Make Writing Sprints A Fun Way to Write with Others in Grad School

Grad students get very little experience writing in collaboration and with people from outside their discipline or department.  Writing sprints offers a real opportunity at 21st Century Academic Communication.  The following blog post by Claire Taylor and Niamh Thornton on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog describes a ‘writing sprint’ at  Liverpool University in 2015 during Academic Book Week.

Abstract: Claire and Niamh hosted a “writing sprint”, a time-limited exercise in which academics from many disciplines and from all over the world were brought together virtually to produce an academic article. Despite certain challenges, the writing sprint proved a great way of facilitating collaborations and providing opportunities for reflections on the process of writing itself. It also led to the contributors producing a much richer output, one that combined their diverse skills, expertise, and perspectives.

During Academic Book Week in 2015, we held a “writing sprint” in conjunction with Liverpool University Press (LUP). We conceived the writing sprint as a time-limited exercise in which a group of academics were brought together virtually to produce a collaborative output, focusing on a specific theme. Our focus was around modern languages (ML), one of the major research areas within the university and a key area of publishing within the press.

Our sprint looked specifically at how ML engages with the digital in multiple ways. We commissioned several 500-word pieces from experts in their field, and appointed a broader group of respondents who were invited to dialogue with each piece, nuance it, and shape the debate. All participants then responded to the main question and, by the end of the week, a final piece emerged, for publication on LUP’s platform. Over the course of the week, ten contributors wrote and published 24 individual blog posts, containing their reflections and responses to the questions. The length of entries varied, with most comprising around 500 words, and some shorter reflections arising spontaneously as the week went along. At the end of the week, all entries made up a collaborative piece totalling just under 13,000 words. (The writing sprint can be viewed in process at The Modern Languages Open Writing Sprint, and the finished article is available on LUP’s Modern Languages Open platform.)

writingsprint.rosshuggett.ccby2.0Image credit: Ross Huggett. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

As we were setting up the writing sprint, we discussed what we were attempting to achieve. We agreed on five broad aims: facilitating collaboration; encouraging new ways of thinking about academic writing; engaging in reflective practice; rethinking peer review; and using our emerging digital scholarship to transform our writing practice.

Firstly, our approach meant a shift away from writing a single-authored piece; instead producing a collaborative, multi-authored academic article. Secondly, we wanted to encourage new ways of thinking about academic writing, in terms of its style and “voice”, something enabled by the blog format (about which more below). For the third aim, we wanted to make reflection on the writing process part of the research question itself, rather than just focusing on producing a “finished product”. Fourthly, it involved a rethinking of the peer review process, because contributors would be writing in a highly visible way (in real time, on a blog), with the various respondents nuancing and shaping the thoughts also doing so in a visible format, open to public view. Finally, we wanted to make use of digital transformations in our writing process, exploring how digital tools (such as the blog platform) can help us rethink our practice as we are in the actual process of writing.

During the week of the writing sprint, our contributors were asked to consider how digital technologies are changing the shape of ML research and publishing, and how the conceptual, methodological, and practical bases of ML research are required to adapt to the challenges of the digital. We set up six questions to feed into this main theme using the following titles as prompts, all of which considered how digital tools, platforms, and interfaces are changing research in ML: “(Big?) data and ML”; “ML and digital archives”; “ML: the digital as object of study”; “ML and digital ethnography”; “users and interfaces”; and “ML as research and process”.

The work we undertook was not without its challenges. Reassuring contributors, potentially daunted by the total visibility of the writing process, was one challenge; and one we attempted to address by setting out clear guidelines, as well as trying to generate a collaborative spirit amongst contributors. The challenge of establishing the authorial voice also required a new approach. As the process unfolded, we realised that each contributor wrote in his/her own voice, employing differing tones and styles. Instead of aiming to achieve a consistent authorial voice (as one would do with a single-authored piece, or even a conventional joint-authored article), we understood we had to allow for multiple authorial voices and styles to emerge.

Writing within a five-day period (to coincide with Academic Book Week) was also a challenge. The timescale was certainly different from that experienced by most academics when writing an academic piece, so it was important to engage forward-planning and prompting in order to ensure it all ran to time.

