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Routines

Dr. Jennie Weiner

Dr. Jennie M. Weiner is an associate professor of Educational Leadership at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. Her scholarship focuses on issues of educational leadership and organizational change particularly in chronically underperforming schools and districts. She is also interested in gender and racial bias in educational leadership as well as issues of educational infrastructure at the local, district and state levels.

Describe your writing process/routine?

My writing is often about deconstructing a big piece of information into multiple narratives that I can explore. And I often also think about it in that way, because not only have I been doing this for a while, but I think about those narratives as tiered relative to things, like scope of the work.  The biggest paper will probably be the one that I would shoot to get in the highest tier journal that I think I can or use the most robust version of the data. And the other ones tend to be more specialized like if there’s a special issue that I could get something in, or I could find the right home for. So, I have to take a little bit more time to think about where those other ones could go, where the larger one tends to be more of the… I won’t say generic, but I would say sort of most easily placed. I don’t know if that totally answers your question, but I can’t really disentangle my writing from the research itself. And I tend to be fairly linear in the sense that I might be supporting students in their projects, but I don’t often swap from one project to another, like I tend to ride out a particular data set for as long as I can, because I’m so saturated in that data, then go from a big paper on one topic to a big paper on another topic, it’s just not how I necessarily engage in my work.

Also, I will ask a question about, how widespread is this phenomenon or can I take this time and space to ask and find out? So, my questions are often like, how do women experience being educational leaders. I usually do at least three interviews with anybody that I do interviews with, and so on and so forth. So I have quite a bit of data, then I typically think about my writing as a major paper and then other things that interest me. I’ll take a kind of very deep approach to analyzing the first round, which can produce quite a few different ideas, a theoretical framework, so on and so forth. And as I’m doing that, the most salient or not important, but maybe the one that kind of jumps out at me the most, like the story of something important and useful and thematically across the participants, rises. But then there are also things that I kind of fall in love with that are smaller or still confusing or I need to think about more. And then I think about those as additional papers of interest that I know that I’m going to get to, and I put those ideas away, and try to think about a larger narrative, and then how can I capture or think about these other ideas later.

What I typically do first, is I write my findings because that’s the part that brings me the most joy and I’m most invested in, and I get to hear the voices of my participants, and I do that after I’ve done a lot of thinking about the story that I’m going to tell. So, I have usually an overarching narrative and my coding schema helps me do that. And then what I typically do is, I plunk into a Google Doc, quotes that are a theme, and then I kind of write in between those. So that would be my stage one, methods, discussion, and even going back and doing a reframing all happen later based on the findings. 

When did you develop your writing routine?

I was in a writing group at the end of my doctoral study, and that helped me in many ways.

What time of day do you find you write best?

I have twin 10-year-olds, so sometimes I wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning. If I’m doing creation of text, I have to have quiet at least one or two hours in a row. I cannot write for half an hour and expect myself to produce thinking work, just not gonna happen. This past year has not facilitated any of that because of COVID and both my sons being home with me. Again, because of the variability of my schedule, every week, I usually look at the trajectory of my week and I block out windows of time, usually two hours or around two hours where I make writing blocks for myself, and I treat those as if they are time that I would give a student or anybody else, and I ensure that I use that time for writing. And if I get to my computer and I’m not feeling it, then I do things like lit review or I fix my references, but I stay in the space of that document, even if I’m not doing the kind of generative work. But I just… There’s so much to be done with any paper. If you think about them as many tasks within the larger task of a manuscript, there’s always something to do.

