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As I joined the PhD program, one of the largest changes between my professional life and my academic career was understanding how the writing was different. And this was different in so many ways, in how I addressed the audience, in the type of language that I used, in the number of citations and the type of citations, and the way that I had to reference my content and really support the arguments. This was a challenge for me because it started to make me look critically at my own writing. In a profession where you have to write for a living, you better be good at it. No more write a paper in one day. No more rush work for a client. It became a long process of constantly evaluating and reevaluating everything that I wrote, even sentence by sentence…Academic writing is a very challenging process. And it doesn't need to be done in isolation. If I was to give advice to someone who was just starting off, I'd say that the best thing to do is to find a writing partner, to find someone or some writing group that's going to support that process of you doing your writing, of becoming a better academic writer. You may be lucky that in your university you have these mentoring roles, maybe you don't. Academics are very resourceful and one of the ways that they need to be resourceful is to go out and to find those people that will engage in that dialogue with them to make their academic writing better.
Coaching has played a crucial role in advancing my academic success early on in my career. As a junior researcher at a research-intensive university, I found it difficult to establish good, consistent writing habits while juggling the competing demands of academia. In working with my writing coach, Amy, I’ve been successful in establishing a daily writing routine. In fact it’s become so integrated into my life that it is a habit for me now, a habit that will sustain the work of my career. Although the expectations are rigorous at my university, I’ve set a pace that enables me to keep up with the demands. In less than one year and during the course of coaching, I was able to develop and submit four publications and nearly finish two more. For me, this represents an amazing level of productivity that hasn’t felt strained, stressed, or rushed. Because I’ve been so productive, writing has become positively reinforcing. Having consistent writing habits means that I can take breaks when needed, devote more time to family and other things I enjoy, and be fully engaged in the times of emergency that inevitably arise. I can do this without feeling guilty or worrying about the things I haven’t gotten done. In addition, Amy has helped me learn to assume a more authoritative voice in my manuscripts and grants. I hadn’t realized that I lacked some confidence in being able to acknowledge my expertise and to be clear and direct in conveying both my arguments and the science supporting them. In addition to helping me develop a daily writing practice, coaching has helped me to develop both my writing skills and my confidence.
The interdisciplinary nature of my work sometimes makes it difficult for me to convey certain concepts to those from different fields and backgrounds. Academics, at least in the science and engineering disciplines I work across, are commonly taught to write journal articles based on the assumption that the words in their text will report or “tell” information and their figures, graphs or tables will “show” the information. The interdisciplinary nature of my work, however, made me realize the shortcomings of this model. It often fails to really reach readers from diverse fields because of the starkly different assumptions they bring to the act of interpreting meaning in articles. I’ve come to believe that some of the best academic science articles rely on words not only to tell, but also to show meaning through narrative or “storytelling.”
In my work with Amy, an ACW Writing Coach, I sought to learn how to use some of the techniques of storytelling to communicate a new, interdisciplinary scientific perspective. My work in the field of engineering suggests that nature behaves much differently from the idealized representations commonly used in the field of geological science. Story has the inherent ability to draw out commonalities from seemingly disparate entities, render very complex topics simple, and, most importantly, shift the reader’s perspective. And once you’ve thought of something in a new way, it can be very difficult to return to your original frame of mind. That shift is exactly what I’m aiming for with my research.
For this reason, academic storytelling was one of the primary aspects of my writing I chose to focus on with my coach. Amy and I thought together about conveying action through the argument, resolving questions, and opening new doors of perspective for specific audiences. Thinking in terms of telling a story improved my manuscripts to the point where my co-authors (mostly former dissertation committee members) finally understand what I am trying to communicate (and have been trying to communicate all through my PhD work). Now, the manuscript I’ve been struggling with is awaiting the final stamp of approval for submission. With fingers crossed, I’m ready to move on to the next article.
In my first meeting with ACW Writing Coach, Amy Benson Brown, she asked about my writing goals. I said, “I wish I could write four manuscripts, but I don’t think I can make it. Let’s plan on one article draft by the end of the 12-week session.” Amy said, “Let’s plan for four drafts; I think you can make that happen.” I remember I almost cried. At that point, she had more confidence in me than I did.
After three months, I have four almost completed drafts and plan to submit three to journals by Christmas, and I’ve gained more confidence in writing. In the past six weeks, I have logged 95 hours in the Writing Room. I’ve shown up every day, even if I only had half an hour. My ACW Writing Coach and the Moderators in the ACW Writing Room have been very inspiring and encouraging. They have played key roles in helping me become a regular writer.
