Questioning the writing we do
- review of
Pullen, A., J. Helin and N. Harding (eds.) (2020) Writing differently: Dialogues in critical management studies, vol. 4. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Limited. (HB, pp vii + 240, ISBN 978-1-83867-338-3)
You should be writing, as the joke goes. When we come across this joke, our minds immediately jump to our texts, very much in the plural. Texts in progress, texts not materialized yet, texts in limbo, overdue texts, texts we wish we had time to nurture, texts we dread, texts we wish we had not committed on delivering during the summer. For some, this joke echoes vague or poignant feelings of guilt, arouses various anxieties, small and big, or simply makes them laugh in recognition. But for me, this joke is a lasso. It grabs and brings forth all the texts that surround me, authored in solo or co-authored, my texts in the past, present and future. But as I am quickly, almost brutally reminded of these texts, I am also simultaneously thrown in a completely different direction: that of the writing itself – the form, the content, the voice. I look at that these four words, you should be writing, contemplate all of the texts that float around me, and ask back, yes but what, why, how? This question arises in relation to the writing itself. The doing and the form. The form as the reflection of the process. The form as integral to the ideas I want to propose. The form, alas also as too often imposed on us. Imposed, really? If an academic meme can raise that many questions (at least in me), imagine what a book on this very topic can do. This is exactly what is at the heart of Writing differently, a book composed of thirteen chapters that each explores what these two words that make up its title may mean, in a variety of ways.
Writing differently is the latest publication in a trail of workshops, conference activities, articles, book chapters and special issues on this very topic that have multiplied in recent years. All of these opportunities have aimed at a double task: discussing writing as it takes place in our field (loosely defined as management and organization studies), and opening spaces to experiment with writing. The book should not be seen as the culmination of this growing interrogation of our writing, but rather as another step in exposing what else can be done with writing on research, both in the sense of objects of inquiry and practice of doing research, especially qualitative and critical studies. The book, taken as a whole, is resolutely into demonstrating, performing its title: the chapters show possibilities right on the page, rather than solely discussing what could or should be done in, through or with writing. Each of the chapters proceeds in a rather independent fashion; the book hence multiplies voices, angles, explorations.
Readers expecting either an analysis of the issues with current dominant or traditional forms and formats of academic writing, a series of practices to develop or suggestions to apply as remedies to these issues or even a manifesto for writing in ‘unconventional’ ways will be disappointed: this is not what Writing differently is… at least, on the surface. These topics are present in the book, but not always as the focal point of each chapter. In this sense, this book will appeal first to those who are looking for examples of what writing differently may look and feel like. This is the great strength of this book: the variety of forms, formats and approaches captured in its pages.
Writing differently, the book, only scratches the surface of writing differently, the topic – and this is both by choice and to be expected. When one begins to think about writing, its place in what we do, both institutionally and personally, many paths of reflection reveal themselves. For me, reading this book was an active process, as it engaged me on two levels at the same time. First, each and every chapter grabbed my attention, for various reasons: its form, its style or what the author(s) expressed, discussed. For many of these chapters, I did not know what to expect when I started my reading of them; this, in itself, is already an effect different from the ones that more conventional academic texts generate. This curiosity kept me reading with a different attention, one that was not primarily considering the problematization, the methodological approach and the contributions of the chapter – as I would in other, more traditionally formatted pieces of research.
Instead, I became attentive to what the author(s) wanted to achieve through writing, through writing in a way that created space for different concerns. Ask yourself: how many times do you pay attention to writing, when you are scrolling through a text (and admit it, you do, at times, read academic texts like the web: browsing, scrolling, glancing)? My guess would be that considering writing is not central in most of the time we spend reading. It’s only when I come across a piece that is particularly well written, one in which I hear a voice, when I feel the touch of a personal style that I realize just how rare these elements – while integral to writing in so many other forms – are in most of our pieces. Becoming more attentive to form, format and voice/style was a welcome effect of this book, which in turn stimulated in a vivid way my thinking about writing, forms, styles, norms and conventions, reasons why we write, etc. Prompting this reflection is, in my opinion, an important effect of this book.