A technical challenge was to adapt the WordPress blogging platform to the needs of the writing sprint, and to create an interface which looked as dynamic as possible, where dialogues between contributors were as visible as possible. We were not, perhaps, able to make the dynamism of the exercise quite as visible on WordPress as we would have liked, given the limitations of the platform, and this is an area for further development when we next engage in such an activity. Finally, what might be thought to be a challenge – the collaborative aspect – was in fact very positive, and getting authors to work together turned out to be smooth process.

Overall, the writing sprint proved effective in bringing academics out of their silos and working collaboratively across geographical distance, by virtually connecting colleagues at various institutions in the UK and worldwide, and across different academic disciplines and departments. The sprint also provided opportunities for reflection as part of the process, since it was an iterative practice that developed over the course of the week, allowing all contributors to reflect as the piece took shape. We were able to record the process as much as the end result, something that almost never happens with a traditional book chapter or article. At the end of the week, we not only had the finished piece, but also the record of how we had got there, which was enlightening in itself.

Finally, we achieved a much richer output, since input from experts in different but related fields meant new perspectives were gained on some of the key concerns we are all grappling with. It is almost certain that a single-authored piece would not have achieved this same richness, since no one person combines all the different skills and expertise that our participants brought collectively. In this way, by working collaboratively we were able to come up with a much more rounded, much more profound piece of work than had each one of us written our own individual piece.

For us the writing sprint was an exciting way to enable collaboration, and to encourage authors to think about new ways of presenting their research.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the author

Claire Taylor is Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Liverpool. She is a specialist in Latin American literature and culture, and has published widely on a range of writers, artists and genres from across the region. Her particular geographical areas of interest are Colombia, Argentina and Chile, although she also worked on literature, art and culture from other regions. Within Latin American cultural studies, she takes a particular interest in the varied literary and cultural genres being developed online by Latin(o) Americans, especially hypertext novels, e-poetry and net art. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on these topics, and is the co-author of the recent volume Latin American Identity in Online Cultural Production (New York: Routledge, 2012), and author of the recent monograph Place and Politics in Latin America Digital Culture: Location and Latin American Net Art (New York: Routledge, 2014).She recently held an AHRC Follow-On Funding grant for a project on Latin(o) American Digital Art, which included a series of impact and engagement events, and a book entitled Cities in Dialogue (LUP 2016). Her ORCID iD is: 0000-0002-8661-3910.

Niamh Thornton is a Reader in Latin American Studies with a particular focus on Mexican film, literature, and digital cultures. Her key research interest is in the multiple representations of conflict in literature and film. This begins with the Mexican Revolution, right through to the 1968 student movement, Zapatismo, and, most recently, Narcoviolence. As well as numerous articles and chapters, she has published several monographs and co-edited collections, most recently, Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Cinema. She has also published on queer representations and digital cultures (including blogging and web 2.0, such as the use of social networking sites, YouTube etc. by authors and online creators), and on Chicana/o culture. Most recently, “YouTube as Archive: Fans, Gender and Mexican Film Stars Online”, in Guy Austin and Sabrina Yu (eds.) Revisiting Star Studies  and Catherine Leen and Niamh Thornton, (eds.) International Perspectives on Chicana/o Studies: This World is My Place. She regularly blogs and has her own site: Her ORCID iD is: 0000-0001-7513-8555.

The PhD by Publication: Another Cause for Canadian Grad Student Unions to Champion

(Swedish academic, Jorgen Carling, published the basis for this post on the LSE Blog May 30, 2017, CC 3.0 license.  The license allows for me to share, copy, redistribute the material in any meduim or format; adapt, remix, transform and build upon the material for any purpose).

A PhD by publication requires doctoral candidates to submit a set of papers for peer-reviewed journals plus an integrating chapter, rather than the more traditional doctoral dissertation. This remains a less common, sometimes frowned-upon model, but Jørgen Carling outlines eight reasons why a PhD by publication might be a good option. It allows you to write for real, varied audiences, with differing levels of ambition, and can help you build a name for yourself in academia, which is important not only for your career but also as it affords you opportunities for vital intellectual exchanges that may benefit your research.

As a doctoral candidate you may have a choice between submitting a traditional doctoral dissertation and submitting a set of papers for peer-reviewed journals plus an integrating chapter. The latter option, known as a “PhD by publication” or an “article dissertation”, has become the norm in some contexts and is resented in others. I can’t decide for you, but I can give you eight reasons why I think the PhD by publication is often a good model.

