I’m so excited to begin a new series on the blog! Behind the Words is an interview series with academic writers. One of my frustrations with academic writing as a practice has always been that as much as we give advice to writers, and lament about the writing process (then complain about the poor quality of academic writing), there is little discussion on the actual work of writing. I hope that with this series we can peek behind the curtain and talk honestly about the struggles, excitement, and even minutiae that characterize the writing process.
If you would like to know more about the series, suggest a topic, or even participate, please don’t hesitate to contact me at email@example.com
For this first interview, I am talking to Grace Yukich. Grace is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Quinnipiac University. She is a sociologist whose research, writing, and teaching focus on immigration, religion, race & ethnicity, and social movements. Her work has been published in a variety of scholarly journals, edited volumes, and more popular venues such as newspapers and scholarly blogs. Her first book, One Family Under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America (2013, Oxford University Press), is an ethnographic study of how immigration is changing the relationship between religion and politics in the United States, especially migration from Latin America. She is currently finishing research for her next book (with Avi Astor of the University of Barcelona), which examines labor market discrimination against Arab Muslims in the U.S. and Spain. She is also working on a project examining how social change efforts in American Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities challenge conventional wisdom about how and why Americans engage in religious activism. She was recently named a Young Scholar in American Religion by the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture. From 2010-2011, she was the Religion & Public Life Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion. She received her doctorate in Sociology from New York University in 2010.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and ease of reading. I have also divided it into two parts. The first part is on managing your writing – in terms of time, developing ideas, collaborating, and a couple of other topics. In the second part of the interview, we discuss the ways in which one’s writing style changes when writing for different audiences.
Managing Your Writing
Thanks for participating in this interview. Let’s start by talking about your writing immediately after leaving graduate school. You have already written one book, One Family Under God that came out of your dissertation. Comparing writing during the post-doc to writing during the first year of your new job, how were they different? I mean time commitment I am sure was different but what were the most obvious differences?
GRACE: I went into the post doc straight out of grad school and I think it’s probably true if you have any kind of year-long writing fellowship where you have time off of teaching most people tend to take that time right after they had been working on a long project and for me I had been working on that project for two years, it was right after writing the dissertation, and when I went into the post-doc I was so sick of it, I just couldn’t look at it for a while. So one of the things that was frustrating later was I thought, “Oh I should have used that time more wisely!” But I think the truth is, I needed a break from the project. So for the first two months of my post doc I mainly worked on smaller writing projects… articles, book chapters I’d committed to or something like that. I went to a lot of different talks at Princeton and I actually think at the end it was actually good for me because it gave me a break from the project but it also gave me thinking time. We often schedule writing time but we don’t schedule thinking time and I think that’s a necessary precursor to writing. And I think that’s good because I had all this time to think and to grow intellectually and then when I really returned to the project in earnest I had new ideas that made the project better.
So talk a little bit more about the thinking time. The other things you were doing like the articles and the talks you were going to… they were related to what the book was about. They were in the same area, correct?
So would you consider that part of what you call thinking time? Going to these talks and interacting with different people, and being exposed to different bodies of literature throughout that time?
GRACE: Definitely. I was engaging in different literatures; I was listening to people talk about similar questions but often from different perspectives than the ones I had been thinking about. So it just helped me to look at my data that I had for so long been looking at in a very particular kind of way, to start to think about possibly framing it in new ways. So I think that is what I needed to revamp the project and turn it into a book. I knew that the framework I used for my dissertation wasn’t what I wanted to use for the book, I just wasn’t sure yet of what I wanted to do. So after having that time and having a chunk of a few months to do that, I did start writing a little bit more on the book. I wrote on the train. I was a commuter and I was on the train for 3.5 hours a day when I went to Princeton, and I went down three times a week. So I would write on the train, and that gave me time to start getting ideas on paper. And then I took a retreat. I think there are some people who do really well with writing a certain amount every day, and I think that can be really helpful. What I ended up doing to really finish the book was I went away for a month. Not everybody is able to do that, I probably couldn’t do it now. But I was at a time in my life when I could, and I went away for a month to a friend’s lake cabin that did not have internet access and I just wrote for a month.
You were completely by yourself for a month?
GRACE: Yes. There were some neighbors down the street but I structured my days out very clearly, including my evenings, and that’s all that I did.
