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Project management for academics III: Juggling multiple writing/research projects

Recently, Dr. Gretchen Sneegas (Texas A&M University) asked me how I manage multiple writing projects, a situation she’s facing right now as a post-doctoral researcher. This is not uncommon, even as a doctoral students: in academia, we tend to work on several projects at the same time. The biggest challenge for me is how to continue moving all these projects forward without falling behind. Obviously we are in the midst of a global pandemic, so no strategy that we used to implement functions properly under these conditions. Yet, there are a few heuristics we may be able to follow in order to continue doing our work and being organized even in the midst of all the turmoil provoked by the global COVID19 pandemic.

AcWri highlighting and scribbling while on airplanes

For this blog post, I’d like to speak to two components of the project management structure I use. The first one is Prioritization. I have written before about how I give priority to R&Rs, coauthored pieces, and stuff with actual, real pressing deadlines. This prioritization respects my coauthors and those I owe written output. I have also written before about the importance of prioritizing ourselves BEFORE giving priority to others and yet being able to respect commitments with those we agree to collaborate with. My TOTOs/TOMs (Text I Owe to Others vs Text I Owe Myself) heuristic allows me to ALWAYS make time for the stuff I need to write and still respect my colleagues, coauthors and collaborators.

#AcWri while travelling

The second element I find useful when thinking about project management is the importance of a Project Time Allocation heuristic. This means, how do I choose (from the set of projects I am currently working on), where to focus my writing efforts.

Again, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and we are all overwhelmed, so I wouldn’t want anybody to over-stress. Least of them, ME! I have just recently changed universities, and this moves bring along a lot of changes and a steep learning curve about processes and procedures in the new university. Thus, what I have done is to continue my Project Time Allocation heuristic as I establish myself in this new job.

In my responses to Dr. Sneegas, I wrote about how I have recently eschewed my trusted “Move Every Project Forward Every Day (MEPFED)/Work on One Project Every Day (WOPED)” strategy. I no longer can move every project forward every single day because I am simply overwhelmed with moving to a new job, starting classes in my new university, dealing with holdovers from my previous job, etc. Working on a different paper each day of the week also distracts my brain, which at the moment really needs to focus.

I’ve devised a third approach to prioritization and time allocation, which I call the Research Streams Approach.

While normally I would associate a Research Stream with grant-funded work, this isn’t always the case because I don’t always have funded projects (or when I do, not everything is paid for, or some projects have funding and others do not). So, I can be writing 3 different pieces that come from the same Research Stream, but that have different Research Questions/Puzzles. I try not to work away from similar Research Streams (so, right now I am working a lot on informal water and informal waste aka informality). So, if I write about transnational environmental activism, at the same time (same week/month) as bottled water, as ethnography, I end up a bit overwhelmed. Thus, I write pieces around similar Research Streams around the same time (as it is the case right now, where I’m doing a lot of work on informality).

Below is my thread.

During these pandemic times, I’ve experienced some duress (my parents are aging, I decided to basically move in with my Mom so I could be near her and my Dad, I still have my own house, so I need to travel back-and-forth to Aguascalientes, I switched jobs) so neither of my previous approaches (MEPFED/WOPED) gave me the peace of mind I needed to move my research forward knowing that I have a very immunocompromised body and that my parents and I are all at risk because of COVID19. So I’ve moved to a different approach, what I call the Research Streams Approach (RSA).

I often move across areas (water, bottled water, wastewater, solid waste, environmental activism and protests, water conflict, polycentricity) and disciplines (political science, public policy, public administration, human geography) and methods (ethnography, experiments). One of my Research Streams is “Comparative Qualitative Methods”: comparative ethnography, comparative case studies, process tracing across countries/subnational contexts, etc.

Another Research Stream is Waste and Discards” and yet another one is “Bottled Water”. I am currently writing two book chapters: one on doubly-engaged ethnography for bottled water and discards and another one on research methods to study waste. Both of these combine 2 Research Streams nicely.

