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Thinking Like Your Editor (Rabiner & Fortunato) – my reading notes

Thinking Like Your Editor (Rabiner & Fortunato)One of the things I’ve learned through the years is that there is no single panacea for anything. In the line of research I do (comparative public policy), I always find that there are so many different ways of getting governments and individuals to do things and achieve certain goals that there is no single public policy instrument to solve all society’s ailments. The same is true of academic writing. By now, I have read probably a dozen or so books on how to improve scholarly prose, and how to produce better text at a faster rate. I’ve pored over workbooks, short volumes and reference texts in order to find That Magical Piece of Advice on How To Publish More, Higher, and Better. You can find several blog posts that summarize my Reading Notes of each one of these books, under my Resources website tab. The truth is that panacea, information that will make books automagically appear DOES NOT EXIST.

At the very least, it does NOT exist in the form we would like it to exist.

One of the books I’ve recently acquired, and I did so because I have a few books on the go (as in, writing, completing, finishing up), is the Rabiner and Fortunato volume “Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Non-Fiction and Get It Published.“.

There are a number of books for when you want to publish a scholarly book (like William Germano’s Getting It Published), when you want to edit your doctoral dissertation to make it into a university press or scholarly, more general book (like Germano’s From Dissertation to Book), but Rabiner and Fortunato’s volume is specifically for academic trade books.

It’s important to decide which one you want to write (or when revising your dissertation to become a book, which book you want to produce). I really enjoyed that Rabiner and Fortunato showcase acquisitions editors’ thinking and decision-making processes.

For anyone who wants to write a book proposal, having the answers (and good responses, specifically!) to The Big Five is fundamental.

Something I noted in a Twitter thread on publishing I posted a couple of weeks ago that Rabiner and Fortunato make clear: your book proposal should tell what’s different.

How does your book change our thinking about something?

Why are previous treatments of the subject insufficient to provide a fuller picture?

One of the best ways to learn how to write the answers to these questions is, as I’ve noted in this thread, to read book introductions.

As I’ve noted in earlier threads, you should read A TON of book introductions to see the stylistic manoeuvring that comes with showing a gap. For example, as I noted on Twitter, this would be a way to write about how a book on subnational Mexican water laws improves our understanding of water governance above and beyond what we already know.

“Gomez and Gonzalez showcase how Mexican water laws evolved. However, their analysis lacked subnational comparisons, which I do here”.

As I noted on Twitter, I love that Rabiner & Fortunato provide so many concrete examples that they work the reader and prospective author through, asking them “now, YOU go and do it“. Academic writers need LOTS of examples, and at least I can say I learn better when shown how I should be doing things.

Something disappointing from books about academic writing, as I noted on Twitter and here too, is that there isn’t a book about How To Write A Book. They all compress lessons.

I was also impressed by the abundance of examples and walk-throughs that Rabiner and Fortunato offer. For me the most impressive of them all was their Full Sample Submission Package. Germano does this too, in both of his books, but I found Rabiner and Fortunato’s submission package really useful to think about mine.

Truth be told, I am beginning to understand why the market for books on academic and non-fiction (and fiction!) writing keep getting sold. There’s always SOMETHING that you can learn from each one. In this case, I learned A LOT from Rabiner and Fortunato for the kind of books I want to publish later in my career (academic trade books). Definitely worth reading.

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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On the importance of teaching the mechanics of doing research

I enjoy writing my blog because I can then use my blog posts to teach my own students and research assistants every technique I need them to know. As I said on Twitter the other day, my writings on this blog are a shared knowledge base. I just opened the knowledge base to everyone in the world who might need it.

What has surprised me as more and more students, and even early career scholars and seasoned professors have emailed me and tweeted at me about how they’ve found my blog helpful was – I *thought* professors taught this stuff. This was my belief up until, well, I got to graduate school, and then I realized that NOBODY was teaching this stuff, the mechanics of doing research.

AcWri highlighting and scribbling while on airplanes

Graduate students seem to be expected to learn how to do research by osmosis or some kind of magic process. As for how I learned, I have always been inquisitive, and my professors at UBC were kind enough to mentor me and share techniques with me, but a great deal of how I learned to do research was also intuitive, reading books, and looking at professors I admired and seeing how they worked and interviewing them about their daily process. Lucky for me, they were very open and direct about how their writing and research process worked. Also, I will have to acknowledge that my qualitative research methods professor was very specific about how to write memorandums and do thematic coding.

I am always frustrated to find that there are incredibly high and ridiculous expectations placed on students by their professors that they should know a lot of stuff that they were never exposed to in high school, undergraduate and even graduate programmes. This, and knowing that my blog is helpful to people, are very strong drivers for me to keep doing what I do.

