Twelve Week Article Writing: Week 1 Recap

I’m hijacking my own blog for the next eleven weeks, as a way to make myself accountable to my new writing plan.

In the last installment of the blog, I wrote about reading Wendy Belcher’s book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. I was planning on writing an article in the next few months and getting it published.

Here’s what I accomplished during the first week:

As I wrote about in my last post, I tried to make my writing more social this week. I enlisted the help of a writing buddy who also wants to write and publish an article. We’ve talked about article writing nearly daily.

We first discussed our relationship with writing. We discovered that we both feel overwhelmed by negative feelings when we don’t write: guilt, shame, anxiety, and anger. My negative feelings about writing stem from my belief that my writing and ideas are dumb. On the other hand, we also discovered that when we do write, we feel inspired, creative, and productive. I love reaching the point when I feel like good ideas are flying out of my head and through my fingers.

My writing buddy and I agreed that daily writing is the key to successful article writing. We made a writing schedule, blocking out specific times to write. I decided that I want to work on my article for an hour a day. I’m a fan of Belcher’s belief that short writing sessions are better than long writing marathons. I am always surprised by what I can write in even fifteen minutes.

We also talked about our writing obstacles. I found that I have several:

Apart from the negative feelings associated with not writing, I struggle to write when I feel sad. When I feel sad, I don’t care about writing or even about much of anything. Nevertheless, I realize that I’m going to have to write even when I’m too sad to care. I’m going to need to take care of myself emotionally. I’m planning to make my morning meditation practice a priority and write in my journal; both of these activities help me manage my emotional life.

Years of working under pressure have turned me into a professional insomniac. The tiniest bit of stress results in hours of frustration and sleeplessness. Trying to write coherent sentences after a night of serious insomnia feels much like trying to write with a massive hangover: things get written, but they are often incoherent. I like to blame my lack of writing progress on my disrupted sleep. I realized that writing is much more than a mental process; I’m also going to have to take good physical care of myself. I’m making a commitment to exercise daily to manage my stress and sleep better.

I graduated with my PhD in January, but do not have an academic job. I no longer have institutional library access. My public library does have databases that I can use, but I desperately wish I had institutional access to JSTOR. I worry that I will not have access to sources and research that I might need to write my article. I do have people to download the occasional article for me, but I don’t want to abuse their goodwill. In the end, I’m probably going to have to write my article with just the sources that I have. I’m also already fretting about how hard it might be to publish as an, “independent historian.” In the academic world, an institutional affiliation opens many doors.

Belcher’s book also helped me identify one of my biggest writing obstacles. I’m less convinced every day that academia is in my future. I’m not under the same type of “publish or perish” stress that so many of my academic peers are under. I thought about why I want to publish an article. I came up with two reasons. First, I want to publish an article because I still like my research. I still have academic research interests. I think I have something to say about some stuff that might interest other people. Second, I want to publish to show potential editing clients that I’m a successful academic writer. I’m working on revising my dissertation for publication for much the same reason.

Writing Buddy and I also suffer from the “one more book” block. The article I want to write (more below) is within my subject area, but also touches on some ideas and themes I know less about. I want to read all of the books and articles that I think I should read before I even start. I’m scared to just start writing, because I don’t know everything about everything.

Finally, I set a date by which I want to finish my article. October 2. I’ve got it marked on my calendar.

Picking the piece of work that I want to turn into an article proved trickier.

I want to rework a chapter from my MA thesis. I haven’t thought about my MA thesis in years, but I think I could make a good article out of it. In her book, Belcher warns that transforming an MA thesis into an article can be difficult. Writers sometimes find it easier to start over rather than make the serious cuts required to turn a thesis into a real article. Duly warned, I think I’m going to do it anyways. Even six years after finishing my MA, I still like this stuff.

For my MA thesis, I researched and wrote about an international exhibition (a world’s fair!) held in Guatemala in 1897: the Central American Exposition. The writing and research I did for this project sparked my initial interest in world’s fairs studies, which later became a major part of my dissertation. I remember being thrilled at the prospect of writing about this little-known event.