As a clinician and researcher of nursing practice, I began to think of my work on my writing as a kind of healing process. I did not fully realize how deeply wounded I was. The constant demands of clinical and academic work, the pressure to be productive, and the struggle for tenure and promotion were overwhelming. Before joining ACW, I did not write for two years; and my confidence as a good writer, a good mother, a competent clinician, and a great teacher was diminishing. Frustrated, depressed, and angry, I felt like I was losing my identity.
The most valuable aspect of ACW’s Coaching and Writing program was helping me find the “routine and norm” that is critical to my personal and academic growth. I now realize that I need to consistently and persistently engage in the activities and tasks that I care about and value. I have reconnected with my desire to discover knowledge (research), disseminate knowledge (writing), and translate knowledge (practice). ACW has helped me find a new “anchor” for my life and career, so I won’t lose the direction and drift away again.
“Margo, you need to slay this dragon!” Hearing my writing coach, Amy, say these words to me in the context of completing a long-neglected draft for publication, my mind conjured an image of a truly monstrous beast. My dragon had grown large from years of feasting on my fears of inadequacy, of irrelevance, of failure, and even of success. Its scales, like my past encounters with a few dishonest and difficult academics, were razor sharp. To make matters worse, my dragon kept me mired in skepticism about receiving constructive help!
But, following Amy’s carefully structured “To-Do Lists” to set attainable goals, make myself accountable, and develop a daily writing habit, the draft began to take shape. When I expressed doubts, Amy responded with encouragement, but also with specific examples of where I had a sound argument and where to strengthen my reasoning. Her informed, pointed comments ultimately showed me that my fears could be managed and overcome.
When Amy mentioned that my draft was really “sounding like an article,” I printed out a copy of Raphael’s small painting of St. George and the Dragon for inspiration. I saw first what I remembered of the painting—George’s tranquil face, the ungainly dragon, and of course, the long lance—but then I noticed, something new. George had help—and not just the divine sort! George’s white horse had put the dragon in position. His front hooves were poised above the dragon’s head. His face was turned back toward his rider—almost smiling, as if to say, “No worries, George, we got this.”
Amy and the team at ACW have indeed been my white horse. If, as a graduate student or anywhere along the trajectory of your professional life, you find yourself trapped by a stubborn “dragon,” they will skillfully bring it into position, ready for you to strike.
I recently received a contract to publish a book on a Korean filmmaker with a relatively short turnaround time. Besides being a non-native speaker of English, the biggest obstacle to making substantial progress with my book manuscript has been the feeling of isolation. By this I don’t mean I don’t have any friends or colleagues who support me and offer their help. However, because of the highly specialized topic, I am geographically isolated from other scholars who would understand the topic. Having a writing coach provides a sense of connection—someone to read my weekly writings, offer feedback, and discuss the work in a very constructive way. My weekly meeting with my coach, Kathy, has been instrumental in keeping me focused and inspired. Every week, while we discuss my work, my entangled thoughts become clearer and more organized. I am inspired by the talk and come up with new ideas. Kathy and I have developed a real intellectual brainstorming energy in our work. Often I am surprised at how eloquently I am expressing my thoughts prompted by our discussions. I write down what I have said to Kathy, which often ends up in my manuscript word for word. This gives me tremendous confidence in my skills at writing in English. The weekly meeting has been very constructive as well as inspirational. And best of all, I get encouragement and my confidence is restored whenever I have negative feelings about my ability.
While weekly meetings with Kathy have helped me greatly in organizing my thoughts and building up my confidence, the daily virtual writing lab gives me a structure. I work much better when I have a structure that makes me sit down at my computer every morning. The writing lab helps me get into a habit of writing every day. I find this incremental writing more productive than trying to write a lot on a given day each week. My experience with Academic Coaching and Writing confirms my conviction that writing, especially scholarly writing, is a collaborative process.
It was a great experience working with Amy as my coach on the book revision process. Revising is my least favorite part of writing. It’s the piece that I have always struggled with the most, and, therefore, don’t practice enough to really get good at it. Amy was incredibly patient with me and worked with me through my issues, both on and off the page. One of the first issues we tackled was my “sounding like a graduate student.” I am a very confident writer when it comes to other forms of writing (like blogging), but not so much with my formal, academic writing, perhaps as a result of the bad experiences I’ve had with the peer-review process and the negative emotions that remain.
