On Qualitative Writing: Building an Interdisciplinary Community of Practice
Lydia Horne, Brieanne Berry, Anna McGinn, Sandesh Shrestha, Brooke Hafford-MacDonald, & Sara Lowden
University of Maine,,
As authors, we are familiar with the “publish or perish” mentality often used to describe academic writing. Despite the centrality of writing to the academic world, writing can often present significant challenges especially given this increasing pressure to produce. Building upon the experience of attending a qualitative writing retreat, two University of Maine graduate students were determined to start their own writing group to better engage with complex sustainability issues using qualitative methods. This writing group now meets regularly and has become a community of practice, holding members accountable and creating a space to help us engage with the research and writing process. In this essay we reflect on the process of qualitative writing and share our experiences as a newly formed writing group in overcoming challenges associated with writing, including how to write across disciplines, how to effectively engage with interdisciplinary research, and how to provide thoughtful feedback. In addition to creating a space for reflection and support, our writing group has led to the publication of journal articles and conference papers, the submission of grant and job applications, and the refinement of thesis chapters and research ideas. We encourage our fellow researchers to develop their own interdisciplinary communities of practice and write throughout the research process to be able to more deeply engage with sustainability challenges.
In this essay, we describe our shared experience of building a writing community of graduate students. We weave individual stories into our shared narrative to describe how writing matters to us and how it has changed our experiences and relationship with research. The narratives here have helped us re-encounter writing as a crucial research practice, and we hope that by interacting with these stories, readers will enrich their own sense of the role writing plays in their lives.
Qualitative research examines social problems by asking “how” and “why” questions to gain a holistic understanding of multifaceted phenomenon (Creswell 2013). Qualitative research also emphasizes the contextual nature of phenomena and encourages us to engage with people on their own terms and in their own world (Guba and Lincoln 1985). As novice researchers, academic writing can be difficult, and qualitative writing presents its own challenges. A rich description of the context is the basis of qualitative writing. Many writers, however, struggle with restrictive word limits in academic journals and have to cut parts that really matter when writing qualitative research (Pratt 2008). During qualitative research, data generation and analysis go hand in hand. When new questions arise, methods sometimes change during the study. Explaining why different methods were used while writing a paper can be difficult. The lack of knowledge of qualitative writing by readers presents another challenge. We get comments like, “I know it’s a qualitative article when I get to the end and don’t know what the point was.” Researchers should therefore carefully define the validity and reliability of qualitative data. Unfortunately, as the quantitative world tends to be the dominant approach to research in many fields, the importance of qualitative research has not yet been fully realized by all.
As young researchers focused on the human dimensions of sustainability challenges, we see qualitative and mixed methods approaches as critical to addressing the complexity of the issues faced by the people and places we study. Many of us realized that a quantitative approach alone would be too reductive to fully understand most sustainability challenges; however, a qualitative approach can be challenging in interdisciplinary teams. Not everyone is familiar with qualitative methods or analysis, making it difficult to integrate with other types of data. Qualitative writing is an ongoing process rather than the end-phase of our research, and analysis is highly iterative and individual rather than standardized. Communicating analysis decisions and results clearly with fellow team members and broader audiences is critical. Therefore, creating a strong foundation in our writing is important not only for communicating our results but also in thinking about and conducting our research. Different disciplinary comfort levels with qualitative research and writing can be a hindrance to effectively engaging with “wicked,” or complex, sustainability issues, which cross disciplinary boundaries and are hard to define, let alone solve (FitzGibbon and Mensah 2012). These problems are multidimensional and require a range of studies and solutions using both quantitative and qualitative research. Rather than being two opposing approaches, we view quantitative and qualitative approaches as complementary to environmental research and hope to create connections between the two approaches through our research and writing.
Inspired by a qualitative writing retreat several members attended, the authors formed a writing group, a “community of practice” (Wenger 2011), to help address the challenges of qualitative writing while deeply engaging with complex sustainability issues. We suggest that groups like ours have enormous potential to support collaboration across departmental lines, with important implications for interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented sustainability research. We urge graduate students to consider writing together to build bridges, strengthen skills, and grow as scholars. In this essay, each of us has reflected on the potential of this collaboration to shape our research and writing. The following sections share our experiences, beginning with how our group formed and our purpose, an outline of our structure, and descriptions of how we address writing across disciplines and for interdisciplinary audiences while providing thoughtful feedback. We conclude by discussing the importance of a qualitative writing group and how writing throughout our research shapes our research and writing processes.
