The tip of the iceberg

Academic writing is a slipperier concept than it might first appear. The academics we interview often say, in reference to a form they filled in or a text they edited, “but that’s not really writing”. This got me thinking about where the boundaries of writing lie.

My doctoral research argued that using source material, which is usually characterized as a writing issue, is actually a reading issue, or more specifically a reading-to-write issue, since I’d also consider reading part of writing at least where scholarly writing is concerned. The point I’m getting at is that this sort of writing seldom starts with writing.

In order to make a contribution to knowledge, we must build on or extend or at least position ourselves relative to the work of others. In this sense, we read first. We might make notes. The notes from different sources might be patched together with our own ideas and become a draft. At which point does this become writing?

As part of the project, we’ve been recording and observing academics writing in real time. This has confirmed that that they usually have books or articles on the desk to refer to when they sit down to write, and that they usually have umpteen different documents open at the same time. Texts written by them and by others are used to create new writing. Parts of a previously published paper might be reshaped and further developed, archival notes might become footnotes, or quotes from a thesis might bookend a new chapter. Reading is an integral part of academic writing, both in terms of informing academics’ thinking in a general sense, and in terms of being woven through the fabric of the texts they produce.

Given that the academics we’ve spoken to struggle to find time for writing, I wonder how they find the time for all the reading that underpins it. Richard Budd, a lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope, writes about this in his succinctly titled blog, Stuff about Uni. Reflecting on his first year as a lecturer, he says, “I’ve read the bare minimum this year – pre-reading for sessions I’ve designed and/or taught, some key articles for funding/conference applications, and literature for assignments […] I feel like I’m falling further and further behind”.

I feel his pain. To use a well-worn metaphor, writing is the tip of the iceberg. If we dared to look under the surface, we’d find that a massive amount of reading has gone into every “output”.