Learn from the experts


Margaret Thornton

Margaret Thornton is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Old Dominion University’s Darden College of Education. Well-versed in qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods, Margaret brings a deep desire to see education research translated into classroom practice that most benefits students. Margaret’s research interests include equity-focused school leadership development, school leadership for detracking, and Critical Race Theory. In addition to her Ph.D. in educational leadership, foundations, and policy, Margaret earned her B.A. in English Literature and her M.Ed. in Secondary English Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia.

Describe your writing process/routine?

My academic writing process largely revolves around breaking bigger projects into chunks. I try to map out all of the steps for a particular project, and then slot a step or two into my to do list for the day. I usually complete these steps first thing in the morning (after walking my giant dog and catching up on royal gossip), because that’s when I work best. If the work for the day is something rote, like sending a request for materials or meeting with collaborators, I do that in the afternoon when I find my energy is lower (meeting with people gives me energy!). I try to have five or so projects going at a time, so each day of the week, I focus on a different project. This helps me maintain a strong pipeline of publications, and also keeps me from getting bored with one project. Having a focus for each day also helps motivate me to complete that day’s tasks, because tomorrow it’s on to the next focus. I try to also see this work as fundamentally creative. I make sure to make time to journal about whatever is on my mind at least three times a week. It might be personal or professional (or both!), but just letting myself put whatever I want on the page first thing in the morning really helps me clear my head for writing. I’ve also had a couple of ideas for projects come to me this way. 

When did you develop your writing process/routine?

I first developed this process when I was working on my PhD. I’ve been refining it ever since, and sometimes it has to change if I have a really big, timely project (i.e. my dissertation) that requires more focus.

Why did you develop your writing routine?

Academia has felt like a foreign place to me from the beginning (and still does!). But, one thing I did come into my doctoral program knowing is that it’s important to publish often, widely, and in high quality journals if one is going after a tenure-track job, which I am. So, I tried to find a way to build a pipeline that would let me meet these goals while also maintaining my sanity. My routine was also largely influenced by the routine I developed for grading and lesson planning when I was a high school English teacher. I learned I was much more effective at giving feedback when I focused on one class a day (I had five preps), so I carried that over to my academic projects.

How did you improve your academic writing skills?

Reading the current literature is so important, and it can also be really difficult to make time to do. I started picking three articles a week related to my research agenda, then reading and annotating one a day. Seeing what others are doing well (or sometimes not so well) really helps guide my work. I also ask for *a lot* of feedback both from mentors and folks at the same place in their academic journey. 

What time of day do you find you write best?

Morning (5-6am – 12pm)

What resources helped you become a better writer (books, mentors, writers, etc.)?

I learn best by reading, and two books have been particularly important to me. For establishing an overarching organizational system that makes time for writing (more on that below), the Together books by Maia Heck-Merlin have been incredibly important to me. The Together Teacher literally gave me back hours in my week and The Together Leader did the same when I transitioned to leadership roles. Tweaking this system for academic work helps keep me on track. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird has also really helped me improve the craft of my writing while also learning how to separate my bigger writing tasks into more manageable chunks. I used to read the chapter on “Shitty First Drafts” with my students, reminding myself that getting a draft done is better than trying (and usually failing) to make a perfect draft. For centering myself as a creative person, Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way has also really helped me (the original one; the spin offs never really grabbed me). Doing that program with a group of trusted friends really helped me see myself as a writer. 

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

I have an organizational system I’m pretty committed to that helps manage me time. Using Google Sheets, I keep a running to-do list where I note everything I need to do outside of my basic daily tasks. Whenever something occurs to me, I put it straight in the to-do list and assign it a due date. Every Friday, I review what I accomplished for the week and what to-do items I have assigned myself for the coming week. Then, I write it all down as a daily to-do list in my planner. I’m very to-do list driven, and I love that hit of dopamine when I get to check off an item! I also set aside chunks of time in my Google calendar for writing every weekday and make it a repeating event so that time is always on my calendar. If something comes up that must happen during this time (and I do try to say no to things when I have the privilege to do so), then I’m prompted to reschedule that time for myself. 

