Category Archives: Writing

On shitty first drafts

In my quest to improve my writing (both quality and quantity), I’m reading and listening to a lot of stuff about the craft of writing, and one thing that comes up a lot is the mantra that ‘all first drafts are shit’. Most recently, that’s appeared in the book I’m currently reading, Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”, a classic of the writing craft genre, so it does have a pretty impressive pedigree as an assumed truth. I’m sure she’s not the only one – it’s certainly something I’ve seen and heard a lot on writing sites and in interviews with authors.

This emphasis though on the shitty first draft has always not sat quite right with me. I didn’t realise how uncomfortable it made me until I heard the author Alison Belsham interviewed on The Bestseller Experiment podcast (ep.153). Towards the end of the podcast episode, she talks about how much she disagrees with this idea that ‘all first drafts are shit’, and I actually cheered and punched the air, it was so great to hear someone else say it out loud!

I think my issue with it isn’t the intention behind it (which is to say, don’t expect your first draft to be amazing, you’ll still have to do a fair bit of work on it so don’t be discouraged, but also it’s probably best not to submit it just yet), which I know is meant to be supportive and encouraging. Rather, I think it’s the actual language which rubs me up the wrong way, with its implication that nothing about the first draft is worth anything much. When I wrote my PhD thesis, of course it went through several drafts, each one more polished and coherent than the one before, and I certainly didn’t submit the early draft or have any illusions that it was of the required standard. But, having said that, there was quite a bit of it that did find its way into the final draft, in some form or another – there was enough there that wasn’t shit that I could work with and craft into something worth reading.

One of the pieces of writing I’ve been working on over the last few months, on and off, is a set of essays, which may or may not end up submitted or published at some point – they’re all in need of a fair bit of work still, and all are still at the first draft stage. A few of them I really like, despite their rawness, but one of them I honestly don’t think is any good. In fact, it’s a bit shitty. And one thing I’ve realised as I write more is that life (and time) is too short to polish turds. So that one I am just going to abandon. For me, ‘shitty’ means ‘not worth spending the time on’, which is why I wish the ‘all first drafts are shit’ mantra could be reworded to something kinder and more realistic. My other first drafts, which of course are not in a publishable state yet, do (in my humble opinion) show some sparks of promise that I want to nurture into something shinier. Yes, they’re a bit raw and unsophisticated, and yes, they require a lot more work to get up to scratch. But what they’re not, even in this raw state, is shitty.

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Health for All Children, 5th edition

I’m delighted to be able to plug the latest edition of Health for All Children (5th ed), edited by Alan Emond, particularly because I co-authored one of the chapters (on Opportunistic Surveillance in Primary Care).

I was very pleasantly surprised but happy to be asked to co-author the chapter with Prof. Philip Wilson from the University of Aberdeen, with whom I first interacted after my blog post of 2013 about Triple P (still the piece of writing I’ve done which I’d say has had the most impact, in terms of comments, quotes, links, and opportunities for connections such as this one). I found the co-authoring process really positive and very much enjoyed it (despite a few early pre-work starts and use of annual leave to get it done – not something I’d recommend!). We met up and discussed what we wanted to include (as this is a topic which had not appeared in previous editions of the books, so we had a pretty blank canvas), and then divided up sections between us. I then started the chapter, sent it to him for comments, edits and for his further input, and then we pretty much batted it back and forth between us till submission. This continued after we had received first editor and then stakeholder comments, and so I can say that it was a truly collaborative effort where the joins between the two authors’ writing isn’t immediately obvious!

The chapter summary is as follows:

This chapter:
* looks at the opportunities that clinicians in the primary care team have to identify and assess problems in child development in contexts other than scheduled assessments, when parents may not themselves have identified a developmental concern
* describes the domains of child development in which clinicians might identify problems opportunistically, how opportunities for identification can be maximized, and how common problems might be picked up and confirmed.
* considers how practitioners need to be aware of, and alert to, concerns about physical and social/emotional development, as well as signs of maltreatment and neglect and the quality of parenting.

It has been a while since I was involved in any significant academic writing, having left academia in 2015, so I was a bit apprehensive and nervous about writing this, but my co-author was very supportive and believed in the contribution I could make, which helped enormously. Also helpful was the fabulous PhD by Caroline King (currently based at Glasgow Caledonian University) critiquing the previous edition of the book in the context of a qualitative study of health visitors, which gave me the mental and intellectual headspace to get back into an academic as well as practice-based mindset. And whilst I am not likely to do lots more in the way of academic writing, the opportunity to use my brain and critical faculties in examining and evaluating the relevant research was a very fulfilling experience. I hope that the chapter, and the book more widely, is useful for primary care practitioners working in the area of child health.

