Twelve Top Tips For Writing While Distracted

please do not disturbWe’re all quite distracted at the moment: by world events, changes in routine, the needs of family members and friends, and our own emotions. Yet many of us still have writing work to do. And it’s hard. Writing is hard anyway, and in this time of massive uncertainty it’s harder than ever.

I have been thinking about this a lot as I have a whole bunch of writing on my to-do list right now. I’ve also been watching and participating in online conversations about the difficulties people are experiencing when they’re trying to write. And I’ve tried out a few strategies of my own in recent days. So here are my twelve top tips.

  1. Don’t expect to do as much work as you usually would. We are all anxious and, at some level, grieving. Be gentle with yourself, and cherish what you do manage rather than beating yourself up for what you haven’t achieved.
  2. Establish a writing place in your home. It doesn’t need to be solely devoted to writing – it could be one corner of the sofa, or of the dining table – nor does it need to be large.
  3. Plan a swift pre-writing ritual e.g. making a ‘writing drink’ – hot or cold, whatever your preference, but the same one each time. This all helps to reinforce the message that you’re about to write and it’s important.
  4. Get a routine going. Many of us have less structure in our lives than usual, and routine is often helpful for writing. Write at the same time each weekday, or on the days that are best for you. Or, if your routine is irregular, e.g. due to shift work, plan your writing times in advance and stick to them.
  5. Use sound or silence in the way that helps you most. Some people like to write to music, others prefer soothing sounds like waves or rain – there are plenty of options on YouTube. If silence works better for you, use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones.
  6. If you’re writing first draft material, set yourself small daily goals: half an hour of focused writing, or a few hundred words if you respond better to word count goals. If you’re at home alone with children, unless they’re too young, set a timer so they know when they can interrupt you again (barring emergencies of course). If there’s another adult in the house, do a deal with them so you get time to write and in return they get time to do whatever they need to do.
  7. Break down your writing jobs into small chunks. Usually I regard ‘edit book chapter’ as a single task. On Tuesday I scrolled aimlessly around in the text of a chapter I needed to edit, wondering how on earth I could tackle the work in front of me. In the end I wrote myself a list: add bullet points to the end of section 1, check case study on page 3 against citations elsewhere to ensure a smooth flow, write reflective questions – that kind of thing. Then I found I could deal with each small job in turn, albeit more slowly than usual.
  8. Renegotiate deadlines if necessary. Supervisors, editors, and other such people are likely to be sympathetic to the need for extensions. Try to be as realistic as you can about how much extra time you need, and then aim to stick to your new deadline.
  9. Restrict your consumption of news websites and social media. At present, they increase anxiety. I’m now looking at the news, briefly, just a couple of times a day; I have mostly stopped using Tweetdeck with the rolling feed that I usually love, and am using my Twitter notification page instead; and I’m spending less time on Facebook and Instagram. This is helping.
  10. Join and use a virtual ‘shut up and write’ group or book a virtual writing retreat. New ones are springing up all the time at present and you can find them by searching online. Writing with others can help you to focus, even if you’re with them virtually rather than in person. If you don’t fancy a group or a retreat with strangers, maybe you have a colleague/peer/friend or two who you could write with online.
  11. Five minutes of freewriting can help you to get going. Set yourself a prompt in the first person, e.g. ‘What I want to say is…’ Then set a timer for five minutes and write whatever comes to mind, without stopping or editing or censoring yourself. If you pause, or get stuck, write the prompt again, as many times as you need until it takes you somewhere else.
  12. Take as good care of yourself as you can in this unprecedented situation. When possible, do things that soothe you and take your mind off your troubles: hot baths, making, exercise, gaming – different things work for different people. Looking after yourself will help you maintain the resources you need to write.

Given a chance, writing itself can become a useful distraction. I wrote this while intensely worried about the health of two people, one family member and one friend, both of whom are very unwell. It took my mind off everything for a little while. If I can do it, so can you. Good luck!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

“Stockpiling” and the Blame Game

shopping-3225130_1280Here in the UK, stockpiling citizens are being blamed for empty supermarket shelves. Stockpiling is part of the problem for sure, though not all stockpilers use legitimate means to acquire their supplies. However, there is also stocking up, and the fact that more people need more food and domestic supplies these days. I’m going to explain why, then suggest a partial solution. UK examples, probably also relevant in other parts of the world.

