Moments of beauty in academia

The Academics’ Writing Project has taken us to destinations far and wide. We’ve given talks in England, Sweden, Hong Kong, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Spain, and the USA. And before the year is out, we’re going to The Netherlands and Wales.

Even at home in North West England the project has taken us to unexpected places. So far, we’ve visited the offices of 38 academics, and because they often work from home, we’ve also been invited into the domestic domains of several of our participants. I’ve been to farmhouses with sweeping views of misty moors. I’ve perched on a child’s chair among stalagmites of books in a cramped study. I’ve been invited through bedrooms and up vertiginous staircases to hidden attics piled high with papers and paintings. I’ve been fed homemade bread and jam, and I’ve been given books of poetry. Yesterday, after our interview, someone sat me down and played me a Haydn sonata on the piano.

The actors in pre-viva reports

Phase two of the Academics’ Writing research project has involved recording academics doing a piece of writing in real time. We’ve used digital pens, Camtasia screen capture software, Inputlog key logging software, and observational notes for this. So far, the genres of writing we’ve captured include a keynote talk, an extended abstract, a journal article, a piece of software, and a pre-viva report. The latter was particualrly interesting to me because I’ve recently written one of these myself – my first one.

In common with other types of feedback on writing, a pre-viva report discusses the quality of the writing and has a gatekeeping function in terms of upholding standards. However, unusually, while the student whose work is being evaluated may never read the pre-viva report, a range of other actors might.

At Lancaster, the pre-viva report is sent directly to central registry as a formal record of the examiners’ assessment of the thesis’ quality before the viva voce. It is not sent to the candidate, and, in the absence of a Freedom of Information request, the student would not usually see it. Registry staff, on the other hand, should read the report and may have cause to question it in the unlikely the event that the report is very critical, but the student is nevertheless awarded the PhD at the end of the viva. This affected the way I wrote my report. I didn’t direct my comments to the student, but I wrote them with one eye on the possibility that he/she could, at some point, read them.

Another actor involved in the shaping of a pre-viva report is the other examiner, who will read it prior to the viva. In my case, never having examined a thesis before, I wanted to evidence my close reading of the thesis and expertise in the subject. The external examiner was someone far more experienced than me, and I didn’t want her to read my comments and see me as an obvious novice. On the other hand, I was also nervous about being too harsh  in my evaluation, and inadvertently looking as if I had something to prove. So I re-read and edited and re-checked my report several times to make sure, not only that I was being fair to the student, but also that I was displaying the right sort of self to the other actors, including the external examiner.

Pre-viva reports serve simultaneously as a formal, permanent record of the examiners’ initial judgement on the thesis, and as a working document for the examiners, who will use it to structure both their discussion prior to the viva voce and their questions in the viva itself. In this sense, the discussion between the examiners is another actor influencing the text. The discussion between examiners has the potential to be face-threatening if they disagree. Thus, the report must be written in such a way that the two examiners set out what they see as main strengths and weaknesses of the thesis and can use these to guide their negotiation over the specific areas they wish the candidate to defend or demonstrate knowledge of in the viva. Even if the examiners are in agreement, as was the case in my recent experience, the pre-viva report acts as a means of structuring the thrust of their questioning in the viva.

Finally, the pre-viva report is also likely to form the basis of the viva report, which is written after the oral examination and takes the candidate’s performance in the viva into account. The viva report outlines the outcome of the viva, any action the student is expected to take, and the deadlines for so doing. A certain level of coherence is to be expected between the pre-viva report and the viva report, and the former probably forms the basis of the latter, with adjustments made to take the change of audience into account. The viva report goes to the student, so must be written in such a way that  that the student understands exactly what to do.

There are some interesting studies looking at the viva examination process (c.f. Carter & Whittaker, 2008; Park, 2003; Wellington, 2010), but I’m not aware of any research that captures the writing process of such occluded genres as pre-viva reports, and I look forward to sharing more on this with you as we analyse the data we captured in phase of the project.

