Difficult Writes - Or, The Unexpected Challenges Of An Otherwise Ordinary Article Text


So much of academic life is writing, and the amount of writing you are supposed to do only increases as you delve farther into an academic career, imagined here not as a pathway but as a nebulous, immaterial murk. Ever since I finished my MA degree in the autumn of 2012, I have written a lot of texts aimed at different audiences and requiring different degrees of preparation and sophistication. Some of these texts have been demanding because they have required a lot of research, such as my PhD thesis. Other texts have been challenging because of constraints regarding length. However, such demands do not necessarily make a text difficult to write. It often depends on the process itself and how prepared you are to write what must be written. In the case of my thesis, for instance, I had to write a lot and then edit a lot, meaning that I inevitably wrote much more than what ended up as a part of my submitted product. While this writing process was both challenging and demanding, taking a lot of time, and lot of thinking, and a lot of trial and error, I did not think of it as difficult to write, simply because I had, from the very beginning, a very clear idea of what I would write about and what I found find in my research. This is not to say that I had my thesis all prepared from the onset. Quite the contrary, there were a wide range of details and a great degree of knowledge that I had not foreseen or prepared for, and that I picked up along the way. But I had the structure in place, I had my remit set, and I knew enough of the literature to begin quite comfortably with my preparations. Consequently, despite the labour required to complete the thesis I knew where I would end up, more or less at least, and this made it easier to claw myself in that direction when things were at their hardest.

This month, however, I'm seeing the end of what is unquestionably the most difficult thing I have written since earning my MA degree. The text in question is an article of regular length whose subject is taken from one of my thesis chapters. I will say no more about it here, but if it gets published I will no doubt express my relief and happiness in a future blogpost. Be that as it may, this text, ca. 20 pages in length and on a subject with which I am very familiar, is the most difficult thing I have written since November 2012. There is nothing in the article itself to explain this, and it all comes down to how prepared the author needs to be in order for the writing not to become too difficult.

The article in question was one I was offered to write by the editor of a collection towards the end of 2017. I was very happy to be offered this contribution since I had seen the volume advertised and since I knew that it was well within my own field of interest. Naturally, I felt very confident about my ability to churn out a suitable article in time - after all, I had had a busy autumn of conferences and I thought I could recycle my main points and my sources from one of my presentations. I started writing, and the pressure got to me right away.

The reason why the pressure got to me that easily was that by this time it was the Christmas holiday and I needed to prepare for my viva. I still thought that I would be able to write a good text with time enough to spare, but it turned out that the things I had organised so nicely in my head did not convert into words on paper that easily. I wrote a lot in those last days of Christmas, sitting down in the old-fashioned way with pen and paper, writing by hand as frantically as I could. I wrote several pages, and threw them all away and began again. Fortunately, I got an extension and could pick it up after the viva was over, and so in the last half of January I did manage to submit something I thought was good enough, and which was in effect the second draft of the article. I was glad it was done.

Months later, however, I received the feedback, and while there were several positive things, Reviewer number one pointed out several flaws and weak spots in my work, and I realised that I had taken the task too lightly. I waited a few months, simply because I dreaded the task I knew to be required of my, and tried not to think about it. It didn't help that this feedback came just as I was organising a conference and finishing up a four-month position of work. In the beginning of May, however, I began rewriting, tossing out material that I thought to be problematic, and in the end I had a third draft, most of it completely new-written. By this time, I wanted to let it rest before submitting it, and I wanted a few things checked by friends first. I then tried to forget about it.

In late July, however, I was contacted by the editor, who expressed kind concern about the progress, and I promised to have it done in August. Thanks to my friends I was able to have some quality control, and, thanks to one friend in particular, I was made aware of some problems such as lexical repetition and visible lack of confidence in my own work. She provided me with solid feedback, and the most basic issues have now been corrected. The final details will be sorted in the course of next week - God willing.

I am, in other words, in the fourth round of writing on this article, and this despite there being nothing particularly new or demanding about its subject or the sources I rely on. It simply comes down to timing, and to me being overconfident, and to my lack of a coherent plan for all the parts of the article before I started writing. It is a good reminder, at least for myself, that difficulty does not depend on length or topic, but on the writer's own vision of the text.