The Central American Exposition hooked me after I stumbled on a document that turned out to be great source. I found a short first-person narrative written by the renowned German geographer Karl Sapper about his visit to the fair. Sapper, curious by nature, took careful notes about the things he saw within the fairgrounds. His narrative led the reader through the exposition and showed readers how a foreign visitor might interpret it. Sapper’s account of his fair visit fascinated me. World’s fair studies reveal the beliefs and ideas of the creators of these mega-events, but often lack the voice of visitors. And I had found just such a voice.

I analyzed Sapper’s narrative to the best of my abilities at the time. I drew some initial conclusions about the way world’s fairs shaped the discipline of anthropology. I wanted to show how Sapper, despite his training as a geographer, actually practiced an early form of cultural anthropology.

I was, however, wrong about an awful lot of things in my MA thesis. I thought I knew far more than I actually did. I assumed that German social scientists subscribed to the same type of (mis)understandings of Social Darwinism as their U.S. counterparts. I thought they practiced the kind of Spencerian race science so popular among nineteenth-century anthropologists in the United States. I assumed that the racial understandings of nineteenth-century German anthropologists later became the scary and horrible race ideology that developed in Germany in the 1930s.

When I read more about histories of anthropology and how Germans developed their own unique national brand, I realized that I my assumptions were just that (we know what happens when we assume, etc. etc.) Instead of subscribing to Spencerian theories of evolutionary cultural development, Germans often practiced the kind of humanistic inquiry about different cultures and people that U.S. anthropologists adopted in the 1930s. I’m sort of embarrassed to read my MA work now; however, I now think that even all of my wrong assumptions were a necessary first step in thinking through what would later be some of the big ideas in my dissertation.

My article revision, then, is a revision of my MA thesis. I’m dusting off my old work and looking at it through new, and hopefully more experienced, eyes.I’m planning to fix my conclusions about German anthropologists and their understandings of non-Western cultures. In addition to reworking the content, I’ve also learned a lot more about academic writing since 2009. I’m looking forward to revising my old work with a more confident and simpler writing style.

I now have a brand-new, shiny Scrivener project, a schedule, and an itch to write!






Social Writing As An Introvert

I decided that I want to publish an article by the end of this year or early next year.

I finished my dissertation in January of this year. After a five-week marathon of writing, revising, and reformatting (and final submission at the eleventh hour), I took some time off to enjoy doing absolutely nothing for a few weeks. I read fiction. I cooked food. I napped. I needed to rest for a bit.

Since then, however, my intellectual production has been at an all-time low. It's not that I haven't been writing. I have. I write regular blog posts. I'm still working on writing my (awful) novel. I’ve been busy reading, editing, and commenting on other people’s work instead of working on my own. I’ve got the itch to do something with my research and thought that writing an article would be a good goal.

I wrote and published a few articles when I was a grad student, but received so much help that the process seemed simple and easy. Now on my own, without helpful professors or an institutional affiliation, I realized that I was going to need some help. The idea of writing and publishing an article (who, me?) seemed intimidating.

Fortunately, my public library carries Wendy Belcher’s excellent book, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. Armed with her book, I’ve been working through the exercises and making a writing plan.

Belcher argues that academic writers who publish regularly share four common keys to success. In order of appearance, they are (pp. 5-10):

  • Successful academic writers write.
  • Successful academic writers make writing social.
  • Successful academic writers persist despite rejection.
  • Successful academic writers pursue their passions.

The part about making writing social stumped me for a bit.

I’m an introvert by nature. I’ve known this about myself for years. I fit all of the criteria. I love being around people, but find that I become exhausted after spending time with too many people for too long. I feel anxiety when I look at photos of open work spaces. I sometimes take a long time to decide something because I want to consider all angles. I feel overwhelmed by too much light and noise. I do my absolute best work in silence and solitude.

When I first started writing my dissertation, I tried to write in coffee shops, as most of my colleagues did their best writing there. The sounds of people talking and clinking their coffee cups on saucers distracted me. Even with noise-canceling headphones, I couldn’t concentrate, as all I wanted to do was watch people. I found writing in noisy, busy settings difficult, but reasoned that dissertation writing was supposed to be tough. I felt anxious that I made little progress.