Journey to a Writing Retreat
“I was in Nepal when I first heard about the qualitative writing retreat from my advisor. She emailed me saying she was considering sending myself and another member of her lab, Lydia, to this writing retreat. She concluded with, “Let me know what you think.” It had only been a day since I returned from the Upper Mustang region to my home town of Pokhara. I had spent nearly two months doing field work for my thesis project in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal where I lived in nearly complete isolation without internet connection. The last time I contacted my advisor was when I was in Jomsom, two months prior. After finding out about the writing retreat, part of me felt like I needed a break. Not another trip! However, I embraced it as an opportunity to push myself to write about the data I had just finished collecting.
I arrived back in the United States with only a week to prepare for the writing retreat. During the first week of August, Lydia and I set off for Asheville, North Carolina. The organizers picked us up, and North Carolina’s beauty unfolded before us as we journeyed to our destination nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. For a moment, when I saw the crest of mountains rising over us and cattle grazing in nearby pastures, I felt like I was back in Nepal. I was so excited that I couldn’t help it, and I began to take photos and videos! To reach the writing retreat we crossed a trickling stream and climbed a little mountain. At the top, we were greeted by a big wooden house framed by prayer flags waving in the cool breeze. I was not expecting to see such flags here in the United States, as they are traditionally symbols of praying and blessing in my country, Nepal. It was such an absolute delight being there that I could not describe it in words. The setting made me feel like I was home again because of the welcoming and familiar atmosphere.” – Sandesh
“Meeting our instructors and other participants from different disciplines was an amazing start to our writing retreat. We were thirteen academics at different stages in our careers from different institutions and disciplines and representing at least three different countries, but we were united by our focus on qualitative research and the struggles inherent to this research process. One of the best things about the writing retreat was being in a space where the only expectation was to write. I learned a lot about myself as a writer–how much I can write in a condensed amount of time, my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, that I actually enjoy writing, and I now understand the value of writing continuously throughout the research process. We often think of writing as something you do at the end of your research to share results, but by continuously writing, not only are you making progress on your final product, but you are also (1) clarifying your research ideas and results, (2) being critical of yourself and the research process, (3) reflecting and learning from the process, and (4) growing as a writer and researcher. This powerful writing retreat experience inspired the creation of our fledgling qualitative writing group at the University of Maine.” – Lydia
Beginnings: Creating a Community of Practice at the University of Maine
Our interdisciplinary writing group – comprised of six graduate students working on human dimensions of environmental issues – began in 2018. All writing group members initially met while taking a qualitative data analysis class on campus. After attending the writing retreat in North Carolina, Sandesh and Lydia reached out to former qualitative data analysis classmates involved in sustainability research. The resulting group formed from a shared recognition of the challenges of qualitative research and writing and a desire to work through these challenges collectively rather than alone.
We meet twice per month, even when things get complicated. This is because our writing group is a place to focus on the reasons we are pursuing graduate school, to reflect carefully on our ideas, and to engage deeply with other environmental scholars. We represent a range of disciplines, from sustainable tourism and forestry to anthropology and climate change policy, and we study an even broader assortment of subjects that range in scope from binational conservation along the US-Mexico border to climate change risks in Nepal and climate financing at the United Nations. Our collaboration is a “community of practice” (Wenger 2011), a place where we learn to write and research better by practicing together. It is also an interdisciplinary collaboration – a place where we regularly cross boundaries and expand our thinking to topics, perspectives, and approaches that are outside of our own backgrounds.
Goals of the Writing Group
The purpose of our group is to (1) hold ourselves accountable and commit to making progress on our writing by (2) creating a constructive environment to support each other through the challenges of writing. We started by agreeing upon some ground rules. Our first rule is that the minimum submission is one sentence. Most of the time, if we start by writing a single sentence we end up writing more, but this alleviates the pressure that we often place upon ourselves when writing to produce, which can be overwhelming, and as a result, lead to limited progress. Six is a large writing group size. To make space for a careful review of everyone’s writing we decided to meet twice a month and review three pieces of writing so that each person submits one piece for review per month. Another rule is, “you can leave the group at any time and come back – no questions asked.” This is because being a graduate student is challenging. Deadlines emerge – seemingly from nowhere – or we are suddenly accepted to conferences for which our papers, posters, and presentations are, shall we say, requiring further development.
