How To Find A Collaborator

The question to ask first is, when might you want to find a collaborator? Some work needs to be done alone, such as most doctoral research. Some work is sometimes best done alone, such as writing an opinion piece for a high-profile blog. But some work definitely needs to be done in collaboration. Most research benefits from collaboration. When I am commissioned to do a piece of research alone or with one other colleague, I always recommend that the commissioner set up a small group of relevant people to advise and steer the research project. And writing often benefits from collaboration too. In fact academic writing is always more or less collaborative: even if only one person is named as the author, the work will have been influenced by other scholars, colleagues, reviewers, editors – the list is long. And if more than one author is named, the work is likely to have benefited from the sustained engagement of more than one person.

Some work really needs collaborators. Three colleagues and I wrote Creative Research Methods in Education, and it was a better book, as a result, than it would have been if any three or two of us had worked on the project. I often receive requests to collaborate with others on research, or writing or both. Sometimes they are from friends or colleagues, and I always consider those carefully. Narelle Lemon from Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, suggested we work together on the education book when we first met in person. Sometimes requests to collaborate come from people I don’t know. The reception those ones get will vary depending on what the person is proposing and how they put that across. If the email is from a free email provider such as gmail, with lots of spelling mistakes, asking me to collaborate on research to help prove that hemlock cures cancer – and to contribute to the funding of that research – I will reach swiftly for the delete button. Conversely, if the email is from an organisational address, well written, and asking me to collaborate on work that is within one of my areas of expertise, I will respond – and if the enquirer mentions that they have a budget, I am likely to respond positively.

The best collaboration request I have had from a stranger came from Richard Phillips of Sheffield University. His initial message, in July 2018, simply said: “Dear Helen, I would like to explore the possibility of involving you in a workshop on creative writing and social research, and have a budget for this. It would be great to hear from you and discuss. Thanks, Richard.” Short, to the point, and very interesting indeed. I emailed straight back, and in his reply he told me he liked my book on creative research methods. Better and better! We spoke a couple of days later, met a couple of weeks after that, ran the workshop in November 2018, and our book on Creative Writing for Social Research was published in January 2021.

If you want to find a collaborator, the most important thing is to do your homework. If you want someone to co-write a journal article about the role of manicures in ex-convict rehabilitation, you need to find someone who shares that niche interest. And when you do find someone who seems suitable, make sure your potential collaborator likes to write; not everyone does. There should be no need to introduce yourself, because the person you are contacting should be able to find information about you online; if they can’t, they are much less likely to agree to collaborate with you.

Overall, people are more likely to agree to collaborate if you are their peer or above, the work you are proposing is within their areas of interest, and you have a budget. If you have nothing but passion for a project, it is still worth asking suitable people if they are willing to collaborate, but be prepared for rejection. Also, please be aware that offering to collaborate for free could put you at risk of being exploited. However much you care about an issue, it is equally important to take care of yourself.

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!

Collaborative Writing: Ten Top Tips

collaborative writingI last wrote about collaborative writing in February 2016 when I was having a crazy year of writing – much like this year. Since you ask, this year’s output is scheduled to be six books and five journal articles. Most of the books and journal articles are collaborations, and I’m also co-editing a book series. I love the variety: this year I’m collaborating with forensic scientists, education researchers, an anthropologist working in a sociology department, geographers, and comics professors. This enriches my professional life, as well as enabling me to produce far more work than I could do alone. (Though it is a bit hectic. I’m definitely planning to do less writing next year. But then I said that in 2016, too…)

I thought it might be useful to share some of the key things I’ve learned from collaborating across different disciplines and in different ways.