I am also writing 2 papers on informal waste and informal water vending. Both of these papers fall under combinations of Research Streams (Water and Informality, and Waste and Informality). So I am also trying to stay within the informality theory scholarship for reading/writing. I also got invited to write a paper on the politics of climate change in Mexico. I do write on climate politics but it’s more rare. So I had to basically set aside every other writing project to re-read, delve deeply into the climate literature. I know it, but I have to re-read.

I struggled with finishing this book chapter because I am often removed from the climate literature. Had it been on informal water or informal waste, I would have cranked it out in a couple of weeks easily (I am healthy now and my psoriasis/eczema/dermatitis/chronic pain receded). But contrary to other projects (where I applied either MEPFED or WOPED), this time I stayed with the climate politics literature until I was done (I sent it out last week). So now I’m back to informality, ethnography, waste and water. These are areas where I write comfortably. I’ll probably go back to Bottled Water stuff in about 3-4 weeks time, once I get these four pieces out.

Writing while travelling

One proviso to the Research Streams Approach (RSA). If I get an R&R (a revise-and-resubmit), I listen to every senior scholar who tells me “DROP EVERYTHING AND RESUBMIT”. This is super-hard for me, and I often times dread working on R&Rs. I am super, super, super afraid that “one wrong move, you’re an organ donor”. That is, I am scared that if I screw up the response to reviewers I will not have my paper published (I do have posts on R&Rs too!).

But the more senior of a scholar I become, the more used I get to the fact that if my paper doesn’t get published in journal A, it’ll end up in journal Z at some point (or in a book, or elsewhere).

I no longer have absurdly high expectations of where I am going to publish.

Thus, while I eschew making recommendations, I would suggest that regardless of which approach you take (MEPFED/WOPED/RSA/write whenever my care obligations/health allow me to), you should TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF AND YOUR LOVED ONES FIRST, especially your health and well-being.

These are not the times for productivity. If I write about stuff like this, it’s with the understanding that whatever I do I’m doing it to survive this pandemic, continue my research, teach as well as I can, and not kill myself in the process.

Take care of yourselves.

Posted in academia, organization, planning, productivity, research.

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How to develop a writing practice II: 12 tips to help you start, develop and hone your writing craft

In a previous post, I indicated that one of the best ways to develop a writing practice was to read volumes that worked as workbooks, teaching readers how to write and how to gradually learn the craft of producing good prose. This post is a summary of the second part of my Twitter thread on writing practices, wherein I offer 12 pieces of advice to help current and writers-to-be hone their craft.

Reading, annotating, scribbling, Cornell Notes, index cards

Now, on to the list…

And the last tip on the list, but by no means the least important.


We all know how important reading is for me (so much so that I launch Reading Challenges and have a full page filled with links to blog posts I’ve written on Reading Strategies). At the same time, I am always pushing for scholars and other writers to recognise that we ought to value the runway time we invest, and do the grunt work too.

Hopefully these 12 tips will help those of you interested in starting or perfecting your writing practice.

Posted in academia, writing.

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How to develop a writing practice I: Read “Writing Practice Developmental Books”

Organizing my writingA couple of nights ago, I wrote about the entire concept of “developing a writing practice”. From that thread, I derived two sub-themes: the first one can be defined as “which books do I need to read to develop a writing practice”. The second theme was “how do I go about developing a writing practice”. I develop the first theme here.

I have become a MUCH better writer by PRACTICING WRITING. I write a metric ton of text. I write a blog. I write journal articles, book chapters, and I’m writing three books (don’t ask, I’m just… unable to say “no” to interesting opportunities).

I have explained before that I firmly believe we can ALL develop A WRITING PRACTICE.

In order to learn how to develop a system to regularly produce text, you DO need guidance. The books I’m going to write about and the posts I’m going to link to will explain how to develop this writing practice. Now, you may ask me “Professor Pacheco-Vega, HOW EXACTLY DO I DEVELOP A WRITING PRACTICE?”

Well, I have some guidance on my blog, which I develop in the second blog post of this series (you can read it here), but first of all, I seriously believe you need to read and peruse “Writing Practice Developmental Books”. I have previously written about the three types of books on writing: Developmental, Inspirational, and Thematic.

