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Friday, 28 October 2011

Professor Grumpy's Ten Top-Tips for Academic Writing

Many of my friends, I know, have difficulty with the writing process.  I, by contrast, can churn out the verbiage as easily as scrambling eggs.  So here are some tips that those confronted by academic writer's block might find useful.  It might, I know, appear arrogant to set these out but - hey - you know me; I am arrogant!  Nonetheless if they help, they help.

Tip 1: The Word processor is your friend
This is the meta-tip, if you like.  I am lucky in that I guess I was part of the first generation to write their PhD thesis on affordable word-processors (thanks to Alan Sugar for that if nothing else) - an Amstrad* PCW 8256: the size of an old cathode-ray telly with a memory (hell, without even an internal hard-drive) a tiny fraction of that on my lap-top today.  I know fine (and productive) scholars only a few years older than I am who typed their theses and whose writing processes are still profoundly influenced by that - hand-write a draft, several drafts, and work over them before typing it up.  By contrast I soon internalised the beauty of the word-processing, er, process - which is to say that you can bang out the words to create text as easily as anything, and always go back reshape, cut, paste, delete, move to another file, and so on.  Create text and treat it as clay: that is my advice.  In other words, use the word-processor to create a lump of about the right size that you can shape and re-shape later on.  Similarly, do not get attached to your words.  Cut and paste, or delete with abandon (there is a further tip, no.8, below, to ease the pain).  Once you have cranked out the right quantity of 'clay' in roughly the right shape, you can trim, refine and shape it to the exact form you want.

Tip 2: Have a plan
OK: this one isn't at all original.  But have a plan anyway.  For myself, in line with the above, I only start with a very general plan of the points I want to make and in what order.  Someone (Helmuth von Moltke, I think) said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy; my experience is that no writing plan survives first contact with the keyboard.  My plans tend to evolve with the writing process.  I am also blessed with the ability to think clearly (which helps writing quickly, but ought not to be confused with the latter) and to keep a lot of stuff in my head.  Nevertheless, of course it matters to have a plan and the better the plan the better the process.  That is always true.  As the Revised Annals put it in describing a Frankish defeat: 'since the approach went badly, badly went the battle.'

Tip 3: Write 500 words a day
This is my other major tip.  Write 500 words a day - as the first thing you do.  Just churn out 500 words.  Remember you don't have to keep any of them in the long term.  They don't even have to be factually accurate; at this stage it doesn't matter if you can't remember whether what you're saying is 'right' if the notes you have to hand don't have the right information (see below).  Don't get interrupted - just write.  Get yourself a pot of coffee (or tea), sit down and write 500 words.  If you are on a roll, or have more time, write more, but do not use that as an excuse to write less the next day.  Building up a bit of 'excess fat' is good in case of emergency, to ensure you can average 500 a day, but work that out after you've been forced to miss a day.  In a week and a half to two weeks you will have an article's worth; in three weeks or so, a chapter.  And so on.

Tip 4: Don't foot-note as you go
Related to Tip no.3, do not, on any account, foot-note as you go.  This is the academic writer's displacement activity.  This is understandable; there is (and I know I ought to get out more, but still) nothing as satisfying to an academic, in the creative process, than an impressive and impressively laid-out foot-note, but ignore its lure!  If there's something you really think you'll forget, of course, add a general note (in brackets or as a foot-note) but if you get involved in proper, conventional foot-noting, you will grind to a halt.  That stuff comes later.

Tip 5: Check it all afterwards
This, of course is the indispensable corollary of the 500-words a day 'clay-creation' scheme.  Once you have your basic text, then you can go through footnoting and checking the facts etc.

Tip 6: (Really) Check it all afterwards
Check it all afterwards.  E.H. Carr said that 'accuracy is a duty, not a virtue'.  We all make mistakes but there's no point writing stuff quickly if it all turns out to be, in technical jargon, bollocks.  Remember this epigram of Professor Grumpy (based on one about composers): 'Good historians are slowly discovered; bad historians are slowly found out.'  I know of one book about Carolingian society which garnered great praise and prizes when it appeared, largely by virtue of the fact that it parroted all the choice interpretations of the 'the Bucknell Group' (which de facto and whether it likes it or not, is broadly equivalent with the British early medieval historical establishment), except from the one reviewer (in the AHR) who bothered checking it.  Sad to say, every factual statement that I have checked in that book is wrong - not 'interpreted in a questionable way' but wrong (just plain wrong) in the sense that the documents cited don't actually say what they are claimed to say.  We all make mistakes, but, a: there are degrees of mistake (from the irritating betise - saying the passage is in Gregory of Tours' Histories Book 6, chapter 3, when it is actually in Book 3, chapter 6 - to the unforgivable - saying that a document comes from Paris in 693, when in fact it is from St Denis in 694 and then getting the contents inaccurate), and b: there are  limits to the acceptable number of such mistakes.  You don't want to acquire the reputation for being routinely unreliable.  Let that be a lesson.  Festina lente (once you've got your basic text done).  However, all this still makes the overall process quicker than checking and foot-noting as you go, not least because you can do it all in one solid block of time (when you have such).

