The Craft of Writing for Research

Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman.

C. Wright Mills, 1959:

Late last night I was reading two pieces on the craft of writing for research (classic procrastinator move!) that made me reconsider my own writing practice. The two pieces, Writing for Research, by Australian academic, Raewyn Connell (available from her blog) and Intellectual Craftsmanship, by C. Wright Mills were both written by sociologists. Connell’s piece is more recent but there were a few points  they expressed that affirmed the methods I’ve developed for myself over the last 10 years or so. Firstly:

That your life and your research never really separate and it is through your experience of life that your research begins and make sense. So take note of what jars, intrigues and piques you as you about your daily business.

Like Connell, I use old-fashioned notebooks for jotting down random ideas. I accumulate them chronologically and I have a stack dating back from my Honours thesis that has travelled with me from Perth to Brisbane and back. As a student taking notes manually was the most cost-effective way and writing each piece by hand helped me remember my notes better. Being a mature-age postgraduate, it also helped me re-accustom myself to the task of study.

These days because I often come across interesting ideas and readings online that I don’t have time to read immediately, I use a combination of tools to file them according to the various topics and themes I develop until I can get to the specific project later. Before using Evernote, I used to bookmark items on my web browsers but migrating these from browser to browser across desktop and laptop was annoying.

Now I use Evernote because it allows for PDFs, screenshots, recordings (there are file size limits) to be stored. Through some trial and error, I discovered this also works when I gather information via social media on my mobile. Because I am a new media researcher, keeping up to date is essential. A screenshot off WeChat, Twitter, Weibo, Facebook, browsers, is all that’s needed to keep a record. For larger files I use dropbox and have just begun exploring Google Drive. I’ve also tried Pocket but since my Evernote was already organised there was no incentive to migrate over to Pocket. I might reconsider it later if the Evernote subscription gets too much.

Sadly I have nightmares about losing my data if the Cloud should one day dissolve into the ether, so I also use Endnote and an external hard drive to backup work at regular intervals. It seems like a lot of work but the more I conduct research the more I find this kind of work integral to making sense out of chaos. Freeware that do the same referencing work include Zotero, Mendeley and ReMe though I have no experience with me.

Mills calls this “keeping your inner world awake”, I call this keeping myself sane. This store of ideas and events though, is where much of my writing begins as I connect disparate developments in research, technology and socio-political events. So you could say this is my ideas cupboard.

That filing and organising your notes is also intellectual work.

I go through my readings arranging and arranging them in stacks both before and after reading them. I try nowadays to jot notes on readings as I go along so I don’t have to revisit entire piles again when I next come back to a project. Depending on how large I think the project will be, the notes are digital (smaller projects) or scribbled on the front page of hard copy readings. I find readings done online difficult to hold together in my head and having tangible papers to shift around for a large project strangely effective. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I’m a visual learner?

That it is necessary to talk about one’s ideas with others and test them out.
I talk about my work to many people, especially those occupying neighbouring offices along the same corridor at work. Their questions are challenging but if I can satisfy them with my answers and reasoning, it helps me to become much more sure of the track or argument I am building. It takes practice, this speaking to others of half-formed ideas and there’s some risk involved until you learn who are the best sounding boards. Of course, such exchanges must be reciprocated but then again, I’m a born chatterbox. Finally,

Mills writes of a certain “playfulness of mind” and a “truly fierce drive to make sense of the world” also writes:

I often think of the ‘playfulness of mind’ as synthesis as I combine ideas from science fiction (witness my franchise nation work) with policy development (diaspora engagement) and extend them into seemingly unrelated spheres (business migration). I’ll admit I didn’t have a term to the process when I started out and in fact, intuitively worked that way because it seemed natural to me. It’s a relief and affirming to know it’s not just my crazy way of seeing connections where none previously existed. I love this aspect of research but let me warn you it isn’t easy because custodians of disciplinary boundaries resist such leaps. You have to believe in and test the strength and logic of these connections as your way of making sense of the world. Hence, the ‘truly fierce drive to make sense of the world’. Be prepared to defend them if they truly matter but also be prepared to let them go if they cease to make sense.