Monday, December 26, 2011

Why I Love Doing My Annual Review

As we close in on 2011, it is time for me to do my year-end review. This process provides the space for me to assess my progress and take pride in my accomplishments.

Every year in December, my department chair sends a note around asking faculty to compile their annual reviews. The purpose of these reviews is to assess merit pay. In the past few years, raises have been few and far between. Nevertheless, I actually look forward to doing my annual review.


I find it rewarding to look over the past year and take stock of all I have accomplished. In academia, we often are looking forward to the next deadline or brooding over the latest rejection. There are far too few moments when we permit ourselves to bask in our success. For me, annual review is one of those times.

This year, for example, my annual review permitted me to reflect on the fact that I published two books in 2011 (Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru and Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post-9/11 America), in addition to an article and a book review. My annual review also accounts for works submitted and in progress. Thus, I reported that I submitted two articles, and that one of them was accepted. I also reported my progress on two other books and the fourteen presentations I delivered.

In academia, it is easy to feel as if we are not doing enough. For this reason, it is important to have a clear idea as to what we are and are not accomplishing. My annual review does allow me to report what I have submitted, had accepted, and has come into print. It does not, however, take into account the time I have spent reading and preparing for chapters and articles I have not completed, nor does it allow me to account for the countless hours I have spent analyzing my data. This is fine, though, as it serves as a reminder of the importance of finishing and submitting works for publication.

My annual review also does not allow me to report my political, personal, or advice blogging. Again, this is fine with me because I do not blog for the explicit purpose of advancing my career, much less with the expectation that I will get a merit raise for blogging. I blog because I derive satisfaction from it and because it provides plenty of other rewards. For me, it is crucial to be conscious of the fact that my institution does not explicitly value blogging and publishing in online formats.

Taking stock of the year also permits me to take into consideration what I have not accomplished. I had hoped to have completed my book on deportees in 2011. I have not finished the data analysis, and thus have not finished writing the book. The main reason for this is that I let other projects with firm deadlines take precedence. This was particularly the case during the Fall semester, when I barely worked on my book. Instead, I completed two solicited chapters for edited volumes and two co-authored articles and pulled together and delivered ten presentations.

There is no point in chastising myself for what I have not accomplished. However, it is crystal clear that I need to say “no” to new opportunities, no matter how enticing they look, if I am to finish my book in 2012. I still have to put the final touches on two co-authored articles, although I hope to finish those in January. I also have taken on a new project that is unrelated to my book. So, clearly, yes, I need to say “no” to any additional opportunities, and focus on finishing my book.

I encourage you to take the time as we close out 2011 to reflect on what you have and have not accomplished this year. Reflecting on and celebrating your accomplishments will also make it clearer what you need to accomplish in 2012.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Twelve Steps from Dissertation to Book

When I finished my dissertation, I knew I wanted to transform it into a book. I did not, however, know anything about the publishing process. As I am now finished with this long process, this is an ideal time for me to outline the steps so that others can know how to publish a book from your dissertation.

In this blog post, I will explain the book publishing process. However, keep two things in mind: 1) there is a lot of variation beyond what I describe here and 2) this is generally the process for the first book, not necessarily for the second or third.

My first book, based on my dissertation

Step One: Write the Book Prospectus

Although it seems daunting, a book prospectus is not a complex document. I describe the book proposal in detail here. Briefly, it contains: 1) a summary of your book that outlines the main argument; 2) a one-paragraph summary of each chapter; 3) a timeline for completion of the book manuscript; 4) a brief description of the target audience and potential classes for course adoption; and 5) the competing literature. Usually these are short documents. Mine have ranged from four to seven single-spaced pages.

Step Two: Submit the Book Prospectus

Find publishers who might be interested in your book manuscript, and send them the prospectus. Often, they also will want one or two sample chapters. You can send your prospectus to as many publishers as you like. Most publishers list submission guidelines on their websites. These guidelines often indicate exactly what materials they would like to see: usually a prospectus, one or two sample chapters, and a two page CV.

Step Three: Submit the Book Manuscript

When acquisitions editors receive your prospectus, they make a decision as to whether or not they will send your book manuscript out for review. If they do not, they will send you a letter with their regrets. However, if they are interested, they often will call or email you with a request to see more materials. Some presses want to wait for the whole book manuscript to be completed. Others will send out just the prospectus for review. Others will send out 1-4 finished chapters. That depends on the book and the press. They will let you know.

Step Four: The Press Sends Your Manuscript out for Review

You wait between one and twelve months for the reviews to come back. If just the prospectus is under review, this will not take very long. If it is the whole manuscript, usually you will wait several months.

Step Five: You Get a Contract

The press makes a decision based on the reviews. They can decide to a) offer a contract based on the reviews; b) ask you to do more revisions and send it out for review again or c) decline to offer a contract based on the reviews. If it is c), you go back to Step Two.

Step Six: You Sign a Contract

If the reviews are favorable, the press will offer you a contract, which you first negotiate and then sign. Here are some items often up for negotiation: 1) who will pay for the index; 2) who pays for the cover and inside pictures; 3) who pays for the copy-editing; 4) the royalties rate; and 5) when and whether the book will be released in paperback.

Step Seven: You Revise the Manuscript

You revise the manuscript based on the reviews. Some presses will send it out for review again once you revise it. Others will review it internally and ask you to make further revisions. Still others will send it as is to the copy-editor after you make your revisions.

Step Eight: Copy-Editing

Once the book manuscript is revised, it goes to the copy-editor and they proofread the text. This usually takes 1 to 3 months.

Step Nine: Revision

You revise it again, based on the suggestions made by the copy-editor. You then send it back to the copy-editor who sends it to the press after your final approval. You usually have one month to respond to the copy edits.

Step Ten: Page Proofs

Your book is put into page proofs that you get to read and revise again. At this stage, however, you can only make very minor changes. You correct any mistakes and then it goes to the printer.

Step Eleven: In Press

The page proofs are sent to the printer, and you wait for your book to be printed. Printing usually takes a couple of months.

Step Twelve: On the Shelf

Your book is available for sale! Now that your book is for sale, be sure to include a link to the publisher's website or to in your email signature to advertise your book.

As made clear in these twelve steps, publishing an academic book is often a very long process. It is important to keep in mind that it can take years to publish a book, even after you have completed the manuscript.

For example, I completed the manuscript for my first book in May 2009 and sent it to a publisher who had agreed to review it. I received the reviews in November 2009, and the publisher offered me a contract on the basis of the reviewers’ evaluations at that time. I signed the contract and then revised the book according to the suggested revisions and returned it to the publisher in March 2010. In June 2010, I received and reviewed the copy-edits. In October 2010, I received and reviewed the page proofs. The book was released in February 2011 – nearly two years after I had originally “finished” the book manuscript! Keeping this timetable in mind is particularly important if your university prefers you to have a bound book when you go up for tenure.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another Secret to Success: Hiring a Professional Editor

One of the secrets of academic success is that many academics use professional editors to help them move towards publication. This may come as a surprise if you are not aware of this common practice, but it is a strategy worth trying for many academic writers.


When I was in graduate school, I met with one of my mentors – a new Assistant Professor – and asked her if she planned to submit an article based on a recent talk she had given. She told me that the manuscript was too long and she was considering hiring a professional editor to get it from 10,000 to 8,000 words. I was astonished.

