Tag Archives: writing

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.

will trade two Methods sections for twenty-two subjects worth of data

The excellent and ever-candid Candid Engineer in Academia has an interesting post discussing the love-hate relationship many scientists who work in wet labs have with benchwork. She compares two very different perspectives:

She [a current student] then went on to say that, despite wanting to go to grad school, she is pretty sure she doesn’t want to continue in academia beyond the Ph.D. because she just loves doing the science so much and she can’t imagine ever not being at the bench.

Being young and into the benchwork, I remember once asking my grad advisor if he missed doing experiments. His response: “Hell no.” I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I do. So I wonder if my student will always feel the way she does now- possessing of that unbridled passion for the pipet, that unquenchable thirst for the cell culture hood.

Wet labs are pretty much nonexistent in psychology–I’ve never had to put on gloves or goggles to do anything that I’d consider an “experiment”, and I’ve certainly never run the risk of  spilling dangerous chemicals all over myself–so I have no opinion at all about benchwork. Maybe I’d love it, maybe I’d hate it; I couldn’t tell you. But Candid Engineer’s post did get me thinking about opinions surrounding the psychological equivalent of benchwork–namely, collecting data form human subjects. My sense is that there’s somewhat more consensus among psychologists, in that most of us don’t seem to like data collection very much. But there are plenty of exceptions, and there certainly are strong feelings on both sides.

More generally, I’m perpetually amazed at the wide range of opinions people can hold about the various elements of scientific research, even when the people doing the different-opinion-holding all work in very similar domains. For instance, my favorite aspect of the research I do, hands down, is data analysis. I’d be ecstatic if I could analyze data all day and never have to worry about actually communicating the results to anyone (though I enjoy doing that too). After that, there are activities like writing and software development, which I spend a lot of time doing, and occasionally enjoy, but also frequently find very frustrating. And then, at the other end, there are aspects of research that I find have little redeeming value save for their instrumental value in supporting other, more pleasant, activities–nasty, evil activities like writing IRB proposals and, yes, collecting data.

To me, collecting data is something you do because you’re fundamentally interested in some deep (or maybe not so deep) question about how the mind works, and the only way to get an answer is to actually interrogate people while they do stuff in a controlled environment. It isn’t something I do for fun. Yet I know people who genuinely seem to love collecting data–or, for that matter, writing Methods sections or designing new experiments–even as they loathe perfectly pleasant activities like, say, sitting down to analyze the data they’ve collected, or writing a few lines of code that could save them hours’ worth of manual data entry. On a personal level, I find this almost incomprehensible: how could anyone possibly enjoy collecting data more than actually crunching the numbers and learning new things? But I know these people exist, because I’ve talked to them. And I recognize that, from their perspective, I’m the guy with the strange views. They’re sitting there thinking: what kind of joker actually likes to turn his data inside out several dozen times? What’s wrong with just running a simple t-test and writing up the results as fast as possible, so you can get back to the pleasure of designing and running new experiments?

This of course leads us directly to the care bears fucking tea party moment where I tell you how wonderful it is that we all have these different likes and dislikes. I’m not being sarcastic; it really is great. Ultimately, it works to everyone’s advantage that we enjoy different things, because it means we get to collaborate on projects and take advantage of complementary strengths and interests, instead of all having to fight over who gets to write the same part of the Methods section. It’s good that there are some people who love benchwork and some people who hate it, and it’s good that there are people who’re happy to write software that other people who hate writing software can use. We don’t all have to pretend we understand each other; it’s enough just to nod and smile and say “but of course you can write the Methods for that paper; I really don’t mind. And yes, I guess I can run some additional analyses for you, really, it’s not too much trouble at all.”

academic bloggers on blogging

Is it wise for academics to blog? Depends on who you ask. Scott Sumner summarizes his first year of blogging this way:

Be careful what you wish for.  Last February 2nd I started this blog with very low expectations.  During the first three weeks most of the comments were from Aaron Jackson and Bill Woolsey.  I knew I wasn’t a good writer, years ago I got a referee report back from an anonymous referee (named McCloskey) who said “if the author had used no commas at all, his use of commas would have been more nearly correct.”  Ouch!  But it was true, others said similar things.  And I was also pretty sure that the content was not of much interest to anyone.