The books I mentioned before sort-of assume that you have the motivation to develop a writing practice (and that you need little inspiration, but more you need to do A LOT of perspiration and get words on screen).

If you are de-motivated and need both inspiration AND tools…

The last piece of this Twitter thread pointed to my second set of ideas, on how to develop a writing practice. That blog post can be read here.

In the end, I strongly believe that having a small library of writing books will help you develop a writing practice.

Posted in academia, reading notes, writing.

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The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in your Nonfiction Writing (John Warner) – my reading notes

My handwritten notes of @aecoppock's paper presentationI have written before about how I believe that writing is a craft and an art. Writing solid prose requires technique, inspiration and knowledge of the subject matter. Learning how to write is a process that helps authors who are interested in producing cohesive, cogent and easy to read text. But I believe that the best way in which someone can learn how to write is by developing a writing practice.

John Warner’s “The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in your Nonfiction Writing” is one of the best books i have ever read to help me learn how to write nonfiction. I very strongly believe it will have the same effect on other readers.

For me, it’s always a bit hard to write about a book that I keep coming back to, because in this case, it’s a workbook and I don’t think I can excerpt anything without giving away how excellent it is. So I went back to every tweet I have sent about this excellent book to assemble this blog post.

First of all, this is a workbook. You’re not supposed to passively read and voilà, your writing will automagically improve. You need to WORK.

After reading The Writer’s Practice, this is what came to my mind: “I need to read this book either as I teach a writing class or as a guide book to walk me through a semester of learning how to write”. You can’t do TWP in a weekend. Too many diverse experiences to try out.

Upon reflection, you *may* just zoom in on the research writing exercises/experiences if you are really pressed for time. Another way of approaching this book is to develop your skills throughout the week, but again, you need to devote the entire week if you want to finish it.

A very minor quibble: Warner spends a reasonable amount of time asking you to think about your audience, yet I didn’t see a strong emphasis on the social aspects of writing: ask people to read your drafts and give you feedback. Doing this (asking for feedback) improves MY writing.

Overall impression: great workbook to help you improve your writing. To be used in a writing class or throughout an extended period of time. In fact, Warner (at the end of the book) provides two models to teach using TWP. I am glad he does the same as Dr. Wendy Belcher with her own book. Strongly recommended.

Posted in reading notes, writing.

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Economical Writing: Thirty Five Rules for Clear and Persuasive Prose

I said on Twitter that my reading notes for this extraordinary book, Economical Writing: Thirty Five Rules for Clear and Persuasive Prose, by Dr. Deirdre McCloskey, would be simply an embed of a single tweet: this is a must-read book that everyone, even those not in economics, should buy and read.

Highlighting, scribbling marginalia, reading, writing

The truth is, one tweet summarizes how excellent this book is.

I had previously read McCloskey’s writing (or about it – see here, and here) and I had even tweeted about it before this week.

Personally, I think very few people are able to write actionable advice that everyone will take in stride. 12/10 highly recommend.

Posted in academia.


A typology of books about writing (Inspirational, Thematic and Developmental)

No writing book is all-encompassing, and therefore, I cannot in good conscience answer the question I get asked the most: which book on how to write/how to survive graduate school is the best? As I said on Twitter: “none of them”. Anybody who has written a book on this topic will agree: you gain insights from other authors, so you should read more than one book. Nobody has the last word on anything, least of them writing.

Acwri books 2

I recently read Anne Lamott’s amazing “Bird by Bird”, and doing so really made something click in my head. I can now understand more clearly why I can’t recommend ONE single book but instead MUST recommend several. Being able to change my mind about something is EXACTLY why I am a professor and a researcher: I am able to develop new ideas and challenge my preconceived notions of a phenomenon through reading, reasoning and absorbing new knowledge.

I stand by my statement.

I don’t think any of them are “THE BEST” or “THE MOST SUITABLE” for you or for anyone. As much as they’re all fantastic in their own right, each one of these books provides different insights, and therefore you should buy a small library containing a few of each type. Books that inspire you, volumes that help you develop your skills and tomes that will be thematically specific to your work.