Baby steps to publication – goals and beta readers

In my ‘rebooting the blog’ post from a few months ago, I mentioned that one of my aims for 2019 is to try and establish myself as a writer. I’ve got quite a lot of ideas swimming around my head, a few of which I am starting to commit to paper/screen. I thought it might be useful to occasionally blog about where this is at, partly so that I can see my progress/give myself the required kick up the backside (delete as applicable), and partly to give my handful of readers an insight into the early days of trying to make a dream more of a reality.

Goals

One resource I’ve found super-helpful is the Bestseller Experiment podcast, a weekly podcast aimed at writers featuring interviews with authors and publishing industry insiders, and the two Marks’ drive to make their book Back to Reality a bestseller. One of the things they emphasise is the public declaration, as a way of encouraging people to commit to something concrete and work towards it. My goals for the first half of 2019 were:

1. Finish my children’s picture book text and get it in a good enough state to start hawking it around to agents/publishers – by end of Jan 2019.
2. Start the research and end up with an initial draft for a second children’s picture book – by end of June 2019.
3. Outline my ideas for an early reader’s chapter book – by end of June 2019.
4. Have first drafts of ten non-fiction essays – by end of June 2019.

Now that I’m beyond the first deadline, I think it’s worth taking a look at where I’m at, and what I’ve done so far.

1. I sent this out to beta readers in January (more about that in a minute) and am now working through the comments. So I’m now aiming to have it in a hawkable state by the end of this month.
2. I’m in two minds about this book. I’d still like to do it, but part of me thinks it’s a non-starter, so although I’ll keep it in mind it’ll be more on the back-burner. I think it will be a useful thing for those days when I can’t face any of my more pressing projects, to keep me still writing, and maybe a nugget of gold will emerge from it. But I’m not going to prioritise it, for now.
3. This is still possible – but at the moment I have lots of snippets of ideas, and no coherent story. I did though listen to a fantastic interview on Tim Clare’s podcast with one of my favourite authors, Melissa Harrison (show notes here), where she said of her first novel that she had a series of ideas, sent them randomly to her agent, who said ‘I think you’re writing a novel’, and then she burst into tears and had to try and fit them all together. That sounds very like where I feel this particular story is at – lots of random ideas that will need a lot of work to piece them together into something coherent (and which will possibly make me cry).
4. I’m doing well with this. I’ve got three essays finished or nearly finished – so far I’d say one is rubbish (but that’s OK – I can move on from it now), one has potential and one is pretty good (and those latter two might well be combinable into something even stronger). I’ve written a list of subjects that I could write about, and use a random number generator to come up with which one to write about next. I’m even kind of enjoying this!

Beta readers

So last month I sent out the children’s book to some very kind volunteers to take a look at it and offer their comments. It reminded me of sending my first tentative drafts of my PhD thesis to my supervisors – I knew it would need some work, and that it had flaws, but really hoped they wouldn’t be too brutal! I realised that, apart from at a creative writing workshop last year when I first mentioned the idea, this was actually the first time that it had any kind of audience beyond the inside of my head, and this felt really huge! So my grateful thanks to all my beta readers, who were unremittingly kind and constructive, positive even, with my little embryonic book, and who didn’t make me want to give up and never write again!

I’m going through their comments at the moment, and a few things have struck me. I had specifically asked them if they would comment on the ‘level’ of the book – it is aimed at 3 year olds and their parents, but my daughter is now 5, and although I could imagine reading it with her, I suspected I had written it at a 5 year old’s level rather than a bit simpler for a 3 year old. I had mixed comments about this – some agreed that the child in the story seemed older than 3, but others suggested additions which to my mind, whilst clarifying the concepts, seemed to me even older than 5! The trick, of course, will be to clarify the concepts whilst also simplifying the language, which is an interesting challenge!

Another thing which came up was a very definite UK/US divide around one particular word. I’ll be keeping the UK word, but if the book ever gets picked up by a major American publisher (I can dream!) I’ll definitely know to change it for a US audience, so that was a super-useful thing to learn!

I appreciated the many comments about how the book is a good idea. I thought so, obviously, but it was great to have that confirmed, and it gives me more confidence when pitching the book that there is a potential place in the market for it.