Talk about that. During the post-doc and the retreat, what was the challenge of structuring your writing time when you have so much time that is unstructured? For post-docs, sabbaticals, that last year of grad school for some people. What do you do when you have so much time, and you fall into “I can do this tomorrow, I can do this some other time.”
GRACE: Well I think it’s true even for summers too for professors. If you’re not teaching during the summer, you run into that kind of issue. I still struggle with that. Deadlines for me always worked. Whether it’s a conference or some writing group that gives you accountability, I think that works for unstructured time. I had that during the post-doc – a weekly seminar. I found it really challenging to get big chunks done just writing day to day. I’m better at it now, but then it was hard. I think part of it is when we were in grad school, we didn’t have a lot of help or advice on how to use unstructured time wisely. Everyone figures it out on their own. What I do now is give myself weekly goals. I’ll have the goal of two pages a week, which may not feel like a lot but during the semester is a lot.
Before you go on, tell us a little bit about your semester. You’re at a place where you teach a fair amount, so what is your average course load per semester?
GRACE: I teach 3 courses a semester, and its 2 preps. That helps with the amount of prep I do, but it’s still 3 classes. The classes are between 20-35 students, so small-ish classes.
You don’t have teaching assistants, right?
GRACE: No, no teaching assistants. A lot of my time goes to teaching. I’m also at an institution that requires a lot of service from faculty. During the semester carving out time for writing is challenging. I would say one of the reasons it’s challenging is that there are always service or teaching activities that you can’t schedule for. So you’ll think “Oh I have this whole day I can work on my writing!” Then there are fifteen emails from a student that is in crisis or a last minute meeting and that day you think you had for writing is not a day for writing anymore. Unless you are able to get it on your appointment book and you just tell people, “this is a time that I cannot meet, no matter what.” I know there are people who do that. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. What I have found works better for me is to have a weekly goal because then I have accountability. I have some writing partners and we send each other pages every week, so that gives me accountability but it still allows me flexibility from day to day.
You said that you had to learn how to write in shorter chunks of time. You had to build that skill. So when you say shorter chunks, what do you, give a broad idea of now, what does it look like when you say short periods of time?
GRACE: It really varies, sometimes it’s an hour and my only goal is to read back through something I’ve written. Or my only goal is to write a paragraph – just to get something done on whatever the project is I’m working on. So I usually try not to do a number of words as my goal unless I’m in full on writing mode. Like, I’m in new writing, it’s my very first draft, and then I might give myself a words goal but so much of writing is just reading what you’ve written and editing that to me a word goal doesn’t necessarily make sense for that part of the work. So for me, I say, I have this much time and I am going to use it to do this on the project. I just trust that if I really devote myself during that hour to working on it that something will get done, and it will improve. I just try to find bits and pieces of time. Sometimes it’s an hour and sometimes its three hours, and I just get as much done as I can.
Given your trajectory towards tenure, you wrote the book and I am sure that was a huge part of your tenure packet but you’ve done other things. So when you were thinking about strategizing to write a certain number of articles, books on the way to tenure, what were you thinking broadly? Were you able to plan that out in the beginning? Did you tweak along the way?
GRACE: A few things were projects that I had started in grad school that I had not finished yet, because projects take so long to come to fruition. I think that was good because it meant I already had those commitments. That gave me little chunks of things I could work on while I was working on the book. But that made me realize… in the first few years of my new job I had spent my time balancing those things – the shorter term commitments and the longer term project – I realized that worked really well, and that I should keep doing that. So I reached out to some additional potential co-authors and started working on projects with them. When I saw an invitation for a book chapter that was a good fit for my work or was something I wanted to explore I accepted an invitation to do that. I am pretty choosy about what I say yes to. It needs to be something that pushes my own research agenda forward. But those shorter commitments are good for me while I work on my longer term projects.
The other thing I’ve learned being somewhere that the teaching load is heavy, I’ve found that writing is a lot easier to do during the semester than research. I’ve found that research is almost impossible to conduct during the semester. So one of the things I’ve realized is how can I answer some of the questions I am interested in during the semester in a way that allows me to collaborate with students more. My institution really wants us to collaborate with undergraduates. So I’ve also started exploring ideas for projects I can work on with students and that’s good for me because it gives me deadlines too. So you’re meeting with students regularly and you need to stay on top of your own research and writing.