I know for a fact that many students don’t know how to write a literature review, an annotated bibliography, or how to contextualize their research.

These techniques (the mechanics of how to do research) can’t be learned through osmosis. We need to do better and teach our students how we get things done.

In the end, we are all better off if we are able to train our students on how to conduct research, and walk them through the process. Even if the process we document isn’t perfect, it can still help others figure out methods and techniques for their own research strategies.

Posted in academia, research, research methods.

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Providing better student feedback: Avoid the “think hard” trap

When I was in graduate school, I often heard from professors that I should “think hard” about issues, about the literature, about how to process information, etc. I understand that there are various models of student feedback, but the phrase that absolutely makes my blood boil and want to smash tables is a request to “think hard”. “Think hard” is, in my view, the most unhelpful phrase that a professor can utter to a struggling student.

During graduate school, I had a number of instances of interaction with professors where they told me that I had to “think hard” about something, and I usually left those meeting puzzled and discombobulated, and even more confused than when I arrived.

To me, there are better ways to provide feedback to students. One of the ways in which I try to help my students think through issues is enabling them and encouraging them to spend time reflecting.

Luckily my thread resonated with fellow academics.

Hopefully, as educators, we will be able to reconsider how we provide feedback to students and peers. For example, I was reading an article this morning on how to be supportive to a grieving friend, and found the author (Celeste Headlee)’s suggestions quite helpful to consider for how I can provide feedback to students. We really owe it to them and to ourselves to improve the ways in which we provide constructive, thoughtful, well-thought-out feedback.

Posted in academia, teaching.

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12 tips to give a solid scholarly talk within a short time frame

One of the things I’ve noticed at conferences, workshops and seminars is that we tend to overestimate our abilities to give a talk within a short time frame. I see this at MPSA, ISA, AAG, and all other scholarly conferences I attend. We KNOW in advance that we have only 10 minutes, 12 minutes at the very most, and yet we still want to cram a 90 minute talk in 10 minutes.

Not. Going. To. Happen.

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega at CIESAS workshop

Since I just completed three weeks of back-to-back-to-back academic conferences, I thought I’d offer some tips (to see my entire Twitter thread, just click anywhere on the tweet I show below).

These tips, obviously, are intended to help presenters give better talks. An additional commentary that I think is valuable and I didn’t include at the moment of tweeting include the notion of rehearsing the talk beforehand. This is particularly important because it allows the presenter to learn how long their presentation will really take.

I noticed I made a mistake and did a 9) and 10) TWICE, so here are the other 2 tips, which complete the set of 12 tips.

Hopefully these tips will be useful to fellow academics.

Posted in academia.

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Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious About Serious Books (William Germano) – my reading notes

Before I left for ISA 2018 and AAG 2018, I purchased a ton of books. I have been doing way more work on waste (not only human manure but also municipal garbage) and while my water library is spectacularly well populated, I didn’t have enough books on waste, so my poor credit card took a big hit and I started purchasing a ton of books that I thought I might need. Along the way, I found a few books on academic writing that were inexpensive and that I thought would make the shipping costs worth it.

Yes, I admit it: I buy academic books sometimes as “order padders” so when I pay for shipping I don’t feel as bad. So, anyway, I wanted to read William Germano’s book for new authors and thus I purchased it (”Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious About Serious Books“). This book is not for authors who are PhD graduates and want to revise their dissertations as books. For that purpose, Germano wrote “From Dissertation to Book“, which I’ve also written about here on my blog.

This is my concluding tweet from a long-ish thread on Germano’s book. I think this is an endorsement if there’s ever one.

I usually don’t endorse books, but I found William Germano’s books so useful I really learned A LOT from them. In my Twitter thread (which you can read in its entirety by clicking anywhere on the tweet shown below) I embedded recommendations of other academic writing books that I’ve read.

Posted in academia, research.

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The “Accomplish Two Things Before Anything Else” approach: Dealing with academic life under pressure

As I’ve stated before, I’m a professor at a very small university with wonderful colleagues so I enjoy the privilege of having smaller class sizes and a lower teaching load. However, I feel the same pressures to publish, teach, do service as many others because the expectation in my institution is that we behave as though we are in an R1, which puts enormous levels of pressure on our performance.

AcWri while travelling

I am currently chairing two searches for new tenure-track faculty and thus I can’t use my No Email Before Noon rule at least until the searches are completed, so I’ve been trying to find a way in which I can continue doing my research without letting down my institution and job candidates. To do this, I try to follow even more closely my “Accomplish Two Things Before Anything Else” approach. I usually do this on a regular basis, but now that I’m under more pressure to respond to emails in the morning and throughout the day, it’s become even more important that I do it.