I have asthma. Fortunately I have a supportive partner with no underlying health conditions who has been doing our shopping (or maybe unfortunately if that brings me the virus; we’ll see). A few weeks ago several national newspapers in the US, UK and Australia – maybe elsewhere too – were advising readers to stock up before the coronavirus spread. (I’m not providing links as we understand this very differently now; if you want verification, the articles are easy to find online.) If I was living alone, I think when as our Prime Minister announced that vulnerable people would soon be asked to stay home for 12 weeks, I would have been trying to buy enough supplies of non-perishables to enable me to do that. Not stockpiling; stocking up, exactly as some newspapers had been advising.

Now, staying at home all the time means I need more supplies. If this week was going as planned, I would be away at a friend’s house over this weekend, away again for a night midweek, and so would only need a top-up shop of a few perishables for my four nights at home. I would have taken several meals, and used other supplies, at motorway service stations, in restaurants and cafes, and at my friend’s house. She would have bought a few extra bits, but not a great deal; there are four people in her household, and feeding one extra mouth (and wiping one extra bum, washing one extra pair of hands etc) doesn’t require much extra shopping.

Because I am staying at home all week instead, I need to buy more than usual. Also, I’m aiming to increase my social distance by moving to one weekly big shop from a single supermarket, rather than a few visits to various shops through the week. Yesterday afternoon I had managed to land a click-and-collect slot and I did a whole weekly shop. Am I stockpiling? No, I’m stocking up. I didn’t get everything I wanted but I got enough to see me through the week.

Many others will be in a similar position. Not eating in cafes and restaurants, not using toilet paper and soap in service stations and railway stations and cafes and restaurants and hotels, not visiting friends’ houses. I know the restaurants and cafes have only just closed, but many of us have had the sense already to socially distance. Ideally we need to buy enough of everything at home, in one go, for a full seven days or even longer.

Also, there are more people than usual who need those supplies because nobody is going abroad on holiday. The UK population do this a lot. There are over 66m of us on this damp little island, and 17% holiday abroad each year – that’s over 11m – for holidays with an average length of almost 9 days. This means that, in an average week, at a conservative estimate over 215,000 people are out of the country on holiday for the entire week. So they are not shopping in the UK’s supermarkets.

Then there are the people who travel for work, or to visit family and friends. In 2018 there were almost 72m trips overseas from the UK. That’s almost 1.4m trips per week. Of course we get visitors too, but far fewer; almost 38m in 2018. And over half of those go to London. Holidays are the most common reason for those visits, and tourists in the UK are much more likely to eat in hotels and restaurants than to shop in supermarkets.

So there is a net increase in the number of people using UK supermarkets right now, and we need more supplies than usual because we’re doing everything at home. Being unable to get those supplies for ourselves and our families is causing fear, anger, and sadness. The thinking behind this post was inspired by a Facebook post from a friend, who wrote:

So just been to do my mum’s shopping. For the past x number of years we’ve bought 4 cartons of uht milk every week, so she doesn’t have to worry about running out. She used to have a milkman deliver, but milk kept getting pinched. She’s 87, eats next to nothing, but likes her cornflakes and cups of tea. Just made me sad. She requires so little but I can’t get what she needs.

However, there is at least a partial solution to this. There are food wholesalers who usually deliver supplies to restaurants, cafes, hotels etc. Those businesses will be making fewer or no orders. We need to join up the wholesalers with community groups, local retail outlets (if they don’t supply them already), and food banks. One or two are already showing willingness to sell to personal customers, as long as a minimum order threshold is reached, and showing initiative in recruiting more drivers and other staff. The others need to follow suit.

Stocking up is an everyday response to unusual circumstances in our lives. Scheduled for surgery and need to convalesce at home? Better stock up. Going on your annual staycation in a caravan, tent, or rented accommodation? Get the supplies in. Christmas on the horizon? We all know what that means. So it seems to me that most people are behaving quite normally. What people aren’t taking into account is that the circumstances we now face are not the ordinary kind of unusual; they are unprecedented.

