Why writing is never fixed or final

I am working on the third edition of my first research methods book. Books like this, if they sell enough copies, are regularly updated into new editions. There are a few reasons for this. One is that ideas develop and the world changes, which means updates are needed. Another is that a new book usually has a comparatively small word count to help keep the price down; when it is proven to sell well, there is a business case for an increased word count and a slightly higher price. A third is that authors and readers think of more topics which could usefully be included.

The second edition of this book had 12 chapters; the third will have 16. I only have around 12,000 new words to play with, but fortunately some of the new chapters are chapters which were already rather long and still need new material, so have been split into two. There are only two completely new chapters, and one of those also has a chunk of content which I have moved over from another long chapter in the previous version. So, while there will be around 12,000 words of new content, only one of the four new chapters has to be written from scratch.

I regularly teach creative academic writing (aka academic writing it’s all creative), mostly to doctoral students who are faced with the terrifying task of writing a book. It’s called a thesis or a dissertation, depending on which country you are in, which makes it sound different from writing a book. But it’s not really different. Even a shorter thesis or dissertation of 40–50,000 words is equivalent in length to a Mills & Boon novel. An 80,000-word thesis or dissertation is equivalent to a standard paperback, and 100,000 words would be a larger paperback. Nobody tells doctoral students that they have to write a book – but, in effect, that is exactly what they have to do. Most theses and dissertations have chapters, contents, acknowledgements and other such book-like features. As the saying almost goes, if it looks like a book and quacks like a book it is probably a book.

Students often think writing a book is a similar process to reading: start with ‘Chapter One’ and then it’s one word after another until you get to ‘The End’. Nope. It is always difficult to convey the process of writing a book to someone who hasn’t written one, because describing is not the same as doing, and the only way to really understand how it works is to write one yourself. Which is a really difficult task, even if you have written several already. All I can do is to tell my students, in as many ways as I can, that most of us start in the middle even if we think we are starting at the beginning; it is fine to write fragments, or lists, or mind-maps; all of your work will go through at least three drafts; nothing is fixed, even when it’s published. I watch the level of comprehension on people’s faces vary from ‘utterly bemused’ to ‘penny dropped’. I know it’s pretty much impossible to learn about a process without any relevant experience, and I throw out blobs of wisdom hoping some of them will stick. (Some do. I once had a tweet from a former student, 18 months after I taught their class, saying ‘I just realised what you meant when you said…’ – it was lovely to know one of my blobs had landed after all that time.)

Perhaps the part students have most difficulty with is understanding that writing is never fixed or final. It looks so fixed, when you make a mark on a page; it seems indelible. But it’s not. You can move, change, edit, delete, add… Even published work isn’t fixed or final. This published blog post can be changed if I see a need for change. And, as new editions of books show, even published books are not final.

Once you understand this, it is a useful counter to perfectionism. In fact, it is not surprising that perfectionism is an enemy of writing, because writing can hardly ever be perfect (maybe a few shorter poems). Writers need to put down any perfectionism they may be holding, and simply be willing to do the best they can today. We also need to accept that this day’s ‘best’ is rarely the same as the next day’s ‘best’. When you look again at something you wrote last month or last year or last decade, it can make you cringe and wonder what on earth you were thinking. Which does not mean you are, or were, a bad writer; it means you have learned new things since then.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

A simple guide to ethical co-authorship

This post was originally published on the LSE Impact Blog in March 2021.

Ethical co-authorship is rarely discussed by authors and publishers, and even more rarely by research ethics committees. Yet co-authorship is a notorious site for unethical practices such as: plagiarism, citation manipulation, and ghost, guest and gift authors. For authors setting out on a collaborative writing project, two key aspects to ethical co-authorship need consideration: ethical co-writing and ethical co-publishing.

Ethical co-writing

Being invited to write with one or more others can feel flattering and exciting. Hold on, though, because before you co-write a single sentence, it is sensible to figure out whether you can work well together and to ask yourself some simple questions. Do you share enough priorities and values? If so, do you have similar working practices, such as attitudes to timescales and deadlines? While diversity of authorship will bring richness to your co-authored work, you need enough similarity to ensure that you can work well together. There is no shame in finding you can’t collaborate with someone; it doesn’t devalue your scholarship or theirs. But, it is worth ensuring you make that discovery early, rather than after you have already invested considerable time and effort.

Agree on the format for the work, and who will take the lead on each section or chapter. Different people can have very different ideas about format and structure, and again it is worth establishing this at the outset, rather than ending up with sections or chapters of wildly varying lengths and structures. This won’t impress reviewers and will create an unnecessarily large amount of work at the editing stage.

