Academic writing ‘outside’ academia

JayThompson-smDr Jay Daniel Thompson is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor who teaches at the University of Melbourne. His website can be found here.

Jay is also Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and continues to publish in the fields of Literary Studies and Cultural Studies.

He can be contacted via email at jaydthompson80@gmail.com.


Readers of The Research Whisperer will be familiar with that old chestnut ‘publish or perish’. This is supposed to be the key to getting (and keeping) an academic job.

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi | www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi | http://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

So, what about those non-academics who publish academic writing— the latter broadly defined as writing which is scholarly in nature and appears in traditional academic mediums (e.g. peer-reviewed journals, edited collections, and so forth)? Why do these people put themselves through the blood, sweat, and peer-review?

Who are these people exactly?

Let’s start with the latter question.

Non-academic academic writers (to coin a terribly inelegant term) come in many guises. Some are working in ‘industry’, and bring coalface knowledge to academic publications. Publications in the ‘hard sciences’, for example, frequently feature ‘industry’ input. There are those writers who require publication notches under their belt in order to win that coveted fellowship or lecturing gig. Creative arts journals frequently feature submissions by artists (painters, creative writers, and so forth) who have a scholarly tone. Then there are those folk who are drawn to academic writing by a love of words and a desire to contribute to a particular field or discipline.

I traverse several of the groups listed above.

I completed a humanities PhD at a sandstone university in September 2009. I am currently employed as a university tutor. That being said, I have also worked in many non-academic roles—e.g. roles not oriented around research or university teaching. Concurrently, I have published refereed articles in a range of journals and edited collections. My publications are, admittedly, related to a pursuit of the ivory tower dream. Yet, I also confess to an unabashed enthusiasm for scholarly writing and scholarly communities (namely, the Literary Studies and Cultural Studies communities).

Finding time to write ‘academically’ can indeed be a challenge for the non-academic academic wordsmith, especially after a long day spent in the office and/or child-wrangling. But finding time to write is also a challenge for those who are actually employed in academia.

In ‘Are academics good (research) administrators?‘, University of London scholar @MurielSR wrote:

Higher education and a lot of research activity are still funded by the public purse and, as such, universities and national funding bodies have a responsibility to offer the tax payer transparency, quality, and value for money. Academic workloads have also increased exponentially.

For the average academic, the expectation is that they engage in teaching, marking, knowledge exchange, research, and…administration. Loads of it.

Teaching, signing forms, preparing grant applications, supervising HDR candidates: these activities can take time. Loads of time. And that is time that could be spent on the not-insubstantial tasks of reading, writing, and revising for publication.

That being said, having access to scholarly resources can benefit academic writing immeasurably. I have held several university administration roles, and thus had access to invaluable library resources (including non-Open Access journals). In my current work as an editor, I have the privilege of fine-tuning academic documents (e.g. theses, journal article drafts) on a daily basis. This experience has exposed me to a range of scholarly writing styles and research trends. Such exposure has, in turn, enhanced my skills and confidence in academic writing.

The following is a list of suggestions on how non-academics can produce regular, high-quality academic prose. These suggestions can be modified to suit most lifestyles and disciplines/fields of study. And, yes, they might also be helpful to academics themselves.

1. Write regularly and write often.

Many Australian universities run a wonderful initiative known as ‘Shut up and Write!’, where researchers dedicate a specific block of time (usually a few hours) each week to come together and churn out words.

Those who are not employed within universities, but who want to publish academically, can set up their own ‘Shut Up and Write’ initiatives, with others or even on their own. Just a hint: When it comes to writing, strength in numbers sometimes beats solitary confinement!

[Editor’s note: Many #shutupandwrite groups may take place on university campuses but welcome everyone – academic, uni-affiliated, or not!]

2. Keep up with the research trends in your field.

Attend public lectures and seminars. Subscribe to journals.

The worst researchers are often those who write well, even brilliantly, but whose ideas were already dated a decade ago.

3. Participate in a research-oriented group.

This could be a study group, a reading group, even (or especially!) a writing group. Many of these groups are run outside standard (9-5) business hours. They provide an excellent opportunity to keep up with research trends, as well as to make contacts in the academic world. These contacts can be invaluable to your academic writing, as the following two suggestions will attest.

4. Co-author articles.

Sharing the writing load can make the experience considerably more enjoyable and less time-consuming. In particular, the opportunity to co-write with senior academic researchers should be seized, not least because these researchers are at the top of their game (generally speaking!), and can pass on invaluable writing and research tips

5. Ask fellow researchers to read and comment on your writing.

I recognise that academic writers can be particularly precious about their prose. Exposing oneself to critique can be akin to wandering down the street naked. And there’s always the fear (a fear that’s not entirely without basis) that your ideas might be stolen.

Thus, I recommend that non-academic academic writers approach a colleague (preferably an ‘actual’ academic) who they trust to provide feedback on their essay or book chapter. Even the most time-poor professor can offer suggestions that could enrich this work, and bring it one step closer to publication.

Yes, taking criticism can be challenging, particularly for the more sensitive among us. In saying that, criticism—especially that which is constructive—always beats a rejection email.

—————

In Australia and elsewhere, the higher education field is ever-changing. Shrinking university budgets, the casualisation of the academic workforce, and an increased emphasis on industry partnerships have meant that the boundaries between ‘academics’ and ‘non-academics’ are more porous than before

In this environment, so-called ‘non-academic academic writers’ are flourishing.

Some of these writers want the keys to the ivory tower. Others want to offer insights from the coalface. Others still simply aspire to that most delightfully old-fashioned pursuit: the pursuit of knowledge.

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One Response to Academic writing ‘outside’ academia

  1. Pingback: Weekend reads: Top science excuses; how figures can mislead; a strange disclosure - Retraction Watch at Retraction Watch

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