While we are all currently situated in academia, any form of qualitative writing can be reviewed in our group–manuscripts, conference abstracts, grant applications, cover letters, or opinion editorials. We might not be familiar with specific methods or topics presented in these writing pieces, but our shared focus on sustainability and knowledge of qualitative writing means that everyone can evaluate the quality of the writing and the clarity of the ideas. In addition to improved writing, this group has developed other valuable skills, such as reading, writing, and editing outside of our disciplines; collaborating and learning as part of an interdisciplinary team; and overcoming the challenges of writing to strengthen our shared goal of tackling sustainability challenges.
Why we started, and what makes us stay
“It’s 8:30 pm on a Tuesday. Like most weekday evenings, I’m sitting in an over-sized chair in my living room – a cup of tea on the table, my dog curled up at my feet, and a laptop in front of me. And like every other graduate student in the middle of a semester, I have homework to complete, presentations to prepare, manuscripts to edit, and what feels like a million other deadlines. I also feel like I may be fighting a cold, and perhaps going to bed early would be beneficial! But instead of focusing on any of those things, right now I am choosing to devote my remaining intellectual energy to our writing group. It’s times like this when I realize how important our group is to me.” – Brooke
The camaraderie this group offers is important to our members. Building on our previous relationships in classes and other academic networks, we were eager to build a supportive and fun dynamic. Many of us were nervous to share our work with others, particularly within the walls of academia, and having a safe space to share ideas is incredibly freeing. However, this is not the same as having friends read our work. Friends may simply say “this is great” or “this is interesting,” and add little else, either because they don’t understand qualitative writing or they don’t want to hurt our feelings. Members of this group have the ability to critique qualitative writing in a thoughtful, constructive, and supportive manner, thus creating a space to help improve our writing without bruising any egos. As one group member said, “I know I’ll receive supportive, respectful, critical feedback from everyone even if I am proposing a wacky idea.” Many of us work from home, are engaged in field work, and lack collaborative “labs” to regularly engage with others, which can be isolating. Having regular meetings helps us get out of our own heads and into a collaborative space, allowing the transfer of ideas across disciplines and creating a space for interdisciplinary dialogue.
This writing group forces us to reflect, which can really shape research ideas. As young scholars, we often don’t create this time for ourselves. Being immersed in this writing group space makes time for this reflection, often while in the company of others who understand where we are in the research process and are (or have been) in a similar spot themselves. Even when we get swept up in coursework, conferences, and teaching, the writing group reminds us of the importance of writing, reading, and reflecting.
The added structure this group provides has also been important. With flexible schedules and self-administered deadlines, making progress on writing tasks can be difficult. Several group members struggle with the “write/delete/write/delete” cycle that prevents us from making progress in the pursuit of perfect writing. This group helps prioritize writing because we know that group members are expecting to read our contributions. This keeps us accountable, and continuing to work on smaller writing tasks throughout the semester will benefit us all in the long run. As one group member said, “Sometimes getting things onto paper is the hardest part of writing for me, and this group gives me the extra motivation to create.”
We don’t just share our writing with this group, we also share our knowledge of how we think about writing, researching, and interpreting results – processes that help us develop a strong foundation as academics and practitioners. The kinds of writing we share vary widely, from grant drafts regarding rural Maine’s reuse economy to conference abstracts about livelihoods in the mountains of Nepal. These pieces of writing expose us to new ideas and ways of thinking about sustainability research. This group also provides a space to talk about our roles as graduate students, researchers, and teachers at the University of Maine. We believe this will ultimately lead to new ideas about how to make our writing more accessible, transdisciplinary, and creative–outcomes that will help ensure that our research is read, understood, and used by diverse audiences.
Crossing Boundaries and Building Bridges: Writing across disciplines
“I study how used consumer goods are distributed in rural Maine, and what impact this distribution has on communities, economies, and the environment. Throughout my Ph.D. program I’ve worked hard at narrowing and honing my ideas so that I can break them into bite-sized questions that my dissertation research can answer, but it’s also critical to me that my work connect to policy and practice. To do so, I have to write for community members, policy makers, and scholars outside of my discipline and beyond my own relatively narrow focus – something I am learning by practicing and receiving feedback from an interdisciplinary team of peers in this writing group.” – Brie
Communicating for those outside of our discipline isn’t always easy. The jargon, assumed knowledge, and received wisdom within our disciplines can make communication with other audiences challenging. Breaking down these disciplinary “boundaries” (Cash et al. 2002) is both challenging and important for us to communicate with stakeholders, policymakers, and each other. It’s perhaps no coincidence that we meet at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions–a place on campus that encourages cross-disciplinary collaborations to solve sustainability challenges. In this group we have to ask seemingly silly questions to unpack unfamiliar ideas. How do loons come into contact with lead fishing tackle? What is the governance structure in Nepal? Is the United States still a part of the Paris Agreement on climate change? Yet far from derailing our conversations, these discussions about what we mean and how we communicate ideas add richness and clarity to our writing. Stepping back to the principles underlying our research helps us think carefully about how it is read, understood, and used. Our interdisciplinary writing group is one step toward building a scholarship that is capable of addressing complex sustainability challenges because it allows us to engage with each other’s ideas, despite the boundaries (Hart and Bell 2013).