I made much better progress when I started paying attention to how I felt when I wrote in different places. I discovered that I could focus at home or in a library study carrel, far from the din and bustle of the outside world. I wrote alone and without noise; my ideas and writing began to flow. I’ve learned that to do my best work, I need to be alone and in a quiet place. When I finally connected my need to work alone to my introverted personality, it made perfect sense to me.

But back to article writing and academic publishing success.

Belcher writes about how isolation is a particular problem for scholars in the humanities. Writing dysfunction, she argues, is much higher in the humanities because we don’t view our writing and ideas as part of larger debates with actual people. We don’t generally work in teams, like people in STEM fields or even scholars in the social sciences. Historians, in particular, conduct their research in solitude in quiet archives and then write up their findings alone. We do not collaborate: we rarely, if ever, co-author articles. So, given that I’m an introvert in a field that endorses solitary writing, how could I possibly make writing social?

Making writing social, I’ve come to realize, doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to write in loud public places with other people. It does, however, mean that I need to talk about writing and share ideas with other people.  Academic writing doesn’t take place in a vacuum or on a planet devoid of other humans. We write in order to exchange ideas with other people.

What I realized was that even though I have to write alone, I am never alone with my ideas. When I was writing my dissertation, I regularly called up friends and colleagues to discuss my ideas with them. My car turned into a space of intellectual production, as my dissertation-writing bestie and I talked out all of our ideas on long drives. We exchanged rough chapter drafts ; we proofread each other’s work for grammar and as a way to flesh out ideas. We wrote in solidarity with each other, setting timers and checking in with each other to see what we had written that day. We encouraged each other, cheering each other on as we struggled to understand and express difficult ideas.

Even an introvert, I need to strive to make writing more of a social activity. Though I may have to work alone, I can still share ideas with other people and receive helpful feedback from them.

Here's what I'm doing to try and make my writing more social:

  • Blogging. A blog post on the Internet has a much wider reach than an academic article. People sometimes read and comment on my blog, so that it’s more like having a conversation with people than a solitary effort. I learn a lot from other people’s ideas and comments on the blog, tweets, and Facebook. I might write a few posts about my research article in progress and update people on how I'm doing with the writing and hammering out ideas.
  • Tweeting. Twitter is my social network of choice. I follow and am followed by a whole bunch of writing people: novelists, bloggers, dissertators, and the occasional poet. I’ve found it really helpful to talk about writing on Twitter (using the hashtag #acwri, #amwriting, or #writingpact). People discuss their writing projects, progress, and problems, all through 140 character messages. I’ve received writing encouragement from total strangers and do my best to cheer on anyone who seems to be struggling through a particular writing problem. I’m considering hosting a Twitter chat about academic writing (#acwrichat), which I think would help all kinds of people talk about their writing.
  • I’m hesitant to share my early drafts with a wide online audience, but I’m considering trying to get some more article writers together to work through Belcher’s book with me. A lot of my graduate cohorts are in the early stages of academic careers and need to get some articles published. I’m thinking about creating a Facebook group for article writers, where we could share ideas and help each other.
  • In the future, I’d like to co-author an article with a fellow historian and break the stereotype of the lone historian. I think it would be particularly fun to co-write with someone whose area of expertise is outside Latin America.
  • I’m stepping up my networking efforts. Networking is particularly difficult for me, but I’m always amazed how willing people are to help when I get brave enough to ask. I’m setting little networking goals for myself: emailing a scholar I don’t know, reconnecting with a colleague I haven’t seen for a long time. I’m also going to the American Historical Association meeting this year, despite the fact that I no longer have an institutional affiliation and am not even presenting a paper. I’ve got a much better idea of how to make the most out of conferences and am actually excited to go.

Finally, I’ve pinned a note above my desk with a sage piece of Belcher’s wisdom: “Without Community, writing is inconceivable.”

What are you writing? Let’s talk about it!