When you decide on deadlines, always build in contingency time. Things go wrong in people’s lives, particularly during a pandemic, and those affected need time to deal with their difficulties. Be willing to compromise or, in a group collaboration, to be outvoted. If you want to have everything your own way – write alone – though you will still have to deal with others, reviewers and editors; to adapt a famous saying, the sole-authored paper is dead.

Encourage your co-authors to adopt ethical citation practices. This means avoiding citation manipulation, i.e. excessive self-citation, excessive citation of another’s work, or excessive citation of work from the journal or publisher where you want to place your own work. It also means ensuring a good level of diversity within your citations. Who are the marginalised scholars working in your field: the people of colour, the women, the Indigenous scholars, the scholars from the global South, the LGBT+ scholars, and so on? Make sure you read and cite their work, engaging in co-writing can be an opportunity to reassess what literatures have become central to your research.

When you give feedback to your co-authors, make it constructive: tell them what they are doing well, what needs improvement, and how they can make that improvement. When co-authors give you feedback on your writing, accept it gracefully, even if you don’t feel very graceful. Respond positively, or at least politely, or at worst diplomatically. Maintaining relationships with your co-authors can be more important and may even take precedence over being right.

Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it. If you have a problem that is going to get in the way of your co-authoring, let your co-author(s) know as soon as possible.

Ethical co-publishing

Academic publishing is troubled by ghost, guest and gift authors, if you are in doubt, COPE provides a useful flowchart detailing these practices. Ghost authors are those who have contributed to a publication but are not named as a co-author, perhaps because they are a doctoral student or early career academic and a senior academic has decided to take the credit for their work. This is a form of plagiarism. Guest authors are those who have not contributed to the writing of a publication, though they may have lent equipment or run the organisation where the research took place. Gift authors are those who have made no contribution at all, but are offered co-author status as a favour. None of these practices are ethical. It doesn’t matter if some co-authors do more work than others, as long as everyone involved is happy with that, but you should be clear about each co-author’s contribution to the work, and outline that in a statement in the final draft.

Another ethical issue in co-publication is the order in which authors are named. This varies between disciplines. In economics, co-authors of journal articles are named in alphabetical order, while in sociology the co-author who has made the largest contribution is named first. Heather Sarsons studied this and found that the system used in economics has an adverse effect on academic women’s career prospects, while the sociology system does not.

However, this does not mean the sociology system is perfect. What if two or three authors have contributed equally? An alternative option could be to write enough articles or chapters for each co-author to have first authorship on one of them, but this isn’t always possible or desirable. Some scholars use pseudonyms to ensure that equal contributions are recognised. Economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson published several books and journal articles under the joint name J.K. Gibson-Graham, some of which were ‘sole’ authored and some with other co-authors. Geographers Caitlin Cahill, Sara Kindon, Rachel Pain and Mike Kesby have published together under the name Mrs C. Kinpaisby-Hill, and Kindon, Pain and Kesby have collectively used the name Mrs Kinpaisby. Professors EJ Renold and Jessica Ringrose work together as EJ Ringold.

This isn’t always an option, though, as publishers are not always happy to take an unconventional route. Book publishers for instance, will usually want as first author the person whose name they consider most likely to help sell copies. And, journal editors are sometimes reluctant to name participants who have co-authored journal articles, even when they evidently want to be named.

Acting ethically while co-writing is easier than acting ethically to co-publish, because authors have more autonomy while writing. Self-publishing may present opportunities for more creative representations of co-authorship practices, but self-published work is not generally valued by academia. Bumping up against the structures and priorities of big business, whether a publisher or a university, can make it more difficult for people to maintain an ethical course. Perhaps the most ethical option is to place work with a journal or publisher that is not for profit, so you are not contributing to shareholders’ dividends but to organisations that invest any surplus back into research dissemination.

To some extent, co-authorship is an academic virtue in itself. Co-authors learn from each other and help each other develop as researchers and scholars. Co-authored work is often stronger than it would have been if sole-authored. If we can also co-author ethically, that will further improve the quality of our collaborations and our outputs.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

Creative Data Analysis – Call for Chapter Proposals

I have wanted to make a book on creative methods of analysing data for years. I knew it wasn’t a book I could write on my own unless I did a load of research. I would have loved to do that, but I needed funding, and there are very few funds I can apply to as an independent researcher. I did try Leverhulme but got nowhere. Then I thought about an edited collection, which I probably could have done on my own but I figured it would work better with co-editors. And I wasn’t sure who to ask, so the whole thing stayed on my wishlist.