  1. You don’t need to be co-located to collaborate. I’m located in the UK. I’ve co-written a book with my good friend Janet Salmons who is based in the US, and the comics professors I’m working with are in Australia. Email and VOIP (Skype, Google Hangouts etc) make collaboration possible across distances and time zones.
  2. Collaborations of two are easier to manage than group collaborations – but group collaborations can result in richer outcomes.
  3. Regardless of how many people are in a collaboration, time spent figuring out how to work together is never wasted. If you don’t do this, you can end up in conflict, which is best avoided.
  4. In a group collaboration, such as to write a book or a professional document, it is sensible to agree on a format for each chapter or section before you start drafting. Different people may have very different ideas about structure. If you don’t agree on a format you risk ending up with chapters of very different lengths and structures which will leave you with a lot of work to do at the editing stage.
  5. To decide on hard deadlines such as publishing contracts, think about how long you’re likely to need then add some time for contingencies. With a collaboration there are more people in whose lives things can go wrong – and they do, and those people who are affected need time to deal with their difficulties.
  6. If you have a problem that is going to get in the way of your collaborative work, let your collaborator(s) know at the earliest opportunity.
  7. If you’re in several collaborations, find a way to keep track so you don’t inadvertently miss deadlines or otherwise fail to meet your obligations.
  8. Be willing to compromise and/or be outvoted. If you want to have everything your own way, work alone.
  9. When your collaborators give you feedback on your work, accept it gracefully even if you don’t feel at all thankful. Always respond positively, or at least politely, or at worst diplomatically. In collaborative work your relationships are more important than being right.
  10. When you’ve finished: celebrate!

Do you have any tips to add? If so, please share them in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – 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!

Collaborating Through A Book-Finishing Frenzy

collaboration on bookIn Meredith Belbin’s terms I am a Completer-Finisher which means I love to finish projects. The term describes a team role rather than a personality type, though it goes with personality traits such as having high standards (yep), being conscientious (yep), and anxiety (yes, though not to a debilitating level). Attention to detail is a feature of completer-finishers which is probably why I made a success of being a freelance proof-reader and copy editor for some years before I became a researcher.

Over the last few months I’ve been collaborating with Dr Janet Salmons (aka @einterview) from Boulder, Colorado, on a book called Publishing From Your Doctoral Research which will be published by Routledge next March. Janet, too, is a professional writer, who has produced some excellent books about online research. Like me, she is fascinated by methods and ethics, so we have a lot in common. We’re almost done with the manuscript of our book and had a Skype meeting last week to plan the final stages. Janet is dealing with all the tables and figures, the chapter summaries and good practice points, and reviewing the exercises and reflective questions that we have set. I have been dealing with the overviews, illustrative case studies, and the referencing. These tasks have involved pulling out each of these elements from the individual chapters into a Word document of their own and then reviewing them for consistency. This is an amazing way to spot glitches. For example, we realised our chapter overviews varied in length from 71 to 922 words. That’s such a big variation that our readers would have been likely to notice – or at least to pick up a sense of inconsistency, which is not what we’re aiming for. On the other hand, I don’t have the perfectionist/obsessive tendencies that can be the downside of the Completer-Finisher, so I didn’t think we needed each overview to be exactly the same length. We agreed that 300-500 words would be about right. Then we had a chunk of work to do to make that happen, adding to some overviews and deleting from others, which meant figuring out whether we could swap sentences between each overview and other places in that chapter or whether we had to gain new words or lose old ones altogether.

We have spent the last few days in a finishing frenzy. Emails have been hurtling back and forth at speeds hitherto unknown to science. I don’t know what Janet’s Belbin role is but I figured she was probably a Shaper. I ran this past her and she said yes and she also thinks we are both Plants because we’re creative and undeterred by obstacles. Makes sense to me, particularly as Plants work well alone on the whole, but also benefit from collaborating – that’s us both to a T! We’ve collaborated with each other before and she’s a joy to work with: responsive, inventive, diligent. It’s not easy, though, for either of us. We have to keep an eye on the whole picture (‘here’s the latest word count’) and the tiny details (‘can we think of a better title for our case studies?’) all at the same time. This makes your brain hurt. We have had the occasional version control problem, which is almost inevitable at this stage if you’re working at speed, and the odd thing has been overlooked here and there. Luckily we’re both forgiving of each other’s flaws and disinclined to sweat the small stuff.