I had no idea that academics used professional editors, and something about it did not seem right. The idea that an intellectual would pay someone to do their intellectual labor did not sit well with me.

It was not until many years later, after I finished graduate school and had a job of my own, that I came to see the benefits of using a professional editor. Moreover, I began to use one myself. In this post, I will discuss three of the benefits to using a professional editor. 1) Many academics do not have the skills to edit their own work. Using a professional editor is one way to teach yourself those skills. 2) Professional editors are just that, professionals. This means that they can edit your work quickly and professionally and save you time. 3) Using a professional editor can help get your work accepted at top journals.

Using a professional editor will improve your writing

Most graduate programs do not include writing training. As a consequence, many academics are not very good writers. We split verbs, dangle modifiers, use too many adjectives, use long and convoluted sentences, mis-use words, and misplace punctuation marks. Using a professional editor will help you to see which errors you commit most frequently, and to correct them. The first time I used an editor, I learned grammar and style rules I never had known before and realized that I repeated the same errors over and over again. The best way to find out which errors you make most frequently is to have a professional edit your text and tell you.

Using a professional editor will save you time

For those of you on the tenure clock, time is of the essence. The less time you spend poring over every detail of your article, the quicker you can get it under review and accepted. Paying a professional editor a couple of hundred dollars to turn your almost-finished article into a well-polished piece of work can be a fantastic investment. It is no secret that many academics are perfectionists. Paying someone to do the final editing can take off some of that pressure to be perfect and save you a lot of time. It may seem like a lot of money to pay for an editor, but, sometimes, you have to ask yourself: "What is the cost of not hiring an editor?" Additionally, if you have research funds, this is a perfectly legitimate use of them.

Using a professional editor will help you get more articles accepted

A well-written paper gives you an edge in the peer review process. When reviewers receive papers that have grammatical errors, it turns them off. Many think that your grammatical carelessness could be indicative of carelessness in other areas. If you write “loose” instead of “lose,” perhaps you coded a variable incorrectly or did not transcribe your interview quotes or archival documents with precision. On the other hand, having an article free of grammatical and stylistic errors allows reviewers to focus exclusively on the quality of your work, and not on your minor errors. Even if your article is not accepted, the feedback you receive will be more useful as the reviewers’ critiques will not be influenced by their negative opinions of your writing.

Have a nearly finished article on your desk that you are nervous about sending out? Consider sending it to a professional editor to help you get to that last hurdle of finishing and submitting it.

Looking for a professional editor?

As people often ask me to recommend professional editors, I keep a list of active professional editors. Hopefully one of these editors will work out for you. Like writers, editors have different styles, and it can be hard to find one whose style matches your own.

Kate Epstein's helped many writers bring their books into the world. She'll point out the weaknesses in your arguments, show you how to use structure to make your writing easier to read, and all the while cheerlead for your work. Assistant Professor of Sociology Joan Maya Mazelis at Rutgers University wrote, "Whether early or late in your writing process, whether you need help hashing out ideas and figuring out what you want to say or you need line-by-line editing services to make your arguments clearer and stronger, Kate is an excellent developmental editor!" You can find her at or email her at

Here are Kate's 2015 prices:

$75/hour for substantive editing (10% off for students and post-docs)
$85/hour for coaching (10% off for students and post-docs)
query critique and feedback $90 (flat fee)
publishing consultation for folks dealing with trade publishers $125/hour
literary contract review $200 (flat)
copyediting $0.02/word (see website for some additional fees that apply for extra checking)
thesis prep (making a dissertation conform to official guidelines) $45/hour

rush fee 10%, typically only if a client’s schedule absolutely requires working at night/on the weekend/on a holiday

I've really enjoyed working with Kristy Johnson: she's fast, knows her stuff, has an eagle eye, and brings what I have found to be very useful insights to my writing (in other words, she's not afraid to tell me when I make no sense). So the next time you find yourself in the final stages of writing a manuscript you've read one too many times, let Kristy give it a fresh look, clean up your mess, and get you one step closer to publication! I no longer send out an article without passing it by Kristy first, and my nerves are the better for it. You can email her at

Kristy S. Johnson –MFA in creative writing, Freelance Editor for 10 years.
Focuses: Dissertations/Thesis, Academic Articles/Book Chapters, Newsletters, Annual Reports, CVS/Resumes, Fiction and Non- Fiction Books, etc. Field focuses: Humanities, Social Sciences and Education. Services & Fees: Proofreading/Copy Editing, $2/page, Content Editing, $4/page (non-book length), Content/Copy Editing for books negotiable.

Kathleen (Sarah) Wood, an editor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has provided editing and transcription services for academics and other professionals throughout the country since 1989. She has edited dissertations, proposals, papers, and books for professors and students in a broad range of fields. She has extensive experience in transcription of interviews and focus groups for qualitative researchers. Her business sector experience includes report editing and research assistance for marketing companies, transcription of oral histories, newsletter formatting and editing, and more. For more information on her services, she can be contacted at, or 734-929-2866

Morelia is an English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English translator who specializes in producing thorough, high-quality media and academic translations. She also offers editing and proofreading services and takes great care to provide quality work for your media and academic needs.

Contact info:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Accountability really works: Writing and Weight Loss

As one moves up the academic ladder, there is less and less accountability for writing. For many academics, the lack of accountability leads to less productivity. For this reason, many faculty development experts suggest we incorporate more accountability into our lives to become more prolific writers. In this post, I’ll suggest a few ways to do this.


As a graduate student, we have papers to write for classes and deadlines to meet for degree completion. On the tenure track, we have mid-tenure review and the full tenure review. As many of us know, even that level of accountability is not enough to get us to be consistently productive. For consistent productivity, we need daily accountability.

I first learned the value of daily accountability by participating in an online discussion forum led by Kerry Ann Rockquemore. There was something very motivating about being able to go online at the end of each day and have a group of supportive people to whom I could say: “I wrote for 60 minutes today!”

To keep myself accountable for writing these days, I participate in an online writing accountability group on Facebook. I also have an accountability partner whom I call each week and we report to each our our accomplishments and obstacles.

Today, I am reflecting on the importance of accountability as I have seen how it has worked in other areas of my life, and perhaps blog readers will be able to relate to this.

A story of accountability and weight loss

May 2011 was the end of my sixth year on the tenure track. I hardly ever weigh myself, but got on a scale at my mother’s house and was surprised to see that I had gained 15 pounds during those six years on the tenure track. I honestly never have dieted in my life and never have been too worried about weight gain. (I know that is weird, but it has to do with how I was raised and where I grew up.)

I spent the summer of 2011 in Spain and France, and, despite the good food and wine, was able to shape up just a bit by walking for miles every day. When I returned from Europe, I had shed five pounds without really trying. That is when I decided I would actually try and lose the remaining 10 pounds. Why quit when I was ahead?

To accomplish this, I incorporated lots of accountability into my life. Specifically, I did three things.

First, I wrote down my weight every single day. I went out and bought an electric scale, as I did not have one before, and used it to weigh myself. Just writing down my weight every day made me more conscious of any fluctuations.

Secondly, I downloaded My Fitness Pal to my iphone and kept track of every single thing I ate. When I reached my caloric goal for the day, I either had to exercise if I wanted to eat more, or stop eating. To my surprise, I was able to stay at or under my caloric goal nearly every day.