Your research, just to be clear, a lot of your research is qualitative research that is time consuming, it takes a lot of time to get it off the ground. So do you find that you spend a lot of your summer time conducting research?
GRACE: Yea. I have two big projects right now. One is a qualitative project on activism in Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities in the US. That is really centered on asking how religious minorities think about the relationship between religion and activism and whether that would shift our traditional understandings of activism, which are mostly based on Christian activism. Many newer religious traditions are not as congregational as Christianity is, so if people aren’t as involved in congregations what does it mean to say they are getting involved in activism in a religious way. So it’s an exploratory project in that sense. We really don’t know a lot about these groups, because these groups have not been studied a lot. So that project is qualitative and to some degree exploratory so that project has required a lot of thinking time and a lot of work during the summers.
My other project uses an experimental audit to look at job discrimination against Arab-American Muslims. That project is one that I started in part because it overlapped with my interest in Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim activism. Talking to them and hearing about some of the discrimination they faced made me want to do more research into that and I realized an audit project is something I can work on with students and work on during the semester. So that’s the one that I’ve been working on during the semester for the past year. I have worked on it some during the summer but I can work on it during the semester in a way that I cannot do with the qualitative project.
So it sounds like you’ve done a good job figuring out the different types of projects you can do given your other obligations at the time. It’s not the easiest thing to put together. It’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle or arranging chairs.
GRACE: It is tricky and it is like arranging chairs. Unlike a lot of other professions our schedules change from semester to semester, and you have to change your layout all over again. So a puzzle is a good analogy.
Your book that’s the audit study, you also have a co-author on that book, right? How is it working with a co-author in terms of accountability and staying on a schedule? How does working with a co-author help and hinder that?
GRACE: To make things even more tricky, my co-author lives and works in Spain so it’s also an international collaboration, it’s on a different time zone and all that. You can’t just pick up the phone and call because you have to pay attention to if it’s the middle of the night. It’s the first time I’ve worked on a project this big with a co-author, and from the beginning I was very clear (about) what each of us would be doing. I sort of had the idea for the book and the study so we decided I would be the lead author and he would be the 2nd author. What that means is that I have created the outline for the book and written the book proposal and written some key parts of the book. He will then provide feedback on all of that of course. For the substantive chapters, we will split that up more evenly. Because it’s a comparative book and my team did research in the US and his team did research in Spain, it helps that the book is laid out in a comparative way so I can write the portions that are on the US and he can write the portions that are on Spain. So there is to some degree a pretty clear way to divide up some of the writing work.
That sounds like it makes it a little easier in terms of dividing the labor and making everyone’s responsibilities really clear.
GRACE: I think it’s helpful when you co-author with people when you each bring some of your own data to the project. It makes it clear that you’re writing about this, and I’m writing about this. Of course there are shared places where you can write together but I have found it a little more challenging when we’re all writing about the same data because it makes it less clear who is writing about what.
Engaging Broader Audiences
In addition to your new book, and your project on activism you also have some public writing that you do and that you’ve always done. You have your blog, Mobilizing Ideas, and you have an op-ed that you wrote recently. How did these opportunities come about?
GRACE: Mobilizing Ideas was borne out of the Young Scholars in Social Movements Conference that the University of Notre Dame holds, I think annually. I was a part of the conference during 2011, that was the year I had my postdoc, and when we were there we were having such great conversations that I was really excited about the idea of continuing them somehow. With Rory McVeigh and Dan Meyers who was then at Notre Dame we talked about the possibility of starting some type of online forum for social movement scholars to talk with each other in something more like real time as opposed to publishing in journals which takes forever. We were also really excited about the idea of having activists involved in those conversations so there would be more dialogue between scholars and activists. The three of us then David Ortiz (another participant in the conference) just continued talking about the idea until it got to the point where it was pretty developed. Dan and Rory were able to get some funding for it through Notre Dame and it started that way.
How did your other public sociology opportunities arise?
