Monday, December 7, 2009

Writing Lessons: Research Results Gymnastics

So this year I presented 4 papers and a poster at 4 academic conferences. This fall alone I presented two. The first one I presented at the Semiotics Society of America conference in Cincinnati in October, the second at the National Communication Association conference in Chicago in November.

Both of these papers started as course papers. The first started as a 30-page conference paper, and thence needed to be turned, Alice-in-Wonderland style, into a short abstract for submission. Then later, after acceptance, it needed to be cut down into 8-9 pages of coherent presentation. After the presentation, it needed to be cleaned up and the style converted to be submitted for the best student paper award.

However gymnastic these efforts sound, the other paper was even more convoluted in its parallel-bars-style revolutions. It started out as a 12-page course paper. Then it was converted into an abstract plus a description of how it contributed to the panel it was a part of (which was all people from our class). After that, it had to be extended to a 24-page paper to send to our eminent reviewer before it was cut to a 4-5 page paper short enough to be fit into the 10 minutes I had to present at the conference.

These gymnastic writing gyrations have at times made my writing muscles a little sore this fall--after all, it's not easy to sum up a 30-page paper in a few hundred words, and even harder to take a complicated French philosopher and express your ideas about his work in a 10-minute presentation.

But these exercises, like those for the physical body, have ultimately strengthened my writing skills. I even think they've helped my fiction-writing skills. For instance, previously writing from a plot outline, which previously felt unnatural, doesn't sound all that untenable after all these practices of research results gymnastics.

So I'm planning to work soon on some plot outlines for the short stories I've been wanting to write, since yes--forgot to mention it previously--I'm taking a short story-writing class in the spring. Since my course work is done, the course is for fun, and I'm definitely looking forward to it. I naturally think more in chapters of a bigger whole than in short stories, but after these gymnastics I've been doing this fall, it feels like my writing muscles might be just strong enough to pack a lot of oomph in those short pages. We'll see how it goes.

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