Our group understands that writing is not just a final stage or an end-product, but rather a thread that is woven through the entire research process (Ely et al. 1997). As such, by changing the audience we write for we find that our perspective on our research changes too. In communicating our work to other early-career scholars, we think about the broader impacts of our research, highlighting the stories and narratives that make our research important and accessible to others. Each of us is committed to the idea that our research and writing should help solve real-world sustainability challenges. To do this work, we need to write things that others understand, no matter their academic background. In this group saying, “what do you mean here?” is an opportunity to explore the meaning and importance behind our research for a broader audience. It also helps me connect loons and rainfall in Nepal, winter snow in Maine and bats in the US-Mexico borderlands, and international climate finance with used consumer goods in Maine. When we write for an audience outside of our own specialties, we make a case for the importance of seeking connections between diverse bodies of sustainability research.
Reading Carefully: Engaging with interdisciplinary writing
“While we often hear about the importance of promoting a culture of interdisciplinary collaboration, how do we put this into action? A writing group composed of students from different disciplines provides an opportunity for such collaboration. The group dynamic holds us accountable to each other. We have created an intentional space, a safe space where we deeply engage with each other’s research. As graduate students, we are keenly aware of the pressure to produce scholarly articles for publication. The familiar adage, “publish or perish,” floats through the halls of every department in every university, a mantra that follows us throughout our academic careers. In his blog “Learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change,” Arjan Wals addresses a growing concern with academic writing, which he describes as “everybody is writing, nobody is reading, which means that everybody is writing for nobody” (Wals 2018). Who is actually reading our articles? One great thing about our writing group is that we can be sure that at least a handful of others will actually engage with our work. What a relief after so much effort!” – Sara
Our group approaches reading as a process of active reflection. Rather than skimming to digest key points, we read each other’s work closely and carefully to provide meaningful feedback. We are learning how to interpret different approaches to qualitative research, as well as diverse approaches to environmental issues. This, in turn, influences how we interpret our own research making it more robust and transferable outside of our academic silos. The members of our group are in four different departments, but we are united in all working to unpack and address various environmental issues. We have found that sustainability research cannot be contained by a single disciplinary silo and requires interdisciplinary teams if there is to be actionable progress.
Because we meet on a regular basis, we have grown familiar with one another’s research topics, which makes it unnecessary to summarize, explain, and condense our research. A commitment to meeting regularly allows us to see how our research continues to develop and transform. We save time by knowing each other’s work, making it easier to contribute meaningfully throughout the research process. This proves helpful in providing useful feedback on how to best frame our writing for different formats (e.g. a journal article compared to a policy brief).
Repetitive engagement with colleagues from various disciplines is an opportunity to learn about research that we may not otherwise encounter. The group compels us to step outside of our areas of expertise. We continue to learn from each other. We continue to build camaraderie and grow closer both professionally and personally. Through the process of active reading, the group inspires us to try new writing techniques and encourages us to be more confident and creative. In an atmosphere where we scramble to produce more without the guarantee that anyone will read what we write, this group encourages us to take a moment for each other. It is a reciprocal relationship that builds professional skills (e.g. someday serving as a journal editor) and helps all of us to become better writers, researchers, and collaborators (McGreavy et al. 2015).
On Editing and Providing Feedback
“Every two weeks I open a peer’s document containing pages and pages of their hard work. These documents represent significant investments of time and mental energy that seek to translate untold hours of fieldwork and analysis into a coherent piece of writing. My role is to think through feedback that can support them in refining this piece of writing. It is a challenge and a time intensive endeavor. Ahead of our meetings, if peers submit longer pieces, it is safe to say that I need to put aside a couple of hours to really engage with their work. So, why dedicate this time to contributing to other people’s work through editing? What do we have to contribute as scholars from different fields?” – Anna
The first reason we engage in this time-intensive process might be a selfish one—editing other people’s work helps to make us stronger writers. It helps build confidence as writers as we think about how we can draw on our own knowledge and skills to clarify ideas and strengthen arguments. This process also makes us familiar with each peer’s model of writing, which can serve as much needed inspiration in times of writer’s block. Editing other people’s work also encourages us to reflect on our own writing, especially when we start to see that questions we ask of others might be just as useful to ask of ourselves. When exchanging edits, there are many recurring questions we ask each other (i.e., Can you give a specific example?, How does this connect to broader work in the sustainability field?) and this process helps us realize how to ask them of ourselves during the writing process.
