I just sent out an article revision which I have been struggling to write for four years (on and off). (Here’s to hoping.) When I first started writing it, the focus of the article was one thing. I submitted it to a journal last year, got feedback, and was put into the “revise and resubmit” queue. Unfortunately, due to some craziness at my institution, I missed the deadline and spent the summer periodically glancing over at the pile that contained that paper. I’ve been struggling with it because it has gone in a different direction and I couldn’t really bring the two directions together. So I gave up the original idea and redrafted it with a different focus. And now, it’s back out and about.
After submitting that on Saturday, I spent Sunday evening reviewing two theses rough drafts. And I have to admit, I felt a bit frustrated at how the students were burying the aims and questions that they were exploring deep into the text. “Why are you making me work so hard to find out what the point of this paper is?” I kept wondering. But since this is a comment that my adviser constantly told me, I can simultaneously feel frustrated and empathy. And this is what I’ve been struggling with this article — how do I frame the article in the first two paragraphs? How do I explain this to our students?
When I got on the bus this morning I found myself still mulling over these questions. Then it dawned on me. Academic writing is like doing a home renovation.
If you watch HGTV (or DIY Network or for old school public television watchers, This Old House on PBS), when they give feedback to home remodelers, one criticism that comes out is “Don’t spend so much money on renovations that won’t provide a return.” You have to know how much real estate you have and how to maximize the return. Now, when you have a large house, you have more space to wow the visitor with the attention to detail. But when you have a small space, you have to make sure that the focal point in the room is quality and deservedly eye-catching.
In one sense, academic writing (and by extension, writing in general) is like this too. When you’re writing a journal article (or a paper), it’s like a small space renovation. You don’t have the luxury of pages and pages to develop your argument and build your conceptual apparatus. You want to make sure that your question and key findings/conclusions are front and center. Then as the visitor comes into the space, you can show off a few of the key “supporting cast features” – the farmhouse sink, the cabinet pulls, and the stock pot sink underneath the range.
When you’re building a house, you need that type of metaphoric visual impact too. But you have more space to draw the viewer/reader into the attention to detail in the entire structure. Incidentally, this is why I love footnotes and historians like Margaret MacMillan. Footnotes are the HGTV equivalent of hidden storage units or detail on wood trim or windows that people don’t generally put on their “must haves” list. Reading Margaret MacMillan’s historical accounts of before and after WWI – great overview and includes tons of interesting side notes that puts a human face on history.
On the other hand, it’s a waste of space, time and energy in any renovation to focus so much on details and then bury the question in the drawer or some built-in bookshelf on the second floor, where the reader and the viewer has to go through so many rooms before actually seeing why the house is priced the way that it is. “Voila, ladies and gentlemen, the piece de la resistance! Handcrafted, mahogany, floor to ceiling bookshelves with mother of pearl insets… in the attic.” While there are a few die hards that might have made the trek in, most people probably gave up earlier. (I’m envisioning that this is a big, big, Gone with the Wind-esque “house”.)
So the note to self today is: Hey Self, know the amount of space that you’re working with and make sure to maximize the space you have. Don’t put so much work in developing the apparatus (textually) if it’s not clear what the major investment was in the renovation process. And make sure that the major investment will provide some ROI. In the case of academic writing, I suppose in some cases that ROI would be the types of articles the journal is looking for – make sure there’s some equivalence in what you’re writing and what they’re looking for. Monday morning mullings.