Sometimes it’s productive to spend two hours working, massaging, kneading the intro. I’ve done that, I’ve gotten stuck on an idea and I have to write to get myself past that point to facilitate it. And sometimes I’m just not feeling it, which manifests the same way, everything takes a long time, but it’s not productive struggle, it’s just struggle. Productive struggle, that’s okay. You sit down and you… Some people write on Twitter, “Oh, I took four hours, only wrote one sentence,” but if that sentence gave you a structure and a narrative, then it was worth it. It’s not worth it if you just wanna overwork yourself and you’re like, “This is horrible.” So when I sit down and I’m like, “I’m not feeling it,” that’s when I write the method section because it’s the most straight forward. And I may have to go back and find some anchor papers where I’m like, “Oh, I need to read… ” or I’m like, “Oh, I need to read a little bit more about phenomenology or whatever I’m using and make sure I’m getting this right,” but that’s not the same as me actually trying to generate a narrative and help my reader make sense of why I chose these quotes or what these quotes are trying to illustrate relative to my research question.

How did you improve your academic writing skills?

It’s a skill. It a skill that you have to work on and have a thick skin and try. I’m definitely a better writer than I was. So how have I gotten better? I write a lot. I write all sorts of stuff all the time. So that helps a lot. I would say, if you do have the opportunity to be a reviewer or to be an editor in a journal, that was tremendously helpful because I just had to read so much stuff at different at different stages. The manuscripts were not always clean and polished.

Writing groups, I’m still in a writing group, I’ve always been in a writing group. I have lots of people read my writing. So, I think that’s the other thing. I don’t wait till the end. I float ideas to people, I ask people to write things, read things of mine, I collaborate a lot. If you look at my CV, you’ll see, I have very few pieces that are just me. It’s more fun, and it’s so much nicer to have a critical friend.

I’m not embarrassed by sloppy first. And nobody I collaborate with is somebody who I would be embarrassed for them to be like, “Jenny, this sucks.” I’d be like, “Oh, okay,” or, “This doesn’t make sense,” and I’ll be like, “Let’s make it better, together.” 

What else has made me a better writer? Students asking me about my writing or giving feedback on their writing. I’m much more self-aware about my own biases, and also, I think I’ve been able to push more for my advocacy and helping students through that writing process. Conversations like this have made me a better writer, all those things.

How do you make time for writing with all the other commitments you have?

I have no life. I mean, it’s kind of true. I don’t have any hobbies. I mean, here’s the thing. I love it. I don’t know how you can do this job if you don’t like to write. I like to be by myself. I like to do the work that I’m doing. I’m not gonna pretend that I have some magic fucking wand that I know how to balance this shit. I don’t know, I have no idea how I do it. All I know is that if I don’t write for a while, I get real cranky. I get real cranky, because I feel compelled to tell these stories, and when I don’t fulfill that, I get mad. So what do I do? I don’t sleep enough. I don’t know… how do working people with multiple commitments find time? You don’t do other stuff you’d rather be doing. You don’t watch TV, you don’t take care of yourself sometimes. I would say I make a lot of fake deadlines and then I push really hard to make those deadlines even though they’re just made up.

I think there probably are people who are driven by different things, and God bless them, I don’t know, but that’s not me. So, I think for me, how do I make time? I keep in contact with most of my participants. First of all, they read everything I write in pre-stages, so it has to be good, how am I gonna take their time, busy professionals that they honored me with their stories and be like, yeah, I kinda did it halfway, I can’t do that. How dare I? So, I have to make the time and so, yeah, again, I work on weekends when the kids are at soccer. And the other thing I will say that I did learn to do, which is helpful for me, is I often will keep a printed version of whatever I’m working on in my bag, so I can work during the in between times. And I think about writing, I don’t think about writing as just sitting at the computer, so I think that’s really important too. Often when I go for a run or sometimes I’ll read through something I’m working on, and then I’ll go for a run, and then sometimes I’ll voice record myself halfway through my run because I have an idea.

Or I’ll bring something I know I have to read, that’s going to help me with my methodology, and I’ll bring it to soccer practice and read it during soccer practice. I used to do this when I was driving home from UConn, because I have a long trip, if I was trying to work out the narrative, I would talk them out, starting with the first, second, third findings, here’s how they relate together, and I would just talk out loud for 20 or 30 minutes or longer.  I saw all of those as writing, not just sitting in front of the computer. And they all helped me. My whole philosophy is the cleaner I am about my narrative from the front, the faster everything else will go.