Thirdly, my friend organized an exercise accountability group on Facebook and I posted to it every day.

With these three forms of accountability, by the end of the semester, I had shed the remaining ten pounds.

Why am I telling this story? Because I suspect that many blog readers are aware of the fact that accountability works for weight loss. Isn’t that what Weight Watchers is all about? I am hoping this parallel will help you to see that it can work for writing as well.

How do you incorporate accountability into your life for writing? Here are a few ways:

  1. Join or create an online group. Academic Ladder has a paid group with lots of benefits. Or, you can create your own online writing group with Facebook or Blogger or a free discussion forum like proboards.
  2. Find an email partner. Make an agreement with a friend that you will email one another at the end of your writing time.
  3. Write down each day how many words you wrote and/or how long you spent writing. You can do this privately or publicly on Facebook or Twitter, if you are into social media. Writing down and keeping track is a great accountability mechanism.
  4. Find an accountability partner. This is where you agree with a person that you will call one another once a week and discuss your writing goals for the week and whether or not you met them.
  5. Join or form an accountability group. This is a group where four people get together once a week and discuss their writing goals and whether or not they met them.
  6. Join or form a writing group. This is a group where each person in the group agrees to write five pages a week and group members share drafts with one another.
  7. Get creative and think of another form of accountability that might work for you!

Get some accountability and get to writing!

Monday, November 28, 2011

How To Concentrate on Your Writing Even When Life Goes On

To write, I need to concentrate. To concentrate, I need to have a clear mind. And, when something is bothering me, it is hard to have a clear mind, and, consequently, to write. So, how do you write when you have too much on your mind?


The simple answer is that you can not write when your mind is preoccupied with other things. To concentrate, you have to get the problem off your mind. The difficulty that clearing your mind involves depends on how big of a problem you have. Some problems can be taken care of fairly easily, whereas others are much bigger and require major steps. Let’s start with the easy kind of problems.

Annoyances with an Easy Fix

Let’s say you can’t write because you cannot stop thinking about an annoying email from a student asking you if they can enroll in your class even though they will miss 75% of the class sessions because of baseball practice and you can’t get it off of your mind. (Of course, you should not have opened your email before writing, but, that’s beside the point.) The best thing to do in this situation is to respond to the email.

Do something about the situation instead of letting it bother you. Tell the student attendance is required in your class, and that you cannot make any exceptions. Then, close the browser window and get back to writing.

Respond to What's Eating You and Get it Out of Your System

This technique – of responding to situations that bother you to get them off of your mind – also can work for more complex problems. If, for example, your chair just asked you to serve on yet another committee even though you are already on five other committees and you are all wound up about what to do about it, the best thing to do is to send a firm email explaining why this is not a good time for you to take on another committee assignment. Again, act, and get it out of your system.

Suppose your problem is that you have just received a rejection letter from a journal and feel depressed about your academic future. The best thing to do is to be pro-active. Take out a pen and make a plan for submitting the article to another journal. Set a firm date as a goal for beginning the revisions and for submission. Having a plan will make it easier to move forward.

If you are having general problems with concentrating, you also might consider doing meditation, which has been shown to enhance concentration.

Acknowledge Your Emotions and Work with Them

It is essential to acknowledge your emotions and to work with them. If you had an argument with your partner this morning, and can’t get it off of your mind, sometimes it is best to acknowledge that you are upset, and to engage in tasks that do not require much concentration. You can fix the bibliography on your latest manuscript or organize those articles that are piling up on your desk. Who knows, you might even calm yourself down while you are busy looking up citation formats in the Chicago Manual of Style.

Of course, there are some problems that are not going away any time soon. You may be involved in a custody battle with your spouse. Your mother may be dying of cancer. You may be on the brink of divorce. To figure out how to be productive in those very trying circumstances is much less simple.

The first question you have to ask yourself is: how long is this going to last? If your sister has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and will die within the next thirty days, by all means, drop everything and spend every minute you can with her. If, on the other hand, you have a mentally ill brother who requires long-term care, you have to decide how much of a role you are going to play in his care, and set limits to the amount of time and energy you give him.

Setting limits on what you can do for your loved ones is difficult. But, often, it is for the best. If you depend on your job for your financial solvency, it would be detrimental in the long term for you to spend so much time caring for others that you end up losing your job. Once you have lost your job, you likely will be of much less use to your loved ones who rely on your emotional and financial support. So, be sure to keep the long-term in mind.

Finally, do not hesitate to seek out professional help if you are having trouble dealing with your problems on your own. If you find yourself unable to move forward with your life or your work because of constant emotional setbacks, your best bet is to seek out a qualified therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist who can help you to find the most appropriate solutions for you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Be Grateful. Be Happy.

Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. Apart from stuffing ourselves and hanging our heads in shames for atrocities committed against Native Americans, this holiday is a great opportunity to take the time to be grateful, to give thanks.

May You Have Something Wonderful to Drink as You Ring In the New Year!

It turns out being grateful is good for your health. According to a recent New York Times article

Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.

It thus seems a worthwhile endeavor to spend some time writing about what I am grateful for.

I am grateful...

  • For inspiring students who bring thought-provoking questions to the classroom and go on to do fabulous things in life.
  • For supportive colleagues who are willing to do everything from pick my kids up from school when I am in a pinch to writing letters of recommendation for me, to reviewing early drafts of my work.
  • For my job, which allows me to do things I think are important and meaningful.
  • For my parents, who raised me in ways that instilled confidence as well as a fighting spirit in me.
  • For my husband, who is willing to do small and large things to make my life more enjoyable.
  • For my children, who bring joy to each of my days and remind me of the importance of being happy.
  • For my friends, near and far, who are there to lend an ear and plenty of sage advice when I need it.
  • For life. I am truly grateful to be alive and healthy and to have plenty of years ahead of me.

I am also grateful to the many readers of this blog, who inspire me to keep writing more!

What are you grateful for?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Feeling Overwhelmed? Take a break!

Are you feeling overwhelmed this semester with deadlines looming, your email inbox bursting, and obligations piling up? If so, I suggest you take a counterintuitive action: take a break!

You need to pull yourself out of a cycle of overwork and regain a sense of control over your life and work. The best way to do this is to take a break.

My three month Vacation

It is simply not true that you have to work all day, every day to be a successful academic at a research intensive university. In fact, trying to work beyond your personal limits, not taking days off, and not getting enough sleep are counterproductive. You cannot do excellent research when you are sleep-deprived, cranky and overworked.

Unfortunately, this is a cycle many academics fall into. They get behind, struggle to catch up, and fall deeper and deeper into a hole of exhaustion. This strategy does not work. If you are over-extended, drowning in deadlines and haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, my first suggestion to you is to stop working. Take the weekend off. Do something entirely unrelated to work on Saturday. On Sunday, relax, have breakfast with friends or family. Take a long walk. Go to the museum. Revitalize your creative connections. On Sunday afternoon, sit down and make a plan for the rest of the week.

Make a reasonable plan, one that has you going to sleep at 11pm and waking up at 7am. A plan that leaves time for meals, for exercise, for friends, for family. A plan that leaves time for life.

Trying to work all day, every day will not work. Not sleeping enough so that you can grade more papers, finish that book chapter, or file one more receipt is counter-productive. Instead, get a good night’s rest, and approach the tasks with new vigor in the morning.

