The first writing I ever had published wasn’t a piece of fiction. It was an academic article, the first of many I wrote while teaching in an English Department and conducting research on the communication practices of engineers. You might think that other than both being written in English, those academic articles would not have prepared me for writing fiction. And in some ways, you’d be right.
And yet, well beyond mastery of language, I learned at least three things from academic writing that continue to serve me well.
Revising from feedback
When you submit to an academic journal, the journal usually sends your piece to two reviewers who are experts in your field. The reviewers can render one of four judgments: reject, revise and resubmit, accept with revisions, and accept. In my experience, they say revise and resubmit over 90% of the time. That verdict comes with several single spaced pages of suggestions from the reviewers.
My first reaction was always to tell myself I didn’t mind the rejection because I was a professional, and I would be happy to deal with the reviewers’ suggestions. Then the next day, I would fall into a deep depression. After about a week, I would pull myself together and tackle the revisions.
I learned there was a useful order in which to work. That is I learned to do the easy revisions first, add a source, for example. By the time I’d finished those, my back brain had had time to mull over the harder points, and I’d be ready to work on them.
Sometimes a reviewer would make a suggestion I disagreed with. Over time, I learned a way to “read” those suggestions better. I saw that the reviewer had sensed a problem and tried to suggest a way to fix it without clearly naming the problem. What I had to do was figure out the problem and fix it in a way I preferred. If I explained what I was doing in my cover letter, I never had a reviewer reject my revision.
Now, when I revise fiction, I continue to use the easy-to-challenging order and the ability to read beyond the suggestion for the problem it addresses.
Happily accepting help
Every single time, the revisions made my academic work better. I learned that I, at least, don’t do my best work alone. I also learned there’s no disgrace in that. It’s not a failing. So I had friends read my work before I submitted it.
I continue to do that with fiction. For me, the most challenging part of that is knowing when to ask a beta reader to read a novel draft. I don’t want to ask too early because then I can’t go back to them with a draft that’s closer to finished. I’m always tempted to send out too early because once the draft is half-way presentable, I’m excited about it. So I’ve had to learn restraint.
Treating writing as a job
If I didn’t want to perish, publishing was clearly part of my academic job. I had to keep at it if I wanted to keep my job. I couldn’t wait for the muse to strike, so I learned to treat writing as a routine task and keep plugging away.
It’s sometimes hard to remember that writing fiction is also a job. In general, it’s deeply satisfying, but there are days when I have to drag myself to my keyboard. But it turns out, I trained myself to do it in academia.
Different kinds of writing clearly call on different skills. Creating a strong plot counts in a novel. Identifying a gap in existing research matters in an academic article. But I suspect that all good writing relies to some extent on the ability to revise, the acceptance of feedback, and the discipline to go to work even when you don’t feel like it.
Bonus: A teaser from The Wind Reader:
“I haven’t seen you around before.” The girl eyed my dirty clothes and carry bag. “Are you…lost?”
Yes. Oh, yes. So lost I may never be found. (Ch. 2)