I develop this typology of books (Thematic, Developmental and Inspirational) below.

In my case, I need to read books that inspire my analytical thinking (on waste and discards, on water, on activism and social movements, on protest, on methods). Those are to me the THEMATIC BOOKS. I need to read how OTHER scholars I respect write about the subjects I care about.

Of course, you will find inspirational, pithy quotes in Thematic and Developmental books, surely. No typology is perfect and no categorization is without its flaws. But the main insight I gained in reading Lamott yesterday and answering a query on which was the best book am now more convinced that there is no authoritative, definitive guide to academic writing (or research or writing) because we all need different components of the process.

You will learn different things from reading my work on water than you would absorb from others.

There are MANY excellent books that will teach you A METRIC TONNE of stuff that you NEED to learn. But sometimes you will find yourself staring at a wall, or devastated that you got a rejection from a journal, or simply stuck with your writing. So you’ll need INSPIRATION.

I also found different patterns from various “memoir-type” writers.

Stephen King and Henry Miller write more forcefully: “sit your butt on the chair every day for X number of hours until you get Y number of pages done”. I find Lamott much gentler: “you may need a system”.

And it’s true. I don’t write book reviews on my blog (I do in journals). I write sets of Reading Notes.

In conclusion: Develop a syllabus-like approach to reading “how to write” and “how to do academic work” books.

Of course, everyone wants to write (or read) “THE Authoritative Book on How to do Academia”. But think of learning about scholarly life as a lifelong syllabus: You write syllabi because your students need to be exposed to a variety of ideas and learn bits and pieces from others.

So no, I don’t think I can point you to THE best book on writing. I can give you some ideas on what to look for in a book and share with you pearls of wisdom I have distilled from each one.

But you’re going to have to invest in building a small library of books on these topics.

Posted in academia.

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Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott) – my reading notes

It took me about however long it took me to FINALLY buy and read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. People have recommended Bird by Bird to me (particularly the Shitty First Drafts chapter) FOR YEARS. And it’s August of the year 2020 and I JUST got it. I would say that it’s weird that I literally *just* bought one of the books that was recommended to me THE MOST. After reading dozens of books about writing, and after writing hundreds of blog posts about the academic process. And while in the process of writing my two books on how to do academia.

I am SO GLAD I did.

Anne Lamott is a treasure, really.

My library of writing and “how to PhD”-type books is vast. I seriously have read a tonne of books on how to write. SERIOUSLY. Al types of books, as I mention below.

But I did a lot of competitive stuff, and when you compete against others, you learn to try to be The Best. I played nationally-ranked competitive volleyball since I was a child until my late 20s. I danced competitively. I didn’t just dance to have fun. I danced to win contests. Lammott’s approach reminds me of Brene Brown’s words: “when you live a wholehearted life, you learn to be kinder and gentler with yourself”.

I believe that’s the component that is missing in the structure of academia. We need a gentler, kinder academia, one that builds us up. Though Lamott writes for novelists, the way in which she talks about character, plot, story development, is extremely useful for all of us who do scholarly research.

In my view, research is about telling a story. With data, with theory, but it’s a story in the end. We reveal things. We explain concepts. We make the complex legible. Storytelling is an underrated skill in scholarly research and writing. Yes, I’m happy you can program with Python and that you develop multilevel models. Can you tell me the story of what your model reveals?

I am not joking when I said that reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird has transformed the way I think about and relate to writing.

100/10 would buy for all my friends and family.

Posted in writing.

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The September 2020 #AICCSED Reading, Annotating and Systematizing Challenge

I need to stay on top of several literatures and finish several papers, yet I have caved to the “I am too overwhelmed with teaching” reality. So in order to force myself to spend some time every morning catching up with the literature, I decided to launch yet another #AICCSED Reading, Annotating and Systematizing Challenge. #AICCSED, admittedly an awkward acronym, stands for a combination of the AIC Content Extraction Method that I champion to skim articles (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion) and my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED) Method to Systematize the Literature. Both systems combined allow us to stay on top of the vast volume scholarship that is being published at absurdly rapid rates.

