Publish and Flourish: On Being a Prolific Scholar

Lately, I've been on a self improvement kick. As I've mentioned before, I kind of let my research slide over the last few years due to my son's health problems. So, in an effort to retool, I started reading about the craft of being a productive writer. There have been a number of books written by people who study this stuff, and they all contend that prolific scholars are made, not born. In other words, many of the "big dogs" tend to use the same strategies. Two of the best sources of advice on this topic are books by Robert Boice titled Professors as Writers and Advice For New Faculty Members (the second book is mistitled, IMO--it's not just for new faculty members).

While engaging in avoidance behavior for my own research the other day, I was trolling through Academic Coach, and came across another one, by Tara Gray, titled Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar (I've ordered it, and will report later on it).

Professor Gray also did a piece for Tomorrow's Professor where she summarizes the advice in her book. I've put her key points in bold type, with my thoughts after:

  1. Write daily for 15 to 30 minutes. This and #2 may be the two best pieces of advice I've seen.
  2. Record time spent writing daily, share records weekly. Accountability's hard, but it works.
  3. Write from the first day of your research project. One of the advantages of this is that it keeps you focused on the topic, and makes the subsequent writeup much easier. In my discipline, the typical mode of research is to first gather data, then do a lot of analysis, and then do the writeup after the analysis. For my next project, I'm keeping a log of everything, and writing as I go.
  4. Post your thesis on the wall, then write to it. This helps you "boil down" your piece to whatever the core idea is.
  5. Organize around key sentences. It helps you focus - and the key sentence doesn't have to be the first one.
  6. Use key sentences as an after-the-fact outline. If you don't, it's too easy to see where your writing has gone. Writing tends to be "path dependent" (we're all-too-often unwilling to change what we previously wrote). Making key sentences into an outline makes it easier to see what need changing after the fact.
  7. Share early drafts with non-experts. This keeps you from overestimating what your readers already know.
  8. Share later drafts with little-e experts and Capital-E Experts. Little-e experts include anyone trained in your discipline; Capital-E Experts include the biggest experts in your discipline or your sub-discipline.
  9. Learn how to listen. If someone thinks that something you wrote is unclear, then by definition they're right. Clarity is defined by the reader, not the writer.
  10. Respond to each criticism. This applies to after the reviewer has savaged the paper.
  11. Read your prose out loud. This is something my third-grade teacher (Sister Lorraine) told me, and it still works.
  12. Kick it out the door and make 'em say "No." The best piece is the one under review. Here's a good quote to put on your wall: "the perfect is the enemy of the good".

Read the whole thing here (there's also a link so that you can order Gray's book).