Finally, something mentioned by one of the beta readers led me to wonder about a slight layout change (adding in a separate page specifically aimed at parents), and that was then more specifically suggested by another. Hopefully this is a case of great minds thinking alike!

As a first experience of using beta readers, I’d say this was very positive. What I’ve learned in particular is that it’s really helpful to provide some guidance about specific questions you want to clarify (in my case whether or not the language was pitched at an appropriate level, as well as pointing out if anything is particularly clunky or awkward to read). It’s given me a lot of food for thought, and should make the book even better.

The next step will be researching where to pitch it. This is how I feel about that.

Rebooting this blog!

Contrary to appearances – the last entry on this blog was over a year ago! – I haven’t actually disappeared! However, 2018 has been pretty busy and I seem to have had my fingers in so many pies that blogging has been left by the wayside a bit. I have decided though that I am ready to come back to blogging, and to be a bit more focused about my writing, so this post is to update where I’m at, and where I think I’m going.

Firstly, I now have three different jobs, and I have been really pleased at how well what I am terming ‘poly-working’ is working out for me. I am still doing some health visiting, but I resigned my substantive post at the end of 2017, and am now just doing that 1 day a week as a bank health visitor. This has given me some much-needed flexibility to concentrate on other areas of interest, whilst keeping my hand in with health visiting. This year I have been working at the same health centre where I had my substantive post, which has helped because I knew a lot of the families that I am working with already. From next year I’m not sure what will happen as a new full-time health visitor has been recruited and will be working there from January, but I hope I can still do that day a week or so somewhere.

As well as the day a week health visiting, I have also started a day a week (well, usually two half days) as the new Stroke Research Nurse at our local hospital. This has been a really steep learning curve for me – I last worked in acute care in the very early 2000s, and have since been either in the community or in academia, and things have changed enormously in stroke care since I last had any contact with stroke patients. I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the research nurse community online, and a number of very wonderful people, who don’t actually know me from Adam, gave me a huge amount of support and suggestions when I reached out on Twitter prior to my interview. As well as that, since starting in post I have had support from other research nurses in Scotland, including spending a day in Glasgow the other week shadowing the stroke research nurses there, which was incredibly generous of them. I’m planning on blogging more about research nursing when I’m a bit more settled in the job (although I won’t be discussing specific studies that I am involved in recruiting to).

And then on top of that, my transcription business has been doing pretty well and is filling up much of the rest of my time. So far I have done work for people from a number of different universities throughout the UK and Ireland, as well as a bit of non-academic transcription, and am really pleased with the feedback I’m getting on my work. I’m actually really enjoying it, and absolutely loving finding out about all the fascinating research that’s going on out there that I would have no exposure to otherwise. I have a blog post about transcription brewing too, so look out for that in the next few weeks!

On top of all that, what I am really wanting to foreground in the coming year or so is to do more writing, and see if I can add author to my list of ‘things I am and do’. After I left my postdoc position in early 2015, I found that my confidence in my writing ability was pretty low, and having previously blogged regularly for several years beforehand, and written academically too, I have written very little since then. I think it hadn’t really occurred to me that I could do writing that wasn’t academic, and I thought that the end of my formal academic career meant the end of any decent chance at publication. However, over the past couple of years I had the germ of an idea for a children’s book, and I did a weekend creative writing course earlier in the year to explore non-academic writing a bit (that course was led by the very lovely Rachel Marsh). Since then I have been exploring that side of my creativity a bit more, devouring a number of creative writing podcasts (particularly Death of 1000 Cuts by Tim Clare (check out his Couch to 80K writing bootcamp which I found super-helpful), The Bestseller Experiment, and The Creative Penn), trying to get my head round Scrivener, as well as reading as much as I can, both in the genre(s) that I wish to write, and also wider. Of course, all this reading and listening means that finding time to actually write is difficult, and so part of my intention in resurrecting this blog is to get me committed to carving out time to write regularly again, amongst all my work and family commitments.

As far as this blog goes, I started it at the end of my PhD to market myself whilst looking for an academic position (which is what I thought I wanted to do at the time). Now that I’m no longer in that place, I therefore plan on refocusing the blog to write about what I’m doing, and importantly what I’m learning (particularly about research nursing and about the writing process). There might well still be the odd academic-focused post, not least because I have a co-written chapter in a big high-profile book for health professionals coming out early in the new year, but my intention is that my emphasis will change towards the more creative side of writing here. So – watch this space!