I’m not blaming the Government for this. Of course I can criticise some of their decisions, but it’s a complex, fast-moving, and unique situation, with a huge number of factors to balance; mostly I’m thankful I’m not involved in making those decisions. I’m not blaming the food industry either. Retailers, thrown into the front line of a global crisis, are doing an amazing job. As so often, I find myself thinking the mainstream media need to take a long hard look at themselves, though perhaps this too is easy to say because of course I have the benefit of hindsight.

I suspect the actual stockpilers – those trying to provision themselves for months or years – are in a small minority. And at least some of those people may be thinking it’s a sensible response to the situation because, once provisioned, they can take themselves right out of the equation for a long, long time.

It feels more difficult right now to acknowledge that it’s OK for people to think differently from us. I find myself railing against people who aren’t practising physical distancing – “why are they so STUPID, don’t they REALISE” – and struggling more than usual to imagine myself in their place. When we’re fearful – and all of us are fearful – it’s easier to demonise others. But I don’t think it helps. Maybe what we really need is to stop blaming people, and acknowledge that most of us are doing our best, according to our own, inevitably flawed, knowledge and understanding.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Writing Is A Research Method

writing on keyboardIt has always struck me as odd that people don’t recognise writing as a research method. I doubt there is a single piece of formal research in the Euro-Western world which doesn’t involve writing. Yes, we can make all our reports with video, but those videos need scripting and that requires words. As researchers, writing is one way in which we exercise our power. You may not think of yourself or your writing as powerful, yet writing is an act of power in the world. I was reminded recently by a colleague that my words on this blog are powerful. I’d forgotten. It’s easy to forget, but we need to remember.

Writing, in Euro-Western research, is universal. It’s the one method used regularly by both quantitative and qualitative researchers. Perhaps that’s why it isn’t recognised as a method, because it unites us rather than dividing us. But it is a method, and I would argue that it is a qualitative method. We can’t do research without writing, and how we write affects the ways our work is understood and used by other people.

I’ve been interested in the terminology around the COVID-19 pandemic, which I think provides a useful example. Last week I wrote a post about self-isolation. Following a lot of travelling the previous week I’ve been voluntarily staying at home, seeing only my partner and a couple of delivery people. One friend challenged my use of the term ‘self-isolation’, saying that in their view I was doing social distancing because I wasn’t sleeping separately and staying 2m away from my partner or using separate washing facilities, and I was still taking deliveries in person. I could see their point, though I know others are using the term ‘self-isolation’ in the same way as me. My view of social distancing is that it is more about literally keeping our distance from each other in public places. But these are new terms and we’re all trying to figure this whole thing out while it’s happening.

However, neither of them are particularly lovely terms, and I have appreciated the appearance of alternatives. The first I saw was I think an FB post taken from Instagram (I can’t remember who generated either post now – my apologies; if it was you or you know who it was, please comment below and I’ll edit to credit). The post suggested that we’re not doing social distancing, we’re doing physical distancing for social solidarity. I really liked that concept. Then yesterday Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland (and a doctor), spoke of cocooning, and I heard that Americans were talking of ‘shelter in place’.

While I have no evidence for this beyond my own reactions, I suspect that more positive terms are likely to lead to more acceptance. Asking someone to isolate themselves has connotations of loneliness, sadness, and prison (which also has associations with the term ‘lockdown’ currently in use around the world). Physical distancing sounds easier and more accurate than social distancing, and coupling it with social solidarity makes it feel stronger and more righteous. Cocooning makes me think of cosiness and warmth, plus it rhymes (or almost) with other gentle words like soothing and crooning. Asking someone to shelter in place has connotations of home, familiarity, and safety.

As researchers, we often have new information to impart and we sometimes arrive at new concepts which need to be named. There are a whole bunch of words and phrases for us to choose from in writing each new sentence. The words and phrases we use can make a great deal of difference to how our work is received. This means we need to take care in choosing our words and phrases, and in putting them together to make sentences, and in putting sentences together to make paragraphs. These tiny laborious steps are like the strokes of an artist’s brush or the stitches from a crafter’s needle: the beating heart of the writer’s art.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Why I Am Self-Isolating

self-isolationYesterday afternoon I came home at the end of a week away teaching and speaking at universities in Southampton (England) and Stavanger (Norway). It was an odd week: last Sunday emails were whizzing back and forth about whether events might be cancelled; by Wednesday night the organisers in Stavanger decided to cancel the last half-day of their conference scheduled for the next morning; and on Thursday morning they got so worried by rumours in Norway that Oslo airport was about to close, that they booked me a new flight back to Heathrow that afternoon and a hotel at the airport (I’d previously booked myself onto an early flight the next day to Manchester).

