Thursday, December 10, 2015

Writing :: How Magnets Attract and Repel

Spinuzzi, C., Nelson, S., Thomson, K.S., Lorenzini, F., French, R.A., Pogue, G., & London, N. (2016). How Magnets Attract and Repel: Interessement in a Technology Commercialization Competition. Written Communication 33(1).

This is another in my series on writing articles. The link goes to the online first version, which should convert in January 2016 to the print version.

It's also another in my series of articles on business pitches, researched and published in conjunction with my colleagues at the IC2 Institute. The other articles addressed aspects of the process, focusing more on nuts-and-bolts aspects; this one theorizes the program being analyzed, using Latour's concept of interessement and my own notion of standing sets of transformations. These two concepts help us to understand how the program led innovators through tactical moments of persuasion; ultimately, successful innovators were able to make these tactical moments cohere in strategic arguments. This journey from tactical to strategic persuasion remained steady in a program that had to address extreme variability in other aspects.

Since this series is on writing, let me pull out just a few things about the writing of this piece.

Letting things cook
This article was one of the first pieces I planned, but it's among the last pieces to be published. That's for two reasons.

One, it depended on a lot of analytical work, and much of that work was done piece by piece in the other articles. For instance, our two IEEE TPC articles helped us to take apart and understand how the innovators were making and iterating their arguments, while our summer articles at IEEE Procomm and SIGDOC let us examine the market reports and the pitch training. In promising and writing these articles, we were compelled to reduce the data enough to make analyses practical. For instance, the TPC articles helped us to figure out what argument strategies to look for in the new batch of data, while the SIGDOC pitch paper compelled us to narrow our scope to four main firms; if we had tried to thoroughly analyze the entire range of materials for all firms, we wouldn't have published until 2020.

Two, it depended on some theoretical work as well. Although the standing set of transformations (SST) was pretty well established by the first publication, and although we began thinking in terms of interessement early on, it took a while to understand the relationships between the two, and longer still to try to test them. It was perhaps last spring that we realized the real import of what we were seeing: firms were dealing with wildly different audiences, timeframes, and industries with almost no overlap, but the competition itself provided a reproducible structure that allowed them to navigate these wildly different challenges. Without the time to put two and two together, we wouldn't have been able to develop the paper we did.

Of course, letting a piece cook for 2-3 years is a luxury that the tenured enjoy. Your mileage may vary.

Framing, framing, framing
When the reviewers' comments came back, they pointed to the same problem I always seem to have with these sorts of papers. The methodology and analysis were fine, but the paper read like a sociological study. Where was the connection to writing studies?

The connection was, of course, crystal clear in my head and in my conversations with my collaborators. The firms were awash with texts, texts that articulated and rearticulated their positions! But to the reviewers, these texts were too much in the background. And I had to admit that their concerns were valid—readers of Written Communication needed clear signposts to understand how this paper dealt with concerns about writing and built the basis for further understanding of writing.

In the revisions, therefore, we built in more close analysis of specific texts. We also built more framing and implications connected to writing studies. Finally, we included more methodological and theoretical cites to writing studies pieces.

Concision, concision, concision
The problem with a rich case study like this is that, when you tell the story, everything seems important and interesting. But, as the editor told me in the nicest possible way, the article has to fit within the guidelines. (I suspect she also felt the audience would not be as raptly interested in the details as we were.) So we had to cut 3000 words. This task seemed daunting when we took it on, but in retrospect, it wasn't that hard and it resulted in a much tighter and (hopefully) more interesting piece.

I admit that this may have been the most I have had to cut a piece, but the general problem occurs over and over. It's usually easier to cut than to add, so I let myself go a little long, then cut when I'm told. The danger, of course, is that the piece will get rambly and boring. Rambly is worse than boring—it indicates a lack of underlying framework—and I don't think I usually suffer from it. Boring can be fixed with judicious cuts, and often the editor is the best person to recommend such cuts.

In any case, I hope you enjoy the paper as much as we enjoyed writing it!

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