guest post

Making the Sausage is Never Pretty

Hello people! Here's a guest post by Michelle Dionne Thompson on her writing process! It's great! :)

As an alt-ac who still does academic writing, I find myself staring at my screen with stunning regularity. I am working on publishing academic articles and converting my dissertation into a monograph.

When I earned my PhD, I walked away from everything academia but adjuncting for two years (I had to pay bills). Then I decided that if any historian was going to be say something about Jamaican Maroons in 19th century Jamaica, I had to say it. I had to publish.

This year, I have had limited success when a journal gave me a Revise and Resubmit. I am awaiting their decision as I write this blog post! Because I’ve taken feedback from journals multiple times, this actually feels comfortable.

But now, I am shifting my attention to writing my book proposal(s).

I have never done this before.

I don’t know what to do.

I own From Dissertation to Book, and it wasn’t quite as helpful to me as I hoped. Like a good researcher, I have looked at all manner of blog posts on how to write a book proposal. I am still overcome with feelings of “I don’t know what to do.”

I sit down to write, and I am desperate to clean. My son’s entire room. NOW.

Once that urge passes, I wonder if I could sneak in a little bit of social media. Just a quick peek . . .  40 minutes later . . .

I’m dying to answer the onslaught of email, for the first time ever.

Why is this happening? Impostor syndrome has reared its ugly head. When I ask myself what’s really going on, it’s that I don’t think I have the credentials to write anything. I’ve never been published (not true . . . my work has been incorporated in anthologies). I’m not a tenure track professor (who cares). No one wants to recommend my work (not true). I’ve never really been a success at anything (OK, I just won’t even address that one).

It’s amazing what the gremlins in the peanut gallery have to say when you want to up your game.

And I thought I had this imposter syndrome stuff handled, under control.

It turns out that every time you try to do something bigger, it rears its ugly head.

So now I know this every time I sit down and write. As a result, I turn on so I’m not distracted by social media. I slowly clean up around me when I’m not on the clock writing (I set this time in my calendar). I set timers so that I know I can clean to my heart’s content after I finish writing.

Making the sausage is still an ugly business!

Michelle Dionne Thompson coaches women writers, academics, and lawyers to implement their biggest visions for their lives and society. You can find out more about her at


Guest Post: The Joys of Research

Note: Today I present to you a guest blog post by Ondrej Cernotik. Ondrej Cernotik is a PhD student based in Hannover, Germany. HIs field is theoretical quantum physics and he hopes that his contributions will be used in building quantum computers. You can get to know Ondrej better on his blog at and on twitter where he tweets as @cernotik.

Why do I want to be an academic? I asked myself the other day. It’s hard, I’m constantly doubting I can be a good researcher, and it doesn’t bring a lot of money. There’s plenty of other things I could do with a graduate degree. So why do I find academic career so appealing?

Research can be frustrating. It often consists of finding gazillion approaches to a problem that do not work, only to find out that the gazillion and first idea does. If you stop a little earlier, you won’t solve your problem. And every sane person would give up very soon; nobody wants to experience failure after failure.

But the feelings of frustration are an important part of the scientific process. Without them, the joy after a breakthrough wouldn’t taste half so sweet. And the triumph I feel upon solving a problem and understanding the whole issue makes my research the best job in the world.

I’m not saying there are no other professions where I could be solving complex problems and having fun while doing so. But academic research has other enjoyable facets. Discovering the work others did. Sharing what I found with others—be it through academic papers, via social media, or at conferences. The simple pleasures of solving a problem—an interesting insight, a fascinating special case, the beauty and elegance of the maths I can use. Meeting other people who are as fascinated by physics as I am. Standing at the very edge of human knowledge and broadening our understanding of this world. It’s impossible, at least in my eyes, to find another job that can give me such fulfilment.

There is just one problem—as researchers, we don’t share the joy academic work brings us often enough. Our writing is dry: “We would like to note that the importance of this result should not be underestimated. Our work can be connected to these earlier works in this way and, additionally, opens new possibilities of studying similar kinds of problems.” That’s all well but where’s the curiosity that caused us to dive into the problem? Where’s the fun we had while solving it? Or the satisfaction we felt when we found the solution?

I am guilty of this, too; it is hard not to be. We learn academic writing by reading hundreds of papers and mimicking their style. If all (or most) papers are unnecessarily complex, our own writing will be as well. Only after developing our writing skills can we start and experiment with the form; by then, it is so ingrained in our own writing that it’s hard to see it as a problem.

I don’t want to imply that research papers have to be littered with anecdotes describing our emotional journey through the research problem. I don’t want to read about scientists trudging on the path through the dark woods of Not Knowing when they suddenly reach the Glade of Enlightenment. Sure, many papers could be better; some are barely legible, some are written almost entirely in the passive voice. But the main point of a research paper is to present the result, not write an autobiography.

If we don’t write our research papers as novels, full of metaphors and digressions, what can we do?

First of all, we can write differently. Academic prose doesn’t have to be as dry as it usually is. Instead of reporting what was done, we can say what we did. The joy can still have its place in our writing—we can write with the same emotions we felt when making the discovery we’re now writing about. We don’t have to mention all the sleepless nights, endless frustration, and the eureka moment that suddenly changed our despair to triumph. But if we don’t forget these emotions during writing, they will be present. They will not be directly visible but hiding under the surface. Those who look for them will always be able to find them.

And then there is blogging. Here, we can let go of all the rules that bind us when writing academic texts. We can talk about the pleasure that research brings. About the long and winding road that leads from a vaguely formulated research question through the fascinating process of discovery to a solution for a problem that can be very different from the one we started with. We can complain about having been stuck for weeks. Or write about all the little victories we experience when we understand some small parts of the problem.