Carving time to read is hard enough, so I decided to promote processing articles using a combination of AIC+CSED methods on an regular basis. This strategy is useful if you have a pile of articles and book chapters that you want to read but you keep putting off the time to do it. It also works if you want to stay on top of the literature on a regular (daily, fortnightly, weekly).

Highlighting, scribbling marginalia, reading, writing

Yet the problem for me is that unless I am being forced to do it, I sometimes forget that I need to read in order to write (yes, I know I champion this approach all the time, yet I also fall prey to the multiple demands on our time!). Therefore, I decided to give myself a nudge and engage in an #AICCSED Reading, Annotating and Systematizing Challenge.

I am going to read one article every single morning (NEW ARTICLE, NOT SOMETHING I HAVE ASSIGNED FOR MY CLASSES, LET ME JUST MENTION THIS), annotate it and highlight it, and then I’m going to drop my notes in an Excel Dump row. I’m then going to post it on Twitter.

Reading

I’ve done this challenge several times over the past few years, and it’s always turned out well. A few people end up jumping on the bandwagon and it becomes quite useful to them because by the end of the challenge they’ve got notes on 30 articles, and they have read and absorbed at least the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion of 30 articles.

This time around, I decided to showcase the amount of work involved in doing a daily #AICCSED. I wrote a Twitter thread from where I extract to showcase the method here. I do this process following these steps:

  1. I download the paper and upload the PDF to Mendeley.
  2. I clean the reference in Mendeley.
  3. I print the paper (double-sided, always).
  4. I read the Abstract, and highlight it.
  5. I annotate the Abstract, write some notes on the margins.
  6. I read the Introduction, highlight passages and sentences that I find useful and important.
  7. I annotate the Introduction.
  8. I read the Conclusion, highlight and annotate.
  9. I drop my notes in a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED) associated with the topic I am reading. And voila!

In the Twitter thread that follows, I summarized my process for one article, so that people could see what they’re getting into when signing on . #AICCSED doesn’t require that you read the full article, but solely Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion (AIC). What you may find, however, is that you may in fact NEED to read the entire article or WANT to do so because it’s filled with important concepts and ideas.

I am considering if I want to do a Google Forms for this, as my good friend Luxana suggested.

For me, my simple system of #2ThingsADay often means that the only two things I get done in a day is reading a paper (and annotating) using the AIC method, and dropping it into a CSED spreadsheet. What we do in the #AICCSED challenge:

We drop a tweet reporting which article we read and we (often, not required) post a screenshot of the CSED (Excel Dump) row associated with said article.

What’s the purpose? To keep us reading, synthesizing and summarizing EVERY SINGLE DAY.

What an #AICCSED challenge is NOT – it’s not intended to stress you out – we’re in the midst of a pandemic, we’re short on time, we’re all stressed out. But if you can participate in the #AICCSED challenge, by the end of the month you will have 30 articles summarized in an Excel spreadsheet.

It requires some time investment and re-prioritization. For example, I MUST finish a book chapter on climate politics, literally TODAY. BUT… if I engage in the #AICCSED challenge, I want to read stuff on informal water, on waste and discards.

I normally do round months instead of saying “let’s do an #AICCSED fall semester challenge”. This semester, though, to help my student keep reading, I’m going to ask them to do the challenge themselves. It’s only ONE article a day on their actual thesis research.

Not a lot.

Again, I know we’re in a pandemic, and this is in no way meant to stress anybody out. It IS on the other hand intended to provide structure for people so they can keep reading and systematizing their materials.

Q – I can only do 1 a week.
A – GREAT, you’ll have 4 more articles!

Q – I can join #AICCSED but only infrequently
A – Fantastic! Whatever progress you make on staying on top of the metric tonne of readings we have to do is great

Q – I would like to do this once the beginning of the term is over
A – Fabulous. Join whenever you can!

Hopefully the #AICCSED Challenge will be of interest and helpful to you!

Posted in academia, organization, writing.