The myth of writing up research

One of the most common myths about academic writing (and academic research in general) is that it’s a straightforward, linear process. Research projects are often characterized as beginning with reading, and perhaps ‘writing up’ a literature review, followed by data collection and analysis, before the final stage in which one ‘writes up’ one’s findings. The term ‘writing up’ is frequently used in documentation around doctoral study. PhD candidates can apply for ‘writing-up status’ and pay ‘writing-up fees’ when they reach the final stages of their research.

Underpinning this characterization of writing is an assumption that it is simply a process of instantiating in written form what one already knows. From this perspective, writing is a transparent medium for conveying information, and the creation of knowledge is seen as separate from its dissemination.

However, for many writers, writing is a means of thinking. The quote “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”, variously attributed to Flannery O’Connor, Joan Didion and EM Forster, illustrates this perspective rather nicely. Ideas often begin as half-baked, foggy notions based on hunches. In the process of writing, we dig deep into reading, we filter and select ideas, we write through the lens of theory, and foreground certain perspectives at the expense of others. In so doing, we shape knowledge into particular forms for our reader, but as our ideas crystalize, we likely reach new insights ourselves.

Seen this way, writing is an act of creating knowledge. And this, as any academic will tell you, is a project of blood, sweat and tears. It takes time and it can be frustrating. Sometimes an idea has to brew for a while. Sometimes it has to be written and re-written multiple times. We may re-read source texts, or stare at our data to verify or generate ideas, to explore the meanings we are formulating, and to figure out how the pieces fit together.

Even those, like myself, who cannot get started without a fairly a well-developed plan, may still end up producing something different from what we envisaged at the start. We learn something new along the way, or pragmatic constraints (deadlines, comments from colleagues, reviewer’s demands, etc.) mean that we end up changing the emphasis here or omitting a claim there. Literature reviews may be drafted early, but they are usually edited in light of how the results and discussion panned out, to create a coherent story.

Good writers make telling a good research story look easy, but behind the scenes lies a messy and time-consuming blend of reading, writing and thinking, often without clear boundaries between them.

What about you? Do you recognise anything that might be called “writing up” in your own practice? Do you agree that writing takes on new, sometimes unanticipated shapes?


Academic writing retreat

As a thank you to the academics who have been involved in our project, we invited them to a two-day writing retreat in a hotel near Lancaster.

The retreat consisted of writing sessions of around 90 minutes, with goal setting at the beginning and sharing of reflections at the end. We worked in small groups of around six people, and got together in a larger group for breaks and input sessions.

The only ‘rules’ were that internet access was discouraged during writing sessions to avoid distraction, and that we kept to time. After lunch each day, the project team shared a selection of insights from the project so far and invited discussion on these.

Participants worked on a variety of types of writing including chapter outlines, book proposals, research articles and reviews, and the discussions around these echoed many of the project’s wider findings. One of the things that struck me was how much the group had in common, despite our different disciplinary and institutional contexts. We all struggle to find uninterrupted stretches of time and headspace in which to write.

A mathematician shows academics from history, marketing and educational research how to use LaTeX (photo by Greg Myers)

Each writing session was what one participant called “a buzz of intense, silent activity”, and everyone made progress towards their goals. At the end, the group shared their thoughts on what they’d take away from the retreat and it was gratifying to hear so many positive comments. One historian said that it reminded him how productive he could be. Someone pointed out that writing retreats were liberating rather than remedial, and someone else said she realised, by virtue of writing with others in the room, that she was not the painfully slow writer she had thought herself to be. It appears that having protected time to focus on writing, and having the opportunity to talk informally about and reflect on our writing practices bring affective and motivational benefits as well as the obvious gains in terms of text produced.

Best of all, several participants spoke about trying to organise something similar in their own departments or research groups, and spreading the word that academics probably shouldn’t have to wait for invitations from projects like ours to find space to write in a supportive environment.