Between Monday morning and Friday afternoon I went through three airports (one of them twice) and eight train stations (three of them twice). I travelled in two planes, one tube train, eight regular trains, and four taxis. I stayed in three hotels, and had two work-related restaurant dinners with other travelling professionals. One was with a single colleague who had flown from South Africa to the UK to attend the course I ran in Southampton and the other was with around 35 people in Stavanger, many of whom had travelled a considerable distance on planes and/or trains to get to the conference.

Even so, considering the current stage of the pandemic, I would be unlucky to have contracted the virus. I took all the precautions I could; my hands have never been so clean. People in Norway were being very careful: elbow bumps replaced handshakes; hotel workers wore disposable gloves to serve food and drink and to collect used crockery and cutlery. But I won’t know for sure whether I have caught the virus for at least 14 days, maybe longer – and if I have caught it, then during those days I could infect tens or hundreds or even thousands of other people. Preventing this would save potential misery for individuals and families, and potentially also reduce – or, at least, help to spread – the burden on the health service. As the NHS has been undermined by ten years of austerity, plus the impact of Brexit, it is not in the best shape to manage a pandemic. Our hospitals were already full before this pandemic hit.

Making the decision to self-isolate, in the absence of official requirements for me to do so, wasn’t easy. Several things helped. Conversations with family members – some in their later years, others with several serious and complex health conditions including immunosuppression – were useful. These people are also self-isolating; like me, as much for others’ protection as for their own. One family member sent me this really well argued article which also helped. And my partner’s willingness to support my wishes was crucial. Also the requirements in other countries such as Canada, Norway and now New Zealand for self-isolation in circumstances like mine were helpful too. (I can’t find links for the Canadian and Norwegian requirements so my evidence there is anecdotal: I have family in Canada who recently returned from the Caribbean and are being required to self-isolate for 14 days, and an airport official at Heathrow told me of a similar requirement in Norway for travellers returning from the UK.) This photo, posted on Facebook, also helped – I’m interested in Ireland’s response because their Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is a doctor, as is his partner.

Irish Daily Mail 13.3.2020 save many lives

(I usually source reusable photos from Pixabay, or use my own. I don’t know who generated this image; if it was you, and you want me to credit you or you’re unhappy with my use of the image, please get in touch.)

I am lucky that my work allows me to self-isolate. All my forthcoming speaking and teaching engagements have been postponed, most of them indefinitely, which means a loss of thousands of pounds of income over the next few months. However I have desk research to do for clients, and research teams I’m on are considering changes to planned fieldwork as bringing groups of – mostly older – people together in the UK and the EU doesn’t look like an option any more. Meetings are being moved online, though that can come with its own problems as tech providers deal with unexpected spikes in demand. So I can still earn a living, albeit a smaller one.

Then there’s the question of how to self-isolate. Usually when I get home from a trip I turn to domestic tasks such as shopping. My partner agreed to do that instead of me, so I offered to put everything away. While I was waiting I read some more and learned that the virus may be able to survive on hard surfaces for days. So, after putting away the shopping, I washed my hands again – and resolved to continue my frequent and regular hand washing during this period of self-isolation.

I won’t be going to shops or to the gym; I’ll be doing my grocery shopping online and doing yoga and lifting weights at home. I’ll call my hairdresser and discuss my planned appointment for Tuesday – if it’s just him and me in the salon, and I wear gloves throughout, maybe that would be OK. (I’m aware that he runs a small business and needs the work, so at this stage I’ll take the decision with him rather than unilaterally.) I will be using contactless payment and bank transfers for everything so as not to handle cash, in accordance with WHO advice. And so on.

There are so many decisions to make. How much distance do I need to keep from my partner? That’s a really hard one. We hugged when we were reunited yesterday, but we haven’t hugged since, though that’s not a firm decision. We are due to visit friends down south next weekend; I guess we won’t go, but we haven’t actually decided. A nearby friend had a baby recently and I’ve been longing to visit but now I doubt that will be happening any time soon. I miss my friends already, but at least I can talk to people on the phone, or text, or tweet.