First, writing journal articles constitutes professional training. It is what academics primarily do, and by writing your dissertation in the form of articles, you learn the craft. (If you abandon academia after completing a PhD it is even more important to know that your work is out there, potentially benefiting others, and not just stored in a dusty library.)

Second, writing journal articles ensures valuable feedback. Regardless of the quality of the supervision you get, the review process in a journal can be a valuable supplement. Having your article accepted in a journal also provides a tangible source of independent recognition, different from your supervisor’s assurances that your work is fine. The peer review process can be filled with disappointments and frustration too but living through that is, for better or worse, part of being an academic. Just make sure that you are not handling it all alone.

journalsImage credit: journals by Barry Silver. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Third, writing journal articles means writing for real audiences. This is a point with several implications: it is a source of motivation during the writing process, it teaches you about attentiveness to the needs of your readers, and it ensures that the resources devoted to doctoral research flow back to society. By “resources” I don’t mean only taxpayers’ money but also the time and trust that research participants have contributed, for instance.

Fourth, writing a dissertation based on individual papers allows you to write for different audiences. In my field, most articles could be targeted to either a disciplinary journal (e.g. political geography), a thematic journal (e.g. International Migration Review), or a regional journal (e.g. African Affairs). Being able to see which parts of your research appeal to different audiences and, not least, to present those parts accordingly is a great skill to develop in the course of doing a PhD.

Fifth, writing journal articles allows you to write with different levels of ambition. This is a crucial point that is often ignored. The time available for writing a dissertation is limited, and writing 300 pages of brilliant prose might be beyond reach. But in a series of papers, there might be one that has great potential, deserves to be revised over and over, is accepted in a good journal, and is still being cited ten years after you defended your PhD. Other papers in your dissertation might fall short of such success, and that’s fine.

Sixth, writing a dissertation by publication provides you with good milestones in the process. The submission, resubmission, acceptance and publication of articles in the course of a PhD give you a firm sense of progress. Signing off on the proofs for a journal article is different from telling yourself that a chapter is finished but thinking that you might do additional work on it before saying that the dissertation is done.

Seventh, writing articles helps you build a name for yourself in academia. There are PhD candidates who do great work but because they are halfway through a traditional dissertation remain virtually invisible. Being visible is not only about being career-conscious, it is also about inviting intellectual exchanges that benefit your research. Conference papers help, of course, but they might not reach many people beyond the handful who were in the room. Writing articles alongside a traditional dissertation might be an ideal but it increases the workload at the cost of something else – be it your family, health or intellectual energy.

Finally, a traditional dissertation is not a book. It can form the foundation for writing a book but a lot of hard work remains. If a book is important in your discipline, then a traditional dissertation is probably the most promising route to follow. But it comes with considerable risk: unless you can secure substantial time for writing the book after the dissertation is submitted, you could be left with no articles and no book.

These are my eight reasons for pursuing a PhD by publication. The biggest counter-argument is a frustrating one but is real nevertheless: in some departments or disciplines a PhD by publication might be formally permissible but frowned upon. Pioneers are needed to swim against the stream and help change attitudes; but whether you want, or can afford, to be such a pioneer is a personal choice.

Beyond the decision to do a PhD by publication, there are many things to consider about the process if you go for it – such as the number of papers, possibilities for co-authoring, and implications for how you define what the dissertation is about. There are also many institution-specific rules and expectations that you need to explore. Some universities require that a certain number of articles be published, or at least accepted. Going through the review process is a valuable part of the experience but such requirements make me uncomfortable both as a supervisor and an examiner. For instance, I think a candidate should feel free to pursue publication in a top journal, even if it means a review process that lasts way beyond submission of the dissertation. The article in question might be just fine as a component of the dissertation even if the editor of a highly ranked journal demands additional revisions. Conversely, as an examiner, I want freedom to independently assess the quality of the dissertation. Good articles sometimes get rejected by journals while poor ones get accepted. So, while it’s useful to know which journals the articles were written for, I wouldn’t want to infer their quality from decisions made by reviewers and editors.

The PhD is, in many ways, an odd exercise – partly an introspective learning and qualification process and partly a piece of research that society has reason to value. Doing a PhD by publication offers a chance to bridge the gap between the two.