by Mary Goitom, PhD, Guest Blogger
Published at 2019-08-21
Though I can agree with the adage that anyone can write, we seldom take the time to unpack how people come to the writing process. In my world of academia, writing is not a choice but an expectation. Because of this, one has to quickly find their flow and stick to it. Everyone has their own style when it comes to writing. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to observe my colleagues and ask questions, learn, and develop a style of my own. This blog is about process, and my personal process at that. Before we get started, know that no two people write in the same way or have the exact same process to get there. Simply put, there is no hardline “right” or “wrong” route to writing. In my view, this is because writing is fluid, messy, and, at times, a frustrating process. But at the end, I consistently experience a sense of achievement. I offer the following as a representation of my own process to writing.
As I see it, writing is a contract that one enters into. Put differently, the end goal is to produce a piece for publication. The output (the manuscript) is the expected outcome. For this reason, deadlines have to be set in order to generate this expected result. I am often juggling several projects at the same time and, for this reason, balancing the needs of these projects (and team members) can be tricky. Generally, the writing process comes underway when projects have undergone the data collection and analysis phase. Based on your findings, you prioritize which aspect of your study needs to be disseminated first. Usually, the result that is deemed to have the most impact or contribution to existing knowledge is prioritized to being published first. In keeping with this spirit, a writing schedule is developed to coincide with each finding and a deadline for production is determined.
Now, this process sounds perfectly simple; however, the act of balancing and setting deadlines is actually much more complicated than the how it is neatly outlined above. Balancing is also inclusive of other equally pressing elements of one’s career expectations. Teaching and service are usually happening at the same time and place equal demands on your time — as is taking into consideration the needs of your research team (if you have one) and your own personal needs. The latter, I’ve noticed, often gets shortchanged by many of us, and this is problematic because one’s well-being is a necessary precursor to achieving any of these tasks. Furthermore, writing is a creative process, and a well-balanced self is a precursor to writing.
In the previous section, the importance of prioritizing what to publish first from your projects was presented. This in itself is part of knowing what you are gearing up to write about. However, it also speaks to the fact that the value of your findings can “diminish” the longer you wait to engage in knowledge translation and mobilization work. Once you’ve decided on which of your findings has the capacity to generate impact in the academic and disciplinary world, you should simultaneously begin to brainstorm the appropriate journals to house your manuscript. List them in no particular order — you will continuously add and subtract from this list as your writing gets underway — and store it nearby and return to it when you have a finished product.
The process of writing is imbued in reading. Once you know what you want to write about, you need to consult existing relevant literature to inform your knowledge and situate your finding in the larger discussion. This process is important, because this is how you are able to demonstrate the scholarly contributions of your work in three key areas: theory, methods, and discipline. For this reason, reading is an integral part of the writing process. It cannot be skipped or shortchanged, nor can you be apathetic about it. How do you read? You should read based on the three areas of theory, methods, and discipline in order to locate gaps in knowledge and situate your work accordingly. Ergo you must read, read, read.
Writing is a process. It is also a mindset. It cannot be forced. This means, it is all about space. Space in this context is defined as physical, mental, and emotional.
Engage in your own self-study to see when and where you are the most creative. For me, I am, for the most part, an early morning writer that can sustain her writing until late afternoon. For others, it could be in the evening from 10:00 p.m. onward, or in the afternoon. Keep in mind that none of this is linear. Depending on other aspects of “space,” you can be on any of these continuums at any point.
In addition to space of time, physical space also includes where you write. Are you your most creative at home, your office, a café, the library, in a writing group? Pay attention to the physical space you occupy when you are at your most creative.
Writing, for the most part, is a solitary process. Even when you are writing with a group, your process is solitary in nature. Because it is a solitary endeavour, it can at times be isolating. Therefore, if your emotional and mental well-being is disrupted or cluttered by other matters, the creativity you are seeking to express through your writing cannot flow as expected. For me, my writing takes place in the morning, at home, and I take care to plan for any interruptions that might occur. I have set times when I check and respond to emails and telephone calls. Outside of that, the remainder of my time is dedicated to my writing. This is how I am able to ensure that my space (physical, mental, and emotional) is protected.
How you take care of yourself through this process is actually the most important element to the writing process. Because it can be isolating, scheduling meaningful breaks is key. As part of my writing process, I go for walks as a mechanism to clear my head and often return to the writing process with renewed clarity. I am also able to gain fresh perspective by cultivating a group of colleagues with whom I can discuss my writing projects and I often attend public talks and lectures. I find that these activities support me in further refining my ideas and even finding the language I need for my writing. You may find these activities work for you, or you may cultivate your own routines.
All things considered, I find that my engagement in several activities outside of the actual writing – preparation (reading) and the forging and maintaining of space are crucial, so that when the actual physical act of writing takes place, it can happen undisturbed.
This is, in my opinion, one of the most important relationships that you will cultivate in your writing career. Just like writing is a creative process, editing is in itself an art form that is crucial and a necessary component to completing the writing process. The editor that I work with has been an indispensable bridge between myself (the writer) and publishers (journals). Beyond being able to proofread for typos, grammar, and spelling, check references, index, and format my work for the publication process, my editor has been able to support me in distilling the important elements of my writing, ensuring that the tone is consistent throughout, the organization of the paper and content is accessible and pleasing to the reader (reviewers), and has offered advice/suggestions on how to edit the work whilst preserving the original intent of the paper.
This is a well-made investment, and as such I recommend that you seek out the best that you can afford. Good editors are invaluable to the writing process as they have the capacity to intellectually engage you and support you to get to the core of your ideas and, most importantly, communicate those ideas clearly and succinctly to your audience. In my case, I have a relationship with an editor that I can trust — one that I believe is just as invested as I am in the successful completion and publication of the manuscript. I have learned a great deal from my editor, and my writing has certainly benefited from this process.
Writing is a muscle that you are constantly building. This entails constant work, trial and error. It is procedural, a lifelong commitment, requires constant learning and flexibility. As what you write changes, so will your approach to writing. For this reason you will need to shift along and adapt, regenerate and redefine the how to writing. Life is in constant flux as well, therefore your “space” will be affected by this — so be flexible and open to the process of discovering new ways to creatively engage this method.
If you don’t engage your writing, the muscle that you are working hard to build will atrophy. Therefore, the more you do it, the better you get and it becomes a habit — the kind that your body and mind becomes attuned to wanting to engage consistently. What’s important is that you enjoy what you are writing about, and that you trust those around you to support you in this process. In the end, it is a rewarding and a privileged experience because you are actively engaging in the process of knowledge creation.
Mary Goitom is an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work, York University. Her scholarship is centred on teaching and professional activity focusing on promoting equity and access for diverse communities within local, national, and international contexts.
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