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The “two sentences’ elevator pitch”: A pedagogical exercise to help students think about their research questions and empirical/theoretical contributions

ElevatorWe’ve probably all heard about the idea of an “elevator pitch” to summarize an idea or a project. One of the challenges I face on a regular basis, with my own thesis students and with those I teach (particularly because I teach research methods, research design, and the mechanics of conducting research) is helping them describe their studies clearly for an audience that will probably have a very short attention span or limited time. The other day, I woke up with an idea for a didactic exercise we all can use to help students think about their research questions and projects and what these contribue to the literature, particularly broader debates and empirical state of the art. It’s based off of the 5 sentences model of an abstract which Dr. Jessica Calarco has talked about before.

Photo credit: Ross Howard-Jones on Flickr. CC-Licensed BY-NC-ND

The model I’ve been thinking about could be defined as a “two-sentences elevator pitch”. It’s based on the same model of the first two sentences in Jess’s model:

1) say what we know (the state of the art), 2) state what we don’t (what your research contributes to the literature).

I am planning to do a quick exercise with my students, in class, in order to help them contextualize their research.

A few quick examples of this approach from my own work:

  • “Institutions are built through repeated interactions between actors. What happens when those repeated interactions are interrupted?”
  • “Waste is often best governed in collaboration between the informal sector and local governments. What happens when this collaboration breaks down?”
  • “Water is established as a constitutional human right in many countries. Which factors hinder its implementation at the local level?”
  • “Good resource governance is often the result of collaboration across networks of actors. How can these collaborations be fostered?”
  • “NGOs often influence domestic politics in contexts where national governments are receptive to engagements with civil society. What happens in less participatory countries?”
  • “Customers will drink tap water if they perceive it is safe. What happens when there’s no guarantee by the local government that this will be the case?”

I am curious to hear from you (you all y’all) if this “2 sentences elevator pitch” model of presenting a research question that animates your own work is helpful to quickly summarize what you study. Can you comment on this blog post some of your work in this 2 sentences’ model?

Posted in academia, teaching.

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A few structured strategies that we can use to craft paragraphs

Reviewing my students’ theses, and talking with them about their writing processes, they always tell me that they find crafting and constructing paragraphs very challenging. This is not unusual. Sentences and paragraphs form the core of our writing and each of them is, for many of us, beautiful and unique. Therefore, it is important that we develop strategies and heuristics to write those sentences and craft those paragraphs.

Library Cubicles at El Colegio de Mexico

I wrote a Twitter thread that forms the basis for this post, showcasing several frameworks to build paragraphs.

Articles and book chapters that are rich with theoretical constructs and powerful ideas are usually too important for me to skim or to just do a quick AIC content extraction, so I really engage with them in depth.

The more I read and write about academic writing, the more I realize that for me, the paragraph is the key unit of analysis in academic writing.

As I discuss below, I use the process of constructing paragraphs as a framework to think about how I plan my writing and research time, and how I set my work-related goals.

As I always do, I look for other scholars’ strategies to help guide my readers. This approach allows them to decide if using MY techniques suits them or if another academic’s strategy works better for them. Below are a few links to some members of my community of scholars who write about academic writing, people I respect a lot.

CONSIDERING STRUCTURE AND CONTENT OF A PARAGRAPH

Now, which other models do we have to help us craft paragraphs? I think this is where the whole “rhetorical moves” elements of academic writing is useful.

We need to consider two components:

1) the STRUCTURE of the paragraph

and

2) the CONTENT of the paragraph.

You can use any of the models I have mentioned before (Cayley, Thomson, Pacheco-Vega, Hayot, Dunleavy) to structure your paragraph. And THEN to fill up the paragraph you need to provide content organized in a sequence that provides evidence, argument, etc. That is, make it “argumentative”.

You may want to test the above mentioned strategies to STRUCTURE and then provide CONTENT for your paragraph. As for my work-planning strategy, in the end, my writing target goal is always A PARAGRAPH. Nothing more because otherwise I get stressed.

In this post, I’ve provided a few different strategies to STRUCTURE and develop the argument that will form the CONTENT of your paragraph. Hopefully my readers will find this approach will be useful.

Posted in academia, writing.

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