Reflections on academic writing: Three insights

Janet in GilaWhat do I need to write now? What will I write next? Who is expecting what from me, when? What related tasks do I need to complete, such as finalizing figures or posting to social media? How many commitments can I fit into each busy day? These are some of the questions that usually percolate through my mind. In this December Abstract post I committed to take some time for reflection. Here is the story, and lessons learned.

It seemed essential to step away from my home office workspace. I did so by taking a two-week road trip through the American Southwest. Instead of looking at a computer monitor, a panorama of mountains and desert unfolded before me. I took in the visually-rich arts, cultures, and histories of the Native and Hispanic peoples, as well as the expressions of contemporary artists in beautiful Santa Fe. Family and friends we visited are not academics so our conversations naturally avoided topics relating to research and publication. Outside of my usual routines, I was able to be in the moment. When I thought about my writing work, it was through the lens of the questions raised in the nonreflection-reflection continuum created by Peltier, Hay, and Drago (2005), and the reflection/diffraction questions identified by Keevers and Treleaven (2011).

Reflection and Change

Deep learning and intensive reflection can lead to change, according to Peltier, Hay, and Drago (2005). They point out that we might become more aware of why we think and act the way we do. The diffractive questions outlined by Keevers and Treleaven (2011) encourage us to think about why and how our work (and ways of working) generates effects, consequences, and impact. Peltier et. al. suggest that we might decide to alter or change beliefs and ways of thinking. It follows that if we choose to reflect intensively, we need to be open to change.

Sometimes even relatively small changes can make a difference. Three insights motivate me to improve my writing life.

First Insight

My recent transition from professor + writer to writer means I need new habits of mind. I previously valued my ability to productively multitask, and accomplish the maximum number of things possible each day. I realized that writing involves not only other kinds of tasks, but also requires unique mindsets. Instead of multitasking, with the attendant risk of distraction from breaking news, incoming texts, emails, and other trivia, I need to focus on one piece of writing at a time. Fitting the most activity into one day is not necessarily the best way to proceed.

Second Insight

If I am aiming for more focus, and less busy multitasking, it is important to prioritize and be more realistic about what I choose to take on. Over the last year I have endeavored to conclude optional commitments—roles in organizations and associations I’ve volunteered to do. I wanted to clear my plate, so I could decide where I want to channel my energy. Now, the diffractive questions from Keevers and Treleaven (2011) can help me think about my larger goals and purpose. What impact do I hope my writing will make? What broader communities do I want to reach? What form of writing will be preferable: full-length or short books, articles, blog posts? What ancillary or alternative options should I consider, such as media, graphics, etc?

Third Insight

Try something new! As an online professor, webinar presenter, researcher, blogger, etc. I’ve had an active digital life. I have also written about the value of taking time to connect with your muse by enjoying the natural world, and about the value of the tactile pleasures of analog tools. I am taking a step outside my usual mode by offering face-to-face workshops at my local art store to encourage other digital mavens to pick up a pen or a brush. I expect to learn more than my students!

Moving Forward

Back in my office for only a few days, I am trying to take a reflection-in-action approach. I am mindful when old habits surface, and committing to being focused and appreciating the moment. If you’ve taken some time to reflect and reboot, please use the comment area to share your stories!

Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.