Academics on strike

A two-day strike was held this week by academics in the UCU (University and College Union) in protest at differentials in pay increases between vice-chancellors and the rest of the the academic workforce, the gender pay gap, and the casualisation of staff contracts.

I suspect the general public does not have a great deal of sympathy, since the popular perception seems to be that academics are handsomely paid, enjoy long holidays, including having the entire summer off, and know very little about how things work in the “real world” anyway. Just the other day, someone (who works in a university, but not as an academic) said to me, “Academics have lots of down time, don’t they?”

This notion might stem from the fact that academics are often not in their office or don’t work fixed hours. But they may be teaching, or conducting research in a lab or in the field. They may be at a conference in another city or country. They may be examining at another university, or giving a talk, or attending a meeting. Or, our research suggests, they may be at home writing, since they often feel that their offices are not conducive to the concentration required for scholarly writing. Academic work is far more diverse than those looking in from the outside may realise. Every academic I’ve met since I began my current role seems extraordinarily busy and they can’t all be exaggerating. They work in the evenings, they get up at 5.00 am to work on journal papers before the working day begins, they mark at weekends, and they take work on holiday.

Academics in the UK are a relatively privileged bunch. We’re well educated, we enjoy a modicum of social status, and we are certainly not at the bottom of the heap in terms of socio-cultural advantages, but as Rosalind Gill (2014) points out, we ignore the increasing workloads, precariousness and stress of academic work at our peril, for once this culture creeps into the domain of the relatively privileged, it won’t be long before it is accepted as the norm everywhere.


Gill, R. (2014). Academics, cultural workers and critical labour studies. Journal of Cultural Economy, 7(1), 12-30.

Affect and academics’ writing

As part of the ‘autoethnography’ component of our research project we have been documenting the team’s views associated with the affective and emotional aspects of their professional writing. We decided to explore this particular aspect of academic professional life, as the affective experiences of academic working life (its joys and pains) are closely bound up with successful and unsuccessful experiences of writing (acceptances of papers, completion of monographs, proposals, feedback, etc.).
Here are some of the responses to the questions we asked in the autoethnographic survey:
1) Tell me about a piece of writing you did which brought positive feelings or joy?

I am quite a synthetic thinker and I enjoy the creativity involved in researching ideas and putting them together in an argument in a new way, or developing a storyline from disparate data and viewpoints.

If I am satisfied with a piece of writing (and this might just be an email that I feel I have successfully crafted), I sometimes go back and read it over several times, enjoying the achievement of it.

I don’t feel the same level of satisfaction when I prepare and deliver an oral presentation which is too unpredictable. I feel more in control of my ideas and self-presentation when I write.

I get satisfaction and pleasure from writing, but wouldn’t say it has ever made me “really happy”. To me, writing is mainly an intellectual endeavour rather than an emotional one.

My writing process goes something like this: initial enthusiasm, leading to a first burst of work on something; getting stuck, accompanied by a conviction that this time, it will all be impossible; relief when something clicks and I see how it will be possible (this is usually when I get from ‘idea’ to ‘an actual argument’).

2) What specifically was it that caused you to be happy?

In terms of process, the satisfaction came from seeing the book as a project come together from the original seminar, through negotiating publication with a good publisher, working with contributors and co-editors, designing the book cover etc. In terms of the topic, helping a new field to come into focus.

With pen and pencil writing, I don’t usually enjoy the act as it tends to be messy and untidy.

Content gives me anger, regret and sadness, but not the act of writing itself.

Online I like writing when I do it unnoticed. I hate being rushed, and I try never to circulate drafts if I am not happy with them.

I was satisfied to recently get a chapter from my PhD published – because it had always nagged at me that I hadn’t got journal articles from it and should have done.

3) Tell me about a piece of writing that you did, the memory of which you associate with negative feelings

A piece of professional criticism which I was commissioned to write. Though I stand by the content of the piece, I don’t think I fully understood at the time how my writing was being used politically by the commissioning body and the whole thing felt very uncomfortable – but perhaps uncompromising criticism is always difficult and confrontational – not my normal style.

