by Laura Brass
Laura Brass is a recent MEd - TESL graduate from the University of Calgary. Her career spans over 15-years of experience teaching English for various purposes (e.g., EFL, ESL, EAP, FCE, CAE, IELTS, TOEFL). Her research foci include language awareness, multilingual acquisition, language and identity, ESL curricula and material design, and digital literacies.
This article is intended for first-time researchers (as I was), who at some point in their graduate studies have struggled writing a scholarly paper that answers academic requirements and journal submission guidelines, while at the same time stay true to their creative self. In the article below, by sharing aspects of my MEd research writing journey, I hope to engage and encourage fellow professionals who, just like myself, are striving to enter the world of academia.
A messy love affair
Following Belcher’s (2009) advice to try to understand our relationship to writing, it crosses my mind that writing is messy. I cannot write smoothly and get to the point in one fell swoop. Often, ideas that form in my head are one thing; conveying them in writing is another. I think as I write and I write as I think; what Zinsser (2006) calls thinking on paper. Research writing is a creative process whose product is completely different from what I had in mind when I started. And, for me getting started was the hardest part. But, once I crossed that threshold, writing became addictive. Swarms of ideas come to me especially at the end of the day, when I lie in bed trying to fall asleep. I keep my research diary on my nightstand. In it, I scribble random thoughts and questions that the silent voices in my head, which have become quite vocal since I started research writing, whisper to be put down on paper. Writing awakened the dormant monster in me; the kraken has been released.
“Writing is to academia what sex was to nineteenth-century Vienna: everybody does it and nobody talks about it … We are more likely to talk about content than process” (Belcher, 2009, p. 1). Prior to conducting research, I was under the impression that talking about the necessary steps in completing a research report was taboo, a rather dull subject no one would be interested in. However, the learning experiences I shared with fellow graduate students proved to be enlightening and rewarding but also fun. While we did not bring up sex, we talked about challenges, achievements, hopes, and everything in between.
Writing research for the first time prompted me to delve into a subject that has a je-ne-sais-quoi that both intrigues and fascinates me: language and identity. In turn, it allowed me to better know myself. Writing is like peeling the layers of an onion; it’s gradual and at times teary, but it leads to the core. As Herring (2007) puts it, “We metaphorically slice ourselves open and see what oozes out … Through writing, we can gain clarity, focus, lightness” (p. 9-15). Using the method of a narrative inquiry, I shared experiences and aspects of my pre- and post-Canadian life for the first time. This sharing enabled me to link past and present, connect the dots, and formulate new ideas. My research writing was cathartic.
Although writing research is not easy at first, just like exercising, it “does get easier and more pleasurable the more you do it” (Belcher, 2009, p. 5). I do not love exercising, but I love the post-workout feeling, both physically and mentally. The initial fear of not writing well enough, doubled by the dread of sitting at my desk knowing that I had to write, eventually subsided. To my surprise, I realized I was looking forward to writing. This newly acquired feeling is no small part due to my third-year MEd instructor’s continuous support and positive feedback. Like a personal trainer, she coached us to research hard and rewarded us accordingly. No pain, no gain!
According to recent research, being a morning or an evening person has deep psychological roots that we tend to ignore to our detriment. Boice (1997) goes as far as to claim that authors who write on a regular basis are more creative than those who write in “emotionally charged binges” (p. 435). Although I do not fully agree with this assumption, I wholeheartedly embrace the experience that we get better at whatever we do regularly; hence, I support making writing a habit (Belcher, 2009; Fowler, 2006; Herring, 2007; Zinsser, 2006). Writing in daily small, rather than infrequent big, chunks keeps my mind wrapped around writing. I have come to understand that writing will be part of my daily routine. Just like I brush my teeth every day, I need to write every day, without questioning or complaining about it. Bad habits (in my case, night binge writing) die hard, but once new better habits are formed, they add to a feeling of satisfaction.
Writing even when I am not in a writing mood is another experience I have made peace with. Between my husband and I, I am in charge of walking our dog, Max, twice a day. I don’t always love walking him, especially on rainy days (and there were many rainy days in Vancouver this year), but I do it. The same applies to research writing: I don’t feel like writing every day; or, even when I do, sometimes it feels like no intelligible thought forms in my mind. However, I have learned to discipline myself – still a work in progress – and write, just like I walk Max-every day. Tredinnick (2006) suggests taking a walk when we want to write, then taking a walk again, sitting at our desk, which is a beautiful metaphor as is sound advice.