I think about what I am trying to say in the narrative. My argument. What are the 3-5 points that I’m trying to make in this paper, even though it’s a big topic, you can’t possibly put everything in, like what are the key core things that I want to convey to my reader to make sure they really get what I also saw, and I’ll massage that until the cows come home, because once that’s done, I can plunk things in and the discussion makes sense and the front end makes sense, and everything starts to make sense. 

I think there are people with other kinds of writing that’s perhaps are a little more open than me, I’m very linear and I’m very regulated in terms of first, second, third. But for me, I have to do that work first, I think there’s other people who can just write and then they can kind of put things together later, and I’m just not one of those people.

Also, for me, it goes back to why I’m doing this work. And I wouldn’t say this is true for every paper I write, but it’s more true now that I have more choices, because I have tenure. But why do I write? I don’t write to get published or to get notoriety. Of course, I like those things. I’m a human being after all. But I write because I made a commitment to my participants that I would share their story and elevate their experience, which is why I’m saying it’s grounded in my work. My students, the people I care for told me something in their work is making it hard for them to be their full selves or to do the work the way they think is important or bring greater opportunity to their colleagues and to the children that they serve. And people are not listening to them. And I am good, what is my kind of ability? My ability is creating a platform to bring people who may not normally listen to these folks, potentially to listen to them, to hear them. And that brings me joy, not just the writing. You know what I mean?

And that’s what’s also gonna keep me coming back for those hours, because I wanna get it right. My motivation to get it right isn’t to ensure that I can get it in AERJ. I really don’t care. I care as much as anybody else, but at the end of the day, what I want to do is find a platform that people who can do something, or care, or maybe didn’t know they cared, but they should, have access to this. And that’s also what keeps me going when I get shitty reviews, because I’m not doing it for them, I’m not doing it for the reviewers. So if they didn’t understand something, then I need to make sure, because I’m driven by the idea that I have to make sure that I fulfill my promise.

What are your strategies for staying productive and for maintaining momentum with your writing?  (get specific and concrete)

Sometimes, if I’m struggling, I will make a PowerPoint presentation of my findings. Just like as if I would do it for a conference, and I recommend this to my students working on their dissertations, like moving from descriptive findings to a narrative, or you kind of have to pretend you have 10 minutes and you’re gonna tell me what the point of this whole study was. And just make your slides. So, I’ll do that sometimes. 

Sometimes when I need momentum, I’ll go back and re-read one or two of the transcripts that meant the most to me, like I’ll go back to the data because that reminds me again. It’s interesting, as I get to sort of later stages of a paper, I often will read the parts I like the best, even if they’re 99% done to get myself warmed up and then shift to another space. If I’m noticing there’s a part I’m not wanting to write, instead of starting there, I allow myself to read the parts that are working because it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, and then I shift to the part that feels the hardest for me to reach.

I’m like, Oh, right, and I can fix a few. It brings me back into it again like, oh, this word is the wrong word, affect effect or some shit, I don’t know, and then I’ll kind of be like, okay, now write the conclusion and I’m like, Ah. But I feel warmed up.

What is the best writing advice you’ve gotten? 

I think the best advice I’ve had for this business in general, and I would apply it to writing, is if you’re looking for affirmation, do something else. Just a really quick story, I don’t know if it’ll be helpful to people, but I remember there was a woman, I was in a writing group with at the end of my doctoral study. I converted my qualifying paper into a paper to be published and the reviews were nightmarish. Let’s put it that way. I did get a resubmit, but they weren’t totally positive. So I shared with the group. It’s not a good feeling. And she read my paper and she’s like, “You’re going to resend this? They were so mean.” And I was like, “They win. If I don’t re-submit it, they won like what the hell, I’m not going to let them win ” But her dissertation was probably the best thing I’ve ever read. She never published it. So, what it made me realize is, it’s not so much that the smartest people get published or the people with the best ideas get published, it’s the people who are determined to get their story out there. I try really hard not to take it personally because they don’t know me, they don’t know my intent. And they may not even know what the hell they’re talking about. Let’s be honest, but they’re holding a barrier to entry for me, and if I don’t get through that barrier, now I’m not going to give away my integrity, you know what I mean, it has to still be something that I feel good about, but I don’t win by giving up, my participants sure as hell don’t win with my giving up. Nobody’s gonna tell me that what I do isn’t worth something? 

