Tuesday 3 February 2015

Learning to write in public

A few reflections on the rite of passage that is publishing your first journal article. Not exactly advice, although my naïf experiences may be useful for others in a similar situation:

1. It wasn't as difficult as I expected. Although this should not suggest that it was easy. I worked incredibly hard on this article (propelled in no small part by the anxiety of having more than a few people actually reading my work!). However, the vast gulf that I kept expecting to appear between myself and the hallowed ether of publishing academics simply never materialised (imposter syndrome). Turns out that if you know quite a lot about something and can write, that's enough.

2. Having a good editor certainly helps. Global Discourse is a relatively new journal (volume 5 this year) but it's well run and has all the right priorities. Their policy of commissioning a reply to each research article from another author in the field is fantastic and should be the rule rather than the exception amongst pubishers (I don't know when the reply/replies to my article will be out but at some point in the next few months, I expect). I'd certainly recommend this journal to other would-be-first-time-publishers.

3. Pushing back against reviewers is okay. Neophyte that I am, I really wasn't sure to what extent a reviewer's comments were final or not. While all my reviewers were helpful, they were not of one voice and consequently I was able to resist on one or two things and get my way (while taking several other important criticisms on board). This would probably be less of a problem for those able to call on the advice of supervisors, etc. I didn't have that but managed to blunder my way through somehow!

4. I fretted much too much about typos at the drafting stage. These things drive me crazy but it shouldn't really matter. Those professional proof-readers are very thorough, possibly even excessively so. (They tried to prune a lot of the stylistic choices I made that may not have been grammatically perfect but were nevertheless deliberate. Read the proofs carefully!)

5. Criticism can sting but it's mostly useful. Whatever you need to do to guard yourself against the inevitability of criticism (and the possibility of rejection) you can figure out for yourself (a kind of underlying fug of underspecified pessimism works for me). However, letting criticism sink in for a few days completely transforms it—at least in my experience. That isn't to say that you end up agreeing but seeing where the critic is coming from (even if they're wrong), that's the important thing!

6. Relatedly, I've found it important to take breaks from writing and re-writing. Not just going to get a coffee but shelving the whole project for a couple of weeks and coming back to it then, particularly in the later stages. There were times when I was trying to redraft when I felt that I just couldn't imagine the words being arranged in any other configuration than the one they were in! This is probably the biggest lesson I've learned with regard to re-writing: don't overdo it in one sitting, not so much because you can't achieve anything that way but because it you get into diminishing returns very quickly. I've never *touch wood* experienced writer's block as such but there comes a point when going over this or that section yet again just isn't bringing benefits proportional to the time it's taking. Efficiency.

7. Regarding content, Latour is a tricky thinker to write about in the way that I have. I refer to his AIME project as "simultaneously a magnum opus and a work in progress." This sums up a problem I've grappled with, I hope with a modicum of success. A large portion of the first half of the essay consists of a one-by-one summary of each of Latour's fifteen modes of existence. I felt this was necessary for two reasons. First, one of the most fundamental principles of AIME is that each mode is unique and must be understood in its own terms. Second, I was aiming this essay at those with a passing familiarity with Latour's work but without a detailed understanding of the finer points, particularly with regard to his recent works. If I was going to intertwine the various threads of his work in the way that I wanted to, I had first to separate out those threads and make them understood. The problem with this may have been an implicit essentialising of the modes. It certainly risks oversimplifying them. Nevertheless, I think I achieved my basic objective: to provide a provocative way in to this grand assemblage of ideas with respect to debates in political geography.

8. It is very satisfying to see your name in print. For all the intermittent bouts of stress and countless expended hours, I've actually really enjoyed the project as a whole. Moreover, having endured the rite, I feel much more confident about what I want to do next.

9. I probably wouldn't have had the confidence to do this without the experience of blogging. Just the experience of, and this is effectively what it is, 'writing in public'—that's an important thing to become comfortable with. I started this blog after finishing my MSc (now more than five years ago) and it's kept my curiosity ticking over and kept me in the habit of writing and thinking.

10. Having said that, I couldn't have undertaken this project without the resources available to me as a university employee. I owe much to the fact that lowly library assistants, research administrators and research assistants (the jobs I have occupied over the past few years) have the same access rights as anyone else (at the University of Bristol, anyway).

11. This peculiar mixture of freedoms—being able to write exactly what I want, having the resources to do so, having an audience to practice on (!)—is an interesting and probably rare situation to be in. It's not exactly a path that I planned with any particular foresight but I think that it has more or less worked out.

12. This is just the beginning! This article is essentially a (very) long preface to what I want to do next, which should hopefully be the subject of future blogging.

13. Nothing is ever finished. I just spent a few minutes looking back over the published version of the article and spotted several things that made me think 'why on earth did I write that?!' but no matter. What's done is done and this is definitely done and dusted.

Right, I think that's enough confessional self-indulgence for one day.