Thursday, June 23, 2011

Writing ::

Earlier this month, I celebrated my 8th year of blogging. Most of that time I've been reviewing the books I read, and I always start those reviews with "Reading ::" - the prefix was to indicate that the entry was a review.

But as I enter this next year of blogging, I want to try something different. For at least the next year, I'll be starting some posts with "Writing ::" -- posts that talk about the background, reasoning, and struggles behind my just-published publications.

Beyond narcissism and self-promotion, why do I want to do this? Here are some reasons:

Traditional academic publishing conceals the real work of writing. As a graduate student, I remember thinking that published articles were the result of brilliant thinkers. In fact, I dimly remember being intimidated when I read that Stanley Fish simply sat down and wrote articles in longhand, then sent the first draft to journals. Certainly I didn't - and don't - write that way. But in academic journals, we only see the product, and that gives us a misleading understanding of the process. We don't see how reviewers and the journal editor have considerably shaped the process, or how reviews of one article influence the methodology of the next one, or how an article can develop new framing as it goes. And we - especially graduate students and new assistant professors - do need to see that.

Just a quick example. A few years ago, one of my articles was rejected by two journals and received a split review at the third journal. The editor published it anyway, and it went on to win two awards. But if I hadn't committed to extensive revisions based on the rejections and the (deserved) negative reviews, it wouldn't have seen the light of day.

Traditional academic publishing tends to restrict sources. I draw from a lot of different sources for inspiration, including blog posts, tweets, industry reports, and popular business books. I carefully follow up these sources of inspiration with more scholarly sources. But then the less scholarly sources fall by the wayside; reviewers don't want to see you citing popular business books in your scholarly articles, for instance, even if you back them up with other sources. This series should allow me to discuss some of these hidden sources and therefore expose the research and writing process.

Traditional academic publishing has very little space for discussion. Academic publishing provides the following avenues for discussing the work they publish: blind reviews and editors' feedback (one-on-one, private); letters to the editor (only in some journals, public, and structured so that the original author has the last word); and citations (slow-motion, indirect). Meanwhile, scholars are conducting faster-moving, free-wheeling discussions in social media. I see this series as a way to provide more rapid academic discussion, particularly the sort of emergent back-and-forth that isn't supported at all in traditional academic publishing.

The double blind review is no more. Well, that may be overstating things. But the traditional way of guaranteeing impartiality in journal reviews, the double blind review (in which the reviewers don't know who the author is and vice versa), has been made extremely problematic by search engines and social media. For instance, if you are even casually acquainted with my blog, you will probably recognize themes, topics, and references in my manuscripts whether my name is on them or not. Similarly, although as a rule I don't Google the titles of manuscripts I review, I know that if I did, I could identify most authors without much trouble.

So what does that mean? My sense is that it means that submitting a manuscript is a higher-stakes activity than it used to be, at the same time that academics are facing increased pressure to publish. Authors must either severely restrict what they put online about their ongoing research - which would impair their work as public intellectuals and their ability to share their work with others - or find ways to produce higher quality work out of the gate. This series, I hope, can provide a place for discussing strategies of doing the latter.

Okay, so that's what the "Writing ::" series should do. Here's what I won't do, because they would be completely unprofessional as well as beside the point:

  • I won't post reviewer comments or identifiable summaries.
  • I won't post editor comments.
  • I won't question the judgment of reviewers or editors.
  • I won't air grievances.
  • I won't supply negative examples from other people's work.
Also, I won't revisit old publications or discuss publications that are still in press. I'll only discuss publications that have just become available to academics, and I'll provide links so you can follow along if you like.

Questions or comments? Do you think the series is a good idea? What would you like to see from this series? What else do you think I should avoid? Let me know in the comments, and/or tweet me (@spinuzzi).