Then, back in February, I co-hosted a webinar for my publisher Policy Press on creativity in research. My co-hosts were Dawn Mannay from Cardiff University and Alastair Roy from the University of Central Lancashire. We had over 200 attendees on the day, and far more questions than we could answer, including several questions about creative data analysis. This reminded me of my wish to make a book on the subject, so I asked Dawn and Ali if they would co-edit with me. And they both said yes!

Over the summer we have worked with Philippa Grand, my lovely editor at Policy Press, to put together the call for chapter proposals. I am really pleased with what we have produced, not least because we managed to keep it to one page of A4. I can’t wait to see the proposals that come in – though I will have to because the deadline isn’t until 31 December. But I feel so happy about this book because I know researchers in all disciplines around the world are devising and adapting analytic methods in many creative and useful ways, and I am really glad to have an opportunity to help collate some of that information so it can help other researchers in the current and in future generations.

Having said that, there is a whole process to go through. Once we have accepted and organised the chapter proposals, we need to write a proposal for the book, which will be peer-reviewed before Policy Press make a decision on whether or not to publish it. Then we need to work with the chapter authors to help them produce their chapters to a good standard, and write a useful introduction and conclusion. After that the manuscript will be peer reviewed, and then we will need to support chapter authors with their revisions as well as making our own. Then the book will go into production, probably in late 2022 or early 2023, for publication in mid-2023.

After the frenzy of rapid publication last year, this seems almost glacially slow. And I am impatient! But I would rather make a good book than a quick book – I know it is possible to do both, but I also like having a life, so actually this is fine by me.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $87 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $87 – 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!


Are You An Ethical Writer?

word cloud of this blog, to date

Professional writers and speakers know that the way we think and feel influences the words we choose to write or speak. We may not understand so clearly that the words we choose to use can influence the thoughts and feelings of others.

A generation ago, women lobbied for changes to terminology which gave the impression that men were dominant – as indeed they were in Western society at that time. Up to 1978, for example, a woman could be fired from her job in the US for being pregnant, and up to 1982 UK pubs could refuse to serve women. But at the same time, women were beginning to take roles traditionally assigned to men, which led to some linguistic oddities. I remember feeling rather uncomfortable with being designated the ‘chairman’ of a committee, when ‘chairperson’ or simply ‘chair’ would have served as well. There were fierce arguments between those who believed that traditional language use supported the discriminatory status quo, and those who thought it made no difference.

Some people went further than I thought was sensible, replacing ‘history’ with ‘herstory’ (I can see the point of that in some circumstances, but the etymology of the word suggests that it’s much more about the ‘story’ than the ‘his’) or ‘woman’ with ‘womyn’ (I didn’t get that one at all). This kind of terminological tinkering led to the phrase ‘political correctness’ being used to discredit all attempts to replace sexist terms with existing, sensible, neutral terms. I still wince when I see reports of women ‘manning a stall’ – what’s wrong with ‘staffing’? But it’s now quite usual to speak of a ‘police officer’ rather than ‘policeman’ or ‘policewoman’, and a ‘flight attendant’ rather than an ‘air hostess’ or ‘steward’. These changes in terminology have moved in parallel with increasing opportunities and equality for women in the Western world over recent decades.

However, there is some new terminology that I think is unhelpful for some sections of society. I read an interesting article in the Guardian last week in which the non-fiction writer Steven Poole gave a very thoughtful analysis of the unintentional difficulties caused by the phrase ‘first world problems’. The article is worth reading if you have time. He shows how the reductive use of ‘first world’, with its implicit opposition to the ‘third world’ (which is itself an unfashionable term these days), enables people to condescend, patronise, humblebrag, sidestep compassion, and generally dehumanise pretty much everyone.

Also last week, on social media, I questioned someone’s use of the American phrase ‘wife beater’ to describe a sleeveless t-shirt. I’m not naming the person here because they didn’t welcome my questioning and I don’t want them to think I’m trying to start some kind of online war. The person I questioned is someone I follow because, in my view, they do valuable work online to highlight social inequality. Their casual use of the phrase ‘wife beater’, with its implication that domestic violence can be acceptable, seemed to sit oddly with their pro-equality stance. I am sure this was unintentional on their part; I can think of a number of other words and phrases that I’m sure they wouldn’t use at all because of the discriminatory implications.

Another one is the new-ish way of designating something as in some way poor by saying ‘it gets old really fast’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, and I am becoming increasingly aware of the discrimination and difficulties experienced by the older members of our society. I would prefer colloquial usage of the word ‘old’ to have positive connotations.

