It’s Like Falling In Love. But With Footnotes.

dean confused by books

Academia is a feeling of failure wrapped in a taco of inadequacy. That’s what you signed up for, believe it or not. Embrace the salsa. Sit down and write.

There’s a buzz in my department of late, a whole swarm of anxiety around how one learns to write an academic article.

Which, in our field, all of us must do. Eventually. Join the ranks of the published.

Here’s how you do it, in my book: you write. You read examples of the kind of work that you want to be doing, or of conversations in which you’d like to participate, and then. You write.

No one is ever going to give you permission to do this. No one will tap you on the head one day and say, hey my child, you are blessed. Go forth and Submit for Publication.

This will never happen. And that’s good.

Your writing is yours. This is true for all people, but for academics in the humanities, this is especially so. Take ownership of it. Don’t hand control of your work to someone else who you hope will one day give you their approval. It’s your writing, your scholarship, your professional identity. Own that for all it is worth.

That said, here’s one way to exercise that ownership, the one way that I know because it’s what I do, more or less.

Go about your normal business on the human side of things. Read. Watch films. Dick around online. Talk to people, if you must. But do all this with your academic Spidey-sense running behind in the background.

When your Spidey-sense rings, take note. Perhaps you find a thing that interests you. Or a perspective or opinion that annoys you. Perhaps you encounter something that you flat out don’t understand, but in a way that’s intriguing.

It’s rather like tripping over an ottoman in the dark, or stepping on a Lego when you’re not wearing shoes: you’ll know that moment when a potential project strikes you.

It’s kind of like falling in love.

But what you won’t know, in those first moments or days or weeks, is what exactly you’ll do with that idea. How important it is, or is not. How productive it might prove to explore it. You may think you know, or have some Tinkerbell inkling, but you cannot be certain.

So write it down, that idea. Or question. Or a quote from the weird thing you read that’s gotten stuck in your mental craw.

Let me say it again, because this is the key: write. that idea. down.

In your notebook, on your phone, on the back of your hand, whatever. Just get it down, and put it someplace where you can retrieve it.

Then, go back to your normal human business. The idea might stick with you–your brain may be helpless not to turn the thing over, again and again, in the spin cycle of your gray matter, and that’s fine. If you can, though, let the seed simmer in your unconscious for awhile. Give it some room to breathe.

In time, trot the idea out from time to time and let other people see it. Wrap it up in an abstract and submit it to a conference. Explore said idea into 8 1/2 pages of writing and present it at that conference. Accept that it’s not perfect–of course not! it’s just an idea–and that it’s ok for people to see your work when it’s not fully formed.

Listen to what other people say, while you’re there. To their questions about your work and others. Engage human modes when you can. Talk to people, and yes, you must. Listen. And again: listen.

Go to another conference. Use your presentation as an excuse to, an exigence for, developing your idea further. No doubt, it will have started to change. Let it. See where it goes.

Use low-stakes writing to engage with the idea as it evolves. Write in a notebook, on your blog, on Twitter, wherever. Someplace where you feel comfortable writing to explore, rather than to perfect.

Find a journal you like and/or trust, or a call for papers for an edited collection that looks interesting. If you know someone on the editorial board, lovely. If you don’t, that’s ok, too. Either way: take a look at said journal and the kinds of pieces that are published there. If you’re submitting to a collection, glance at similar collections published on sort of the same topic. In both cases, get a rough sense of what the editors are looking for. There’s no map, no sure path in any journal that will always already lead them to accept your work. That’s ok. Just get a lay of the land.

Massage your writing accordingly, so that it seems like it might fit into the space the editors have carved out.

Accept that your writing will not be perfect. Period. Full stop. It won’t be. It can’t. Even if the editors like the piece, it will probably come back with revisions and suggested changes. And that’s good. That’s how you learn to write in these genres: listen to what your editors tell you.

If you cannot embrace this idea on your own, have a friend or trusted colleague read your piece before you send it away. That said, avoid leaning to heavily on other people’s approval or opinion. It’s your writing. Act that way.

So. Submit an abstract or a full paper, whichever the editors are asking for.

When it’s returned, read the comments. All of them. Ask the editors questions.

If they’ve asked for a resubmit, revise accordingly and submit again.

If they’ve said no thank you, revise accordingly and submit the piece somewhere else as soon as you possibly can.

Build a home in your heart for failure and line that fucker in lead. It’s coming. It will happen. But there are ways of avoiding the worst of the blast.

Lather, rinse, and repeat.

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