Combined, these two effects – becoming attentive and opening up reflection – may be one of the main key takeaways one could get from reading this book in its entirety. Of course, each chapter has something to offer in terms of content and ideas, but I prefer to highlight the effet d’ensemble of the reunion of these chapters. Considering them one by one may indeed lead to an impression of dispersion, as these chapters, not tied by a detailed introduction to them, vary greatly in what their authors aimed to achieve: here a discussion of a topic, there an experimentation with an uncommon form in our field, here a reflection in a more personal, confessional tone, etc. All this diversity leads back to the book’s title, which begs the question: what is writing differently? Such a title, with everything resting on its choice of adverb, implies positioning beside something else, not necessarily against but minimally in distinction. At first sight, the chapters seem to say that it is both about form/format (diverging from the traditional template we find in journal articles) and content (including elements that are usually not included or even considered). Form is an easy aspect to grasp; what is usually excluded from our texts and hence discarded, devalued, relegated to ‘outside’ the realm of ‘real research’ and ‘true knowledge’ is a trickier issue. Many chapters ponder the question of what is left aside, when we write ‘not differently’, and attempt at including back different dimensions – emotions and feelings, memories, questions of identity, embodied experiences, struggles and discomforts, uncertainties. In some chapters, this reflection is combined to forms (such as dialogues) or genres (such as poems) that remain rare occurrences in our field. All of the chapters are, undeniably, the fruit of writing. But I suspect that a number of potential readers from our field would ask the question of how we should consider these texts – are they scientific? While unsurprising, this question does not seem to me as the key issue – it may even be seen as part of the problem, given that such adjective is loaded with exclusions. Writing differently is, obviously, about doing things differently – and our ‘things’, in our small world, are thinking, reflecting, researching, communicating, connecting and, hopefully, affecting and sparking transformation.
As Beavan et al. (2021) argue, in their editorial to one of the recent special issues devoted to writing, opting for unconventional forms of writing, especially influenced by critical and feminist theories and practices, can lead to texts that combine the personal with the political and the theoretical. Indeed, a feminist influence runs deeply behind many of the efforts in Writing differently from what appears as ‘the norm’, acknowledging more or less directly that such endeavours aim at not only dismantling the orthodoxy in our conception of writing, but specifically at criticizing the masculine orthodoxy – where the scientific, associated to the rational and the masculine, remain placed in a superior position to the unscientific, tied to the emotional and the feminine. Whether or not they pursue directly such a project, the chapters in Writing differently all combine, beyond choices in forms and genres, personal, political and aesthetical considerations in what they write about, or how they write about it. Again, combining these realms is offered as an alternative (and a rich one, I may say), one that reintegrate and put in relation dimensions that have been minimized or left out in the genres commonly practiced in our field.
But is the real issue behind the impulse of writing differently one of writing, or one of researching? The moment that question entered my mind, early in my reading of the chapters, it never left me, and it popped up regularly as I progressed into the book. All authors in this book do qualitative research, often tinted by critical approaches. Is the core debate about writing, about onto-epistemo-methodological positionings or about institutional norms that preserve a certain status quo? These aspects are in fact intertwined, and this may be the fundamental issue with which we, who are concerned with what we do in/with writing have to contend and may even struggle. I do not choose the verb struggle carelessly. I believe that several of us are, to various degree, torn when we come to writing. Torn between the desire to write in a way that feels free/freer, but is nonetheless rigorous, attend to the complexities of the phenomena that we explore, highlight issues that are important or urgent and push forward novel ideas – and the pressure to fit with certain formats, to adhere to certain codes. How each of us resolves this tension, situated at the nexus of writing, positioning and institutional norms, may hence be the open-ended question that we are always facing, each time we engage in the kind(s) of writing we do as researchers. This question is closer to a dilemma that cannot be solved once and for all. There is also no single way to tackle this tension. Yet, the issue of what we are producing, and may be reproducing, with our texts, always lingers – and in a sense, it might be a blessing. Such open-endedness reminds us that choices do exist – and may be generative. The pages of Writing differently evoke this tension, at times directly and at others, in a less explicit way; and its various chapters give illustrations of what can blossom when researchers attend to this tension by experimenting, both with ways of doing research and writing.