“Scholars in the sciences consistently see writing as a form of conversation” (Belcher, 2009, p. 6). Being able to talk about my research project with my MEd instructor and other graduate students helped answer questions and solve problems I had thought unsolvable; it also motivated me to engage in conversations with myself. Keeping a research journal maintained focus on writing and prompted me to reflect on the process as it was unfolding. Although I am more of an introvert than an extrovert, sharing my research struggles and victories within my community of practice helped work things out and strengthened my resolve. As a result, I have come to understand that writing should not be a lone endeavor. What fascinates me about these asynchronous conversations on paper is that they allow me to join and contribute my voice to the ongoing dialogue between scholars. And when I write, my turn to speak comes.
Outside comfort zone
Turning the writing process from a solitary to a social activity led meinto uncharted waters. I was on edge knowing I had to share drafts broken into sections rather than the final version as a whole. Unlike before, when only the instructor read my paper, I had to share my ideas with other students. I felt pressured to let them into my world. In addition, I feared my rather sensitive research topic might not be well received by peers and instructor. Despite these fears, I managed to silence my inner voice urging me to play it safe and go with a less controversial topic. I stuck to my guns. Soon, I learned that other graduate students had felt much the same about having to share their rough drafts. In turn, sharing our writing led to something none of us expected: we are now a tight research group (although we are all scattered across Canada) who trust and support each other. Providing and incorporating peer feedback into my writing pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I am glad.
We cannot write (I mean, we can, but the writing would be void of significance and meaning) unless we become invested in what we are writing about. I am passionate about my research, not because it induces fuzzy warm feelings but because it causes frustrations (that must be tackled) along with the determination to take a stand. In discussing my chosen topic, I filter everything through my own experiences. At the same time I strive to raise awareness about issues such as accent discrimination (i.e., linguicism) and the native English only policy.
The researcher’s genuine interest is the engine that puts the writing process in motion. It comes as no surprise that novice researchers are advised to write about topics that fascinate them rather than write for their professors, classmates, or hiring committees (Belcher, 2009). Further, Booth, Colomb, and Williams (1995) argue, “nothing will contribute to the quality of your work more than your own sense of its worth and your commitment to it” (p. 36).
Research writing tasks such as pre-writing, drafting, editing, revising, proofreading, etc., have helped me gain something I utterly lacked – patience. They gave me a chance to disconnect from the everyday hustle and bustle and take the time to put my thoughts on paper. Herring (2007) refers to it in terms of a writer’s ability to listen, “What do I have to say once the distractions of my life are stilled?” (p. 114). Immersed in writing my research, I lost myself in the zone and lost track of time. Surprise. Relaxation. Growth. Writing my paper no longer felt like an academic chore, rather it felt like yoga or daydreaming. On the other hand, jotting down thoughts that had been roaming in my head made room for new ones. Writing is spring cleaning-physical, spiritual, and intellectual cleansing.
Reflecting on my overall experience conducting research at the graduate level, two words come to mind – writing awareness. I learned what it means to keep working on the same draft, going from one extreme (“there’s nothing that needs changing”) to another (“nothing works, everything needs changing”), putting words, phrases, sentences, and ideas under the microscope, questioning punctuation marks, deciding whether to incorporate peer feedback to wondering whether I was able to keep my own voice rather than parrot other scholars’ ideas and whether my style was academic enough, yet still authentic so my audience will read my piece and form an opinion – in agreement or not. Herring’s (2007) pertinent observation that it always takes more than one draft to “get the work to a place where it actually works” (p. 67) rings true.
Ultimately, writing is hope. Immigration and immigrants – the main catalysts of my research project – are issues we read about in the news every day. An immigrant myself, I am highly interested in this political, social, and linguistic controversial topic. Writing about language and identity from the perspective of a non-native ESL female teacher, I hope to (a) make my voice heard; (b) help others learn from my failures and successes; (c) raise awareness about issues such as accent discrimination; and (d) make a difference.
The wealth of factors that need to be considered when conducting research might overwhelm first time researchers. However, making writing a habit, taking the time to consider and enjoy the writing process itself rather than focus entirely on the outcome helps connect the dots between theory and practice, while at the same time offers a means to self-discovery. I am yet to embark on the submission and publication journey and I am well aware that successful publication does not happen overnight. Rejection is, as Belcher (2009) states, inherent to getting an article out there but “the important thing is to not let it stop you” (p. 8).
Belcher, W. L. (2009). Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: A guide to academic publishing success. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Boice, R. (1997). Which is more productive, writing in binge patterns of creative illness or in moderation? Written Communications, 14(4), 435- 460.
Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. C., & Joseph, M. W. (1995). The craft of research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fowler, A. (2006). How to write. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Herring, L. (2007). Writing begins with the breadth: Embodying your authentic voice. Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications.
Tredinnick, M. (2006). The little red writing book. UNSW Press.
Zinsser, W. (2006). On writing well: The classic guide to writing non-fiction (7th ed.). New York: Harper Collins.