I’m looking forward to Monday morning when I can go to my office in my usual work routine. I’m looking forward to a time when conversations don’t centre on the pandemic. I’m looking forward to feeling able to move freely again. But in the meantime, while my Government seems to be looking the other way, and the press supporting the Government have suggested that a coronavirus-induced ‘cull’ of elderly people could benefit the economy, I will be self-isolating because I am persuaded, by the evidence, that it is the most sensible course of action.

If you would like to quote from or share this post, please do. Let’s support our health services. Let’s save lives.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Twelve Top Tips For Writing An Academic Book Blurb

blurbThe ‘blurb’ is the text on the back of a book’s cover which tells you what the book is about. It’s not simply a description, though; it is also a sales tool. For this reason some people find blurbs difficult, even distasteful to write.

Do you want to know a secret? I love writing blurbs. This is partly because I love writing and I always enjoy a different and interesting wordsmithing job. It’s also because I enjoy a chance to show off. For the same reason, I like being interviewed for contracts, giving keynotes, and running workshops. Generally speaking, showing off is regarded as bad form, but these are situations where you’re supposed to show off. And so is writing a blurb.

I do understand why blurb writing can feel difficult and distasteful for some people, particularly academics who are trained not to over-claim – and so may spend much of their time actually under-claiming in their efforts to follow academic convention. Generally speaking I think that’s a good thing, but when you’re writing a blurb, you need to use a different register. If you’re one of the people who finds blurb-writing difficult – or perhaps you’re coming to this task for the first time – these tips should help you to write an irresistible blurb.

  1. Start by studying some blurbs of books in your field. Take note of what appeals to you, what puts you off, and in particular what might encourage you to open the book and start reading.
  2. Go back to your book’s proposal and manuscript reviews and pull out every complimentary word, phrase and sentence into a new document. Think about which of these you could use in your blurb, and how.
  3. Revisit the proposal you wrote for your book. Look for ideas or wording you can use in your blurb.
  4. Explain as clearly as possible what your book does that no other book does.
  5. Use strong language. I don’t mean swearing (unless you’re in a very particular kind of sub-genre), I mean words like “first”, “brilliant”, “ground-breaking” – especially such words that were used by your reviewers and/or in your proposal. This kind of language inspires curiosity in potential readers.
  6. Specify who your book is for. This could be by category of people (students, teachers, early career researchers) or by interest (e.g. anyone with an interest in urban design and planning).
  7. Work hardest on the first sentence; it’s the most important. Make it as compelling as you can.
  8. Work almost as hard on the last sentence. Fiction blurbs often use a cliff-hanger (“Will Curtis ever recover from his terrible ordeal?” “Can Lila catch the serial killer before more nurses die?”). Academic books can rarely do this but at least we can try to be intriguing.
  9. Make every single word count. Blurbs are usually limited to 100-150 words so there’s no room for waffle.
  10. Expect input from your publisher’s marketing people. They’re good at this kind of thing. For example, the second sentence of the blurb for Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners says “Brilliantly attuned to the demands placed on researchers, this book considers how students, academics and professionals alike can save time and stress without compromising the quality of their research or its outcomes.” I have to credit Kathryn King, marketing manager at Policy Press, for most of this sentence, perhaps all, and certainly its opening.
  11. If you don’t get input from your publisher – or even if you do – test out your blurb on a few friends or colleagues who you can trust to give you honest constructive feedback.
  12. Be prepared to revise and revise and polish and polish and revise some more.

One piece of advice often given to blurb writers is to be sure to use your own voice. I only agree with this up to a point, because it’s not like any of us only have one voice. Think how you might talk to a tired two-year-old or to a police officer who has just stopped you in the street. Different voices, right? And so it is with books and blurbs. In the book, you’re talking to your reader; you know they’re there with you. In the blurb, you’re trying to persuade them to join you. Again, think how your voice might differ in equivalent real-life situations: perhaps where you’re chatting to a friend over a table in a coffee shop, versus standing in the street trying to persuade your friend to join you for a coffee when you really want them to say “yes”.

Ultimately, that’s what your blurb needs to do: persuade potential readers to say “yes”, to become actual readers, to take your words and ideas along with them.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

 

Why I Don’t Do Digital Chain Reactions

digital chainI only know one person, now, who shares Facebook posts saying things like ‘share this post and your dearest wish will come true by midnight’. I haven’t seen a really horrible digital chain reaction (“share this or one of your friends will DIE”) for a long time. Most digital chains seem to have morphed into forms of niceness, particularly among women, at least in my corner of the cybersphere. But I still don’t pass them on.