The Accomplish Two Things Before Anything Else approach is quite simple. I set out to write SOMETHING and read SOMETHING every day. Even if it’s writing 25 words of a new memorandum, or just the first page or abstract of a new-to-me research article or book chapter, I try to write and read every day. Every. Single. Day. I don’t get out of the house nor do I open my email before I get *some* writing done and *some* reading done. That’s why I champion smaller goals. During crunch time, I can’t stay sitting at my computer until I crank 1,500 words. So, I set out to accomplish at least two little things. This approach liberates me from the guilt of “you’re not doing your research” and frees my mind to enable me to do the work that I need to do.

I tweeted about this approach so you can open my Twitter thread by clicking anywhere on the tweet below.

And while today I was lucky to write 787 words, other days I write 65 words and that should be enough. Today I’ll do an AIC-CSED combo, because I have enough time, but I could just as easily simply read an article’s abstract because I don’t have any more time. It’s kind of a simplified version of my Quick Wins approach. Two Quick Wins: write a few words, read ONE article. Hopefully this approach works for other people!

Posted in academia, productivity.

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125-250 words, 15 minutes: Setting small writing goals to build an academic writing practice

I have been travelling non-stop since January 2018 even though I had promised myself I would not do this ever again. But my scholarly research takes me to a number of places, including San Francisco last week for the 2018 meeting of the International Studies Association (ISA) and this week to the 2018 meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG).

Reading and AcWri and highlighting related content

As I have indicated before, I use conferences to force me to write full papers that I then submit to journals, or book chapters for books in which I have committed to participate. The past week and this week I have also been incredibly ill, with a cold and flu that I got during Holy Week (Easter Weekend) and then happened to get worse during my stay in San Francisco. This week, I am in New Orleans and luckily, heavily medicated and healthy again (or at least on the tail end of this awful illness). But I had not written, consistently. And even in previous weeks, my written output had been pretty minimal.

The truth is that when I am not healthy, I don’t push myself at all. If I need to take time off from waking up at 4:00am and writing for two hours, I do it. I simply sleep in, and next day or the day after, I start again. But what I’ve found this year is that I have been able to write consistently and produce more than 34,000 new words (yes, that’s thirty four thousand words) by the end of March simply by setting small writing goals.

The truth is, I’ve managed to write that many words by writing in memorandums, and setting very small goals. 125 words, 250 words. 15 minutes of continuous writing. Anything that will make my work move forward, I’ll take it. That’s also why I champion a new metric of success: instead of fixating on words written, or hours spent we could focus on sentences and paragraphs crafted.

One of the reasons why I am a big fan of small goals for everything (reading, 1 article per day, do an AIC Content Extraction and then write a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED) row entry, what I call the AIC-CSED reading combo, writing for 15-30 minutes, drafting 125 new words) is because it sustains what Joli Jensen calls “frequent, low-stakes contact with a writing project” (read my notes on Jensen’s Write No Matter What here).

Setting small writing goals (125 words, 15 minutes of writing) or reading (1 article per day, 1 AIC-CSED per day) allows us to stop berating ourselves for “not being productive enough”. That’s one reason why I love Tseen Kho’s article “Your Word Count Means Nothing to Me”. It’s important to remember that each person is different and that we all have different writing, reading, and researching practices. Hopefully this strategy will be helpful to others who, like me, experience fear when trying to tackle a daunting large research project.

Posted in academia, productivity, research, writing.

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From Dissertation to Book (William Germano) – my reading notes

I’ve been reading a lot of books on academic writing lately, not only because I’m writing my own, but also because they’re recommended to me, and I believe it is really important to situate your own work within the broader literature. So, I was thrilled to read William Germano’s “From Dissertation to Book” (you can read my entire Twitter thread about the book by clicking anywhere on the tweet shown below).

What I love about William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book is that he makes it very clear that a doctoral dissertation written as a book doesn’t necessarily translate immediately to being an actual book. It needs to be revised. Moreover, the length of a doctoral dissertation is not necessarily what you’ll be able to sell to a publisher, because books tend to be more brief.

You can obviously transform your PhD thesis into a book by revising it, or generate a new book based on new or old theory or new data with old theory, or old data with new theories, based on your dissertation research.

Now, there are major weaknesses of PhD-theses-being-converted-into-books which Germano explains clearly.

You need to budget enough time to revise the PhD dissertation into a book. Also, make sure it has a Throughline (a core intellectual thread that goes throughout the entire book).

Bottom line: as someone writing books and advising PhD students who may want to write books, I really enjoyed Germano’s book. Worth reading. Also, as always disclosure: I bought this book, as I have purchased every single other book I have written about.