These examples have become stock phrases, akin to cliches. And cliches are evidence of lazy thinking. All this has implications for us as writers. Writing is a creative process, and that includes academic writing. Stories must be told, words and structures chosen, and these processes are permeated with creativity. Academics, altacs and researchers, earn our livings with our brains. I would argue that we have an ethical responsibility to avoid the lazy cliche and express our new thinking in fresh language. Also, we should try to remain aware of the potential effects of our creative choices on our readers. It is our responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that we don’t use language in a way that could support discriminatory actions or practices.

Indie Publishing for Academia – Ten Top Tips

SYPhD_green_SQmarks_noblend_LC2_RGBThree weeks ago I became an indie publisher as well as an indie researcher and writer. In that time, my embryonic publishing company, Know More Publishing (see what I did there?!), has gained a website. Also, my first short affordable e-book, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, has gained three five-star reviews on Amazon UK and a fourth on Amazon US. I didn’t bribe a single reviewer!

It’s around a year since I decided to go down this road, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. I think there’s a great deal of potential in indie publishing for academics, altacs, doctoral students and others. Indie publishing doesn’t figure in organisational performance metrics, which creates a barrier for some people, though perhaps one day it will. But it’s a great way to produce work which is too long for academic journals, or doesn’t fit their requirements, but is shorter than a traditionally published book. And it’s open access – you can make your work available for free if you wish, or at a very low cost.

On the down side, there is no quality control. I know there are arguments about whether the peer review system actually enhances quality, but editors certainly do, if they’re doing their jobs properly. With indie publishing, it is possible to plonk any old drivel online for sale. That’s not the kind of indie publishing I advocate. I worked in traditional publishing, I write for traditional publishers, and I have loved books all my life. So I want to see good quality indie publishing from academia and its associates, and to publish good quality books myself. Here are my ten top tips for anyone who shares my aims.

  1. Write something nobody else has written. As an academic or altac, you should be used to spotting gaps in literature. Your work will gain much more interest from others if it’s the only one of its kind.
  1. Get feedback on your writing. Starting Your PhD went through three sets of beta readers, from potential doctoral students to experienced supervisors. It wouldn’t have been worth publishing without their input.
  1. Use a professional editor. It doesn’t matter how experienced a writer you are, you will have blind spots. I know I did. I will always pay to have my books edited by a skilled professional who can bring fresh eyes and a keen brain to improving my text.
  1. Unless you are really good at design yourself, use a professional cover designer. You need someone who knows about book covers, how to make them stand out even at thumbnail size on a mobile device.
  1. Join the Alliance of Independent Authors. This worldwide organisation has approved ‘partner members’ including editors and cover designers which is useful if you don’t have people in your networks with those skills. They also have an active and ALLiEthicalAuthor_Badgesupportive closed group on Facebook where you can get help with all aspects of indie writing and publishing. And they have an Ethical Author code, as well as a publicly accessible searchable blog full of sound advice.
  1. Be prepared to do lots of promotional work. As an indie publisher, you’re not only the author, you’re also the sales and marketing departments for your work. This could involve anything from chatting on Twitter to lugging print copies around with you. You will need to decide what you can do, when, and how. It doesn’t have to be much – but if you don’t do anything to promote your work, it will sink beneath the ocean of available literature.
  1. Buy ISBNs, aka International Standard Book Numbers. These are the 10 or 13 digit numbers used by cataloguing systems to identify each unique book. You can only buy them from one organisation in each country, they’re not cheap (though the more you buy, the cheaper each number becomes), and you can’t transfer them between publishers or even leave them in your will. Also they take ten days to issue, so don’t leave this until the last minute, or you’ll have to postpone your book launch (like I did, ahem). You can get free identifiers such as ASINs from distributors such as Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble (Nook), but these are distribution codes, not unique book identifiers – or if they are actual ISBNs, they are owned and assigned by the distributor, not by you. This effectively means you are giving away part of the control you have over your work, and having control of your own work is a big part of the rationale for publishing independently in the first place. There’s a more detailed explanation of this on the Alliance of Independent Authors’ blog.
  1. Research the different ways you can publish your work – and expect to spend a considerable amount of time on this, as there are a lot of options. To begin with: e-book only, print only, or both? I’ve gone for e-book only, as I’m writing short books for students who will be comfortable with technology, and e-books are more affordable than print books. So then I decided to publish via Kindle Direct Publishing. This is a no-brainer even if you regard Amazon as the evil empire, because you will sell most of your work from this platform, so if you’re not willing to do business with Amazon at all, don’t publish independently. I also decided to use Draft2Digital, who take a small commission from your income for distributing through most of the other major channels – Kobo, Barnes & Noble (Nook), iBooks, Scribd etc – and they’re very helpful when you get stuck with your uploading, as I did. You could upload your work with each platform individually, and save yourself the commission; it’s your decision whether the hassle is worth the benefit. I decided that, for me, it wasn’t – and my sales figures, so far, bear this out (see below). I might decide to produce print books one day, in which case I’d use CreateSpace on the advice of fellow members of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
  1. Launch your book with some kind of a fanfare – then relax. I had a virtual launch day with a dedicated blog post and a lot of tweeting. Ten days later I went on holiday, which was excellent timing, as the process of preparing and publishing the e-book was much more difficult, stressful, and exhausting than I anticipated. I won’t be able to take a holiday every time, but I’m going to build in at least a weekend off after each one from now on.
  1. Write another book. Full disclosure: in the first three weeks, I’ve made £56.48 from sales on Amazon and $6.30 from sales through Draft2Digital. Not bad for a first e-book priced at £1.99/$2.99. However, given that I’ve shelled out around £500 on editing, cover design, and ISBNs, at this rate it will be six months before I break even. But I have a cunning plan for world domination: the next book in this series, Gathering Data For Your PhD, will be out in November, and I have four more planned for 2016. There is clear evidence that the more you publish and promote, the more readers you will acquire. This applies in the same way to free material.

