Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016
“Fast, Easy and Brilliant” Versus “Clearly and Warmly and Well”
From Unpublishable to Publishable
Professional Roles and Publishable Writing
As faculty members who have worked with doctoral students for decades, we sometimes meet prospective students who are eager to begin proposing dissertation ideas. They evidently have heard that getting stalled at the “all-but-dissertation” stage is a common problem or heard a failed doctoral candidate opine that the solution is to start on the dissertation sooner. They are under the misapprehension that merely talking about dissertations—even before they are admitted to the program and have completed a single course—will somehow accelerate the process. These students are walking examples of what Boice (1990) concluded from his longitudinal interview study of academic authors. He dubbed it as “the unsuccessful writer’s motto” and it was: “I want my writing to be fast, easy, and brilliant.” Published writing that earns the respect of peers is none of the above. Rather than being “fast”, the reality is that highly respected authors probably invest more time in and attention on their writing than many other writers. Instead of being easy, acclaimed authors are those who wrestle with collections of ideas and shape them into keen insights. Being brilliant is entirely incompatible with fast and easy because brilliance is the brainchild of being steeped in the literature, not some fortuitous event. As a doctoral student once put it, just as a chef needs a pantry of ingredients, a scholar needs a “well stocked mind” as a starting point—and getting there is neither fast nor easy. Very little of what is written is brilliant from the start; in fact, this is so much the case that writer William Stafford advises authors to “Lower your standards and write” (Christensen, 2000, p. 72).
As Pamela Richards (2007) notes:
For a long time I worked under the burden of thinking that writing was an all-or-nothing proposition. What got written had to be priceless literary pearls or unmitigated garbage. Not so. It’s just a bunch of stuff, more or less sorted into an argument. Some of it’s good, some of it isn’t. (p. 120)
Rather than expecting immediate brilliance, expect that first drafts will make a poor showing but can be rewritten many times and reviewed by others until they are forged into well-wrought ideas. One advantage of writing is that it is malleable and can be shaped to the author’s purpose with time and effort. Accept that the fast/easy/brilliant dream is just about as likely as winning a multi-million dollar lottery. Replace that fantasy with a more humble-sounding, yet surprisingly difficult challenge, the one proposed by editor William Zinsser (2016) in his classic book on writing for publication. He recommends that every author aspire to write (1) clearly, (2) warmly, and (3) well.
Read Ten Simple Rules for Getting Published (Bourne & Chalupa, 2006) at http://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.0010057
“Clearly” is the opposite of what is sometimes seen in the literature; too often, the writing is difficult to wade through. Yet, as Casanave and Vandrick (2003) have questioned, who is academic writing for? It is for the authors to showcase their facility with language or, is it to communicate a message to the readers? Writing expert Ken Macrorie (1984) answers that question through the title of his book, Writing to Be Read. We should write in a way that makes it accessible to other scholars rather than trying to impress; we definitely should not succumb to puffery and present simple ideas in convoluted prose so that they seem more profound. One editor’s favorite example of simple language was “To be or not to be, that is the question” because each word in that phrase is part of everyday language and only the final word is more than one syllable. Nevertheless, the message conveyed is profound.
Some scholars might take issue with the notion of academic writing being “warm”; after all, we are supposed to unbiased, scientific, and let the data speak for themselves. As one widely published researcher explained, however, she thinks about not only the “hard facts” (i.e., statistical analysis) but also some “soft effects” (i.e., the people in the process): “in order for publication to fulfill the promise of affecting the field, we have to look at both the statistical significance and the practical significance. In other words, both statistics and the human factors are important” (Jalongo, 2013b, p. 70). The warmth comes, not from emotionally-charged rhetoric or “all about me” ruminations, but from a sincere effort to make a contribution to the field each scholar represents.
Unlike journalists who are “on assignment”, academic authors have the luxury of pursuing their interests and investigating topics about which they are truly passionate. So, while the empirical study is rigorous, there is a warm undercurrent of what prompted the study in the first place. A good example of this was a program evaluation that included a questionnaire completed by adults enrolled in literacy courses. All of the participants had faced one of their worst fears—being labeled as unintelligent and failing as readers—to undertake a huge self-improvement project: earning the General Education Diploma, or GED. The evaluation report was written and presented to various stakeholders, yet many years later, what remains in memory was a comment from one participant. In response to the question “What is the one, best thing that learning to read has done for you?” the person wrote, “It really helps with the medicine bottles for the kids.” There’s the “warmth”—to be reminded, so cogently, that literacy is much more than a set of skills, a score on a test, or a personal goal. Being able to read can support people in caring responsibly for others. Literacy can, quite literally, be a matter of life and death.
Zinsser’s (2006) third criterion, writing well, is another consideration. Students sometimes overlook a very powerful influence on what they write: what they choose to read and the other types of writing they have produced (Bazerman & Prior, 2004). In order to write anything—from a children’s picture book to an entry in an encyclopedia of research—authors need to immerse themselves in examples of that genre. While academic authors may not realize it, they arrive with distinctive writing habits they have “absorbed” from what they read. To illustrate, a group of master’s degree students enrolled in a principal’s program wrote in ways similar to what they had internalized from reading about school and community events in the media. Another group of students—social workers—reflected some of the stylistic features of case reports that they needed to read and to write. Just as the old adage “you are what you eat” applies to health, “you are what you read” applies to writing.
If you doubt that this is true, try this. Suppose that you are starting a writers’ group and want to advertise through a memo, posters, or on social media. What has to be included? Somewhere along the way, you have learned that publicizing the event needs to include who the event is for, what the event is, how it will be delivered, when it will occur, where it will be held, and why someone would benefit from participation. While your fifth grade teacher may have taught a lesson about this long ago, you really came to understand it by reading—and composing—examples of the who/what/when/where/why/how format. So, if you are attempting to write research as a dissertation or an article, you must first read many, many examples of the genre. Those who, in the interest of saving time, skipped over the research methods and procedures to get to the results and discussion section surely will find themselves at a loss for words when attempting to “write research”. This happens because they have not internalized the structures and mentally catalogued many examples that they can draw upon when attempting to write. Stated plainly, you cannot write research unless you have studied research—not just as content memorized for a test, but as a genre of writing. I suspect that much of the so-called “writer’s block” associated with dissertation writing has less to do with the absence of inspiration from the Muse and more to do with an insufficient collection of examples, cases, and models absorbed from the literature. Thus, achieving writing and publication goals calls upon scholars, first and foremost, to form appropriate expectations for the purpose, structure, and language of scholarship (Richards & Miller, 2005).