Academic Writing Month

I just caught on to the fact that November is Academic Writing Month! The hashtag #AcWriMo had crossed my radar a few times on Twitter this week, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I found out what it is all about. I wrote you a brief introduction to the concept if, like me, you hadn’t yet realized this month is special for academic writers.

This is how it works, in brief:

• Decide on a goal that’s word, time or task based (and stretches you)

• Publicly declare said goal (this gives you a push from the start)

• Draft a strategy (planning in advance will focus you)

• Openly discuss your problems and progress

• Don’t slack off

• Declare your results at the end

The longer version by Charlotte Frost, the woman behind Academic Writing Month, can be found on PhD2Published.

The idea of setting a goal and drafting a strategy is something I do regularly (as a GTD disciple). What appeals to me in this project is especially the fourth bullet point: talking about your writing practice with other writers, exchanging experiences and advice. As Tarrant puts it: “Social media platforms offer a great hybrid space – somewhere between the formal institution we’re affiliated to and the comfort of our own homes – where we can think out loud, ask for advice, build a support network, write and research collaboratively.”

Declare your goals on the AcWriMo Facebook page or use the Accountability Spreadheet on Google Docs, and share your experiences using the #AcWriMo hashtag.

For inspiration, see also my page with Writing Tools.

Getting it published

This is what’s waiting for me on my desk:


You guessed it — it’s time to revise my dissertation for publication. People at the ESSHC conference in Lissabon kept asking me where my thesis was published. Their interest really motivated me to take some action in that department.

I read Germano’s From Dissertation to Book while I was waiting for my delayed plane on the Lisbon airport, and I decided that I need to do what he calls a “deep revision” to turn my dissertation into a publishable book. I need to make my chapters more lucid, strengthen my line of argument, speak more in my own voice instead of that of other critics, and get rid of excess block quotes.

Germano’s book suggests that I don’t contact a publishing house quite yet. He recommends revising the book first, so that I am ready to send it out if a publisher reacts positively to my book proposal. So that is my plan of action now: revise first, then write a brilliant book proposal to sell my Wild Justice: The Dynamics of Gender and Revenge in Early Modern English Drama to a publisher in England or the United States. Ah yes, I probably need a snappier subtitle too.

All practical advice on how to go about turning a dissertation into a published book is greatly welcome!

Finish something every day

Since I hope to put the final touches to my PhD thesis this summer, I was happy to find that Mary McKinney’s Monday Motivator this week focuses on the subject of finishing. The academic coach advises to take projects one step at a time:

You’ll find that finishing a task creates a burst of energy. When you accomplish your achievable daily goal, you’ll feel a mild surge of satisfaction and an increase in motivation.

Take a look at Mary’s Wednesday Wisdom on daily discipline as well, if you need more inspiration to get writing.

Taking things one step at a time in a different sense, Brett D. Hirsch over at Sound and Fury considers the pros and cons of submitting a PhD thesis as a series of (peer-reviewed) papers. This method of working towards a PhD is more common in the sciences, but Brett sees considerable advantages for the humanities as well. He is curious to know what you think…

The perks of writing

Anne Galloway has started a new weblog Lost in Dissertation, where she will chart her progress during the final two months of writing her PhD thesis. Anne makes dissertation writing fun by following Jane McGonigal ‘s idea of posting her best sentence of the day on her blog. I think it is a wonderful idea to savour the nitty-gritty details of writing. And the concept is catching on; Jean at Creativity/Machine yesterday posted a choice specimen of her day’s writing.

And for the perks of online history writing: History Carnival #31 is up at Airminded!

Essay typography

To all those out there marking student essays at the moment: are you aware that the typographical fonts of the essays might be influencing your grading?

Student Phil Renaud has a hunch that this might be the case, and supports his hunch with empirical research — he has examined his own essay archive.

Do you make a conscious choice of font when you are writing? And — what does your favourite font say about your personality?

Writing and linearity

“Now the trouble began,” Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own. “The student who has been trained in research at Oxbridge has no doubt some method of shepherding his question past all distractions till it runs into its answer as a sheep runs into its pen. The student by my side, for instance, who was copying assiduously from a scientific manual, was, I felt sure, extracting pure nuggets of the essential ore every ten minutes or so. His little grunts of satisfaction indicated so much. But if, unfortunately, one has had no training in a university, the question far from being shepherded to its pen flies like a frightened flock hither and thither, helter-skelter, pursued by a whole pack of hounds.”

The ‘trouble’ that Woolf identifies here, is a problem every PhD student faces at some point: how can your writing do justice to all the material you have studied and read on your subject? Because writing is linear, and research is often much more haphazard and associative, you always need to leave things out in order to make for a clear, straightforward argument. I’m always noting ideas and fascinating quotations in separate files — to be used, perhaps, for future research. But what if you keep filing those things up in your computer, like a modern Casaubon, and never get to publish them?

Hypertext could offer a solution to this problem. Since terms in the text can be linked to other pieces of writing, a more haphazard, circular form of reading and writing is possible. In a fascinating article in the online cultural studies journal Rhizomes, Michelle Kendrick compares hypertext to the écriture féminine of French feminism: “hypertext may give us a space for a poetics of the and/and/and rather than the either/or: a place where our feminist content, arguments or musings, may coexist side by side with their contradictions.” The same might go for the musings, arguments, and contradictions of a PhD research.

I know of one PhD thesis written as a hypertext website. It’s Marcel Cobussen’s amazing Deconstruction in Music. The online thesis opens with a map of its contents, based on an underground map as you find them in London or Paris. You click on the section you want to read, and the sections refer to each other through links in the text. “This work is the sediment of a quest, a wavering series of explorations, and not the presentation of a set of conclusions,” Cobussen writes in his introduction — precisely what Virginia Woolf would have been looking for.

Robert Darnton, a historian who specializes in the history of the book, aims to take the idea to an even further level. He is planning to publish an e-book that not only links the various sections of its argument, but which also links to deeper levels of research: to his research notes, background information, his sources:

Here is how my fantasy takes shape — and it’s just a fantasy at this stage, for I don’t believe any such work exists, at least not in the discipline of history. An “e-book,” unlike a printed codex, can contain many layers, arranged in the shape of a pyramid. Readers can download the text and skim through the topmost layer, which would be written like an ordinary monograph. […] If they come upon something that especially interests them, they can click down a layer to a supplementary essay or appendix. They can continue deeper through the book, through bodies of documents, bibliography, historiography, iconography, background music, everything I can provide to give the fullest possible understanding of my subject. In the end, readers will make the subject theirs, because they will find their own paths through it, reading horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, wherever the electronic links may lead.

If this is the future of the book, I’m all for it!