Writing about writing and research

keyboardA colleague asked me to respond to five questions about writing and research. The idea is that “experienced researchers” share their views, so that students in Sheffield Law School who choose to write research papers in their final UG year may draw guidance, confidence, and inspiration for their own projects.

Here are the questions, and my answers:

  1. How did you become interested in your research areas?
I have three main research areas: the law of the EU, particularly its social aspects; health law, particularly EU health law; and equality, particularly its implications for legal education.

I was, and remain, inspired by:

  • my background and upbringing (I had Hungarian, Russian and English grandparents; my father was a refugee and always felt ‘European’ rather than ‘British’);
  • those who taught me (particularly Professors Noreen Burrows and Esin Orucu);
  • my sense of justice and the importance of equality (my mother still recounts how from an early age I would respond to her ‘life is not fair’ with ‘but then we should do all we can to make it as fair as possible for as many people as possible as much of the time as possible’); and
  • my political orientations (I would describe myself as socially progressive).

I am also constantly inspired by intellectual curiosity: I just want to understand what the law is, why, and how it could be better.

 

  1. What project are you working on now and what motivated you to look at that topic?
I’m working on several overlapping projects: transnational, global and comparative health law; EU health law and UK health law post-Brexit; learning and teaching law and diversity ‘beyond the state’; law students’ learning about diversity and unconscious bias; and ‘reasonable adjustments’ duties of HE institutions for students with ‘unseen disabilities’. Some of these projects will have several ‘outputs’ (presentations, publications); others just one or two.

The motivations vary. The Brexit work is motivated by political developments and a desire to inform the public debate with accurate information. The legal education and equality work is motivated by a desire to blend research with learning and teaching, and to work in partnership with students. The transnational, global and comparative health law is because I care about health as an indicator of equality, and the roles of law in supporting that, as well as the very instrumental career aim of securing a non-EU expertise for when the UK leaves the EU.

 

  1. How and when do you write? Do you have a routine or do you write whenever and wherever you find the time?
I have a routine of having ‘work from home’ or writing days or half days, which are blocked out in my diary well in advance. But I also write in the interstices of the day (and sometimes the middle of the night/early morning), particularly when something is time-critical. I remind myself that the 8 hour sleep pattern we assume is ‘natural’ is actually a product of the industrial revolution.

I use many different writing techniques, depending on the type of writing involved. Mostly I first map out what I want to describe, argue, or find out, often phrasing it as a question. Then I sketch the sections of the piece, and what order these will come in. Getting this right takes several iterations. I try to be able to say (and write down) in a few sentences what the overall ‘arc of the narrative’ is before I write anything much. If this overall narrative hasn’t distilled, I think about it in the back of my mind, when running, showering, cleaning, playing with the cats, until it does. I usually work directly onto a blank screen, but sometimes with pen and paper. If I’m flagging, I have a change of scene, to a different room, library, café. But mostly I’m standing (with a vari-desk) or sitting at a pc with the window beside me. Each time I finish, I write a note to myself on what is coming next. I read over and polish from the beginning every time I add more. I typically redraft at least seven times in this way before showing to someone else. I then get two or more colleagues to read and give feedback, and rewrite in response to that. After that, there is the peer review process.

Because I have several projects on the go at the same time, I leave things and then revisit them and redraft them with a fresh pair of eyes. It takes me around 2 years (from first idea to submission of revisions following peer review) to complete an article in a journal like the Modern Law Review.

 

  1. What do like and dislike about the research process?
I enjoy many things – particularly collaborative research. I like to organise events where people get together to discuss work in progress; I like to edit other people’s work and offer advice on how it can be improved, and to bring together the parts of a whole in a research project. I like to work with students, who bring fresh perspectives and energy. I like the satisfaction of seeing something finally in print. I like tracking down the answer to a descriptive/analytical legal question (what is the law on X?) to my satisfaction, using the primary texts.

I have learned to cope with and not dislike too much the feeling that I will never be able to read as much as I would like to read, and the feeling of having to begin writing something from a blank sheet of paper, as well as the horror of how awful my early drafts are.

 

  1. What advice would you give to somebody beginning their first research project?
  • Collaborate.
  • Work hard. Harder than you think you need to. Actually working (ie focused on the task, no social media or phone distractions, etc).
  • Talk to other people about what you are researching and why it matters. (Anyone. Your granny. The cat. Just practise saying it out loud, in sentences, without hesitations, uming and erring, or ‘like’. Listen to your voice in your head. Use the same register as the things that you read, which you admire. Then transcribe your voice onto paper. Use short punchy sentences. Just get it down.)
  • Seven redrafts. Then show someone else for feedback. Three more redrafts. Leave enough time.

 

 

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