Become a Prolific Scholar by Tara Gray
As a scholarly writer, you were probably educated at the School of Hard Knocks, but it’s not the only school or even the best. Much is known about how to become more prolific–and any scholar can. Even when you can’t work harder, there are important ways to work smarter. Here’s how to become more prolific as a scholar/writer:
- Differentiate between the urgent and the important (Covey, 1994, p. 33). Important activities move you closer to your goals but you must typically act on them. Important activities have significant consequences if left undone. Urgent activities seem to need to be done right now, but they act on you (a ringing phone, a beeping email). Urgent things also seem to have deadlines and other people involved; completing them makes you feel useful. Teaching and some service are both urgent and important. Research and writing may not be urgent but they are certainly important. To become a prolific writer, you must create a sense of urgency around your writing because urgent things get done. The next two steps help you create that sense of urgency.
- Write daily for 15 to 30 minutes. Most scholars believe that writing requires big blocks of time. Research shows that scholars who write daily publish far more than those who write in big blocks of time. But beware: To get these benefits, you will need more than resolve–you will need to keep records of your minutes spent writing each day and share your records with someone each week.
- Keep records of time spent writing daily and share your records weekly. Writing daily will increase your productivity as a writer by nine times if you keep records daily–and share them with someone weekly (Boice, 1989, pp. 605-611).
- Write from the first day of your research project. Write every day no matter how rough the writing. The crudest writing is superior to the best thinking because it can be saved, reviewed, and revised later. Write from the very first day of your research project: Research as you write and write as you research.
- Post your thesis on the wall and write to it. When you sit down to write, take a stab at describing what you are going to write about: Start with something simple–your topic, just a word, or a phrase even. Then develop it into a sentence. Don’t try to write the perfect sentence. Just jot down something quickly. Know that this is a working thesis. Never, ever lose sight of it. Work back and forth between your thesis and the rest of your paper–revising first one and then the other.
- Organize around key sentences. A key sentence is much like a topic sentence: It announces the topic of the paragraph simply and with little detail (Williams, 1990, pp. 97-105). It announces the topic without trying to prove the point: The rest of the paragraph serves that function.
- Use key sentences as an after-the-fact outline. Now, list your key sentences–and headings–so that they provide an after-the-fact outline (Booth, Colomb & Williams, 2003, pp. 213 & 188). Read your list two times. The first time you read it, check to see if everything in your paper aligns with your purpose (thesis). If any key sentence doesn’t align with the purpose, you should either rewrite the sentence or rewrite the thesis. The second time you read your list, check for organization. Ask yourself how the key sentences could be better organized or more logical and coherent. Again, if any key sentence is less than logical or coherent, rewrite the sentence or the paragraph.
- Share early drafts with non-experts and later drafts with experts. Share more drafts of your work – starting sooner – than you ever thought possible. Share different drafts of your work with readers with different levels of expertise: non-experts, experts, and Capital-E Experts. Non-experts include anyone who does not share a terminal degree in your discipline, such as your spouse, undergraduate or graduate students, or colleagues in other disciplines. Experts include any scholar with a terminal degree in your discipline, including colleagues in your department now and those with whom you went to graduate school. Capital-E Experts include the best-known scholars in the exact area in which you are writing.
- Learn how to listen. Learn how to listen better. To do so, you must first come to terms with the fact that, when it comes to clarity, the reader is always right. Instead of arguing, try saying things that keep your reader talking like, “Say more about that,” or “How might I do that?” Avoid saying words like “no” or “but.”
- Respond to each specific criticism. Know that if you make changes in response to each of these readers, you will improve the paper and reduce the chance that other readers will find fault with the manuscript. Think of each specific concern as a hole in your rhetorical “dam:” The more holes you plug, the better your argument will “hold water.”How about a couple of bonus tips? Here you go…
- Read your prose out loud. To polish your prose, you should read it out loud to someone–or have someone read it out loud to you. As you read listen for–and eliminate–excessive precision that “hides a major point behind a dozen minor ones” (McCloskey 1985:192).
- Kick it out the door and make ’em say “No.” Expect rejection and plan for it. Select three journals for every manuscript. Address three envelopes–and stamp them. By choosing three journals, you have a long-term plan for your paper. If your paper is rejected at the first journal, you are prepared to send it to the second journal without the usual delay. Your job is to write it and mail it. The reviewer’s job is to tell you if it will embarrass you publicly. You’ve done your job so make ’em do theirs: Kick it out the door and make ’em say “YES!“
© Tara Gray, who does workshops on publishing and other topics related to teaching and scholarly work. Her book is available for sale at www.teaching.nmsu.edu.
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