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

I love my work so much and believe in its possibility to make life better for kids. Correcting injustice really keeps me motivated and helps me stay productive. I make sure to stay connected to schools through teacher friends, kids I know, and education-specific reporting outfits like Chalkbeat. There are still days, of course, when I’m just not feeling it or wondering if I’m even helping. If that feeling persists, I find I probably need to re-orient my project to make sure it can have an impact for kids. 

What is the best writing advice you have gotten?

Form a writing group! I heard this so many times as a new doctoral student, to the point it sort of annoyed me to keep hearing it over and over, so I did it. That group has gone our separate ways, but they really oriented me toward academic writing and feedback. I’m trying to get back in the habit of this, and I know some folks have had success meeting on Zoom, but I’m not great on Zoom writing groups. I think they work really well for a lot of people though, and I definitely recommend trying them if in-person is not an option for you right now. 

What writing tools do you suggest? (Apps, books, etc.)

For journaling, I love my Moleskine. It’s pretentious and expensive, but it also keeps me motivated, so I see it as an investment. I also need my G-2 07 Pilot pen to keep me going. Most of my collaborative writing happens via Google Docs and then in boring old Microsoft Word for my solo work. I might need to explore some alternatives to this, though, because it can be really easy to just crack open Twitter and call that writing instead of focusing on the larger work. 

What are some specific practices and rules for writing within your discipline that other researchers and graduate students might not be aware of?

Something that’s been really hard for me to wrap my head around is all of the different ways to talk about racialized experiences at school. I’m not sure if my discipline *has* gotten around to rules about this. APA has their format, but people deviate from that all the time. I’m watching the debate around the use of a gender-neutral term to describe students from Latin American (i.e. Latinx or Latine) very intently, for example.

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

This is such a good question! When trying to think about academic writers I admire, I realized it’s more their content than their writing style that sticks with me–with one exception. I think Dr. Chris Chang-Bacon is showing us how to write academically with panache while focusing on some really important content. I was an English major and then an English teacher, so I really can’t get into my favorite fiction and creative nonfiction writers without taking up too much of your readers’ valuable time. I will say philosopher-poets like Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, and James Baldwin do help me stay centered in my constantly changing understanding of race and racism in US public schools. I also really appreciate public intellectuals writing about both their own experiences and historical racism. Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us both motivates me and gives me the hope I need to keep going. 

What advice would you give to fellow writers (Make this concrete. i.e.: Read widely – what does that look like in practice? How does that benefit the process? What should the writer be looking for when reading?)

Read in your field as much as you can and stay up-to-date on your agenda’s literature. I have a few Google alerts set for this purpose, and then I download what’s interesting to me and add it to my academic reading to-do list. Also, make sure to make time to read for pleasure. I enjoy reading what my girlfriends and I call “medium trash”–books that are fun and don’t have much of a message but also don’t feel *too* breezy. I also think it’s important to stay up-to-date on the news so we can think about how our academic work connects to current events. I subscribe to my local paper along with a couple of national ones, and get their morning headlines. 

Big Yourself Up!: What pubs, books, projects would you like to let others know about? Add links to your website, etc. so people can find you and your work.*

My most recent paper is a collaboration with my mentor Meredith Wronoski and several of her other mentees. We examined the opportunities to learn students had in lower- and higher-track courses and found disparities, particularly for students from under-resourced groups. While the findings make me mad, I’m proud of a group of women researchers engaging in QuantCrit. I’m also working on turning my dissertation about how school leadership teams across the US are implementing detracking, into papers and maybe even a book. Stay tuned! You can find out more about my work, including links to my papers, at margaretthornton.com. 

Anything you’d like to add?

Academia is a wild ride. There are some nice perks, like the flexibility of our schedules, but there are also gates being kept a lot of us don’t even know about. I’d love to share what I’ve been learning with others coming up in this world, so please don’t hesitate to reach out. You can contact me through my website. 

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