There are several reasons for this. First, there is already way too much noise on social media. It’s very rare that I will even share a petition I sign, though those signatures are sometimes prompted by others’ shares. More often they’re prompted by emails direct from organisations such as 38 Degrees and SumOfUs. I’m happy to receive those emails because I support the work of those organisations. I’m also happy to sign most of the petitions. I get increasingly fed up with the resulting shouty webpages NOW SHARE ON SOCIAL MEDIA TO TRIPLE YOUR IMPACT (no) THEN GIVE US SOME MONEY INSTEAD YOU TIGHT GIT (also no). (I don’t think the wording of the latter is entirely accurate, but that’s how it comes across to me, particularly as I’m already a monthly donor by direct debit.)

We all get too many emails. I got one recently asking me to send one of my favourite poems to the woman at the top of the list, add my name to the bottom, forward it on and in a few days I should receive a bunch of lovely poems to read. Wouldn’t that be nice?

No. No, it wouldn’t.

I love reading poetry; I read at least one poem most days. I support poets by buying and reviewing their books, particularly those by contemporary women, often women of colour. I don’t want to read a random selection of poems that other people like because the odds are I won’t like most of those poems. I may not even be able to read them all depending on the language of a sender’s favourite poem. (There seemed to be a tacit assumption in the email that everyone would send poems in English, which seemed a bit odd; I don’t think it would necessarily be the case.) And what about intellectual property? Do we have the right to share whole poems by email if they’re still in copyright?

I already get far too many emails from people I don’t know. I don’t want more, even if they include poems.

Then there’s Twitter. Last week a Twitter chain broke out saying ‘Amplifying the voices of at least 10 women who are amazing in so many ways… and keep it going.’ Then a list of 10 twitter handles of women. No doubt all of those women are amazing in many ways, but I do not understand how listing people on Twitter amplifies their voices.

If I want to amplify the voice of an amazing woman, I will listen to or read her first, then do what I can to amplify her voice: pass on her wisdom to others and tell them where it came from, share her work online and explain why I’m doing so, review her books, go to her exhibitions or gigs or other events whenever I can, review those too, and so on. Here’s a recent example:

There is something quite knee-jerk and thoughtless about the list approach which was exemplified by one tweeter this week including the name of a woman I knew from several projects and conferences and many online chats, and respected and liked very much, who died in March 2019. She was an enthusiastic adopter and user of social media and, although I’ll never know for sure, I suspect she would have shared my misgivings on this topic.

Also the ‘amplifying the voices’ tweets are quite honestly, like most lists, boring to read. They remind me of the late unlamented Follow Friday. I would rather work to create interesting content for my followers, or just chat with people about whatever is on our minds.

On any platform these chains are a gift for hackers, spammers and bots. Also they are unsustainable. Like pyramid selling, their growth is exponential so they can’t go on indefinitely. If everyone joins in they will work for a while, which probably helps to explain their enduring appeal through the principle of partial reinforcement (variable-ratio for the psych majors out there – it’s what keeps people gambling even though they mostly lose). But not everyone will join in. Like me, for example. I used to, with the nice ones, but I found they didn’t lead anywhere. So now I don’t.

The weird thing is, I still feel a bit churlish. Like a grumpy old party-pooping woman. Even though I have lots of coherent reasons for not doing digital chain reactions. Maybe it’s because of the niceness overlay. Share petitions on issues you care about! Send people poems! Amplify voices! How can you refuse?

Increasingly, I find I can. Join me? We have nothing to lose but our chains.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Random Acts of Kindness Day: Thanking Anonymous Reviewers

kindness 2Taking to Twitter this morning as usual, I discovered that today is Random Acts of Kindness Day (aka #RandomActsOfKindnessDay). My first thought was bah, just one day? One out of 365 (or even 366 in this leap year)? That’s rubbish; let’s commit random acts of kindness EVERY day!