Coming to terms with one’s own limitations can be hard. But, it can also be enlightening and liberating. Once you realize that you really cannot work all day, every day, there will be no more guilt about not doing so. If you know that opening up that laptop at 11pm does not mean that you will sneak in one more task, but instead will lead to a bad night’s sleep and a harried tomorrow, it makes much more sense to turn the laptop off, turn on some soothing music and go to sleep. Tomorrow morning, you will finish in five minutes that task that would have taken your exhausted mind 30 minutes to complete at the end of a long day.

If taking a break sounds like the most counterintuitive thing possible, that is probably all the more reason you should take one.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Five Steps to Writing a Stellar Introduction to an Academic Paper

An introduction is the most important part of an academic article. Thus, in academic writing, as in all writing, you want to make your introduction as clear and compelling as possible. Your introduction should motivate the reader to turn the page.

The introduction is your chance to make it clear why your paper is important. I find Wendy Belcher’s advice on writing introductions to be quite useful, and provide my own, slightly modified, version of it in this post.

Bryant Park, late Apr 2009 - 21

An introduction to an academic paper needs to accomplish five things:

  1. Draw your reader in and convince them they should care about your topic
  2. State your argument clearly
  3. Render evident your contribution to scholarship
  4. Establish your expertise.
  5. Define your terms

It’s a lot to do in two to four paragraphs, but a quick perusal through journal articles will make it clear that it is feasible.

Step 1: Draw the Reader in

My two favorite ways of beginning academic articles are with anecdotes or shocking statistics. For an article on deportees, I may begin with “In 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deported 387,242 people—thirteen times as many as in 1991.” Alternatively, I could start the paper with “Leroy moved with his parents to the United States as a legal permanent resident in 1978 when he was seven years old. He did not return to Jamaica until 1999, when he was deported for drug possession.”

Another effective opening involves beginning with an argumentative statement such as “The deportation of the adopted children of U.S. citizens represents one of the most egregious violations of human rights in contemporary America.” Alternatively, you can go straight to theory: “Scholars of transnationalism focus on the diminishing meaning of national borders. Deportation, however, solidifies these borders.” Finally, you can start with a question such as: “Once forcibly returned to their countries of birth, why and how do deportees participate in transnational relationships?”

There are many ways to draw the reader in. If you are having trouble figuring out how to begin your article, consider trying each of these approaches and seeing which one you find most effective.

Step 2: State your argument clearly

An academic article should not be written like a mystery novel. Instead, you need to state your argument clearly and early on.

One of my favorite definitions for what constitutes an argument comes from Wendy Belcher, who writes: “an argument is a statement to which you can coherently respond “I agree” or “I disagree”.” In my article on Jamaican deportees, my argument is as follows: “Jamaican deportees use transnational ties as coping strategies, and face a gendered stigma because of this.” This is a statement with which one could agree or disagree.

In contrast, it would not be a viable for me to state “I contend that Jamaican deportees are people forcibly returned to their countries of birth.” That is just stating the obvious.

Step 3: Render Evident Your Contribution to Scholarship

Scholarly writing is not just about making a good argument; you also must make it clear how you are contributing to scholarly knowledge. Even if it is true that most Americans think that undocumented workers don’t pay taxes, you can’t publish an academic article solely on the basis that it demonstrates that undocumented workers do pay taxes, because specialists in this field already know this. Your research must contribute to current literature in your field, and your introduction has to make it clear what your contribution is.

In my article on deportees, then, in addition to arguing that Jamaican deportees use transnational ties as coping strategies, and that they face a gendered stigma because of this, I had to explain how this contributes to the literature in this subfield. I accomplished this by pointing out that although transnationalism has been studied extensively, we know relatively little about 1) why migrants choose to participate in transnational practices; 2) how the uniquely stressful experience of deportation might affect these practices; and 3) how gender affects reliance on transnational affective ties. Because my research is qualitative, I had to be sure that the kinds of contributions I was planning to make were congruent with the sorts of questions I could ask as a qualitative researcher.

Step 4: Establish Your Expertise

At some point in your introduction, it is crucial to point out the basis on which you are making your claims. For social scientists, this generally means your data, whether you completed statistical analysis of a national data set, qualitative interviews, ethnography, content analysis, or comparative historical work. You do not need to go into detail with regard to your methodology – that goes in the methods section. However, you should state the basis of your expertise at some point in your introduction. For folks in the humanities, make some mention of the texts, documents, music, or other media you have analyzed to show readers the basis upon which you are making your arguments.

Step 5: Define Your Terms

Your article likely deals with concepts with which the general public might not be familiar. The introduction is a good place to define these terms. In my paper on the transnational ties of Jamaican deportees, for example, it seemed pertinent to define both deportation and transnationalism.

As I was writing this blog post, I edited my introduction on the paper I am currently editing to ensure that I followed my own advice. I paste it below, not as an example of an ideal introduction, but as a demonstration of my attempt to follow my own advice. Here it is:

TITLE: Forced Transnationalism: Transnational Coping Strategies and Gendered Stigma among Jamaican Deportees

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deported 387,242 people—thirteen times as many as in 1991. Deportation is the forced removal of a non-citizen from a host country to one’s country of citizenship, a form of state-sponsored forced migration. The high and increasing rate of deportation has important consequences for the study of migration; however, deportation has yet to receive the attention of migration scholars. With more than one thousand people deported every day from the United States, it is safe to say we are in an era of mass deportation. How do deportees fit into our understanding of migration? What sorts of ties do people legally barred from traveling to the United States maintain with that country? This article addresses these questions by asking how and why Jamaican deportees maintain transnational ties.

The question of why people engage in transnational exchanges is important because not all migrants participate in these exchanges. Transnational migrants are a subset of international migrants who retain significant ties to their country of origin while settling into the host country (Parreñas 2010; Wiles 2008). Guarnizo, Portes and Haller (2003), for example, found that only 10 to 15 percent of the Salvadoran and Dominican migrants in their survey regularly participated in transnational exchanges. The relative rarity of habitual transnationalism raises the question of why only some migrants use transnational strategies. Transnational practices refer to cross-border activities, and include activities that literally and symbolically cross national borders, meaning that migrants need not travel to participate in these practices (De Bree, Davids, and de Haas 2010). This is pertinent for deportees, whose international travel is often greatly restricted.

Analyses of the cross-border engagements of Jamaican deportees shed light on how the forced, shameful, and physically and emotionally stressful experience of deportation affects how and why deportees participate in transnational practices. My analyses of 37 interviews with Jamaican deportees render it evident that deportees use transnational practices as coping strategies to deal with financial and emotional hardship. This argument builds on research about the transnational material and affective ties of voluntary labor migrants. Other scholars have found that transnational ties provide female migrants with social connections and support networks (Domínguez and Lubitow 2008), emotional support (Viruell-Fuentes 2006), and affective connections (Burman 2002). Although the deportees I studied were primarily male not female, I found they also relied heavily on transnational material and affective ties. Scholars have found that return migrants use transnational strategies to gain social status (Goldring 1998) and to create a sense of belonging upon return home (De Bree, Davids, and de Haas 2010). The shame associated with deportation means that transnational ties do not bring social status to deportees. In addition, the notion of “home” is complicated for those deportees who have spent most of their lives in the United States.