I wrote an article for a public media outlet. I did it with some edits from their editor who kind of ‘sexed it up’ a bit. There was a really positive response on social media about the issues I raised, with very few negative comments. Some of the negative comments however got to me. It hasn’t changed the way I write. It’s just toughened me up a bit.

I tried to write a book based on my previous big research project, but didn’t, despite spending a lot of time on bits of it – I think mostly because of other life and work stuff happening which got in the way.  I was disappointed in myself – I see myself as someone who gets things done but there were a couple of years when I didn’t.  I also feel that although I didn’t have an actual contract, I let down the people who had said they might publish it.

4) What irritates you most about the professional writing that you do (teaching, admin or research)?

I hate doing boring routine stuff. I think this is why assessing repeated exam answers, for example, is such an effort for me.

I found it hard being required to annotate student scripts online with feedback comments but this was really about a technology that wasn’t fit for purpose. I tend to mark when travelling or at other times when I’m not near a large screen computer and mobile technologies are fiddly for this kind of writing.

I loathe filling in templates for things like annual reviews or references etc. Wherever I can, I take the headings as guidelines for writing in a narrative way and avoid filling the boxes.

Writing abstracts is demanding. You have to know what you want to say, or have to discover it by the act of writing. I was doing one this morning for a plenary in a few months, and I don’t actually know what I want to say. I tried staring at an empty, fresh, new Word document and that didn’t work. I moved away from my computer and tried with a pen and paper. That gave a set of bullet points, but not a well-argued abstract. So a lot of wasted time – it wasn’t the right time for writing something new.

I honestly don’t think there is anything that irritates me about the writing I do.

I don’t know if anything irritates me. Technology can be annoying sometimes I suppose.

5) What do you like most about your writing?

The feeling of “flow” of being absorbed in the moment of writing so that you don’t keep track of time.

The internet has also brought a new dimension to my writing as I frequently search online while I am writing to find references, citations, perhaps read a related article, watch a video or follow a trail that informs me about a concept or aspect of my topic more deeply.

The recognition from peers if it gets it. But the best is when my writing reaches people I never expected it to reach and they value it.

What I like most about my writing is when it has an effect. For example if I review an article for a journal and my writing is useful and has an effect.

I like the process of doing it, and it’s nice for my ego when people cite the resulting text. I don’t pay that much attention now, but the first time I discovered that someone famous had cited my work, I could scarcely believe it.

I like the feeling of thoughts clunking together. I like the neatness of a well-structured piece of writing.  I like finding just the right word to make a sentence work.

6) What do you think about this quote from the writer Dorothy Parker? “I hate writing, I love having written”Do you feel the same? Try to explain your answer.

Yes, I agree. Those horrible hours chained to a computer and not going out for fun, contrasted with the satisfaction of seeing something I’ve written appearing in print. But the opposite can be true too. Enjoyable mornings can pass working and making progress on an article or a chapter.

I understand what Parker means. Writers of all types often say that the process is torturous. There must therefore be all the more satisfaction in having done it, and being rewarded for all that hard work.  I love having written, and in that sense I agree with Parker, but I also like writing. It seems rather indulgent not to.

I know what she means.  I often hate the idea of writing, but when I’m not writing I feel edgy.  When I’m writing regularly I feel much saner.  Though I’m not sure I love having written either – I am often reluctant to look at things I have published.

We are finding that affect and its associations with academics’ writing is emerging quite a bit in our research data, chiming with other research that focuses on the social aspects of writing and the importance of motivation and supportive culture in which academic work can emerge (e.g. Cloutier 2015; Murray 2015).

Do the responses above correlate with your experience? If so, how? And if not, how would you respond to the questions we posed?


Cloutier, C. (2015) How I Write: An Inquiry Into the Writing Practices of Academics, Journal of Management Inquiry, DOI:

Murray, R. (2015) Writing in Social Spaces: A social processes approach to academic writing, Abingdon: Routledge.