How to Revive Academic Writing Left for Dead?

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We can find endless reasons to set aside a piece of writing. Perhaps we are distracted by another priority or opportunity,  We hit a writers’ block of some kind, and move on to something else. The forces of inertia might hold you back. Or, if we are to be candid, we might just be sick of it! But as time goes on, we might see some benefit from revisiting a piece of work we left for dead.

Reflecting on the challenges involved with restarting such a writing project, an image surfaced: a group of suburban Girl Scouts, trying to light a fire in the drizzle, with soggy wood (and no plan b for cooking dinner.) In both cases the spark was gone, and I it took many tries to make a flame take hold. In both cases I had the sinking feeling: “I don’t want to go through with this, but I am already committed (and I don’t have another way home.)

What to do?

I recently went through this process of adding new kindling to a long-dead fire. After several tries I managed to find the spark and reignite my motivation for completing a book. I was able to move from dread and anxiety to enthusiasm and success. I will share key questions and tips drawn from this and other experiences.

Key Steps and Questions

What writing project fizzled? How long ago? Have you tried to revive it, or did you wrap it in black ribbons and read it last rites? Is it completely dead, or can you see any green shoots amidst crunchy dead leaves? Your obstacles and opportunities will be different, depending on how long ago you conducted research, and read relevant literature.

In my case, new opportunities drew me away from a book I was writing about online collaboration and collaborative e-learning. I negotiated an exit from the book contract, and started writing about the methods I’d used to do the research: synchronous online interviews, with graphic elicitation, interactions on a shared white board, verbal and text exchanges. I’ve now written four SAGE books about these and other online methods. What about that collaboration stuff?The book project was on the far-back burner for almost a decade, until I found just the right publisher and decided to move it forward.

What type of writing project are you trying to revive? Thesis/dissertation? Article? Chapter or book? Report or other professional writing? And what is the purpose of this piece of writing: to inform or instruct, to add new thinking to the scholarly literature, or to provide practical how-to steps? Importantly, has your purpose changed?

In my case, as mentioned, the project involved was a book. The concept for this book was scholarly, with focus on the theoretical implications of the models I was introducing. The primary purpose to instruct, with the goal of adoption as a text and graduate education courses. A shift in purpose allowed me to revive this draft.

While the new book includes discussion of the theoretical context, the purpose is very practical. This book is designed as a practical how-to resource for educators in academia, or for instructors in professional, informal or community based settings. While I still needed to update my literature, the burden of doing so was much less than I would’ve been with a scholarly book.

Look at your own writing project. If you were planning to write an article for the peer-reviewed journal, might you more readily develop a series of substantive posts for a blog or professional association newsletter respected in your field? Perhaps this exercise will ignite your curiosity and you’ll write that serious article after all.If you were planning to write a book and got bogged down, perhaps you could instead create an edited book. Put out a call for chapters in include as much of your own writing is you want to update, complemented by the work of others in your field.In other words, the type of writing you started way back when might still be right for you now. Or, this might be a great time to find new ways of getting your work out. Those new ways might not entail writing– you might choose to create media, a graphic novel, or some other form.

Is out-of-date literature an issue? Every month more journal articles and books are published. Searching and analyzing the literature to update your piece of writing can be intimidating. Depending on the type of writing you have chosen, the significant effort required to re-review the literature might be unavoidable or optional.

Requirements aside, reading current literature can help revive your interest in the topic, and inspire you to contribute your own research findings and insights. Current literature could offer the basis for a then-and-now comparison between era of your research and now.I chose to write the style of book that did not need a full literature review. However, I had continued to collect and read articles that related to my interest in collaboration, so I wasn’t far behind. Updating my collection of background materials and looking at new ideas helped to reboot my enthusiasm for the project.

Is out-of-date data an issue? What are your options for complementing your study with new data and interpretations? If you want to avoid conducting another study, could you update your work with an analysis of extant data?

More and more archives, databases, and data sets are being made available to academics and the general public. These treasure troves of data might allow you to but only update, but also to enrich, your original study. What qualitative or quantitative data are available in your field?How could you align new findings with your prior research? How can you integrate new insights with prior discussion of results?

I did a small follow-up study, and I developed and taught a course based on the models. But I did not formally update the data from the original study. Instead, I used gleanings from the literature as well as input received from educators in the field. I reflected on questions and comments I had received when I presented the models central to the book.

Are out-of-date writing tools an issue? Do you need to update or upgrade dated software?Can you use this writing project as an excuse to buy new tools that would help you make progress?

I’ve found that new tools can be motivational. Two new tools made a difference for the book project revival. First, I started using voice-to-text with Dragon Naturally Speaking on my PC and a built-in dictation feature on my Mac laptop. I’ve found that I can think creatively when I’m not worried about the keyboard. I’ve also found that reduces eyestrain during long writing stretches because I’m not staring at the screen. (There are some amusing bloopers in voice-to-text: when I have a cold it kept adding “huh, huh, huh” or the phone will ring and I’ll find snatches of conversation captured in my document. Keep in mind that you need to proof read!

Second, I tried the authoring software, Scrivener, for this project. As a beginner, I’m sure that I didn’t make full use of the features, but improved organization definitely helped my workflow. While I am a very digital person, I am also a lover of fountain pens. A new pen and notebook gets my juices flowing! (This time it was a purple fountain pen with a stylus on the other end, for writing in digital and paper modes.)


LEARN MORE AND JOIN THE CONVERSATION: This series of posts complements the June #HEdigID chat. See the archive here. Join future chats!

Higher Education Digital Identity (a.k.a. #HEdigID) Chat.  This Twitter chat is designed to discuss what it means to be ONLINE as a higher ed professional (e.g. staff, faculty, graduate students, etc.) today. As we work and play on social networks, linked platforms, and open media spaces, there are opportunities to connect to communities, collaborate with peers, and share our practice. That being said, digital engagement also comes with challenges, issues, or limitations we need to talk about together.
For more on academic writing, see the MethodSpace AcWriMo series of posts.


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