All I really want to do is get the book done. It’s irritating to have to stop to do things like eat and sleep and answer emails. Hang on a minute, though – wasn’t I just claiming not to have obsessive tendencies? Oh… But I do stop for food and rest and correspondence! So… yeah. OK. You can stop rolling your eyes now, I admit I can be a teeny bit obsessive. (Just as well Janet is so tolerant!)

On the plus side, we can easily put in a 16-hour day between us. When I start work in the early UK morning, Janet is sleeping sweetly in her cosy bed. When she starts work, first thing in the US morning, it’s the afternoon here. We overlap for a few hours when we can Skype and whizz emails back and forth, then I knock off for the evening and Janet carries on into her afternoon. When I get to work the next morning there will be new emails from her, and by the time she gets to work there will be new emails from me. We both find that this is a very efficient and effective way of working.

In some ways it’s a bit odd having a sprint finish at the end of a marathon. I find it helpful, though, because otherwise it can be hard to let go. I have experienced that with my sole-authored books before. I don’t foresee any such problem with this book, perhaps partly because it’s a collaboration. When collaborations work well, as this one has, it’s so encouraging. Janet and I both feel very positive about this book; we think it will offer information, advice and guidance that late-stage and post- doctoral students really need but often struggle to find. It’s almost as if she and I are racing neck-and-neck to the finish, though we’re racing together rather than against each other. And that is what would make me drag my feet if anything could. I won’t be sorry to see the back of the book, but I will miss working with Janet.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $26 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $26 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons 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 Should We Be Collegial?

loom_weaving3I was interested in this post from the Research Whisperer yesterday, written by Tseen Khoo and inspired by a researcher who chooses to do nothing unless it will benefit their career. I recently wrote a post about why it’s important to learn to say ‘no’. Yet I believe, very strongly, that it’s also important to be collegial, to look out for others, to offer support and help where it’s needed and where you can give it freely. Tseen’s post got me thinking about why I believe that. What is so important about being collegial? Would it be so awful if we all just looked out for ourselves – and, if so, why?

For me, the key point about learning to say ‘no’ is that it enables us to conserve enough resources to look after ourselves and other people. Yes, ourselves first, though I see that as at the level of health and happiness, rather than at the level of career management like the researcher mentioned in Tseen’s post. Each of us is best placed to know what we can and can’t cope with and how much energy we have; once we reach adulthood we cannot, and should not, expect others to manage this for us (though of course they sometimes help along the way). So when we’re asked to do something that will take us beyond our coping ability or use up too much of our energy, we need to be able to say ‘no’ – unless it’s an emergency, of course. Then it’s time to pull out all the stops and recoup later on.

Sometimes it’s worth saying ‘no’ to things we do have the ability and energy for, but which don’t bring us joy. I say ‘no’ to a lot of things by choosing to be an indie researcher. For example, I say a resounding ‘no’ to organisational bureaucracy, meetings about meetings, and ironing. I could manage all those things, and more of their ilk, and have done so at times. But I am much, much happier without them in my life.

Once we’ve done all the saying ‘no’ we want and need to do, we should have created the capacity to say some ‘yes’. We have choices there, too. We can act like the researcher in Tseen’s blog post and choose only to say ‘yes’ to things that will benefit our own career. Or we can use a different strategy for decision-making.

Tseen helps because she can. My own strategy is similar, along the lines of ‘if someone needs help, and I can help, I’ll help’. The ‘help’ in that sentence could be passing the butter or giving a troubled friend space to live in my house for a year while they sort themselves out. In professional terms, it could be downloading a pdf for someone who asks on Twitter, or providing years of support for a colleague doing a doctorate. But for me, that’s what I do, not why – and I think there’s more self-interest in why I help, though not the kind of self-interest shown by the researcher who so enraged Tseen. Helping others benefits me, not in the sense of stacking up brownie points to redeem in an afterlife, but because every time I help someone I learn something new. And desire to learn is the main reason why I do scholarly work in the first place.