Book review

Last year I wrote a review essay for Europe-Asia Studies, which is the journal produced by the department where I did my PhD. That review is now (finally) online first (not sure when it’s going to be in a print version). I thoroughly enjoyed both reading the two books and writing the essay – I’d highly recommend both books (“Democracy Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Armenia” by Armine Ishkanian, and “Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation” by Sarah D. Phillips) if you are interested in development issues particularly as they pertain to civil society – although both set in former Soviet countries, a lot of the issues raised are extremely relevant to development studies more widely.

Although my PhD was not a development studies PhD, and I was not looking specifically (or rather exclusively) at civil society issues, it was something the PhD touched upon as several of my respondents were from civil society organisations and reliant on donor funding in order to provide their services and to carry on functioning. I certainly found myself nodding in recognition at several points in both books. In some senses they were a bit depressing – the findings from both studies seem to be that little has changed or been learnt in how many years of development funding and civil society promotion – but as thorough and thoughtful studies which go into enormous detail of both macro-level (Ishkanian) and micro-level (Phillips) experiences of activists and organisations, they are both welcome additions to the literature. As an extra plus, neither of them are remotely stuffy reads (which let’s face it makes a pleasant change from a lot of academic tomes!).

Reflections on a new article

Last week I was delighted to have an article published in the latest volume of Anthropology of East Europe Review. The material in this article was originally intended as a case study for my recent talk at this year’s BASEES conference, but it ended up being such a big issue that it really merited a more detailed treatment. Recently I replied to a tweet I spotted on twitter where a PhD student was lamenting that she had to relegate some data to a footnote in her thesis – the case on which this article is based was a ‘mere’ footnote in my thesis, and here it is published. So there is hope – the thesis is not the end product, but I’m certainly finding that 2 years on from graduating my thinking has developed and the things I am wanting to write now are very different from what is in the thesis itself.

The article is called “Constructions of childhood, victimhood and abortion in Romania: the ‘little-girl mother'”, and is based on articles I gathered during a 2 month period as part of my (much bigger) media review on sexual and reproductive health issues. This is the article abstract:

In June 2008 in Romania an 11-year-old girl found herself thrust into the media spotlight when it was discovered that she was 17 weeks pregnant after being raped by her uncle. Romanian abortion laws permit abortion only up to 14 weeks gestation. In the weeks that followed, the case was rarely out of the popular media, with debates about both the minutiae of this particular case and more general discussion about the appropriateness of the current legal provision taking place within the context of widespread concern about the phenomenon of fetiţe-mame (‘little girl-mothers’). This article considers the way the extensive media coverage of this case contributed to debates in Romania around abortion, childhood and child protection, but also exposed insecurities around national identity and Romania’s place within a wider Europe. It argues that this case serves as a “critical discourse moment” (Brown and Ferree 2005:10) which highlights concerns about legislative shortcomings around abortion, media and professional roles in child protection, and the construction of childhood more generally in Romania.

The full article is available here (open access). In one sense the choice of journal was a bit of a risk – Anthropology of East Europe Review is a journal produced by Indiana University, and submissions are generally editor-reviewed rather than peer-reviewed so from a career perspective it may not be the best thing in that it is not an article that could be submitted for the REF. However I like to think I was very strategic in my choice – due to my current contract I am not being submitted for the 2014 REF in any case, so the first REF (or whatever it will be that replaces it in 2020) that I need to worry about will be considering my publications from 2014 onwards. Obviously I also have to think about my publication record when applying for new jobs, so do need to also be targetting peer-reviewed outlets, but I did feel I could afford for this one article to think about where I would gain most exposure/impact for this particular piece, which as a case study may not have been considered by higher-impact journals. I also really like AEER’s philosophy of aiming for a fast turnaround of research, and of a commitment to disseminating research from regional and early-career scholars. I also very much admired the editor (although this is her final edition before handing over to a new editor) and many CEES scholars (both early career and senior) whose work I respect immensely have also published in AEER, so I am proud to be part of their number. I’m pleased my work can join their conversation. I’m also hopeful that as well as the area studies conversation, this article can contribute to the ongoing debates worldwide about abortion policy and legislation.

‘Fessing up – my #acwrimo experience

Last year I didn’t take part in the first #acbowrimo because I was moving house in the first week of November and so knew I’d struggle with existing work commitments never mind take on any more, all whilst surrounded by boxes and chaos! I was though inspired by all the tweets about productivity, top tips, finished (or at least substantially progressed) work and overall enthusiasm for academic writing. I vowed that I would take part in the next one, and as the blog post before last shows I certainly thought about what might be attainable and had ambitious but not (I thought) impossible plans. My experience though has been somewhat different to what I expected, and so I wanted to try and tease out why that might have been.