Posted in academia.

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Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (Joli Jensen) – my reading notes

Slowly but surely I’ve been amassing a small library of academic writing books. Not because I love dispensing advice, but because a lot of people ask me to recommend books, and others suggest the ones that have worked for them. But first, a disclosure statement: I buy absolutely each and every single one of my books (except for the ones, of course, authors gift me or academic publishing houses send me in lieu of payment or as a token of appreciation).

That out of the way, this is the sentence that got me hooked on Joli Jensen’s “Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics” (published by University of Chicago Press) is the following one (p. xi)

Writing productivity research and advice can be summarized in a single sentence: In order to be productive we need frequent, low stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.

Joli Jensen summarises what at the core, I believe is what helps ME move forward with my writing: I write every day, and I try to make it low stress by writing memorandums, analysing data and synthesising my thoughts in a conceptual map. I also write by hand in my Everything Notebook section for a specific project I am undertaking. These handwritten notes, these processes really help me think and develop my thoughts.

However, Jensen also zeroes in on a big problem in academia (p. xi)

Our problem is that academic life offers us the exact opposite: infrequent, high-stress contact with projects that come to feel like albatrosses

That’s why I don’t like to sit down and crank out a paper. I need to slowly and steadily think and process what I’m learning. And this is the reason why I write and read every day and I try to be in contact with my data regularly.

Joli Jensen Write No Matter What 001Jensen’s advice on writing at least 15 minutes a day resonates with what Jo Van Every suggests in her 15 Minutes Challenge. I know for a fact that if I sit down and scribble notes on a book, book chapter or journal article, I can write at least a few words. And a few words is better than NO WORDS. I really enjoyed Jensen’s honesty in attributing ideas to who originated them. She credits the idea of the 3 taming techniques to David Steinberg’s “How to Survive and Complete a Doctoral Dissertation“. I have to confess that I have not read Steinberg’s book, but I really enjoyed reading Joli Jensen’s account of what she learned from him and how those teachings became her three taming techniques. There’s also something extraordinarily refreshing about an author of an academic writing book who confesses to facing the same insecurities and anxieties that we all face.

As I said on Twitter, I write every day and I find myself stuck for MONTHS in a particular idea or without solving a specific set of analyses. Then BOOM, it all comes together.

I definitely would recommend Jensen’s book to students and professors alike. I really enjoyed reading it.

Posted in academia, writing.

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An updated description of my colour-coding scheme for highlighting and scribbling

In 2015, I believe, I first described the process I use to read and highlight. But that has been evolving through time. This blog post, like the one I did on an updated version of the Drafts Review Matrix, is intended to show how I read, highlight, and scribble on the margins of book chapters and journal articles. This colour-coding scheme is approximately the same that I use right now, though as I’ve mentioned before, sometimes I veer off.

There are a number of decisions that students and early career scholars ask me about. For example, how do I decide which articles I’m reading merit a memorandum, which ones merit a synthetic note, and which ones are simply a quick AIC/CSED row entry? Here’s one example of such decision. If after running an AIC Content Extraction I find that the paper is really heavy with marginalia and highlights, it would probably be wise to read it more deeply and in its entirety.

I often tweet about the fact that I match colours across. For example, if I highlight in pink, I scribble corresponding notes in pink, and I write on my Everything Notebook in the same hue.

As I mentioned on Twitter, this is more or less my colour coding scheme right now.

You can read the rest of the thread by clicking anywhere on the tweet below. Once you do, the Twitter thread will expand and you can scroll up and down to read it in its entirety. As I mention, I usually use Yellow for main-level, or key ideas. For example, each paragraph’s opening sentence (if the paper is written that way) would be highlighted with yellow. The problem I have with writers who lock their main idea in the middle of a paragraph is that you need to read an entire paragraph to “unlock it” and find THE key concept.

I normally use orange, pink, green and blue to second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-level ideas (hierarchically and sequentially organized).

This is an important component of the process. I don’t always summarize on the margins. I dialogue with the text’s author, with the literature and I also critique. I also give myself instructions on what to do with the text I’m highlight (e.g. “construct a table summarizing these insights” means I should find the most important concepts and build a table that summarizes these insights in a visual manner that is a lot more logically organized than the way in which the author is presenting these thoughts).

The side bars I use to “grab” an entire paragraph or a few sentences mean “these sentences have important ideas, and the paragraph is too long for me to try and grab only a few of them, so I’ll capture all of it”. They can also mean “this quotation looks very cool and should be sent to my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump”.

Hopefully this post will help others create their own colour-coding scheme.

Posted in academia.

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