I hope my learning over the last year will benefit others. If you decide to go down the indie publishing road, do let me know. At present I only know of two other academic types who are doing this: Dr Nathan Ryder, who has published a couple of very useful short e-books on preparing for your viva, and Dr Jenna Condie, who has a book of blog posts on sustainable urbanisation. If you know of other academic indie publishers, please leave a comment. Let’s start a movement!

AcWriMo Progress Report

Over a week into AcWriMo and how is it going? For me: not too well so far.

My target is to finish and submit one sole-authored paper and one joint-authored paper. The joint-authored paper I planned to work on has mostly been drafted by a colleague, who asked me to write a couple of sections in return for a second authorship. We talked about this back in the summer, I said I’d be happy to help, and my colleague agreed to email me all the necessary information by the end of October. It hasn’t arrived.

I’m not surprised; I know my colleague is over-stretched. Nor do I mind, as I have another joint-authored paper to work on instead. This one has been in the doldrums for months, after a rejection from a journal, and again I’m second author so haven’t been able to move it along. I did offer some gentle encouragement, but that didn’t make any difference, and there’s a fine line between gentle encouragement and nagging which I didn’t want to cross. However, we now have the opportunity to publish in an edited collection instead of an academic journal, which is much easier, so that’s a good incentive for the lead author to get cracking. I’ve already given feedback on a couple of drafts, and am hoping a nearly-final version will appear in my inbox very soon.

The sole authored paper features a co-produced evaluation I led around a year ago. If we can, it would be good to publish this in an open-access journal, but that requires a budget. So I’m waiting to find out whether the commissioners of the evaluation want to pay for publication, as I don’t have a spare three thousand pounds myself. I have started work on this paper: I’ve downloaded quite a bit of relevant literature, and begun reading and thinking. But I don’t yet know which journal we’ll submit to first, and I would like some idea of the required word count and style, and likely readership, before I write anything substantive.

Luckily, there are still three more weeks of November. So there’s every chance I’ll get both papers done. Either way, I’ll let you know.

And if you’re doing AcWriMo: how is it going for you?

A sweet tweet

These are the kinds of tweets that warm an author’s heart – thank you, Amanda Taylor!

(It also shows one of my lovely bookplates, designed by Carol Burns. If you’ve got a copy of my book and would like a signed bookplate, please get in touch and let me know. No charge.)

Previous blog posts

For the last couple of years I have been a blog cuckoo, laying my wordy eggs in other people’s blog nests.  Here is a round-up of the posts I’ve made elsewhere.

I began on the British Library‘s Social Science blog, writing on ‘What do practitioners need to know about research?’

Then I went to the Policy Press blog and wrote about the covert censorship of Gold Open Access.

On Eva Langsoght’s blog, PhD Talk, I wrote about managing the research process.

Then on Sukh Pabial’s blog I wrote on how to unlearn separatist learning.

On the NVivo blog I wrote about how to add value to your research with diagrams and models.

Most recently I’ve been back on the Policy Press blog, beginning a series on ‘a year in the life of an academic writer’.  So far I’ve covered me and my books, why another blog on academic writing?, where a book begins, how much pre-writing research you need to do, three compromises you have to make when writing a book, the difficult second book in a genre, dealing with reviewers’ comments, and impostor syndrome. And now I intend to continue that series here. Though I may still write for other blogs from time to time. Maybe even yours.