That doesn’t mean I do some kind of cost-benefit analysis. I doubt it would be possible, even if I wanted to, because I couldn’t figure out in advance what I would learn from helping someone. Sometimes I learn a small thing from a big help, or vice versa. I don’t try to calculate return on investment, either. Offering help and support is part of the fabric of my life and it’s not about expecting some kind of payback. In fact, often I’m paying it forward, such as by helping people with postgraduate research. When I was doing my own MSc and PhD, I received an enormous amount of help from people who were further along in the process, and I never could pay that back – but I certainly can pay it forward, and encourage others to do the same.

The lovely thing, though, is that sometimes helping others has an unexpected payback, if someone you helped finds they are able to help you. A friend and colleague who I helped with her PhD, years ago, recently did me a big favour by hooking me up with the Head of her institution’s Graduate School who wants to commission the kind of courses I offer. My friend claims her main motivation was self-interest, because having identified someone who can help where it’s needed will reflect well on her. Perhaps it will, though I’d dispute the self-interest being her main motivation, because I know her to be a generous person with an eye to the ways she can help others. In fact, she’s thoroughly collegial.

I think I’ve worked out at least two of the reasons why it would be worse if we all just looked out for ourselves. We would deny ourselves regular opportunities to learn from helping others, and occasional opportunities for unexpected benefits further down the road. Those opportunities seem to me to be two good reasons for being collegial, and they constitute two shining threads in the fabric of our lives and work.

I’m sure there are other reasons too. If you have any in mind, please leave a comment; I’d be interested.

Why And How To Say No

noPeople in our line of work, whether academic or altac, are often at serious risk of over-commitment. This can happen for a number of reasons, including disorganisation, pressure from other people, and the inability to say ‘no’.

Disorganisation is often made up of the best intentions, lack of foresight or planning, unrealistic expectations, and inability to understand how long different jobs actually take. It can be truly difficult to figure out how long it will take to do a given piece of work, but a useful strategy is to make your best guess then add fifty per cent. So if you think you could definitely get an article written in six weeks, tell anyone who needs to know that it will take you nine weeks. One way to keep your expectations realistic is to take care to factor in all your existing commitments – which, don’t forget, include your social life and holidays as well as work. Also, remember that the empty spaces in your calendar in the months to come will fill up as the dates come closer. People often say to me things like, ‘I’m really busy this month and next, but I’ll have lots more time after that.’ I think, ‘No you won’t, you poor deluded fool, because by the time you get there “the month after next” will be “this month” and you’ll be just as busy as ever.’

People often over-commit from the best intentions. They want to help, or they are being offered interesting projects, and they think they’ll find a way to get it done. Often they do find a way, but that can be at the expense of their happiness, their relationships, and their health. I know, personally, two senior academics who have been reduced to taking sizeable portions of sick leave due to over-commitment in the last year alone. Part of this is because of the structure of academia and the ever-increasing demands placed on its staff. The only real solution to that is collective action. Yet, without wanting to sound all neoliberal, there is also scope – and, I would argue, responsibility – for individual action in the interests of protecting our own well-being.

Some people seem completely unable to see what is around the corner. One fairly senior academic I know moved from a research job to a teaching job, and was then astonished to discover that time-consuming preparation and marking were required. Another, a parent of two young children, seems continually surprised by the need to provide care for them. Perhaps over-commitment breeds over-commitment because, when you’re currently over-committed, it’s hard to find the time to give proper thought to potential future commitments and their likely implications. But finding that time is the only way to escape the over-commitment trap. And the only way to find that time is to learn to say ‘no’.

