  Or as Hari said it:  never give up.  It will come together in the end.  But remember also – as a great many of the authors featured here have mentioned – to have the courage and the stamina to do this, you have to LOVE your topic.  And I mean really love it.  Because you will never find the energy to persevere when the going gets tough if you don’t.

What else have I learned?  In addition to inspiration, these interviews also provided me with a wellspring of ideas on how I could be more productive about writing.  Whenever I’d get stuck, often without even realizing it, I’d think, “This is what Steve does” or “This is what Martha would do” or “This is how Paula deals with that”. Ideas, tricks, and strategies that I might have never come up with on my own – all kinds of ways of getting yourself out of a rut.  Learning all of this by trial and error would have taken forever.  I won’t elaborate on these here, as I’ve already done so in an article I wrote which was published in the Journal of Management Inquiry in 2016.  So do check it out if you want to find out more!  (full reference is below).

A few people have asked me how I’ve gone about pulling these interviews together – how and why I chose the people featured here, how different the edited versions are from the verbatims, and so on.  As I’ve already indicated in our “about” section (see About here), there is little (if any!) science to my sampling method.  It is wholly, and entirely opportunistic.  I’ve interviewed people who have visited at HEC Montreal, people I’ve met, people I’ve been introduced to, people who are friends and even co-authors.  I’ve interviewed people early in their careers (relatively speaking) and people on the cusp of retirement.  I’ve interviewed qualitative and quantitative scholars (although with a noted and rather clear bias towards the former!).  I’ve interviewed both men and women (although as of today, this has not turned out to be as balanced as I would like – 9 women and 16 men).

In terms of editing, here too the process is also somewhat improvised.  As a starting point, all the interviews are recorded and transcribed – what you are reading on the blog is an edited version of the verbatim transcript.  As these can easily run to 30 pages or more, they obviously need to be pared back.  I usually aim for 8-12 pages for the final, edited transcript.  How do I edit?  It’s a good question, and I don’t have a straightforward answer.  I suppose it is a bit like giving someone a haircut.  You get a sense of the final, overall style you are looking for and you start to trim.  A bit here, and bit there, and a little bit more over there.  I’ll will reword certain passages, cut and paste bits and pieces and bring them together to keep things fluid (informal conversations do tend to jump around a lot), but in doing this I always try my best to stay “true” to the spirit of what people are saying. I also try to tease out what I think are novel insights, so that each interview comes across as somewhat different and unique from the others already posted online.  It takes several hours to edit an interview – and I’ll usually re-read and revise the transcript a few times before I send it back to my interviewees.  This partly explains why I don’t post them all that often!  All interviewees receive a copy of their verbatim transcript alongside the edited version, and are offered the opportunity to edit it as they see fit.  I’ve been lucky in that all the people who have participated in this initiative to date have seemed quite happy with the end result, and any editing they have suggested has been minor – a clarification here, a typo there.  They do not get to read their introduction ahead of time, this is always a surprise!  They read it at the same time as everyone else, after the interview has been posted online.

And that’s about it!  Will I be doing more interviews in future?  A few more, I expect.  But at 25 and counting, I think I am getting quite close to saturation.  Some have asked for more interviews with quantitative scholars, and have suggested I do an analysis to see if and how qualitative and quantitative scholars might differ in the way they write.  Others have suggested I focus on different angles – interviewing co-authors independently on a well-known article, interviewing an emerging scholar about their first publication, interviewing editors specifically on their editorial experience.  A topic I’ve become quite interested in of late is in the visual representation of qualitative data.  So there is certainly any number of ways forward.  I have yet to make up my mind on which path to take.  In the meantime, please enjoy the material that is already on the site.  Twenty-five individuals took the time out of their very busy schedules to offer their stories and insights – hard earned! – so that others may avoid common pitfalls and learn a bit quicker, in what is becoming quite a competitive field. I cannot thank them enough for their time.  If you’d like to offer ideas, suggestions or comments – please email me: .

I wish all of you who follow this blog the best of luck as you take your own personal projects and journeys forward!


Cloutier, Charlotte. 2016. How I Write: An Inquiry Into the Writing Practices of Academics. Journal of Management Inquiry, 25(1): 69-84.

From our friends at PhD Comics:

PhD Comics - Writing Godgif

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:

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:

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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