Then I got an email from one of my editors. She had recently sent me three excellent anonymous manuscript reviews: engaged, thoughtful, really helpful to me in improving the text. It seems so unfair that they have to be anonymous; I wish I could credit them by name. I wrote a short email to each reviewer to thank them which I included in an email to my editor with a request that she forward them on. This morning she replied:

Thanks too for sending your responses to the reviewers, which I will send on.  I’ve never been asked to do this before and think it’s a lovely thing to do, especially when peer review can be quite a fraught process…

My editor has been working in academic publishing for almost 20 years. And she has never been asked to do this before.

I have always written thank-you emails to manuscript reviewers, and where possible to reviewers of journal articles. These are people who have spent hours, perhaps even days, helping me to improve my work for no recognition whatsoever. I know this is how academia works, but it seems to me simple human courtesy to say thank you.

I say ‘always’ and that’s not quite true. There was the time I got a manuscript review which was only half a page long and with nothing I could use. Some journals seem to have no way for people to get in touch other than the automated online submission system. I know some people get destructively critical or even abusive reviews, though luckily for me I haven’t had those. Whenever I can and it’s merited – which in my experience it almost always is – I say thank you.

Why don’t other people do this? If it’s just ‘not done in academia’ then that’s reason no. 48367 why I’m glad I’m an independent researcher. I honestly thought everyone would be doing it. Though if I’d given it proper thought, I’d have realised I’ve never had a ‘thank you’ from an author whose work I’ve reviewed anonymously…

So anyway, it turned out I did a random act of kindness today without even realising. But how about we make it not random? If you’ve recently benefited from anonymous peer review, can you find a way to send a short thank-you note to your reviewer?

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog (a random act of kindness!) if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Collaborative Book Writing – The End Stage

online collaborationRecently I’ve been writing books in collaboration with other authors. I collaborated with Dr Janet Salmons (aka @einterview) on Publishing From Your Doctoral Research which was published last December. I have also been collaborating with Professor Richard Phillips (aka @PhillipsSpace) on Creative Writing in Social Research which is due for publication next January. We’ve just finished the draft manuscript and it’s gone for peer review.

The final stages of producing any book – or thesis, or dissertation – are tortuous for a solo writer. There are so many little details to check and re-check. Is each heading in the appropriate style? Does every citation in the text correspond to a reference in the bibliography? Is every reference in the bibliography cited in the text? Are there any typos? Does the text make sense? I have dreamed of having someone to help with all this checking and re-checking, yet to my surprise it seemed even more tortuous when I was working collaboratively. This is no reflection whatsoever on my collaborators; they were both a delight to work with and I would happily work with either of them again. However, it seems to me that collaborating may be easier for strategic and creative tasks than in painstakingly detailed work.

Janet is based in Colorado and when we were finishing our book, the number of emails whizzing back and forth across the Atlantic was enormous. They said things like:

“I’ve restructured chapter 6 and I think it works better now, please could you take a look and see if you agree?”

“I’ve sorted out the figures, they’re all numbered and captioned now.”

“OMG – I’ve just noticed the chapter titles aren’t consistent – how did we miss THAT?!?”

And many, many more such messages. Working with Richard was easier in that he’s based in the UK and, what’s more, works at a university which is only a short journey from me. So at times we could meet up in person to go through comments and make decisions together. At other times we met on Skype, as I also did with Janet. Not that speaking in real time is foolproof – more than once I wrote down something one of my collaborators said, then found later that my notes made no sense.

In my latest meeting with Richard we divided up the final tasks. Here’s the to-do list I scribbled at my desk the next morning:

book finishing to-do list

I rarely write by hand these days, but this task was so complex I felt the need for an old-skool list rather than the digital ones I usually use. Getting through that lot took me about three working days. The deadline was tight, and I had to fit the work around other commitments, so I ended up working till 10 pm two nights in a row. I don’t usually work in the evenings because my brain shuts down around 6-7 pm, but checking references is fairly mindless work so I saved that for the late sessions. Once my tasks were complete, Richard had a list of similar length, and it took him a good few days, too, to get through all his tasks.