Saying ‘no’ can be really difficult, particularly if the person asking is, for example, senior to you, or someone to whom you owe a favour. So, to begin with, try learning not to say ‘yes’ immediately. Say something like, ‘That’s a really interesting proposition. Can I think about it and get back to you? I need to check my other commitments before I can give you a firm answer.’ Then if you decide you don’t want to say ‘yes’, you can say, for example, ‘I’d love to help but right now I don’t have the time to do the work well, and I don’t want to do a bad job for you.’

When you owe a favour, even this can feel very difficult. It can help simply to acknowledge the fact that you owe a favour. ‘I know you did X for me, and I am still very grateful. I do want to return the favour but I’m afraid it’s a really difficult time for me right now, as I am already fully committed for the next few months. Is there some other way I can pay you back?’ Being up front like this can feel scary for some people, but it is a great way to diffuse the anxiety that unspoken worries can create, and therefore it is worth the effort.

The wider pressure to ‘be collegial’ is another difficulty faced by those working in academia, whether from inside or outside institutions. For example, I recognise that I can’t expect people to peer-review my articles without offering to peer-review the articles of others. However, I can decide how many articles I am able and willing to review, per month or semester or year. Given that there is a need to review articles which are not and never will be fit for publication, as well as those that are or could be publishable, I might decide to review two articles for every article I submit. Or I might decide I can manage one per month, or two per semester, regardless of how many I write myself. The number you can manage will, of course, depend on your other commitments, but the basic principle is the same. You need to think the whole thing through, make a decision, then stick to that decision – and explain it to people where necessary. The same could apply with other regular one-off tasks such as examining theses, reviewing book proposals or typescripts, writing forewords, and so on. You have the right to set a limit on any such task you’re being asked to do more often than you can comfortably manage – and to enforce that limit.

There is an ethical point to this, too. We forget to notice that if we don’t look after ourselves properly, we can’t do our jobs or look after other people. I love Deborah Netolicky’s memorable description of ethics as the ‘unsexy undergarments’ of academia. I think we should pay attention to ethics all the time, just as we remember, every day, to wear our undergarments. People who over-commit are a danger to themselves, risking their health and happiness, and that can damage their families and friends as well. They are also a danger to their colleagues: I know from experience, as someone who is quite good at managing time and workload, that a collaborator who misses deadlines can cause great stress in my life. So for our own benefit, and for the benefit of our colleagues, families, and friends, we have an obligation not to over-commit, and that means learning to say ‘no’.

Things Are Really Happening!

juggling.pngDuring this academic year I’ve been involved in various enterprises on top of my commissioned research work, teaching, and writing commitments: solo self-publishing, collaborative self-publishing, and course development. And they’re all starting to come to fruition!

The course I’ve been involved in developing with Dr Janet Salmons is Path To Publishing, aimed at people who have a completed doctoral thesis or dissertation and want to publish from it to support their career goals, whether academic or otherwise. We opened for registration a few days ago and, even though the course doesn’t begin until October, people are already signing up! Universities are recognising that the course we are offering is excellent value for money and will benefit their early career researchers, and individuals are welcoming the opportunity to receive expert help with a complex process. The course is limited to just 20 participants, to ensure that we can give everyone good quality personalised feedback.

The collaborative self-publishing is a short e-book, co-written with Dr Nathan Ryder, called Self-Publishing For Academics. And it’s available for pre-order! The link is for Kindle books but it is also available via iBooks, Kobo and Nook, with Oyster and Scribd to come. Nathan and I have combined our experience of self-publishing various texts in a range of formats, and written the e-book we wish we’d had when we started out. The formal launch is next Wednesday 18 May, so prepare for whooping and hollering.

The solo self-publishing is my series of short e-books for doctoral students. The first, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, is now permanently free to download. The fifth, Research Ethics for your PhD: An Introduction, is with my editor and should be out next month. I just have the sixth and last one to write, on Finishing Your PhD: What You Need To Know, and I’ll be done!