We dedicate time to editing because we see our interdisciplinary group as an asset rather than a liability. As one writing group member described, “the lack of familiarity with the details of a specific field’s concepts and theories helps us find weaknesses in an argument and easily points to ideas that are unclear. It also helps us attend to the ‘big picture’ implications of a piece, such as the significance of the research—the most important part—and how it might offer solutions to real-world problems.”
This group has re-envisioned some of the stereotypes of editing. While the over- and under-use of commas has been a point of discussion, taking a red pen to grammatical errors is not our goal. Rather, we focus our comments on wherever the writer is at in their writing process as well as the type of writing. For example, looking at a final draft of an external grant requires a different editing approach than a piece which is working through the initial ideas of a future paper. The writing group allows us to know each other’s work closely enough to be able to contribute original ideas to support the writer in bringing the piece to the next level, no matter the audience, and to highlight for the writer the elements of the piece that are already strong. And this is huge–we always take the time to point out the parts of the writing that are already fabulous! Through careful editing, we are able to engage in a meaningful and helpful way to further develop a piece of writing while also providing opportunities for ourselves to grow as professionals.
Conclusion: Honing our skills by writing this article together
Writing this article has been a product of all the writing group elements described above. With two members trying to graduate this semester, three members deeply embedded in different stages of field work, and one member preparing for her comprehensive exams, it did not feel like an opportune time to collaboratively write a manuscript. Then again, it almost never feels like the right time to write. When the idea to submit to Spire came up, despite busy schedules and writing anxieties, every member of the group volunteered to participate and contribute to this piece. Then it was time to put this group to the test and see if we could make the writing process enjoyable and productive using all the knowledge we have gained even in our short time existing as a group. To write this article, we first developed a list of potential topics, had members volunteer to take leadership of a section or two, and then asked all members to contribute their ideas regarding each section. By the end of this process, all sections had ideas from each member and the leader of that section would then, similar to the process of coding qualitative data, further develop key ideas, experiences, and reflections. In this way sections were truly collaborative and reflective of our group experience rather than the experience of the individual.
Inspired by two of our members’ attendance at a writing retreat, we decided to facilitate our own mini-writing retreat for several hours one winter morning. During this retreat, the goal was to produce drafts of sections that could then be polished later during the editing process. Our expectation was that no section would be perfect, but this mini-writing retreat provided a set time, place, and space to write. We mostly worked independently in silence, occasionally checking in with each other to gauge progress, make suggestions, and discuss issues that arose pertinent to the whole group. It may sound silly to sit in the same room writing individually among a group of people, but overwhelmingly the group feedback was that they were surprised by how much they wrote in such a short period of time and that they would like to hold a writing retreat again! By undertaking this endeavor together in a shared space, we motivated each other to focus solely on writing for a short period of time without distraction to accomplish a shared goal. At the end of this mini writing retreat, we allotted a period of time for all members to edit the completed first draft, and then two members took the lead on polishing the document further before presenting the final product for group approval.
This reflective exercise is both a collaborative effort to co-produce writing with a peer group, as well as a call to action to other graduate students and faculty. Write with others and do so often. Cross disciplinary lines and ask silly questions. Read carefully and comment kindly. Most of all, write and share that writing with others. Create a community of practice. These experiences have helped us develop as scholars and have created a welcoming, safe space to think about each other’s work. Our group members have found that writing throughout the research process, rather than waiting until the end, helps clarify our ideas and how we view our research, refines our data generation methods, and creates a space to share experiences from the field and from our writing process. Importantly, our group has not only been supportive and welcoming, it has helped us publish journal articles, write conference papers, submit grant applications, draft concepts for book chapters, revise research questions, submit job applications, and much more. This group also has the potential to develop new forms of collaboration that we see as critical to the future of environmental and sustainability-oriented research, while strengthening current conservation work through deep engagement across backgrounds, experience levels, and disciplines.
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