Should I do it myself? Writing and delegation

What you need to do yourself to prepare a publication? This is one of the big shifts for people moving from being a student, where any outside help is academically dishonest collusion, into the big collaborative real world of academic research. I’m going to talk here primarily about books and articles, as theses often straddle a weird middle ground where supervisors, librarians, examiners, learning advisors and lab assistants are definitely approved collaborators, and for everyone else you’ll need to check your local instructions.

I recently read a great article about what prompts feelings of ‘imposter phenomenon’ in graduate students. I’m going to do a whole series of responses, but this one is a big one! We address feeling like an imposter as an emerging researcher in our upcoming PhD Survival book too. In Cisco’s study (2020), and in the many conversations I have, students say that reading other people’s published writing triggers their feelings of being an imposter because their first drafts don’t look anything like the articles and books they read. 

What’s more, students who are outsiders to academia often have inaccurate beliefs about what must or should be done by one person. Sometimes this is because you don’t know how other people do it. Sometimes it’s because you have always had to bootstrap yourself into, and through, higher education, so you learned not to expect help. Sometimes it’s just that no-one gave you the memo about the new operating conditions in publishing vs coursework. (Here’s your memo! Here’s the help you are entitled to! Hi! Welcome!

But, in fact, there are some things no-one is doing for themselves. It is isn’t ‘cheating’, or researching on ‘easy mode’ to get input and help in these areas. There are some aspects of writing a book or article where you can make a choice, and other aspects of getting a text ready for publication that you absolutely may not do yourself. Generally, if it’s a choice, expect to pay the person who is helping you out. If it’s something the publisher has to do, that should be part of your contract and provided as a matter of course.

So here is a quick list of things that can, or must, be delegated, shared or done by others. 

  1. Anything to do with print, layout, distribution, intra-publisher negotiations, uploading to various outlets, cover design etc. This is your publisher’s job.
    If the publisher is bad at it, you should choose a different publisher next time. I have had great experiences and not great experiences, and yes I totally make decisions about where I place my work based on how good the experience was. 
  2. The index (for books only). You can do your own index, but it will take you a week. With my recent PhD book, the series editors negotiated the index as part of the deal (amazing work Helen and Pat!), for the undergraduate essay book, we paid someone.
    You don’t need an index for a thesis.
    You get zero academic credit for the index, a professional does a qualitatively different and much better job, and the price per hour does not compute.
  3. Translation, map drawing, illustrations, photography and other technical additions.
    Depending on your area of expertise, there are likely to be things that are not in your specialisation (I do my own translations, but never draw my own maps. Your speciality may vary!)
    It is quite normal to outsource these specialised aspects. Your publisher/journal is likely to have people to recommend if you don’t already have a preferred supplier. You will have to pay, but again this is for things you get zero academic credit for, a professional does a qualitatively different and much better job, and the price per hour does not compute.
  4. Spelling, grammar, citation style.
    Get a computer to do the grunt work. You will need to review it manually, but the computer should be able to catch 90%+ of this sort of thing. Your copy editor will also give you lots of feedback here for a professional publication, and you should be grateful for their input.

And a big one:

  1. Audience reaction reads: reviewers, editors, beta readers, endorsers and actual readers who tell other people what they thought of your text. You can’t do this yourself, for obvious reasons!
    However, you can get your first reactions from people you choose. As a rookie writer, my articles were read by someone else for the first time… when the reader was a peer reviewer. Now my articles and books are read by multiple people before they are reviewed, and so the review process is much much better for everyone. 

No wonder people’s published work looks so much better than your drafts! Our published work looks much better than our drafts too. 

I hope this helps you feel more confident to step into the aspects of the writing process that only you can do, the parts where you take your emerging ideas and start putting them onto paper, and then refining them to incrementally reflect the nuance, sophistication and depth that you develop over time. 


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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