It’s an exciting time towards the end of a really busy year. I’m still kidding myself next year will be easier, but actually I think it’ll just be different. I’ll be working on my next full-length book, on research ethics (I’m in the middle of preparing for that right now), running Path To Publishing with Janet, and managing my commissioned research work and teaching too. It’s just as well I like my work!



A New Venture: Path To Publishing

pathlogo-purplegreen.jpgTaran-taran-taraaaaa! Drum roll! I have an announcement to make!

I have been plotting with my co-conspirator Dr Janet Salmons of Boulder, Colorado (who I met, like many of my collaborators, on Twitter). We have designed a new online course, Path To Publishing, for people who have been awarded their PhD or equivalent (EdD, DBA etc) and who want to publish from their thesis or dissertation. And not just publish whatever they can, but publish effectively, in a way that will support their career aspirations. (NB: edit as a result of a query from Oxford Dphile in the comments below: if you’ve completed your thesis or dissertation, but haven’t yet had it examined, that’s fine too.)

Path to Publishing will run for six weeks in the first semester of the next academic year, from October 10 to November 18. It is limited to 20 participants to ensure that we can give everyone good quality individual feedback. We are offering a discounted rate for the first course in recognition of the possibility of teething troubles (though we are working hard to try to ensure there won’t be any). The fees will be US$400/£280 payable through PayPal – after this first course, the fees will rise to approx US$500/£375 (exact amounts may change slightly due to currency fluctuations). We will be asking for detailed feedback in exchange for the discount, to help us perfect the course for future participants. Another reason we’re offering a discount to the first cohort is that, along with the course, we will be setting up an online support group for course members and alumni – but the first time around there won’t be any alumni to give advice and support to new members. Nevertheless, there is value in peer support, and we expect the online support group to be well used.

The course will include two live webinars at times as convenient as possible for the class, bearing in mind everyone’s different time zones (and these webinars will be recorded for those who, for whatever reason, can’t attend). Janet and I will provide good quality course materials, weekly lessons, and exercises in planning and writing for publication, plus individual feedback on each exercise. We plan to show you how to assess the publication potential of your thesis or dissertation in the light of your career goals. We will cover all kinds of publishing, including traditional academic publishing (journal articles, book chapters, books), self-publishing, social and mainstream media. By the end of the course, you will have a personal publication strategy for the next 1-2 years which aligns with your own career goals. All you need is a completed thesis or dissertation and a good standard of written English.

Janet and I have extensive experience of academic writing, publishing, and teaching. We have both written full-length books, book chapters, and academic journal articles, and have taught on several continents. Janet has co-edited books, and I have self-published books. Both of us are experienced users of social media and also have some experience of mainstream media. We have enjoyed the process of combining our expertise to create Path To Publishing.

We’ll be starting to publicise the course in earnest soon, but I wanted my blog readers to hear about it at an early stage. As the number of students is limited, if you are interested, put your name on the preliminary class list here for first access to registration. Janet and I are excited about this course and we very much look forward to working with our students.

When A Contract Ends

finish lineI’m putting the finishing touches to the report of a research project that’s been running for the last 18 months. And then it’ll be over. Which is a bit sad, for a number of reasons.

First, the work is for a national organisation, but unusually that organisation is based close to where I live in the Midlands of England. So, unlike most, this job hasn’t involved a lot of travelling: much of the work has been done within half an hour’s drive of my office.

Second, I’ve been working with another researcher, a colleague I met for the first time on the day we went to be interviewed for this job. I liked him then and my respect and appreciation for him has grown throughout the project. He’s responsive, thoughtful, caring, creative, and generally a terrific collaborator. I will miss working with him.

Third, it’s been an interesting, complex project, evaluating a community-based advocacy service for older people with cancer. The work is multi-faceted and that makes it a real challenge to investigate it fully and come up with suitable recommendations for taking the work forward.

Fourth, it’s paid some of the bills. These kinds of longer-term contracts, that provide a basic level of income for a period of time, don’t come along so often but are invaluable for indie researchers.

