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The Craft of Academic Writing

I recently gave a version of my Writing for Publication workshop to a group of college professors. This workshop focuses on how to conceptualize scholarly work as publishable articles, chapters, or a whole book. It’s one of the ways I bring my experience and skills as a scholar, faculty developer, and developmental editor to faculty and institutions.

I organized the workshop around the idea of telling stories. That’s really what scholarship is about, telling the stories from our research that really matter and that we think will add something to a conversation. Whether that conversation is about climate change, animal behavior, or Jane Austen. Academics don’t tend to think of “writing up” their research that way.

Telling stories is seen as the province of fiction writers. And some of the advice fiction writers give is applicable to an academic, non-fiction writer. For example, I shared some slides from Anne Lamott’s twitter feed. This one is a distillation of her advice about writing from her book Bird by Bird (1994).

How to write: Stop not writing. Get and keep your butt in chair. Write really bad small sections of the whole–passages, moments, episodes, memories–til you have an incredibly shitty 1st draft. Then take out the boring parts, the lies and pretensions. Then write a better 2nd draft”

I also discussed with the participants what academic publishing is like and what it should be like. Who makes the decisions about what stories matter and who gets to tell them? That’s where Matthew Salesses’s 2021 book Craft in the Real World comes in. In that book, Salesses, a novelist and veteran of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, analyzes the prevailing pedagogical strategies of writing instruction in MFA programs.

“What we call craft is in fact nothing more or less than a set of expectations. Those expectations are shaped by workshop, by reading, by awards and gatekeepers, by biases about whose stories matter and how they should be told. … The more we know about the context of those expectations, the more we can engage with them. … These expectations are never neutral. They represent the values of the culturally dominant population: in America that means (straight, cis, able, upper-middle-class) white males.”

As members of the academy, we know this, but the challenge is how do we to apply it to our writing? We discussed how to write to your audience: how to meet the expectations of the gatekeepers in the academic conversations while keeping your own authentic voice.

This is an area of academic writing, craft, that doesn’t get much attention in graduate programs. After all, who got much instruction or advice on how to publish–how to tell our stories–in graduate school? (Not me.) It’s often left to scholars to learn on their own the craft of academic writing. Sometimes they follow their advisor’s writing style, sometimes they pick it up from reading books and articles in their field.

But craft can be learned. Colleges and universities can help their faculty learn to put their stories out there. I didn’t have a chance to do that very much when I worked in colleges doing faculty development. I am in a better position now to help.

Find out about my services to scholars and institutions on the services page.

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