I always knew that the bulk of any extra work would be at weekends, and that the first two weekends in November were basically out due to essay marking commitments. However I did have a bit of preparatory work planned just prior to November starting, in my week off at the end of October/beginning of November, and I was reasonably optimistic. There were one or two setbacks which I couldn’t do much about, but initially I was still optimistic. My plan to spend my week off doing some work in NVivo via remote working on my work computer was thoroughly scuppered by a software upgrade at work which knocked off my ability to log in remotely, but undeterred I scoured my transcripts and media articles manually using Word’s Edit-Find facility, which (as you might imagine) took a lot longer and ate into all my planned writing time for the first week. Another (not entirely unforeseen) spanner in the works came in the form of essay extensions – students for very good reasons required extra time, but rather more than usual did this time which meant that as well as the first two weekends being taken up with marking, so was quite a bit of the third and I still have a couple to do.

By this point I knew that I was spectacularly behind on my plan and was wondering how to salvage it. I decided to put the new articles originally planned for this month on hold for a few weeks to finish some already started work (a conference paper which I have recently decided to turn into two papers) – this is probably cheating a bit, but does mean that those two article drafts that I had pledged may still be possible (or at least one of them). So I finished last weekend with that decision and was happy enough with it, and started to sketch out a plan for future papers over the coming months.

Then the curveball came, and given the computer woes and longer-than-planned essay marking this might seem a bit strange. Having checked the #acwrimo feed regularly on twitter up till now and cheered everyone on, the last few days I have found it really irritating, and that really troubled me. Of course I am still cheering everyone on, it is great to see so much progress, but so many people sounded so cheerful when I just felt so tired that it made me just feel immature, petulant and a bit of a failure. Then I had the idea a few days ago to write a moaning and slightly self-pitying (but also incisive and insightful, of course!) blog post about why #acwrimo just wasn’t working for me, and in all honesty it was the most enthusiastic and energised about writing I have felt all month! Luckily, I read this blog post a couple of days ago which made me feel tons better that it wasn’t just me, but which also was realistic rather than the self-pitying moan I would probably have come up with! I know exactly how the blog author feels and really sympathise! You can also be grateful that reading that knocked the worst of the moaning out of me so at least you’ve been spared that!

That said, I did want to think about why #acwrimo hasn’t worked for me as I’d hoped (and even if I do get those two papers written I still won’t feel like it’s worked for me). Firstly, and most superficially, it turns out November is a rubbish month for me to do this! My OU teaching starts in October and the beginning of November is when the first essays come in (for two courses), and they took a huge amount of time, work and energy which simply couldn’t be displaced (either by handing to someone else or put off till December). Next year if I do something like #acwrimo I will choose one of the summer months between courses (they run for 9 months), so I can write without guilt that I’m not selling my students short, and in November I can mark without guilt that I’m not writing.

Secondly, I have to face the fact that I need time off to wind down. I have a long daily commute and am out of the house for 12 hours a day, and when I’m home in those 3 or 4 hours between getting home and going to bed, most days at least some of that time is spent sorting out stuff for my OU students online. I simply cannot sustain doing more on top of that, and it also means I’m more reluctant that I wanted to admit to spend weekends writing. The writing I’m wanting to do (and had planned for this month) is not related to my work research, so at the minute I don’t feel like I can spend lots of work time on it, as I need to prioritise my work project there.

Thirdly, like the other blogger linked to above, I really don’t think I’ve established the best pattern for how I write, but I do think that mad intensity in an already intense month isn’t it! (and this is why I said above that even if I do get an article or two written I still won’t feel like #acwrimo has worked for me). And the longer the month has gone on the more guilty and a failure I’ve felt, which has just added to the overall negativity.

However, I don’t want to end with ‘poor me’ or being negative. Having established that #acwrimo, at least in November, isn’t for me, what it has done is helped me think about what might be best for me instead. To that end I have identified a number of papers I’d like to write from my PhD thesis, and plan when over the next year (up to the end of 2013) I might write them, at a rate of around one every 2 months. That’s still pretty ambitious, but I suspect much more realistic for me and means that I’ve been able to incorporate marking time, holidays, other commitments, leisure, and revision time for articles within that. If that works out then I would have several papers written by the end of 2013, before I even think about work-related papers as well – but, I believe, without the unexpected and unproductive angst that #acwrimo has wrought this year.

And with any luck I’ll still have a paper to show by next week as well!