The lesson I learned from all of this is that the end stage of a collaborative book is at least as time-consuming for each author as the end stage of a solo-authored book. This is counter-intuitive: you’d think that with two of you, it would take each person half as long as if they were working alone. In some parts of the book writing work that’s (almost) the case – but not at the end stage. So when I next collaborate on a book, I will allocate the same amount of time to the end stage as I would if I was doing it all myself. Then, with luck, I won’t need to work in the evenings.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Bureaucracy and Ethics

bureaucracy #2I was doing a telephone interview for a client this morning and my interviewee, let’s call them Ali, said something that made me stop and think. Ali had spent around 35 years working for local government and was talking about the devastation of public service budgets in the UK which has left some local areas with no services for those in need of support as a result of mental health problems, domestic violence, chronic illness, and so on.

“People are seeing a need,” Ali told me, “and setting up projects in neighbourhoods to help each other. But they’re quite naïve. They don’t understand the need for proper health and safety procedures, DBS checks, and compliance with other statutory regulations.”

What I wanted to say to Ali, but didn’t because I was being a professional interviewer at the time, was that I don’t understand the need for those things either. This reminded me about the Casserole Club, set up by the UK coalition Government in 2011, the idea being that those who were able to cook an extra plate of food could share it with a hungry lonely person nearby. What a great idea, I thought, and went to check it out. I found that I needed to fill in a lengthy application form, pass a food hygiene test – and, yes, have a DBS check to confirm that I have no criminal record.

After my grandma died, my 88-year-old grandfather struck a deal with a nearby neighbour to bring him a plate of dinner every evening. He paid for the ingredients but she cooked the food and brought it round with love, for four years until he also died. She didn’t fill in an application form, pass an exam, or interact with bureaucracy in any way; she just did what her neighbour needed, and he contributed what he could.

I didn’t join in with the Casserole Club. I was put off by the bureaucracy. I was also a little bit ashamed of myself for being deterred by having to fill in a few forms and take a test – but nevertheless that was the case. The Club appears to have fizzled out at a national level and many local levels too – the most recent posts on the national Facebook page and on the page from my locality are dated 2015 – and I wonder how much of a role bureaucracy played in that failure.

I think bureaucracy is often counter-productive. Yesterday I was teaching ‘Ethical Thinking and Decision-Making In Practice’ to doctoral students at the University of Manchester. Several students spoke of their concerns about the system of ethical approval at UK universities. As they talked, I could see that they viewed ethics as a barrier to get around, a hurdle to jump, a bureaucratic obstruction to their research. I feel sad that our ethical governance systems have moved so far from helping researchers to work more ethically. They seem all about compliance and policing, and not at all about raising ethical standards or improving ethical practice.

I’m not advocating total anarchy; researchers certainly need to operate within the laws of the country or countries where we work, and I believe we should act as ethically as we can. But it seems to me that for researchers to be more ethical, we need less regulation and more education.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $47 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $47 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Too Tired To Blog

PFYDR coverThere’s lots I could write about this week. I could write a post around my new book, out this very week: Publishing From Your Doctoral Research, co-written with Janet Salmons, the first book in the series I’m co-editing with Pat Thomson. I’m proud of this book and happy to see it in print – and it’s currently on special offer through the above link for only £14.39 (paperback). But mid-December is a rubbish time to publish a book because everyone is preoccupied with the holidays.

I could write about the winter lurgy I’ve been suffering from this week, and the importance of rest and recuperation, though that would be a real case of ‘do as I say not as I do’. I could write something creative about the forthcoming festivals – winter solstice, Hanukah, Christmas, Hogmanay, and so on.

tiredThis has been a helluva year workwise. I could focus on that: calculate how many train journeys I’ve taken, how many beds I’ve slept in – it would be a lot. That’s mainly why I’m so tired, I think. I’m not short of material for this blog; I’m short of energy. I need a break. So I’m going to have one. Beginning on Friday, when I won’t have done all the jobs I wanted to do, but I will have done all that I can. I’ll start work again on Monday 30 December, but I’m going to take a slightly longer digital break – I’ve already ducked out of Instagram, and I’ll be weaning myself off Twitter and Facebook over the next few days. I’ll be back online, in the New Year, when I’m ready. This blog, too, will be quiet now until the first full week of January. I wonder what I’ll post about then… I envy my fellow bloggers who can generate several posts in one go; I almost always write mine the same week as I publish them. It’ll be a whole new decade. I wonder if I will feel any different. I doubt it, really – except for, I hope, a little less tired.

Wishing you, too, an enjoyable and restful break. Especially if you’re one of my beloved Patrons.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $45 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $45 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!