So, for me it’s like, can I just try to not have attributional error, and I don’t know who these people… They don’t know me; I don’t know them. So, let’s pretend that they actually are being genuine in their lack of understanding or critique, and they want the paper to be better and clearer, and then I try to pick and choose the things that are helpful and usually I’m successful.

But I think people who take it really personally, people who feel that it is a referendum on them or their work… You just can’t, you just can’t. Particularly if you’re doing critical work, particularly if you’re doing things that are pushing people or new or different, you have to persist.

What writing tools do you suggest? And this could be apps, notebooks, pens, whatever tools you think are helpful to get someone to start their routine or their research agenda or just start writing? 

I do use Google Docs a lot, but I would say to you, every day, the end of your Google Doc, make a copy and date it. I also have that thing that automatically saves your work to the cloud every day. 

I’m also so old school.  I don’t even use a coding software, I literally have 70 interviews from a study I did, and I hand coded all of them. 

Also, Bird by Bird, because it taught me to reframe and to forgive myself. 

What are some specific rules for writing within your discipline that someone may not be aware of? 

I don’t know if there are rules, but I would say some things that have been helpful to me that I keep doing. One rule is active voice, non-omnipotent researcher, nonsense. Research is not sentient, and it can’t do shit without a human being doing it. APA suggests active voice. Another rule is internal structuring, which I think is something people don’t do enough of and really goes a long way. So, what I mean by that is a road map paragraph, where you say like, this is the structure and you explain, for example, you don’t do just do a literature review, you tell the reader why you’ve included particular aspects of the literature and how that relates to your given topic. Not, I’m taking you on a journey but it’s like, “No, here’s the destination.” Now, let me show you how we’re going to get there. I think that’s really important, and that people don’t talk about so much, but can really help.

I think in the opening, I’d say no more than a page and a half. I don’t care how long your overarching document is, if I don’t know what the paper is about and what you found and what you’re arguing, by page 2, there’s a big problem. At the conclusion of things, summation, reminding people where we’ve been and where we’re going. I think that can go a really long way, particularly as people review and they’re busy and they’re doing other things, and it helps them see the purpose and meaningfulness of the work. Some may want to save the best for last, which I think is wrong, in my opinion because you’re making an argument. If you don’t set a schema for the reader, they’re going to make sense of the finding section in the way that makes sense to them, so you already lost them. Then you’ve already lost them. They’re doing their own thing. Then you read their review you’re like, “Oh, but that’s not what I want.” Which is a very difficult review to walk back from. Framing questions about your framing is far harder to not lose the integrity of the piece, than comments about, you know you didn’t include so and so, and your methods need to be stronger, or I didn’t understand this point, that’s quite different than saying the house is built the wrong way. I asked for a condo, and you built me a chalet.

And then I think the other thing is, what I’ve noticed people don’t do, and it could be useful rule is know your journal, know who the reviewers are for that journal, and know if there are any pieces in that journal that have talked about this thing that you’re talking about, read those, and particularly read the implications part where they make calls for others to do work in that particular area, and then put that in the intro and say in your journal, like in this journal, a call to do this more, and this document meets that call. I’m answering the call.