Deportation creates economic hardship as well as a sense of alienation, shame and isolation. The shame of dependence is exacerbated by gendered expectations that men should be able not only to take care of themselves, but also to provide for others (Lewis 2007). Due to a gendered stigma of men unable to provide for themselves and their children and incapable of controlling their emotions, many deportees found their newfound material and emotional dependence to be shameful. Deportees face a paradoxical situation: they use transnational coping strategies to relieve their financial and emotional hardships. Because of gendered expectations of themselves and others, these same strategies remind them of their isolation and inability to provide for themselves, thereby reinforcing their sense of shame and isolation.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Five Stages of Writing: From Ideas to Final Product

Do you ever find that sometimes your writing flows beautifully and other times it is impossible to get started or to keep going? One piece of insight into why this often happens is that not all writing is created equally. There are many different kinds of writing and most writers find some parts easier than others.

Figuring out how you function at each stage of the writing process will help you to anticipate writing challenges and to figure out how to overcome them.

David Methuen in the play "Monday Next", Theatre Royal, Hobart, ca. 1950-1952 / photographer unknown

I recently signed up for Academic Book Writers Month, using the twitter hashtag: #AcBoWriMo to post my writing progress during the month of November. When I signed up, I realized that the focus of Academic Book Writers Month is to produce new words, but that my writing goals for November nearly all involved revising. I moved a few things around, and set myself a goal of writing at least 400 words a day on a chapter of a book that is due at the end of the month. Now, I start each day churning out those 400 words. This has worked well for me, because I am most invigorated by the early stages of a writing project and write best first thing in the morning.

Writing new prose each morning has reminded me that there are different stages to the writing process, and we draw from different sorts of energies to complete each stage. Most of us excel at one stage, but do less well at others. It can be helpful to reflect on the various stages of writing and to become aware of which stages you like best. Here are the stages, as I see them:

Stage 1: Conceptualization

– This is when you are coming up with ideas and writing the first rough draft. If you are inhibited by perfectionism, the best way to get through this stage is to not worry about grammar, coherency, or format, but to focus on getting your ideas onto paper. (Profacero pointed out in an comment on this blog that not all academics have problems with perfectionism, so it is crucial to ask yourself if this is actually an issue for you before trying to solve it.) When you are at this stage, it often works well to write first thing in the morning when your ideas are fresh and you are ready to forge ahead. Although this is the most exciting stage for many, it also is the stage when we are most unsure of where we are going, and thus can be subject to feelings of self-doubt about the worth of our work. If you are stuck at this stage, one strategy is to put a pillow-case over your computer screen and just type away for fifteen to thirty minutes. Not being able to see your writing will help you to feel less threatened by the blank screen and less inclined to go back and correct errors.

Stage 2: Pulling together

– This is when you re-organize your free-writes, brainstorms, previous work, and literature summaries into a coherent first draft. Some people do this on the screen; others cut and paste using real scissors and paper. Whatever you do, it is important to think about how you think and organize best and develop a system that allows you to create a coherent first draft. At this stage, you might find yourself staring at documents on and off-screen and struggling to decide on the best format. Despair not: If you are working on this every day, those ideas are percolating in your head, and you soon will come up with a workable format. If you are feeling stuck, try printing out your documents and using a creative, visual format of re-organizing your ideas such as cutting and pasting pieces of colored paper onto a corkboard.

Stage 3: Revision

– This stage is when you have a complete first draft and are ready to make it better. It can be very helpful to give this first draft to a trusted colleague, telling them that this is your first shot at the paper, and that you are looking for constructive feedback on organization and suggestions for expanding the background and theoretical literature. Some people do revisions by hand by printing out each version and writing on the typed page. Others are comfortable doing edits on screen. When I am in the revision stage, I like to carry a copy around with me, so that I can squeeze in edits whenever I have time. If you are stuck at this stage, the best solution can be to find someone to read and give you positive feedback to help you move forward.

Stage 4: Copy-editing and References

– At this stage, you have a complete, revised draft with your conceptual framework, literature review data, analysis, introduction, and conclusion, all in order. You just need to dot the i’s, cross the t’s, check your citations and run your spell-check. This step is very important, as you want to make sure to put your very best foot forward. If you have trouble moving forward at this stage, hiring a professional editor can be a fabulous investment.

Stage 5: Submit

– You are finished, and just need to figure out the online or mail-in process to submit your work! If you are stuck at this stage, it could be helpful to talk to friends who have read your work, know how fabulous it is, and can encourage you to press the “submit” button sooner rather than later!

It helps my productivity to be aware that there are different kinds of writing, and that my energy and concentration levels determine which kind of writing I can do most effectively. Creating new prose takes the most concentration for me, and I usually like to do this when I have a bit more time to reflect and process information. Line-editing, on the other hand, I can do even if I have just five minutes to look at a paragraph.

When you plan for your writing for the coming week, it might be helpful to look at your calendar and figure out what sorts of tasks you are best able to do each day. If you don’t teach on Monday, that might be the best day to draft a new section or to re-organize Chapter Two. On Tuesday morning, you might have fifteen minutes before preparing for class to check the bibliography for that almost-completed article.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Taking the Mental Leap: Thinking of Yourself as a Writer

Like most writers, I was an avid reader as a child. It amazed me that a person could weave together a story, keep a reader engaged, and have the imagination to make a story come alive. I dreamt of writing my own book, even though it seemed to be an incredibly daunting task.

Dick Preston, radio, film-maker, April 1951 from Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney / photographed by Brian Bird

It seemed nearly impossible to write a book in part because writers appear to have magical gifts that enable them to create enthralling prose. I have since learned that this is not the case. Writers are not people who are born with natural gifts. Beautiful streams of words do not simply flow from writers fingertips. Instead, writers are people who write. Good writers are those who write a lot. Great writers are those who write a lot, revise often, and consistently push themselves to improve their prose.

Anne Barrett from Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney / photographed by Brian Bird c. 1948-1951

Ernest Hemingway, considered one of the best American writers, famously once said:
“The first draft of anything is shit.” 
He also reportedly said:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” 
Being a writer, then, simply involves letting your fingers loose on a keyboard.

Because we mystify writers and the writing process, it is often hard to think of ourselves as writers. Those of us who are academics rarely think of ourselves as writers, even though writing is a major part of our jobs. The reality is that, if you can make that conceptual leap and begin to think of yourself as a writer, as Robert Boice suggests professors should do in Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, you will write more and become a more successful academic. If you focus on becoming a better writing, your prose will improve and your readers will thank you.

In a recent post, academic blogger, Jonathan Mayhew, wrote:
“One way you know you are a writer is if you are reading other writers for the pure pleasure of style, if you take lessons from the great novelists and essayists of the language in which you are writing.”

As Jonathan implies, thinking of yourself as a writer involves focusing on becoming a better writer. For many academics, thinking of yourself as a writer involves a great mental leap. It is a mental leap well worth taking.

What Does It Take to Be a Writer?

Here’s the deal:

  • You don’t have to look like a writer to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to enjoy writing to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to have been born with a magical gift to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to be an eloquent speaker to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to have the biggest vocabulary in town to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to live in New York or San Francisco or anywhere else in particular to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, have unkempt hair, or wear skinny jeans to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to have already finished a book to be a writer.

To be a writer, you do have to read. And, you have to write.

To be a great writer, you have to write often, persevere through hard times, withstand rejection, revise consistently, and keep on writing.