I was at first slightly puzzled by the structure of the book. Writing differently has a brief introduction (musings of the three editors on writing and their process with this book) and no concluding chapter, where the editors, or other authors, would have reflected back on the assemblage of these various contributions. This might have been consciously chosen by the editors, or not; nonetheless, noticing this absence felt for me like an unfortunate omission. With so many questions, possibilities and issues arising from the twelve chapters, why no final words on what we, both as individual writers and as field, could gain from paying attention to how we write, from exploring and experimenting with forms and styles, from questioning so-called standards and templates, and from truly devoting energy to writing in ways that are engaging or personal? Such a chapter could have brought together – not in an exhaustive but rather in an opening way – the different threads proposed by each chapter. Without ending on a programmatic (as reminded my Pullen in the introduction, this would be normative, and writing differently is antithetical to such normativization), a concluding chapter could nonetheless have brought a touch of closure to the collection of chapters.
But the more I thought about the book and the questions it poses, the more I came to realize that such a concluding chapter – again, an expectation – may not be that necessary for the reader who approaches the book not to ‘get’ ideas to cite (what I may call a catching approach to reading) but to be stimulated (inspiring approach to reading). I don’t know about you, reader of this book review, but I know that I have come across a good text, whatever its form and format, when reading it prompts me to write. Good in this sense can refer to various aspects of a text: its style, its form, its ideas, etc. Writing differently did that to me, recurrently. I read through the book in bouts, during long winter months, first thing in the morning, with a big mug of coffee by my side. Most of the time, my reading time turned into writing time. Was this writing productive, did it make it into this book review, will it be useful for other texts? Answers to these questions do not matter; what matters is to engage in the act, in the practice of writing with attention, with an open mind, with curiosity. This is why I consider that the sum of the chapters that make up Writing differently is greater that its parts. Beyond the content, ideas and arguments developed with sensitivity and honesty by all of the authors, this book can help one position herself with regards to academic writing in general, her own writing and her writing practices. I consider this potential for triggering individual reflection one of the main contributions of this book.
In the end, Writing differently can be read as a freeing demonstration that any form, any format, any approach, any tone, any style is possible because writing is, inherently, about creating – and in our field, in our research, about creating meaning and meaningfulness, for us and for others, in academia, in organizations, in society. This highlights the fact that writing differently goes beyond writing stricto sensu, as it may be understood as a reconfiguration, a difference in orientation and in prioritization. Indirectly, the book also illustrates that the materials we may use to write and to generate insights may be more varied than we usually think. This reveals that almost anything – materials, forms and genres – can be used when it comes to our writing. Should it? Writing differently does not answer these questions; in fact, it does not even bother with them – and this is the whole point. It is rather another fundamental question that floats between the pages of Writing differently that of what could stem from the inclusion and recognition of a broader range of possibilities in our academic texts. The chapters in Writing differently take on the challenge of exploring this question and, each in their manner, raise it for us to ponder. Given that we, as academics and researchers, are people for whom writing is crucial to what we do and even to who we are, to be challenged head-on to consider this question appears to me as an important outcome of this book.
 For special issues, see Management Learning, 50(1) (2019) and Gender, Work and Organization, 28(2) (2021).
Beavan, K., B. Borgström, J. Helin and C. Rhodes (2021) ‘Changing writing/writing for change’, Gender, Work and Organization, 28, 449-455.
Colyar, J. (2009) ‘Becoming writing, becoming writers’, Qualitative Inquiry, 15(2): 421-436.
Grey, C. and A. Sinclair (2006) ‘Writing differently’, Organization, 13(3): 443-453.
Sword, H. (2012) Stylish academic writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ulmer, J. B. (2017) ‘Writing slow ontology’, Qualitative Inquiry, 23(3): 201-211.
Viviane Sergi is Associate Professor in Management in the Department of management at ESG UQAM in Montréal, Canada. Her research interests include process thinking, performativity, project organizing, the transformation of work and leadership. Her recent studies have explored how communication is constitutive of organizational phenomena, such as new work practices, strategy and leadership. She also has a keen interest for methodological issues related to qualitative research and for the practice of academic writing.
Email: sergi.viviane AT uqam.ca