Don’t just study the journal like, “Oh, I heard that journal is like the journal people all want to get into.”  When I choose a journal, I read their aim of the journal. I said this recently, about applying to AERA. People use the same words, but often they don’t mean the same things, so I’ve noticed some journals say, “Oh, we like qualitative research.” Well, they’re kind of lying or they like qualitative research, as long as it looks like quantitative research and you have 100 people in your study, they’re not interested in a study with two people or five people, even though the studies are very robust. So, you got to find something in that journal, even if it’s not in your topic, you want to check it and say, “Can I find something that is kind of doing the thing that I’m doing?” Because you don’t want to waste time submitting because it may take four months for a desk reject. You don’t want to waste that time.  Who has four months?

Who are some writers you particularly admire, and what about their writing seems most admirable to you?

I read a lot and I read non-fiction, and I read a lot of fiction. I think that kind of practice around storytelling can be very helpful. I’ve been re-reading a lot of Octavia Butler and particularly, I re-read Kindred recently, and I think what I admired about her is, how prescient and timeless the humanity of her characters and their stories were and that she’s so fearless. So that would be one. I read a lot, but I think that book moved me so much because it felt so authentic and that anybody could pick it up and feel the feelings that she was trying to convey and share, about those people’s story, even though it was a made-up story.

I think Susan Johnson, because she taught me how to write a narrative and reframed the job of the writer as presenting things that I find interesting, to helping the reader understand what it is I’m trying to convey, that my job. My job is to meet the reader where they are. Write what I feel like writing, which is really, really helpful. It doesn’t mean don’t push them, but you have to kind of give them access to the thing that you’re trying to achieve. Monica Higgins, who is so rational and so oriented towards excellence, so that’s really helpful, like nothing is ever done. You really listen and attend to things that have happened. And then to be honest, just reading pieces that I liked.

Oh, John Willett. So, he was my Stats teacher, but he used to say, “Pretend your reader is a naive but interested reader,” so very smart, capable, but doesn’t know what you know. And that has been so helpful to me, because I’m not trying to write for people who already know everything and think they’re so smart or something. I’m writing to people who are truly interested and want to be a part of a conversation, and then that has really guided my orientation. And then I’ve gotten some really nice reviews. I’ve gotten a lot of reviews that make angry, but I’ve also gotten reviews that are supportive and helpful.  Dennis Shirley at Journal of Ed Change, an editor, has really helped me take reviews, reframe reviews in ways that have helped me always get better.

What advice would you give fellow writers? 

This is my advice generally, about surviving in this space. Find your people and by that, I mean, people who love you and want you to be your best and achieve, and are authentic in that way, and you know will tell you the truth, and keep them very close, and talk to them as much as you can and show them your work as early as you can. That would be my biggest piece of advice. I truly know no success that I’ve had, or work that I have achieved, has not come with other people holding me up. 

Also, don’t believe the hype that this is some kind of solitary great writer, great thinker endeavor. This is about people who know how to connect and find their people and do this work collectively, so that would be my biggest advice. And have people that can hold you accountable, but love you, like are holding you accountable because I love you, not because they want something from you.

Also, sometimes it’s going to feel like a slog. Sometimes it’s gonna feel like work. And that’s okay. Sometimes work is work. But I think, try to find the joy and the purpose and meaning. I’ve said this before, kind of in different ways, but it’s too hard to be hard. And if you’re struggling and it’s hard, it’s like a relationship. There are hard parts to every relationship, but a relationship should not be hard. So, I think the same thing is sort of true with writing, there’s gonna be hard, there’s gonna be days where you’re just slogging through and you’re like, “Ah, God.” But if you’re not finding some kind of joy and sustenance from the experience, then it’s time to switch up what you’re doing. And I’m not saying get out of the business, but I think, in terms of your approach or the framing that you’ve put forth about why you’re engaging in the work, or even maybe the kind of writing that you’re doing, it would be a good time to sort of step back and say, “Maybe I need to revisit.” And I’ve had those moments. I think there were definitely moments when I was very nervous about tenure or my third-year review, where it became drudgery. It felt more like I had to get it done because otherwise I wasn’t going to keep my job, and I had to stop. Amazingly, when I stopped that framework, I got a lot more done.

Check out Dr. Weiner’s latest book with Dr. Stevenson, The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes.

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