Letting go of a project can be hard for anyone, but there are some specific areas of difficulty for indie researchers. Commissioners don’t think to get back in touch to tell us how our work is being used, and seem surprised if we email or phone to ask. We have very little say in how our work is disseminated, and sometimes it’s not disseminated at all, which can be really frustrating. And unlike our academic colleagues, we don’t have the requirement to publish that can keep the relationships formed during a project alive for months and years after completion.

So in many ways I’m sorry to see this contract end, but the pill is very thoroughly sugared by the new contract I landed earlier this month. Without that I think I’d be in deep mourning. But this time it really does feel as though, as one door is closing, another opens.

Collaborative Writing

collaborative writingYesterday I came to the end of my first ever writing partnership with a proper academic. We began collaborating in May 2012, and decided we would work together for a year with the aim of producing two journal articles in that time. We ended up writing together for almost four years and produced one working paper, one journal article, and a book chapter (finally finished yesterday, and due to be published by Policy Press in an edited collection later this year).

I learned a lot from this collaboration, not least that co-writing can take longer than you think, especially when you’re working on conceptually difficult topics. My co-writer and I worked really well together, and the publications we produced were definitely richer and meatier than either of us could have produced alone. I also received some very useful mentoring in the process, with invaluable tips on how to optimise journal articles for acceptance, and useful insights into the workings of academia. My collaborator was even generous enough to start by presenting me with several areas she was interested in exploring, and letting me choose the one I preferred for us to work on.

For the first year of our collaboration, we were both based in the UK; after that, my collaborator moved to Sweden. But that didn’t matter; we’d had a few face-to-face meetings and got to know each other in that first year, and email and Skype supported our collaboration thereafter.

We were fairly compatible as co-writers, with one major exception: we had very different attitudes to deadlines. I don’t work at all well under deadline pressure, so I tend to meet my commitments ahead of time. My collaborator worked best under deadline pressure – and, at times, did particularly good work some time after the deadline had gone whooshing past. I found this quite nerve-racking and frustrating, and I suspect she found my timeliness annoying. But we navigated through this difficulty quite effectively, as our outputs show.

I also learned, from this experience, that I really like writing collaboratively. So now I’m working on one journal article with one co-writer, another with another; co-editing a special issue of one journal, and writing an article for another special issue in which the article is sole-authored but there is also a collaborative, dialogic component. And I’m doing another book chapter for an edited collection, despite having sworn I never would.

This is too much! I can do it, and I will, but after these are done I’ll be scaling down the academic journal articles and book chapters. I’m going to aim for two a year from 2017 onwards. No more. I do love writing journal articles and book chapters, and I love collaborating. But I do all this in my own time, and I need to focus more on work that pays.

Positive Disruptive Practice

This blog post is part of a messy, asynchronous, stimulating conversation that I’m lucky enough to be part of, along with @debsnet and @nomynjb and @jennacondie and @cj13. The conversation was influenced by the man with the best Twitter name in the multiverse, @timbuckteeth, who started the #blimage process. The idea of that is to write a blog post inspired by an image, then challenge someone else to write a blog post inspired by a different image. I was challenged by @debsnet and I then challenged @nomynjb – but @debsnet was inspired by the spiderwebs image I’d picked for @nomynjb, so she wrote another blog post inspired by spiderwebs and incorporating that image. Then @nomynjb wrote her post, referencing @debsnet’s post, also incorporating that image, and asking, ‘Anyone want to blog about a spider’s web?’

best spiderwebsYes. I do.

The post by @debsnet is about ‘technology which connects’, and it’s also about disruption: breaking or bending rules. From making good use of accidents, to ‘colouring outside the lines’, @debsnet praises and celebrates the positive power of disruption. So does @nomynjb, though from a different angle. She traces the development of mass asynchronous communication from Gutenberg to today’s boundary-crossing multimedia, and suggests that people who are breaking the Gutenberg rules are the ones who help us all move forward.

