Five Hurdles in Academic Writing

I have thought quite a bit recently about academic writing. Not so much about what makes writing successful, but rather what stands in the way of academic writing. Part of this is in advance of this year’s meeting of the American Political Science Association, which is an opportunity to many political scientists to think about what stands in the way of their own academic writing. Part of this is thinking about the academic job market, also set to begin soon, in which having a polished writing sample is essential. We all have quirks in our writing process, but there are five common hurdles that academic writers face. In my experience, they represent the major chokepoints in getting academic writing done.

1. from idea to results. This is easy, but also not that interesting as a commentary on writing. The vast majority of interesting research ideas or writing projects never get off the ground for the simple reason that the research is never executed in the first place.

2. from results to words-on-page This is the second major hurdle, transitioning from the stage of research to writing stage. “Writer’s block” most commonly emerges here. One reason is because the “results” from Hurdle 1 are almost never as self-evident as they seem (“writing is thinking” and all that).

3. from words-on-page to first draft. This is the stage that transitions from ideas or results that have been written down to a coherent piece of writing in which ideas and argument flow together, in a narrative with logical structure. This is the distinction between “most of a paper” and “a paper.”

4. from first draft to second draft. Successful writers rewrite, and this was just as true for Hemingway as it is for a PhD student. I’ve never written a first draft that was of publishable quality.

5. from nth draft to final draft. With very few exceptions, even successful writers who have rewritten once already will need to rewrite again because of the peer review process.

I think that many of the writing procedures that I learned in high school are best understood as tricks to move you past these hurdles. Outlines and note cards (which I still use) are strategies to blur the distinction between results and words-on-page, for example (Hurdle 2). Workshopping and informal peer review is a technique to encourage revisions (Hurdle 4). The “memo to reviewers” is a technique for sizing up Hurdle 5.

Relatedly, one under-appreciated argument in favor of coauthoring—beyond the benefits of leveraging different types of expertise—is that it allows for authors with different writing strengths to contribute to a single written output. Some authors are good at getting words on the page. Others are better at putting together first drafts, or revising them.

Here is a personal reflection on one article of mine. The idea first emerged from an email conversation with an old college friend in fall 2007. I did the background reading and cobbled together the statistical research in spring 2008. Then I sat on these results, right in front of Hurdle 2, until spring 2012, when I used my teaching of a course on comparative methods to start to put some words on the page. From there to a first draft was relatively easy, but it took quite a bit longer to cross Hurdles 4 and 5. Even in this ultimately successful case, it is helpful to think about where these hurdles emerged and what ultimately got me past them.

A final note on the theme of APSA: many scholars use conference deadlines as ways to incentivize themselves to write. When you think about that in terms of the five hurdles I’ve listed above, this is the perfect recipe for a conference chock full of most-of-a-papers and preliminary drafts, which is exactly what APSA and other academic conferences are. I am surely guilty too. It would be better if we all thought of conference deadlines not in terms of Hurdle 2 or Hurdle 3, but instead in terms of Hurdle 4. I especially hope that graduate students take note of this, rather than learning from what they see around them.