My business writing has made my academic writing better.
I don’t know if it sounds counterintuitive or not, but it’s a fact. And now I feel like I have the best of both worlds, as the story goes.
Let’s unpack this further:
From my academic writing, which I’ve been doing for 11 years or so, I have learned:
- Not to take anything at face value: dig deeper into a concept, understand it, find its origins and how it evolved, and see how it can be used in my particular context (analysis grid, research context etc.)
That’s how I ended up repurposing Foucault’s heterotopia, for instance, as a lucrative concept to analyse manga and anime fandom as a community of “Otherness”, bonding through affective consumption (“characters we love”,”series we love” etc.). As a side note, this idea can be applied to fandom per se.
- Procrastination is part and parcel of the writing process. So I made peace with it and learned to “train” it. I started writing in bursts of 30 minutes when I felt excruciating pain in front of the so-called blank page and gave myself rewards when I managed to do it. A 15-30 minutes break. Mostly for watching a new episode of the latest anime series I was into at the time — that’s how I managed to write my PhD thesis in a month.
- Taking notes and organizing them is crucial for the later stages of writing. Maybe obvious or too bland to be noted, but since there are articles and articles about note-taking and its science, I needed to address it.
How I do it: I have a separate agenda for my research ideas, I note quotes and comments in PDFs and Google Docs, I always have a file named “Concepts” at hand, for whichever study I’m undertaking, and a folder named “Publishing” that gathers them all. And yesterday I found out that I can manage all of them with this open-source app — Zotero (thanks, Anca, for this one!).
Inspiration comes from many places and it’s important to gather all ideas, quotes, researches, concepts as they “hit you”. I usually start with popular culture material — a movie, an anime series, a music video that I really want to critique.
Or as Oliver Burkman puts it below, the nexus of ideas you’re writing down is half of the job (thanks, Calina, for this awesome resource!):
- A statement without evidence is just an opinion or, even worse, an assumption! Confirmation bias is inherent in research, so you may find yourself stretching data or a concept to fit into your thesis. When the argument falls flat, you know that’s a no go. But that’s only one side of the hypothesis – analysis bit.
The other side is making sure that you don’t use “needless” data, words, statements or empty ones. Are they moving the thesis forwards? Are they backing up your argument? If not, cut them without feeling sorry. And never say something without having the data to back it up. Do the hypothesis, concepts, and data sets align? How?
From my business writing, which I’ve been doing for 12 years or so, I have learned:
- The key message first. This is something that Animalz terms BLUF or “bottom line up front” — just as with standard news or a press release, think about your audience, the pain point you’re addressing and what’s the key message they should take from your writing. And put it first.
- The structure is everything. Hmm, this one goes to academia as well, as I’ve been doing argumentative and “for and against” essays since high school. Anyway, how you find the angle to the topic at hand and then string all the arguments together is crucial for your “readability” factor.
- I’ll throw in another Animalz reference here, but the MECE principle helps you with that:
How I do it: I outline everything, with main ideas and supporting information, and then I get feedback on the outline. This helps me clarify what I mean by each point and gather useful insights from my peers before the actual writing.
- Keep it simple and clear. Optimise for clarity and make sure that each statement conveys something that the reader can actually understand and further use.
Academia has a big problem with this point because language stands in the way of a good argument many times — sometimes, you can disguise poor research with fancy words (yes, I know how to play with epistemology and ontology, but that’s not why we’re doing research).
Once again, as Oliver says below, it’s all about pointing out:
I truly believe that great writing lies at the intersection of the two.
When I was working on my “Cuteness as counterculture” article, I realised that the last two years of accelerated content marketing experiments have left a huge mark on my scientific writing.
With exactly what I mentioned above — clarifying everything, making sure my argument stands in both simple and complicated terms, and researching something that can be actionable and extendable.
Again and again, I come back to the Mark Twain anecdote/paraphrase: I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
With the rigour and profoundness of academic thought and the pragmatism and user-oriented business features, great writing will be achieved.
But you have to start with clarity in mind. For you and your reader.
And that takes quite a lot of time.