What about you? Do you think of yourself as a writer? Would you like to become a better writer? What are you doing to become a better writer?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Find Your Prime Time and Use it to Write

For me, mornings are a very special time, because mornings are the best time of day for me to write. At the crack of dawn, before my family wakes up, and a little later, right after everyone leaves the house are the two best times for me to write.

toronto sunrise

Mornings are special because they only happen once a day, and they are the times I can be most productive. I wake up every morning, make an almond milk latte, eat 12 almonds, open up my laptop, and start hitting the keys.

It took me a while to figure this out for myself, but now that I am certain of when my prime time is, I do whatever I can to ensure that I write each morning.

My Prime Time for Writing is in the Morning, so That's When I Write

If I miss out on writing early in the morning, it is very likely that I will not get any writing done that day. In addition, since I know how productive I can be in just 30 to 60 minutes early in the morning, I feel as if it is a waste to use that time any other way. Why spend my most precious moments of the day running errands, responding to emails, shopping online, or filling out university-mandated forms when I can spend them writing? For me, the morning is prime time, and that is when I write.

Once I have done my writing for the day, even if it is a busy day and I can only get in 30 minutes, I can face the remainder of the day knowing that I have started off using my time wisely. I have already made progress on that which is most important to my long-term success: I have written.

Everyone Has a Prime Time. When is Yours?

Everyone has their prime time, and it likely occurs at roughly the same time every day. Do you know when your prime time is? If you don’t, ask yourself the following questions:

When you are most alert?
When is your mind the clearest?
When do you find it easiest to focus on one task?

If you still don’t know, the best way to find out is to try. Spend every day next week, Monday to Friday, trying to write as soon as you get up. If it doesn’t work, try a different time.

Those who have families may find it difficult to write first thing in the morning. Some people are able to wake up very early and write for 30 to 60 minutes before the rest of the family wakes up. Others spend their mornings getting everyone else out of the house and then get their writing done once everyone leaves. Others have to drop kids off at daycare and school, and seek refuge in a coffee shop after dropping everyone off. Still others make sure that writing is the first thing they do when they arrive in their office.

What if Your Prime Time is Not in the Morning?

Some people are not at their best in the mornings, so it is not their prime time. If this is the case for you, perhaps the afternoon will work. One of the problems with trying to work in the afternoon is that, oftentimes, all that has transpired in the morning can be an emotional burden. One way to manage this is to have a lunchtime workout. Physical activity is a great way to cleanse the mind. I knew of one woman who had to teach early in the morning, making it difficult to write first thing in the morning. So, she wrote in the afternoons. After teaching her two classes, she went straight to the university pool, where she swam for 45 minutes. After swimming, her mind was clear and fresh, and she was able to sit down and write for two hours. One great thing about this strategy is that she knew she would write after swimming, so her time in the water was also time she could prepare mentally for her writing session.

There are some people who truly are night owls and can write late in the evening after everyone in their family has gone to bed. Honestly, I know many people who tell me this is the best time for them to write, but who find it difficult to make it happen every day, especially once they have children. However, I know it can work for some folks.

The trick is to find ways to make writing happen. If your prime time is late at night, an evening walk, workout, cup of hot tea, or yoga session might be a useful pre-writing routine. It is also probably a good idea to have a light dinner and to figure out a way to make lunch your main meal of the day as a large meal may make you sleepy and less productive. If you plan to write at night, it is best to avoid the after-work happy hour, although I do know a woman who writes at night with a glass of red wine on her desk. If you do write in the evenings, allow yourself time after writing to relax and clear your mind before going to sleep.

One of the keys to writing every day is to figure out when your prime time is. Once you know when the best time for you to write is, and you make it a habit to write every day at that time, you will begin to see that time as non-negotiable. If you only have a prime time of 60 minutes each day, why spend it on anything other than the most important task of your day?

Friday, October 14, 2011

How to Write an Effective Literature Review: Distinguishing between theoretical and contextual literature

Literature reviews of articles, books, theses, and dissertations often can take an enormous amount of time to complete. One way to complete a literature review more quickly is to develop reading strategies that help you move forward.

Reading (30th/52)

Reading strategies can be just as important as writing strategies.

In Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, Wendy Belcher argues that it is just as important to develop effective reading strategies as it is to develop effective writing strategies, because it is impossible to read every published work in your area of research. One of the distinctions Belcher makes is between contextual or background literature and theoretical literature. I have found it very useful to make a similar distinction when reading for and writing a literature review.

Conceptual vs. theoretical literature

When writing a literature review, it is crucial to distinguish between 1) theoretical literature: scholarly writing that helps you to build and sharpen your conceptual focus; and 2) contextual or related literature: articles and books that are closely related to your area or subject of research. Making this distinction is important because you will have to read closely every work that forms part of your core theoretical framework, but can often do a quicker read of those articles that are part of your background literature.

For example, I recently wrote an article on the transnational ties of deportees in Jamaica. The literature on transnationalism is expansive. I thus had to choose a few key theorists in the field and use their works to define transnationalism. There was no way I could read everything that had been written: a Google Scholar search turned up 31,700 results for transnationalism. Instead, I chose: 1) highly cited and foundational works in the field and 2) recent articles and books on transnationalism. I used these sources to develop my own conceptual framework. In all, I used about a dozen sources to form the basis of my conceptual framework. Once I chose the key sources on transnationalism, I had to read those closely and make sure that my understanding of the concept was clear and in line with the most prevalent and recent thinking on the topic.

The article, however, has many more citations than those select few sources that make up the conceptual framework. The difference is that I did not have to read and ponder these background sources as closely. This background literature situates my arguments and findings in the field and consisted of works that deal with:

  • Deportation: Other academic studies of people who have been deported as well as government reports on the numbers of people deported.
  • Jamaican migration: Other academic studies of Jamaican migrants.
  • Jamaica: Books and articles on Jamaica to allow me to talk about the contemporary situation in Jamaica.
  • Other studies of transnationalism: In addition to reading about transnationalism to build my theoretical framework, I read other studies so that I could compare how Jamaican deportees experience transnationalism with other transnational actors.
  • Methods: I cited a couple of articles that use similar methodologies.
  • Secondary conceptual frameworks: Transnationalism is the primary theoretical framework, but, while writing, I decided to also talk about gender and stigma, and thus cite works that deal with those concepts.

In all, I skimmed and read scores of articles to write this one article. However, I did not closely read every single article or book that I came across. Instead, similar to the process I described in last week’s post, I searched the literature, took notes, and develop a schematic framework for the literature review.

It was only when I was developing the conceptual framework – transnationalism – that I had to read the articles closely and engage with the literature on a deep level. I also had to take time to think about transnationalism and allow the concepts to simmer in the back of my brain. Distinguishing between background literature and conceptual literature can be useful as it will help you to figure out what articles and books you need to read closely and think about deeply and which ones you can skim or read more quickly.

For me, writing this is a helpful reminder, as I am currently writing a new article about citizenship. A search on “citizenship” in Google Scholar turns up 817,000 sources. Of courses, I never will be able to read all of those. Again, I have to decide what the core literature is and draw from that to come up with my own working definition of citizenship to make my own conceptual framework.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing a Literature Review: Six Steps to Get You from Start to Finish

Writing a literature review is often the most daunting part of writing an article, book, thesis, or dissertation. "The literature" seems (and often is) massive. I have found it helpful to be as systematic as possible in doing this gargantuan task. This post describes one system for writing a literature review.