It is important that we share these stories. Research isn’t only the enormous database of facts. The generations of academics who never stopped in fear of their ignorance and continue unravelling the mysteries of this world are just as important. Because without the curiosity and persistence of the researchers, we would have no database to fill.

Guest Post: On Pleasing Your First Reader

Today, I share with you a thoughtful guest post by M.C. Malette on the importance of reader centered writing.

Every text I write has one core aim: to deliver to my reader a meaningful  experience. Of course, other aims and impulses also inform my writing. Always a desire to connect with the reader drives me, to have him see me, know me, and know something of how I experience the world. Sometimes I also want to make the reader reflect or think. Sometimes I want her to take a specific action. Sometimes I want him to feel a particular emotion or set of emotions.

But whatever else I hope to accomplish travels through my primary purpose. Unless engaged, the reader will ignore my logic, my evidence and my experiences. The reader unengaged yawns, gets up from her chair, turns out the light, and leaves the room.

Of course, however skilled I am, I alone can’t determine the reader’s level of engagement. Each reader brings to the page his own aesthetics, her own interests and likes and dislikes, her own experiences as a reader, his own sense of expectations and appropriate order.

But my audience does inflect my aim, as does my purpose for engaging that audience. I write for a child, and my text angles in one direction; I write for colleagues at an academic conference, and the writing shoots off elsewhere. A tweet responding to an insufferable troll points one way; an email to one of my children points in a different direction. But ultimately all of my decisions as a writer—about punctuation, word selection, phrasing, about metaphors and images and ideas—flow from my desire to create an engaging experience and relationship with the reader.

I know that many writers reject putting the reader first. Forget the reader, they advise. That preoccupation only inhibits a writer and can even induce writer’s block. But I choose to accept the reader’s experience as central to my trying to make meaning in language, and I do that for two reasons.

First, I don’t believe that just any utterance or arrangement of words constitutes meaningful writing. Written texts carry intentions, even if the writer can’t fully articulate that intention. For my writing to have meaning—even to me—something besides the impulse to put words down needs to emerge; something has to shape the thousand small choices I make as I draft and revise. But second, and more importantly, I value the reader’s experience because the writer is—or should be—every text’s first reader. And if my work fails to engage me as a reader, why should I expect any other reader to bother?

Though my point may seem obvious, I know from years of teaching writing—and from my own writing--that it ain’t necessarily so. I’ve read thousands of student essays that clearly hadn’t engage the people who had produced them.

Problems with grammar, usage, and structure weren’t the telltale signs—though those certainly showed up. The lack of engagement revealed itself more clearly in a flatness, in broad statements and clichés and overall vagueness about my main subject, let alone my main intention. And not only first year college students suffer from this syndrome. In advanced writing, senior level, and graduate school classes that I taught or took, I’ve seen the same emptiness and perpetrated it myself.

I don’t mean that writers do this from a lack of care about their subjects, or a lack of something to say (though I’ve heard many writing teachers make that claim—I’m think wrongly). Often when I talked with such a writer, or had the problem myself, I knew that enthusiasm, knowledge, investment, and insight were there. But somehow, these qualities hadn’t made it into the writing. Why?

Of course, part of the problem can come from lack of skill and experience. But I think it happens chiefly when I forget that what I feel at the moment of writing is different from what the reader will feel when he’s reading. It comes from not separating my energy in the flow of putting words down from what the reader will want and need as he reads. Only when I remember to respect the reader as a separate person—one with her own feelings, attitudes, and beliefs—can I understand how I might engage that person.

Again and again, I’ve seen writing, including my own, that seems to assume that the reader is already in the writer’s head, sharing the writer’s values and emotions and ideas. But that approach depends on finding an audience identical to the writer; with any other audience—that is, with everyone else—writing from that perspective ultimately won’t work. The solution isn’t to become a slave to whatever I think readers in general want to hear. In fact, it’s the opposite. The solution is for me as writer to become a better, more demanding reader of my own writing.

I try to do this in two ways. First, I work to create distance between myself as the writer of the work and myself as a reader. I can create this distance by using time, by setting the writing aside for a day or two—or more—and returning to it when I’m more removed from the heat of composing. I can also create distance by having others read my work. Their responses can give me a new perspective on the effect my words may have on readers.

Second, whenever I return to my draft in the role of reader, I try to practice being attentive to my responses and forgiving about what didn’t work. Being attentive means re-reading slowly, with pen or pencil in hand, and noticing and marking my reactions to any aspect of the text: words, phrasing, sentences, ideas, organization. No reaction is too small or too large. But this isn’t proofread or correcting. It’s about being aware of my reading experience. And because it’s not about correcting, in my role as reader, I need to suspend judgment about what’s “good” or “bad” in the text. Later, as I actively revise the work, I’ll have time to fix or cut or reshape. But this stage is a time simply to read with heightened awareness and notice what happens while I read.

In writing this essay, for example, I’ve gone through this process. I’ve finished a draft thinking, “This piece is done!” Then I’ve come back after setting it aside and seen with my “reader” eyes that parts of the draft went off in different directions, or lacked specificity, or were missing the energy I feel about the subject. And I used those “reader” responses to help myself as writer improve (I hope!) the essay.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that every reader—or even many—will love any given piece I write. But it gives me the best chance of creating for at least for some readers—and for myself—a meaningful, engaging experience.

Miguel Clark Malette is a freelance writer based in Minnesota. He taught composition, rhetoric, and literature at the college level for nearly 20 years.  Malette has also worked as a journalist and technical editor. He holds an MFA in fiction, and a doctorate in rhetoric and composition. Malette blogs at and can be found on Twitter @mar_de_palabras. He recently published an essay on depression and anxiety on the Stigma Fighters website,