Thursday, December 17, 2015

How I Write: An Inquiry Into the Writing Practices

I see the writing process very much like a pregnancy. . . . It takes time. And it doesn’t help to push it. (Tammar Zilber) (85)

There is an interesting article just out, by Charlotte Cloutier, “How I Write: An Inquiry Into the Writing Practices of Academics,” Journal of Management Inquiry 2016, Vol. 25(1) 69–84. It involves interviewing 17 academics about their practice of writing. Cloutier notes plenty of research on what makes good writing, but little research into the mundane, daily practice of writing on a day-to-day basis.

“Our identities and reputations as academics are largely formed on the basis of what and how we write. Many would argue that the fate of our careers rests more on our ability to write than on our ability to teach. And yet despite this, we spend very little time thinking about how we write. Most of us have received little, if any, formal instruction in academic or other forms of writing” (69)

She interviewed seasoned and (mostly) qualitative researchers in the field of organization studies. Patterns did emerge. A key finding was that writing is linked to other practices, of talking, reading, drawing, and thinking.

Regarding talking, practically all the respondents described how their ideas were largely generated through their conversations with others. This involved three areas;
– Informal conversations (face to face and digitally) with coauthors, peers, and students
– semiformal conversations in presentations at conferences
– formal conversations as part of the publication process.

The review process was found by all to be challenging and frustrating. All talked about the need to have a strategy to deal with the inevitable emotions that surround this process. Some were quite strategic.

When I’m writing, I don’t try to write the perfect paper. I try to write a good-enough paper that is interesting enough and intriguing enough for my immediate audience—a set of reviewers and an editor—that allows me to get an {Review and Revision]. (citing Tammar Zilber, 74)

Reading was seen as the lubricant that keeps writing moving. A repeated theme was that “reading and writing were done iteratively and repeatedly, one activity continuously feeding on the other.” (75)

A number used drawing to help make connections. This included boxes, arrows and various mind mapping exercises.

Thinking was important to all. “We write what we think, but in the act of writing, we also clarify our thoughts.” (76) All used some sort of mechanism to help organise their thoughts. For some, this was detailed structures with points and sub points, for others a few dot points. The approach to writing was linked to personality. Some wrote in a linear way, from start to end; while others wrote in a more non-linear method.

Essential was messy writing. “Almost all the authors I interviewed felt that writing became easier once they had managed to write a few sentences, as those handfuls of words gave them something to “mull over” and think about” (77) As a result, all engaged in re-writing.

In conclusion Cloutier noted some important lessons. First, writing is an integrative activity, so there is a need to be continually feeding our writing with activities like conversing, reading, drawing and thinking. Second the importance of developing rituals. There are steps we can take that remind our bodies we are here to write. In other words “writing as a practice that requires practice: a practice that we engage in deliberately and routinely, regardless of our particular mood on a particular day” (80). Third, the understanding that academic writing is actually a social activity.

Posted by steve at 09:17 PM


  1. Thanks Steve.
    Plenty of evidence on conversational learning.
    Thank you for extending the conversation that I have with myself and others on writing.
    Christmas greetings.
    Kind regards, John.

    Comment by John Littleton — December 19, 2015 @ 7:21 am

  2. Well noted John. Yes social media was noted as a way of talking – an informal conversation – and it is one reason I do blog and tweet. It is good personally and also a way of contributing to thinking among those who connect with me.

    steve taylor

    Comment by steve taylor — December 19, 2015 @ 7:29 am

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