This so resonated with me. I grew up in a wordy household: my father was an English teacher, we didn’t have a TV, and I lived in a world of conversation and storytelling. Disruptive use of language – puns, neologisms, etc – was encouraged. My mother taught me to read when I was three, mainly I think to equip me to amuse myself while she dealt with my newly arrived sister. Since then I have never been without a book on the go and often have half a dozen half-read: a literary novel, an escapist novel, short pieces of non-fiction, long non-fiction, poetry, and a research methods book, so I can pick up and read whichever suits my mood. I also started writing very young and have never stopped. I’m in love with text, and am a compulsive communicator. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I was an early adopter of blogging, starting in 2005, and I’ve been on Twitter since 2009; like @debsnet I find it helps me learn to be more concise. I was a bit more reluctant about Facebook and LinkedIn, but eventually got involved in 2010. I am on Pinterest but have never really got the hang of it, though I’m doing better with Instagram; I’m not a very visual person, but Instagram is helping me learn to see more beyond the oh-so-compelling text.

Many of my offline non-social-media friends and colleagues think I’m amazingly digitally skilled. I know this is not the case. I’ve never Tumblred or Flickred, I didn’t LiveJournal or MySpace, I don’t SnapChat or WhatsApp, and I know there are a hundred others I can’t even remember – if I ever heard of them in the first place.

In @debsnet’s post, she wrote about how she’s using and valuing Voxer. I’d never heard of Voxer, which evoked a familiar feeling of near-despair. Another one! I can’t keep up! Other people I know online are upping Periscope with enthusiasm. I want to join in with all this and I have loads of ideas for content but I struggle with the process. For example, I’ve been trying really hard with YouTube for over a year now, and I’m rubbish at making videos. I can see that if I spent several hours a week working on it, I would slowly improve, but I’m struggling to find the time or, perhaps more accurately, the motivation. As with writing, I enjoy the editing process, but find the first draft a chore. With writing, you only have to do one first draft, but with video, you (or, at least, I) have to do loads of them till you get one that’s good enough to edit. And it’s so complicated: you have to juggle light, and sound, and visuals, and appearance, and performance. Every time I play back something I’ve recorded, I can see what’s wrong with it, but I don’t have the skills to fix it quickly and effectively like I can fix clunky text, so I get frustrated. And no, I’m not being a perfectionist; if I show my videos to my friends, they say things like, ‘Why are you so wooden? You’re not like that on the mainstream media or when you speak at conferences,’ and I want to go and hide in a hole and cry.

I agree with @nomynjb that we need to break the Gutenberg rules of privileging unchangeable print and linear modes of communication. I have loads of ideas about how to do this. For example, I want to make and embed short videos and comic strips in my blogs, and I want to know how to do all this on my phone, on the move, as well as from my laptop at a desk. I long to embrace the new technologies, not still be struggling with the old ones, and – as @nomynjb put it – ‘access this new technology for its potential, not for its usefulness’. But I don’t have the skills and I can’t afford to pay other people to help me. I can’t even afford the software I want to use for comic strips.

For every iota of skill I acquire, a whole new online platform develops. I find this hugely frustrating! I want to be in the middle of the interwebs, connected to everything, because I can see, and hear, and almost feel and smell and taste, the opportunities and the fun and the creativity available to those who can use technology for its potential. I long to plunge in and disrupt and play. But, without the skills I need to move toward the centre, I’m stuck on the edge.

Then again, there’s still scope for positive disruptive practice on the edge of the web, and in text-based communication. Much of my last book showcased the work of people who bent the rules of research methods, and I’ve just co-written a paper on disruptive methodologies. So maybe it makes sense for me to let go of my longing for the technological playground and, instead, use technology for its usefulness and play to my textual strengths. Also, I suspect nobody, or very few people, can actually keep up with all the technological developments. So perhaps the answer for most of us is to practice positive disruption wherever we usefully can.