In their book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, Sonja Foss and William Walters describe a highly efficient way of writing a literature review. I think it provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature for any purpose: in a doctorate program, for writing an M.A. thesis, or an article in any field of study.

Academic Book Stack

Step One: Decide on your areas of research

Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in those areas, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas.

Step Two: Search for the literature:

Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and/or print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out. Set a specific time frame for how long you will search. It should not take more than two or three dedicated time sessions.

Step Three: Find relevant excerpts in your books and articles:

Skim the contents of each book and article and look specifically for these five things:

  1. Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating
  2. Definitions of terms
  3. Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project
  4. Gaps you notice in the literature
  5. Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating

When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as summarizing takes longer than simply typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following each excerpt. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out your excerpts.

Step Four: Code the literature

Get out a pair of scissors and cut each excerpt out. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes. Place each excerpt into a themed pile. Make sure each note goes into a pile. If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories. When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.

Step Five: Create Your Conceptual Schema

Type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the titles into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them. Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense. Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper!

Step Six: Begin to Write Your Literature Review

Choose any section of your conceptual schema to begin with. You can begin anywhere, because you already know the order. Find the envelope with the excerpts in them and lay them on the table in front of you. Figure out a mini-conceptual schema based on that theme by grouping together those excerpts that say the same thing. Use that mini-conceptual schema to write up your literature review based on the excerpts that you have in front of you. Don’t forget to include the citations as you write, so as not to lose track of who said what. Repeat this for each section of your literature review.

Once you complete these six steps, you will have a complete draft of your literature review. The great thing about this process is that it breaks down into manageable steps something that seems enormous: writing a literature review.

I think that Foss and Walter’s system for writing the literature review really can work for a dissertation, because a Ph.D. candidate has already read widely in his or her field through graduate seminars and comprehensive exams.

It may be more challenging for M.A. students, unless you are already familiar with the literature. It is always hard to figure out how much you need to read for deep meaning, and how much you just need to know what others have said. That balance will depend on how much you already know.

For faculty writing literature reviews for articles or books, this system also could work, especially when you are writing in a field with which you are already familiar. The mere fact of having a system can make the literature review seem much less daunting, so I recommend this system for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a literature review.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

How to Enhance Your Writing Productivity with a Pomodoro Timer

It is definitely not the beginning of the semester anymore. Nor is the end in sight. It is thus the perfect time for me to introduce a little trick to boost your writing productivity: the pomodoro technique.

Pomodoro timer

Using a timer is a great way to keep track of your writing. I have used timers for years to measure how much time I spend writing, and to minimize the amount of time I spend surfing the web or checking email. The pomodoro has turned out to be the best timer I have used.

I have been using the pomodoro for about a month now, and am consistently amazed at how productive I am when I use it. In addition, I have shared this technique with several people, all of whom seem to become instant fans of it.

I decided to download a pomodoro technique app to my iphone after hearing the buzz about it for a while. Two academic productivity experts I follow, ProfHacker and Gina Hiatt, recommend the pomodoro timer, and I heard a few people mention it on Twitter on Facebook.

At first I thought it was just another timer, so there was no need for me to check it out. However, the pomodoro is more than a timer. It is actually a time management and productivity system. And, it is remarkably effective.

Here is how it works, from the Pomodoro Technique website:
1. Choose a task to be accomplished
2. Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer)
3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
4. Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)
5. Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break

Pretty, simple, right? Here is why I think the system is so effective.

The pomodoro timer ticks.

The pomodoro timer ticks while you are writing. I find that ticking sound to be effective at keeping me concentrated. It is like a subconscious reminder that I am supposed to be writing. Of course, my fingers are never keeping pace with the tick-tick-tick of the timer, but I can always try.

25 minutes of concentration.

There are many different theories out there about how long people can concentrate on one task. I used to think I could concentrate for 50 minutes; I have tried concentrating for 90 minutes to no avail. However, now that I am using pomodoro, I am finding 25 minutes of concentration to be optimal. I definitely can concentrate for 25 minutes.

The 5-minute breaks.

Oftentimes, I feel as if I could go longer than 25 minutes of concentration. However, I decided to try out the system and take a conscious break after 25 minutes. It turns out that, if I take a 5-minute break every 25 minutes, I actually can get in more 25-minute segments. Thus, even though I don’t always think I need the break every 25 minutes, I take it anyway, as it permits me to have longer writing endurance. Amazing.

One other reason I like the pomodoro iphone app is that the app keeps track of how many pomodoros (25-minute sessions) I have done for the day. That way, I don’t have to worry about keeping track myself. I can just look at my iphone and see how many pomodoros I have completed.

It may turn out that the pomodoro technique does not work for me forever. It might just be a new trick that has energized me for now. However, the effect has lasted long enough that I am confident in recommending this technique to you, especially if you feel as if you are in a writing rut and would like to get out of it.

Let me know in the comments section if the pomodoro technique works for you.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Secret to Successful Academic Publishing: Finding and Using a Model Article

As I was endeavoring to publish my first academic article, one of my advisers in graduate school, Ted Mouw, suggested I select a model article and use that to structure my article. I have since used this technique repeatedly and my experience leads me to believe that this is one of the secrets to successful academic publishing. My belief was confirmed when I read that Wendy Belcher also suggests a similar strategy in her book, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.

In this week's post I will explain how to find and use a model article. A model article can serve as a guide for how long each section of your article should be, how many tables or interview quotes you should include, and how many citations are necessary in your field.

The Perfect Models Posing..

Where to find a model article

Your model article should come from the journal where you will submit your article. It does not have to have the same topical focus as your article, but should use similar data. If your article is based on interviews, your model article should also have interviews as the primary source of data. If your article has a complex conceptual framework, you should search for a model article that also uses a complex conceptual framework. If your article uses archival data, so should your model article.

What to do with a model article

Your model article will help you figure out both the structure and the approximate lengths of each component of your article. Once you have chosen a model article, the next step is to make an outline of the article, taking note of the length of each section of the article.

Here is an example of how to create an outline, based on an article I published in 2010:

Golash-Boza, Tanya. 2010. “Does Whitening Happen? Distinguishing between Race and Color Labels in an African-Descended Community in Peru” Social Problems.

This article explores how race and color labels are used to describe people in an Afro-Peruvian community. This article is based on analyses of 88 interviews and eighteen months of fieldwork in an African-descended community in Peru. The analyses of these data reveal that, if we consider race and color to be conceptually distinct, there is no “mulatto escape hatch,” no social or cultural whitening, and no continuum of racial categories in the black Peruvian community under study. This article considers the implications of drawing a conceptual distinction between race and color for research on racial classifications in Latin America.

496 words

Conceptual Framework
437 words

Literature Review
(three sections)
1356 words

593 words

Site Description
408 words

396 words

- Eight Interview quotes
- Three thematic sections (corresponding to lit review)
6207 words

292 words

Implications for Future Research
391 words

As you can see, a model article can provide guidelines for common and not-so-common situations. It is a common issue for sociologists working with interview data to have to be selective about how many interview quotes to include in an article. In this article, I included eight interview quotes, which gives you a rough idea as to how many might be acceptable. A less-common situation is that you need to provide background information because of the relative unfamiliarity of the topic. As this article was based on research conducted in Peru, yet published in the United States, I included a background section on people of African descent in Peru. When searching for a model article, it is important to think about the particularities of your article and to try to find parallels in published articles.

