Authors; Dr. Joel Onyango, & Linet Mwirigi
Africa has always been seen as an underdog in research writing, and outputs. For some, it may already seem like this is the natural state of affairs, that we simply accept and move on. This is different for the youthful team within the Climate Resilient Economies programme, and the Africa Research and Impact Network (ARIN). Part of the ARIN team- Nairobi based researchers, has embarked on an ambitious plan to deliver quality writing outputs, published in Africa, within the contexts, limits and opportunities of African development. This team has redefined the nuances of transformational excellence in writing. In October 2020, the team was engaged in a write-shop, whose aim was to deliver as many written outputs (double the team itself), within the next two months.
The take-aways from this dynamic team aiming for transformational excellence in writing, comprised of the need for visionary and thought leadership; the importance of social, physical, emotional and spiritual strength in writing and the need for collaboration and focus periods to promote excellence in writing.
Visionary and Thought Leadership
It is inspiring to be part of a team, whose leadership prioritises the vision on research writing, and is thoughtful enough to lead by example. It is through this visionary perspective, that we began to realise how much the team was motivated to contribute, and align their contributions to first-rate quality outputs. The vision was strengthened by planning. Through the set boundaries of time, agreed schedule, and strict adherence to set regulations, it was evident that each team member was building confidence in their writing, and dedicating time to deliver quality products.
“You would literally be fined up to 5USD for arriving or leaving late from any of the activities scheduled. In the beginning this looks like a joke, right? But then, it is not. After a few fines, the planning and time management was seamlessly executed”.
Additionally, having a vision without thought leadership, limits innovation. The team leadership showed great sense of innovation, that inspired the team. From bringing in fundamental discussions, to challenging ideas across the group, the quality of the concepts and ideas being written was improved.
“Have you ever thought about what hazards, risks, disaster, and vulnerability, in multiple pressure urban development would mean? Well, we did not, but through a fundamental discussion during the write-shop, an hour’s discussion demystified the entanglement, and guess what, the team will jointly author a paper, that speaks to the complexity”.
Social Interactions, Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Strength Accentuate the Intellectual Capacity to Write
Researchers are often (not always though) painted as these all-work-and-no-play nerds, who are likely atheists. Being part of the write-shop, it emerged how useful it was to have a morning work-out, or an evening soccer challenge, with a mix of devotion and prayer sessions. We eventually realised, that however intellectually capable and prepared we were to write, an interlude of socializing, physical, emotional and spiritual exercises, made us better thinkers, writers (and well narrators). When you first see a write-shop programme that has integrated physical exercise, you begin to wonder, Is it a “bootcamp” type of session? Participating however, illuminates the importance of stretches in avoiding ergonomic as well as repetitive stress syndrome, both of which deter writing productivity. The devotion and prayer bit, might look icky in the beginning, but it allows you to look ‘inward’ (and yes as sentimental as it may still seem), to the journey you have had intellectually, and whether it was luck, hard work, or grace. Through the social interactions between team members, we got to know each other better. This created an easy environment that was paramount in spurring ideas for the products in progress. This write-shop experience clearly demonstrated that social interactions, physical, emotional and spiritual exercises are as important as intellectual capacity when it comes to excellence in writing.
Collaboration is Imperative in Delivery of excellent research output
On many occasions, writing is a sacrifice. It is not easy. One has to be dedicated to the thesis they are proposing, stick to the delivery, and push one’s self to deliver the paper/article/chapter. This often leaves researchers alone, in the struggle. The write-shop brought to our attention that working across a team, co-authorship and mentorship, not only ‘removes’ a writer’s block, but allows the consulted party in the team to think beyond the initial concepts they walked in the room with. We were involved in an interesting discussion with some colleagues about methodologies that they were proposing for their chapter. At the end of that discussion, we realized that there are methodological concepts that we had long put aside, that would not only be useful in the chapter, but provided an opportunity to work with the team (even though their subject area was totally out of mine), based on our (almost forgotten) experience in the method. Just sitting in your own corner as a writer, will get you “something”, but it will limit your impact space. For transformational excellence in research writing, tapping into other researchers expands the intellectual applicability of your own work.
Excellence in Writing necessitates Focus Periods
Many established researchers get tangled up in administrative roles and responsibilities. While in any team administrators grease the wheels, this can quickly turn into reduced productivity, and limited time to mentor early career writers. Through the write -shop, it dawned on us that excellence in research writing needs a clear mind. It needs a lock-space for time that allows for focus on the writing. Of course, this has to be accompanied by a focused reading time as well. Within four focus days, a team of about 15, were able to develop 23 quality draft outputs comprising; eleven book chapters, six discussion papers, three working papers, one journal article, one policy brief, and one case study brief. Assuming the same team dedicates half of their time to writing, in a year (26 weeks), would this not mean over 400 outputs? Such a strategy would move the needle in Africa’s research to 5% of the global output in a few years. Isn’t that what we call transformational excellence in writing?
As the ARIN team involved in the write-shop discovered, a lot more is required in transformational excellence in writing than just sitting behind a desk and tapping on a keyboard. It necessitates leadership, discipline, team work and more.
From inception, there’s need for thought and visionary leadership in a team. This provides inspiration and the requisite enthusiasm to spur excellence all around the team. Such leadership challenges every member of the team to be self-driven towards a shared vision. A vision of not only delivering quality output, but also becoming the best versions of themselves.
Through various activities that promoted social bonding, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, team members felt motivated and invigorated. This renewed energy was important in enhancing everyone’s intellectual capacity in writing and problem solving, which in turn spurred team work and collaboration. Co-production further galvanized the spirit of teamwork, which in turn catapulted the shared vision of the team, and enhanced excellence in the intellectual works.
As this team noted during the reflections on the write-shop, deliberate actions need to be taken and promoted to encourage production of excellent written output. This will go a long way into growing each individual writer’s profile, promote co-production and teamwork, and ultimately grow Africa’s contribution to global research output.