Becoming a more productive academic writer.

With the summer upon us (and England out of the World Cup) many academics will be planning to get some writing done. However, even with fewer teaching responsibilities, many researchers and lecturers can still find it difficult to get much writing done. So what’s stopping them?

A review of the literature on academics’ reasons for not writing (by McGrail et. al. 2006) suggested a range of possible reasons:

“The greatest force holding academics back from writing is momentum (Boice & Jones, 1984). If they are currently in a writing lull, it is more difficult to begin writing again. Some academics have indicated that they need a formal support structure to keep the writing momentum going (Hale & Pruitt, 1989) or that they have difficulty keeping writing central to their role (Gainen, 1993). A common reason given for nonwriting is a lack of available time (Page-Adams have shown that highly productive writers do not have any more time or fewer commitments than their colleagues who do not write (Boice & Jones, 1984). One study found that what stops people from writing is a lack of framework or formal structure to continue their writing (Morss & Murray, 2001). Many writers, especially academics early in their writing careers, lack confidence in their ability, so they find professional support and encouragement to be helpful (Berger, 1990; Baldwin & Chandler, 2002). One study identified that writing generated fear and anxiety for a significant number of academics (Lee & Boud, 2003). Some writers have a limited understanding of the writing and publication processes, as well as emotional barriers like a fear of rejection, fear of competition and an uncertainty of what ideas are worthy of publication (Dies, 1993). Even simpler is that some participants have had good ideas, but felt that their writing ability was not good enough (Hale & Pruitt, 1989; Grant & Knowles, 2000).et al., 1995). “

In fact, the plethora of problems outlined above could be categorised into three main types of barrier:

  1. Finding the time/space to write
  2. Generating ideas or text to work with
  3. Overcoming emotional barriers (like fear of failure)

And the literature on increasing the productivity (in terms of writing and, subsequently, publishing) of researchers, tends to address these three main issues. Part of the solution to getting more writing done is identifying which of these types of barriers affects you (the most), and trying some of the suggested solutions. A good place to start looking for some top tips is a recent ‘Career Advice’ article on Inside Higher Ed, which you can find at: http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/summer/summer4

The ‘Academic Writing Toolkit’ produced by Helen Fallon is also a potentially useful (although fairly introductory) place to start. You can view or download the pdf at: http://www.sconul.ac.uk/publications/newsletter/45/20.pdf

There are also a few research articles (primarily intended for people supporting academic writers rather than academics themselves) which may be helpful in suggesting strategies for increasing your written output.

Rowenna Murray et. al.’s 2008 paper in the Journal of Further and Higher Education on writing consultations outlines a process that a couple of academics could undertake themselves, without the intervention of an academic developer. You can access it through JRUL’s electronic resources.

Robert Boice’s much earlier (1987) piece in Higher Education Research and Development, ‘A program for facilitating scholarly writing’, is an early attempt to identify the problems that academic writers face, and to suggest some potential strategies for those who support them. However, his insights and suggestions are also useful for reflecting on one’s own approach to writing. Again, you can access the article via the JRUL website.

In addition to all of this reading, we’ll be running several workshops next academic year which are intended to help Research Staff to be more productive writers and publishers. Although dates are not yet fixed, we plan to run sessions on understanding and responding to peer review, authorship in academia, improving your publications record and increasing the impact of your publications. We’ll also be running a writing group for Research Staff, where you’ll have the opportunity to read other researchers’ writing, practice peer review and get feedback on your own articles. Look out for further details later in the summer.

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