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.