on writing: some anecdotal observations, in no particular order

  • Early on in graduate school, I invested in the book “How to Write a Lot“. I enjoyed reading it–mostly because I (mistakenly) enjoyed thinking to myself, “hey, I bet as soon as I finish this book, I’m going to start being super productive!” But I can save you the $9 and tell you there’s really only one take-home point: schedule writing like any other activity, and stick to your schedule no matter what. Though, having said that, I don’t really do that myself. I find I tend to write about 20 hours a week on average. On a very good day, I manage to get a couple of thousand words written, but much more often, I get 200 words written that I then proceed to rewrite furiously and finally trash in frustration. But it all adds up in the long run I guess.
  • Some people are good at writing one thing at a time; they can sit down for a week and crank out a solid draft of a paper without every looking sideways at another project. Personally, unless I have a looming deadline (and I mean a real deadline–more on that below), I find that impossible to do; my general tendency is to work on one writing project for an hour or two, and then switch to something else. Otherwise I pretty much lose my mind. I also find it helps to reward myself–i.e., I’ll work on something I really don’t want to do for an hour, and then play video games for a while switch to writing something more pleasant.
  • I can rarely get any ‘real’ writing (i.e., stuff that leads to publications) done after around 6 pm; late mornings (i.e., right after I wake up) are usually my most productive writing time. And I generally only write for fun (blogging, writing fiction, etc.) after 9 pm. There are exceptions, but by and large that’s my system.
  • I don’t write many drafts. I don’t mean that I never revise papers, because I do–obsessively. But I don’t sit down thinking “I’m going to write a very rough draft, and then I’ll go back and clean up the language.” I sit down thinking “I’m going to write a perfect paper the first time around,” and then I very slowly crank out a draft that’s remarkably far from being perfect. I suspect the former approach is actually the more efficient one, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I hate seeing malformed sentences on the page, even if I know I’m only going to delete them later. It always amazes and impresses me when I get Word documents from collaborators with titles like “AmazingNatureSubmissionVersion18″. I just give my documents all the title “paper_draft”. There might be a V2 or a V3, but there will never, ever be a V18.
  • Papers are not meant to be written linearly. I don’t know anyone who starts with the Introduction, then does the Methods and Results, and then finishes with the Discussion. Personally I don’t even write papers one section at a time. I usually start out by frantically writing down ideas as they pop into my head, and jumping around the document as I think of other things I want to say. I frequently write half a sentence down and then finish it with a bunch of question marks (like so: ???) to indicate I need to come back later and patch it up. Incidentally, this is also why I’m terrified to ever show anyone any of my unfinished paper drafts: an unsuspecting reader would surely come away thinking I suffer from a serious thought disorder. (I suppose they might be right.)
  • Okay, that last point is not entirely true. I don’t write papers completely haphazardly; I do tend to write Methods and Results before Intro and Discussion. I gather that this is a pretty common approach. On the rare occasions when I’ve started writing the Introduction first, I’ve invariably ended up having to completely rewrite it, because it usually turns out the results aren’t actually what I thought they were.
  • My sense is that most academics get more comfortable writing as time goes on. Relatively few grad students have the perseverance to rapidly crank out publication-worthy papers from day 1 (I was definitely not one of them). I don’t think this is just a matter of practice; I suspect part of it is a natural maturation process. People generally get more conscientious as they age; it stands to reason that writing (as an activity most people find unpleasant) should get easier too. I’m better at motivating myself to write papers now, but I’m also much better about doing the dishes and laundry–and I’m pretty sure that’s not because practice makes dishwashing perfect.
  • When I started grad school, I was pretty sure I’d never publish anything, let alone graduate, because I’d never handed in a paper as an undergraduate that wasn’t written at the last minute, whereas in academia, there are virtually no hard deadlines (see below). I’m not sure exactly what changed. I’m still continually surprised every time something I wrote gets published. And I often catch myself telling myself, “hey, self, how the hell did you ever manage to pay attention long enough to write 5,000 words?” And then I reply to myself, “well, self, since you ask, I took a lot of stimulants.”
  • I pace around a lot when I write. A lot. To the point where my labmates–who are all uncommonly nice people–start shooting death glares my way. It’s a heritable tendency, I guess (the pacing, not the death glare attraction); my father also used to pace obsessively. I’m not sure what the biological explanation for it is. My best guess is it’s an arousal-mediated effect: I can think pretty well when I’m around other people, or when I’m in motion, but if I’m sitting at a desk and I don’t already know exactly what I want to say, I can’t get anything done. I generally pace around the lab or house for a while figuring out what I want to say, and then I sit down and write until I’ve forgotten what I want to say, or decide I didn’t really want to say that after all. In practice this usually works out to 10 minutes of pacing for every 5 minutes of writing. I envy people who can just sit down and calmly write for two or three hours without interruption (though I don’t think there are that many of them). At the same time, I’m pretty sure I burn a lot of calories this way.
  • I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that I much prefer writing grant proposals to writing papers–to the point where I actually enjoy writing grant proposals. I suspect the main reason for this is that grant proposals have a kind of openness that papers don’t; with a paper, you’re constrained to telling the story the data actually support, whereas a grant proposal is as good as your vision of what’s possible (okay, and plausible). A second part of it is probably the novelty of discovery: once you conduct your analyses, all that’s left is to tell other people what you found, which (to me) isn’t so exciting. I mean, I already think I know what’s going on; what do I care if you know? Whereas when writing a grant, a big part of the appeal for me is that I could actually go out and discover new stuff–just as long as I can convince someone to give me some money first.
  • At a a departmental seminar attended by about 30 people, I once heard a student express concern about an in-progress review article that he and several of the other people at the seminar were collaboratively working on. The concern was that if all of the collaborators couldn’t agree on what was going to go in the paper (and they didn’t seem to be able to at that point), the paper wouldn’t get written in time to make the rapidly approaching deadline dictated by the journal editor. A senior and very brilliant professor responded to the student’s concern by pointing out that this couldn’t possibly be a real problem seeing as in reality there is actually no such thing as a hard writing deadline. This observation didn’t go over so well with some of the other senior professors, who weren’t thrilled that their students were being handed the key to the kingdom of academic procrastination so early in their careers. But it was true, of course: with the major exception of grant proposals (EDIT: and as Garrett points out in the comments below, conference publications in disciplines like Computer Science), most of the things academics write (journal articles, reviews, commentaries, book chapters, etc.) operate on a very flexible schedule. Usually when someone asks you to write something for them, there is some vague mention somewhere of some theoretical deadline, which is typically a date that seems so amazingly far off into the future that you wonder if you’ll even be the same person when it rolls around. And then, much to your surprise, the deadline rolls around and you realize that you must in fact really bea different person, because you don’t seem to have any real desire to work on this thing you signed up for, and instead of writing it, why don’t you just ask the editor for an extension while you go rustle up some motivation. So you send a polite email, and the editor grudgingly says, “well, hmm, okay, you can have another two weeks,” to which you smile and nod sagely, and then, two weeks later, you send another similarly worded but even more obsequious email that starts with the words “so, about that extension…”

