How (not) to write a paper: Part I

Over the coming few weeks I’m going to be covering the progress of writing an academic paper, from start to finish, including all the gory bits. We see academic papers only when they are finished, neat, unitary. We don’t see the mess, the revisions, the pain and the corner-cutting that goes into their production.

Euan Craig, a potter originally from Australia who’s lived in Japan for much of his life, was once asked how long it takes to make a pot. He replied “about 30 seconds to throw the pot, and 20 years to learn how.”

So the only thing that you won’t see in this process is the long, non-linear, tangled threads of intellectual development and change over the course of my entire life that have, in one way or another, influenced the production of this paper. However, what you will see is a genuine, warts-and-all impression of what really happened.

I will also add another caveat: not all papers work like this. Each has its own life, some ebbing and flowing gently over years, others crammed into the space of a few weeks (like this one), others still never quite ever being finished and sitting, waiting, hoping to be ‘complete’ one day under piles of more pressing labour to be completed. Academics reading this may deeply identify with this process, but other academics may not understand at all. We shall see…

Finally finished the commentary for Dialogues in Human Geography. Now to the next project, after a little break. A bit of reading around the subject of encounter and difference. I think I know where I’m going with this. Good, good. I can see where this paper is going.

Oh, wait, wasn’t there another submission deadline coming soon? The one I presented in Paris? Shit – quick check of old emails. SHIT. Deadline is 30th April??! That’s three weeks. Oh God oh God oh God. My brain is now full of encounter and this is about territory. What the hell is territory anyway?  A raft of concepts and definitions comes flooding back: territory-as-effect (Painter), calculable space (Elden), rebuttal of Elden (Antonsich), deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation (Paasi, Newman, and the border studies types), multiple non-linear territorialisations (can’t remember who said this off the top of my head), etc etc ad infinitum. Didn’t Sam H write something about territory too?

Quick check of my 2012 territory paper. This is useless, but maybe I can lift some of the lit review out and re-work it for this topic. Not sure if I can get away with that.

Check back over the abstract. Completely impenetrable. What did I even mean?

Check back over the presentation notes. What a load of crap. How did I ever become an academic with such half-baked ideas?

OK, breathe. Let’s do a little mind-map. What are the issues? I always see people draw these wonderfully chaotic and creative mind-maps – maybe I’ll try that and hope that some inspiration comes:












Right, well that wasn’t much use.

I wonder if I could just duck out and hope the guest editors won’t mind. I’m really good at letting people down gently. But I respect them and want to support their project. I hung out with them in Paris and they were really welcoming to me, despite being this dumb Englishman who can only muster shaky A-Level French. No, I owe it to them, plus it gives me a deadline – I need deadlines to get things finished. Otherwise, I just faff around and get frustrated.

So, if a mind-map won’t work, maybe let’s get the logic straight and fit the structure into that as I go. OK, back to good old bullet point lists. Let’s do this.

bulletpoint screenshot








Cool, we’re getting somewhere now. But – ‘labour’ – how does that relate to territory? I don’t know if I have enough empirical material. And I’ll need to theorise it very carefully. OK, sideline that – I can always splice it in later if I have time and space.

Oh, space, shit, forgot about that – what’s the word limit? 60,000 characters – what the hell is that in words? OK, looks like it’s about 10,000 words. OK, that’s a lot of space to fill, but doable. At least I won’t have to edit it heavily to cut it down to the word length before going to review.

But I still need a conceptual ‘hook’. It needs to be somehow “innovative” but I literally have no theoretical innovations to offer. Quick scan through old papers and notes. Still no joy. Maybe if I just start writing, something exciting will magically emerge from the writing process? Wishful thinking.

OK, breathe. You can do this.

[To be continued]

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