Amy helped me see how my resistance to revising reflected a deep-seated lack of confidence in my own academic voice. Working with Amy, I started to recognize my pattern of being tentative when stating the conclusions I reached through my research. For example, one chapter I wrote contained the word “seem” or “seems” over 40 times, a little more than once a page. I also found that I had been tentative about asserting my own conclusions and was allowing the voice of the experts to take precedence over mine. I now know how to put my own voice first, so to speak, and to present the research of other experts as supportive evidence for my position. With Amy’s help, I have gained confidence in my academic writing and, with her, I had a productive and positive experience receiving feedback and revising. For once, I am actually excited about the process and the results!
Finding my own voice in writing has always been a challenge. The fact that I was trained as an academic to highlight and cite the work of so many others as a way of validating my perspective has, in some ways, caused me to distance my writing from my own voice. Though writing academic articles and collaborating with colleagues to publish research has been gratifying, whenever I was immersed in writing, I felt a need for something more. I wanted to express my thoughts, opinions, and emotions in a more creative form and in ways that foster a more intimate and immediate connection with my readers.
Recently, I decided to search for ways to fulfill this need. I wanted to bring together my academic and more personal voice by writing a book on the theory and practice of Appreciative Inquiry in psychology and organizational management. In my work as a consultant to international corporations and non-profit groups, I’ve seen the need for a book that synthesizes research in this field in a way that nonacademics can understand, enjoy, and apply to their own circumstances. In writing this book for a wide audience, I wanted to create a space where I could reconnect with my authentic voice and genuinely share my thoughts with readers. The challenge was that I wanted to do all that without losing the intellectual substance of the research on Appreciative Inquiry. My coach, Amy Benson Brown, accompanied me and supported me in my search for my authentic voice, in part by working with me on adapting some techniques from creative writing to convey my argument. It’s been exciting to move from explicating an abstract theory to telling a personal story to illustrate and bring those ideas to life. Now I am able to provide an understanding of complex concepts without losing my sense of connection to the reader. Amy has helped me to integrate my academic and my personal voices so that one supports the other; and together they have the power to clearly explain complex ideas in an engaging way.
I used to resist writing and sometimes resented the fact that I had to dedicate so much energy to the process, but now I feel happy during my writing time and fulfilled afterwards. Perhaps the most important difference coaching has made in my career is that it has enabled me to reframe what writing really means to me.
I joined the ACW Writing Room late last session, and the four weeks I have just spent working in this environment have totally transformed the way I feel about writing. Instead of feeling haunted by my open writing projects and just sitting at my desk going nowhere, I now have a real sense of day-by-day progress. Committing to staying off the internet and social media in my sacred writing time is a big part of what works for me. Making this promise to myself and keeping it has been much easier with my coach as witness. But the real magic of the writing room is my daily encounters with people who are rooting for me to do well. The ACW Writing Room process is empowering, not punitive.
Margaret, Nisi and Jane, the writing room moderators, are great role models for taking a kind and compassionate approach to the daily business of writing. In addition to cheering me on with the feedback on my writing process, they manage to pack an amazing amount of support into the five minutes that they spend on the webcam at the beginning of each writing hour. Whether it is a mini-mindfulness meditation, or a couple of stretches in my chair, I am left feeling focused and balanced in mind and body. I also greatly appreciate their suggestions for rethinking elements of my writing process, their reminders to take a ten-minute break every hour, and their suggestions for when to celebrate achievements.
I have found the writing accountability document, which is an integral part of the Writing Room process, to be a great tool for structuring my writing time and helping me focus on my successes and areas for improvement. Keeping it updated helps rather than impedes my writing flow since I’m able to review my progress at a glance!
My productivity has increased massively since I’ve been visiting the ACW Writing Room, but I haven’t had to neglect rest and relaxation. In fact, I’m enjoying my downtime so much more now that I know I have put in several productive writing hours every day.
Not only do I believe that the experience of working with Caroline and ACW has made my ePortfolio and job application package much stronger and more successful, but I have felt incredibly supported and inspired along this journey, one that can be fraught with the fear and anxiety of the unknown. Working with Caroline has enabled me to gain a new level of confidence and clarity as a professional and gain a new friend and mentor along the way!
My experience working with Dr. Caroline Eisner was excellent. Her advice was very helpful in getting me through the URR approval process. I was first told by URR that I needed to work on "writing efficiency." I didn't know what that meant, but Dr. Caroline worked one-on-one to teach me what that meant and how to achieve it, instead of just editing my work. She provided me with helpful graphics, worksheets, and writing activities directly related to my paper. She was available by phone to conference with me about specific concerns, and help me to formulate a plan for my writing success. I now understand the difference between writing for academic purposes and writing for other purposes, and I know better how to do it. Dr. Caroline is a great and patient teacher, and I would highly recommend her services.
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