GRACE: I’ve written a few different things for different blogs and newspapers. For the blogs a lot of it was through Oxford University Press, who published my book. They asked me to write. Some of the other blogs were where I had contacts with people who were at those blogs or I served as a contributing editor at the blog. In terms of if people are interested in finding opportunities like this, for me one of the ways was to express interest in some type of blog and try to get involved in some ongoing way and that might turn into an opportunity to write. Now that I’m a professor the institution has some resources if you’re interested in doing public writing. Quinnipiac has a head of public relations who will put your name on the website under a list of experts who can be contacted by the press for a number of topics. When I came to Quinnipiac I got in touch with the head of public relations and told him I wanted to be on that list and that I study immigration, religion, and social movements. I’m listed as an expert that members of the press can contact. So I’ve been quoted in a number of articles. Journalists will interview me from time to time and then with the Hartford Courant for example I am not sure exactly how they decided to contact me but it was the head of public relations who contacted me about that op-ed. The fact that he already knew me because I had already reached out to him before probably helped.
Public writing requires a really different skill set. In terms of the amount of time you spend cultivating that skill… Intellectually you come from a background where you have done activism and engaged with more public audiences so in terms of being able to write in that style, is that something that came naturally or was there a steep learning curve?
GRACE: I think I used to think I was a good writer but I was actually a very lazy writer. I’m not saying anything unique by saying that a lot of academic writing is lazy. It’s full of jargon, and we do that because we can, because the audience we are writing for understands what it is. Sometimes we do it because we need to, because journal articles need to be more abstract in order to push forward the ideas in our fields. But I think when your purpose isn’t to speak to fellow experts but to speak to a broader audience, number one you have to be more accessible, which everyone says. I think you have to be a much more intentional storyteller. Really all of our writing should be storytelling, that’s how all of it should be structured. It has to be even more concrete, even more detailed of a story. The public wants to see you in it. They want to know the names of people and what something smelled like and that’s how you draw in people who aren’t interested in the topic itself. That’s not something that came naturally to me. I remember when I went on that retreat I was telling you about. I literally bought several books that were about how to be a good non-fiction writer. Those books talked a lot about how it’s really not that different than writing fiction in terms of needing to use active verbs, not writing in the passive voice, using detail, using story, showing instead of telling. All of those are things all good writers do whether they writing fiction or non-fiction. So that’s something that hasn’t come easily to me but I have tried to develop and hone that skill over time.
People tend to think academic writing is hard and that newspaper or magazine writing looks easy. So you think, if I just take the jargon out of it, it’s fine. But it’s not. There is way more that goes into it than just getting rid of our fancy terms to make it engaging. I think we forget that the job is to pull the reader to us, not just assume that because we have a great idea people want to learn about it. That might be true in academia but it’s not true in the general, broader, public writing. A good idea is not enough.
If people are bored, they aren’t going to read. People have a lot of options.
GRACE: People have a lot of options and I think in popular writing I’m much more careful about the rhythm of the writing, how does it sound, reading it aloud it really important. I don’t worry about sentence structure and word choice in my academic writing to the same extent I do in my public writing, because that’s not why people are reading academic writing. They are reading it for the ideas, to make sure the evidence is there to back up the ideas. They aren’t reading it for a pleasurable read. So I’m much more careful about the smaller details of my popular writing. That said, once you start paying attention to that it’s really hard not to pay attention to those things in your academic writing which is probably a good thing, but it makes it hard to go back and read some of my academic articles from early in my career!
It’s hard and it’s time consuming. It’s time consuming to look at the sentence structure, listen to the rhythm, make sure you’re including details. In academic writing if we did that on top of everything else we have to do in academic writing it would be great, but it would take us twice as long and it already takes a really long time.
GRACE: Exactly. Most academic pieces are also just longer. So for the pieces in Mobilizing Ideas (a social movement blog Grace and her colleagues founded) our posts are a thousand words. Most articles are ten thousand words. You just can’t be quite as careful about pieces that are that long, I think. I think that’s OK because they (academic articles) don’t have the same purpose. The op-ed that I wrote for the Hartford Courant was 800 words and I spent at least a full day if not two full days writing it. I had to think about what to include. I don’t want to just include data. They wanted me to include a story of my personal transformation along with stories about how the trends had changed. I also wanted to include my research. So thinking about what to include, where would the different pieces go, in terms of the flow of the piece. Then writing in an engaging way, that just takes a lot longer.
When you think of 800 words, its three double spaced pages. It’s not short, but it’s not long either and I always think of that quote by, I think it’s Oscar Wilde, I really wanted to write you a short letter but I didn’t have the time. It’s just as difficult to write things that are short and good.
GRACE: My original version was 1600 words and I had to cut it down. Being concise is hard. Shorter doesn’t mean easier.