Once you have created an outline, the next step is to match up the length of each section of your article with the sections of your model article. They don’t have to be exact, but if your model article has 1500 words in the lit review and 5000 in the results section, and your article has 3000 in the literature review and 3000 in the results section, that is an indication that you probably should present more data and condense your literature review.

You can create and use an outline based on a model article before you complete your article. In fact, having guidelines for the length of each section before you even begin can help you avoid the very common problem of writing an article that is far too long to be published.

I imagine some readers may feel as if their work is unconventional and does not fit into any mold. I understand and respect that position, but would like to gently remind readers that it is often best to learn the rules before one breaks them. Using a model article to imitate the structure (but not the content) of an article is one way to learn the unwritten rules of academic publishing.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How to Choose an Academic Journal for your Article ... and why you should choose one now!

Most academics are aware of the need to "publish or perish," and the current state of the job market makes the imperative to publish even more pressing. In this post, I discuss the first step to publishing a journal article: choosing an academic journal for your article.

I can has publication?

The past few posts this semester have dealt with learning skills that enhance your scholarly productivity, including: planning your Fall semester, making time for writing, planning your week, and writing every day.

Time management and daily writing are skills and habits you can learn by practice. For example, I learned about the skill of daily writing in a class on writing with Sherryl Kleinman in 2004. However, I did not form the habit of daily writing until I joined an online discussion forum organized by Kerry Ann Rockquemore in 2007. That discussion forum encouraged participants to develop the habit of daily writing, and it worked wonders for my productivity. If daily writing has not yet become a habit for you, check out this post for more strategies on how to make writing part of your life.

Similar to time management and daily writing, publishing is also a skill you can learn. No academic was born knowing how to publish. We all learn by doing. The more you write and submit articles, the easier it gets. For the remainder of the semester, we will focus on the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing, drawing from my own experience publishing ten journal articles and two books and reading about academic publishing in venues such as Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, by Wendy Belcher. This post is dedicated to explaining how to find a home for your academic article. However, if you do not already have Wendy Belcher's book, I suggest you order it now!

How to Choose an Academic Journal

If you do not yet have an article ready for submission, there is no need to worry. You can decide where you will submit your article before you begin to write it. However, if you are reading this blog, it is likely that you have at least one seminar paper, thesis draft, or dissertation chapter that you could transform into a publishable article. If not, with daily writing, you will have a draft in no time.

Look in your bibliography
The first place to look for an appropriate journal to publish your article is in your own bibliography. The works you have cited are the works with which you are engaging in conversation. If you are citing several articles from a particular journal, that is a good sign that journal may be an appropriate place to submit your article.

Find other journals in your area
After looking through your own citations, have a look at other journals in your field. You can do this online. However, it can also be a great experience to actually go into the library and have a look at the journals in person. You also can ask your librarian area specialist. Many colleges and universities have librarians whose job requires expertise in academic publications. They can be a great resource when considering where to submit your article.

Figure out the impact factor and journal rankings
Journal ratings are important. A journal's rating is based on a variety of metrics, which are different ways of counting how many times the articles in the journal have been cited. Articles that have been cited more often are thought to have a greater impact in the field, and thereby bring prestige to the journal in which they were published.

Because journal ratings are important, you should take them into account before making a final decision about where to submit your article. Here are three ways to find out information on the relative quality of a journal.

  1. You can use the software, Publish or Perish, to get data on the impact factor and citation rate of journals in your field.
  2. You can access Web of Knowledge through your university's library to get rankings of the journals in a particular area or discipline. For example, Web of Knowledge lists rankings within the discipline of Sociology, but also within the sub-field of Race and Ethnic Relations.
  3. You can visit the journal's website to find out information about the journal in question. When investigating a particular journal, you should try to figure out whether or not the articles in the journal are peer-reviewed, what percentage of submitted articles they accept, and whether or not the journal is accessible through major scholarly databases such as JSTOR, Elsevier, or Sage.
Once you have chosen a journal, you can begin to write or revise your article with an eye towards publication in that journal.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ten ways you can write every day

If you've been following the posts this semester on how to have a productive semester, you have already made a plan for the Fall Semester, and blocked out time in your calendar for writing every day.

If you have been writing every day this semester, congratulations! If you haven't, ask yourself "why not?" If you need some ideas on how to actually write every day, then this post is for you!

Write every day” is fabulous advice. But, how do you actually do it? That was my question for a long time before I finally convinced myself to give it a try. Now that I have been writing every day for four years, I can share with you a few ways to make that possible, and explain to you why I do it.

Lettres de Lou

Why you need to write every day

I decided I needed to try to write every day when I found out that scholars who write daily and hold themselves accountable write nearly ten times as much as others! In Robert Boice’s book Advice for New Faculty Members, he explains the virtues of writing every day. Boice describes a study where new faculty were divided into three groups:

  • The first group did not change their writing habits, and continued to write occasionally in big blocks of time; in one year they wrote an average of 17 pages
  • The second group wrote daily and kept a record of their writing; they averaged 64 pages
  • The third group wrote daily, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to someone weekly; this group's average was 157 pages (Boice 1989:609). 

Once I read that, it was clear which group I wanted to be in. I was convinced I should at least try daily writing.

How to write every day

Once I decided I needed to be writing every day, my greatest challenge was to figure out what it meant to write every day. I asked myself, "What counts as daily writing?"

Over time, I came to realize that writing means a lot of things and that there are lots of ways to write every day.

Here are ten ways you can write every day:

  1. Write on a blank page
  2. Line-edit something you have already written
  3. Restructure a paper that you have been working on
  4. Pull together pieces of older documents you have written into a new paper
  5. Check references and footnotes for accuracy
  6. Outline or mind-map a new project
  7. Summarize or take notes on something you have read recently that might be relevant to present or future research projects
  8. Make a revision plan for a rejected article or a “revise and resubmit”
  9. Make tables, figures, graphs, or images to represent visually concepts or trends in a paper
  10. Create an After-the-fact or Reverse Outline
If you think of writing as only #1): Write on a blank page, it will be hard to do that every single day. However, it you are open to other kinds of writing, it will be possible to do at least one of these kinds of writing every day.

I try to do at least two kinds of writing each day, starting with the blank page in the morning. I am at my best early in the morning. I use those early, fresh moments of the day to free-write and to create new material. Once I run out of steam, I might turn to editing something I have written or to checking references. If I get stuck, I will pull out a mind map and brainstorm ideas.

My routine each weekday, then, is to begin the day with writing or writing-related tasks. On a good day, I can concentrate for two hours. Usually, however, my mind drifts after an hour, so I take a break to check email or have some coffee, and put in another hour after my break. I keep track of the time I have spent working on writing so that I can be proud of my accomplishments, and so that I know when I need to stop.

I know that many academics reject as ridiculous the idea that one could or should write every day. To them, I would gently ask if they have ever tried it. And, I would add that it is not only important to try writing every day, but to commit to trying it for at least a month to see if it works for you. It is also important to have others to whom you are accountable and with whom you can share your struggles.

If you do try writing every day, let me know how it goes! If you are a seasoned daily writer, let me know why you keep it up!