    The basic point here is that there’s an interesting dilemma: even though there rarely are any strict writing deadlines, it’s to almost everyone’s benefit to pretend they exist. If I ever find out that the true deadline (insofar as such a thing exists) for the chapter I’m working on right now is 6 months from now and not 3 months ago (which is what they told me), I’ll probably relax and stop working on it for, say, the next 5 and a half months. I sometimes think that the most productive academics are the ones who are just really really good at repeatedly lying to themselves.

  • I’m a big believer in structured procrastination when it comes to writing. I try to always have a really unpleasant but not-so-important task in the background, which then forces me to work on only-slightly-unpleasant-but-often-more-important tasks. Except it often turns out that the unpleasant-but-no-so-important task is actually an unpleasant-but-really-important task after all, and then I wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking of all the ways I’ve screwed myself over. No, just kidding. I just bitch about it to my wife for a while and then drown my sorrows in an extra helping of ice cream.
  • I’m really, really, bad at restarting projects I’ve put on the back burner for a while. Right now there are 3 or 4 papers I’ve been working on on-and-off for 3 or 4 years, and every time I pick them up, I write a couple of hundred words and then put them away for a couple of months. I guess what I’m saying is that if you ever have the misfortune of collaborating on a paper with me, you should make sure to nag me several times a week until I get so fed up with you I sit down and write the damn paper. Otherwise it may never see the light of day.
  • I like writing fiction in my spare time. I also occasionally write whiny songs. I’m pretty terrible at both of these things, but I enjoy them, and I’m told (though I don’t believe it for a second) that that’s the important thing.

4 thoughts on “on writing: some anecdotal observations, in no particular order”

  1. In computer science, conferences are the primary publication venue, and you better believe that they have deadlines. (Even the random theory guy whose publications list I just checked had more than half in conference proceedings, and in systems that ratio is even higher — 96/104 for one faculty member I checked.)

  2. Thanks Garrett, I totally forgot about conference publications in computer science; I was overgeneralizing from my own experience in psychology. I’ve updated the post.

  3. I often find that after trying to put thoughts to paper, well electrons to disk, a few hours of hard cycling clears my mind – particulary because I can’t write anything down while pedaling, so I have to organize it in my mind.

    (I’m writing this while a looming deadline for a conference abstract rapidly approaches.)

  4. It’s like reading about myself, with the main difference being that I don’t write as much each week and tend to do most of my writing in the evening. I write very few drafts, and I often need deadlines just to stop me from spending entire evenings writing and deleting one paragraph.

    I tend to pace a lot as well. I’ll write a few hundred words then get up and wander round for a bit. I’ll often do that when I just want to think about something for a while. I’ll probably do it right after sending this post.

    I’m always amazed by people who write essay plans and the like, since, with the exception of the barest of intro/methods/results/discussion frameworks, I can only ever structure my writing on the fly, writing a few paragraphs and then moving them around to get the right flow.

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