Tip 7: Edit and re-edit
Once you have your text, you can edit - and re-edit.  No text ever suffered from being polished.  No text ever suffered from being shorter, either.  In my experience you can always lose 10% of a draft just by stylistic changes.  I am always struck by how flabby my first drafts are and by how much repetition and needless extra argumentation there is.  So cut it!  Don't be afraid to lose whole sections or to move chunks around to see whether they work better somewhere else.  But this is always better done- and easier, once you have a basic text, generated as above.

Tip 8: Create a 'dust-bin'
This is to ease the pain of cutting stuff, especially those nice (or catty!) comments or phrases or bits of argument or evidence that, in the end, aren't necessary to what you are writing. You do have to be ruthless here so I ease the pain by creating a separate file as a 'dustbin' - a file to which I paste such 'nice bits' as I cut from the main piece, allegedly for use later. They have titles like 'Barbarians Dustbin' etc. Although I almost never do use these shavings for anything else, the fact of saving them up, makes me feel better about hacking them out of my original text.

Tip 9: Put some music on
I always find that the composition or creative process is easier with some background music.  However - and here is my top tip - make it something without lyrics (either that or songs that are such old standards that you don't even have to think about the lyrics to).  Jazz and classical music are my favourites in this role, but nothing too 'demanding'.  Kind of Blue, the later oeuvre of Bob James, and Faure's Requiem have all served me well over the years...  (as have many other pieces which I am too embarrassed to mention).

Tip 10: send it off
Here is something else that I have long been way too bad at.  Once you have polished and foot-noted and checked, send it off to the journal.  No point sitting on it.  Readers' comments are usually helpful, whether or not the piece is accepted. and if it is rejected, then make the changes you think can usefully be made to improve the piece and send it somewhere else.  Don't (as I have done) stick it in a draw, go into a decline and forget about it.  I sat on my piece on the Preface to Gregory of Tours' Histories Book V for maybe seven years after an especially mindless reader (I know who...) rejected it from Speculum (thus for about ten years after I first gave the paper upon which it was based!).  Don't do that.  It's stupid.  And I should know.

*  Alan Michael Sugar TRADing (for those who don't know).


  1. Thank you for this list, especially Tip 3. I get up early before the rest of the family to ensure that writing time, and it has paid off well. Tip 10 *hangs head in shame* is an excellent one; I have conference papers in file drawers that need to be revised and sent out, so that tip hit a deep chord with me.

    All of these are wonderful tips--thank you again.

  2. Very good, and you're just like me, so I'm gratified although I set the bar lower - 250 - and let myself footnote that, and then go through fewer drafts. It works out the same in the end.

    What I do with the dustbin, though, is keep it as a grab box. I use those words, or the ideas in them, as aides-memoire at some later time, for something else. The fact of not junking the words, but saving them for later, makes ruthless cutting and editing very easy.

  3. "Accuracy is a duty, not a virtue" is my favorite line from E H Carr. :)

  4. ...and Carr said he got it from A.E. Housman!

  5. It's a loooooooooooong time since I read Carr. And I did only say that *I thought* Knowles had said it - and maybe he did, quoting Housman or Carr.

  6. I only mention it since we're on the topic of checking and attribution; I'm sure a fair few have used it since it first appeared. It is, as you say, pretty apt.

    And as someone who has just been grappling with writing woes: thanks very much for these, and I hope plenty more people come across them :)

  7. Indeed, and you were quite right to do so. There is a lesson there for us all (well, for me anyway). Ironic though, eh?

  8. Oh god... footnotes.... my guilty pleasure... I probably spend 9 months on them in total. Talk about sidetracking.

  9. This site is fantastic. Universities should have accessible sites like this where tips n' tricks are easily accessible, questions can be asked and answered in an informal style...too much stuffiness in many Universities!

  10. Thank-you for posting this list. It is really helping me get a horribly unwieldy chapter under control.

  11. I'm in the first year of a Scottish History degree - shared your post with some fellow students having difficulty writing essays. They say your method works! Now set to try it myself...

  12. Thanks. I am surprised - given I didn't really aim these tips at the 'essay/assignment' level - but hey if they are transferable that's good.

  13. Excellent advice all in all - I shall pass this on to my students and my Chair. They'd all need to heed this advice.


  14. All excellent. I'm in a different discipline, but these are all either things I do with (hitherto) great success (like spew forth with gay abandon and then sculpt) , or things I don't do and are my great weaknesses. Especially Tip 10, SEND IT OFF ...

    I am at this very moment typing this comment instead of doing the last bit of tweaking and tidying before submission ...

    Because I'm afraid. I love my article. What if They hate it? What if the people I know who have read it and commented on it said nice things just because a) they didn't want to hurt my feelings and/or b) they couldn't be bothered to read it carefully? What if it is actually filled with errors, idiocies, and outrages? What if I've only got things published before by sending them to lesser journals and Top Journal will recognise my true, poor, calibre? What if the referees hate it and are Very Important People, and thus my career is blighted when it's hardly begun? ... Junior academic going into a decline ...

    Then scrolling back to Tip 10, pulling up socks, and returning to final formatting. Thank you.


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