Now my biggest problem is time—I spend 6 to 10 hours a day on the blog, seven days a week.  Several hours are spent responding to reader comments and the rest is spent writing long-winded posts and checking other economics blogs.  And I still miss many blogs that I feel I should be reading. …

Regrets?  I’m pretty fatalistic about things.  I suppose it wasn’t a smart career move to spend so much time on the blog.  If I had ignored my commenters I could have had my manuscript revised by now. …  And I really don’t get any support from Bentley, as far as I know the higher ups don’t even know I have a blog. So I just did 2500 hours of uncompensated labor.

I don’t think Sumner actually regrets blogging (as the rest of his excellent post makes clear), but he does seem to think it’s hurt him professionally in some ways–most notably, because of all the time he spends blogging that he could be doing something else (like revising that manuscript).

Andrew Gelman has a very different take:

I agree with Sethi that Sumner’s post is interesting and captures much of the blogging experience. But I don’t agree with that last bit about it being a bad career move. Or perhaps Sumner was kidding? (It’s notoriously difficult to convey intonation in typed speech.) What exactly is the marginal value of his having a manuscript revised? It’s not like Bentley would be compensating him for that either, right? For someone like Sumner (or, for that matter, Alex Tabarrok or Tyler Cowen or my Columbia colleague Peter Woit), blogging would seem to be an excellent career move, both by giving them and their ideas much wider exposure than they otherwise would’ve had, and also (as Sumner himself notes) by being a convenient way to generate many thousands of words that can be later reworked into a book. This is particularly true of Sumner (more than Tabarrok or Cowen or, for that matter, me) because he tends to write long posts on common themes. (Rajiv Sethi, too, might be able to put together a book or some coherent articles by tying together his recent blog entries.)

Blogging and careers, blogging and careers . . . is blogging ever really bad for an academic career? I don’t know. I imagine that some academics spend lots of time on blogs that nobody reads, and that could definitely be bad for their careers in an opportunity-cost sort of way. Others such as Steven Levitt or Dan Ariely blog in an often-interesting but sometimes careless sort of way. This might be bad for their careers, but quite possibly they’ve reached a level of fame in which this sort of thing can’t really hurt them anymore. And this is fine; such researchers can make useful contributions with their speculations and let the Gelmans and Fungs of the world clean up after them. We each have our role in this food web. … And then of course there are the many many bloggers, academic and otherwise, whose work I assume I would’ve encountered much more rarely were they not blogging.

My own experience falls much more in line with Gelman’s here; my blogging experience has been almost wholly positive. Some of the benefits I’ve found to blogging regularly:

  • I’ve had many interesting email exchanges with people that started via a comment on something I wrote, and some of these will likely turn into collaborations at some point in the future.
  • I’ve been exposed to lots of interesting things (journal articles, blog posts, datasets, you name it) I wouldn’t have come across otherwise–either via links left in comments or sent by email, or while rooting around the web for things to write about.
  • I’ve gotten to publicize and promote my own research, which is always nice. As Gelman points out, it’s easier to learn about other people’s work if those people are actively blogging about it. I think that’s particularly true for people who are just starting out their careers.
  • I think blogging has improved both my ability and my willingness to write. By nature, I don’t actually like writing very much, and (like most academics I know) I find writing journal articles particularly unpleasant. Forcing myself to blog (semi-)regularly has instilled a certain discipline about writing that I haven’t always had, and if nothing else, it’s good practice.
  • I get to share ideas and findings I find interesting and/or important with other people. This is already what most academics do over drinks at conferences (and I think it’s a really important part of science), and blogging seems like a pretty natural extension.

All this isn’t to say that there aren’t any potential drawbacks to blogging. I think there are at least two important ones. One is the obvious point that, unless you’re blogging anonymously, it’s probably unwise to say things online that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in person. So, despite being a class-A jackass pretty critical by nature, I try to discuss things I like as often as things I don’t like–and to keep the tone constructive whenever I do the latter.

The other potential drawback, which both Sumner and Gelman allude to, is the opportunity cost. If you’re spending half of your daylight hours blogging, there’s no question it’s going to have an impact on your academic productivity. But in practice, I don’t think blogging too much is a problem many academic bloggers have. I usually find myself wishing most of the bloggers I read posted more often. In my own case, I almost exclusively blog after around 9 or 10 pm, when I’m no longer capable of doing sustained work on manuscripts anyway (I’m generally at my peak in the late morning and early afternoon). So, for me, blogging has replaced about ten hours a week of book reading/TV watching/web surfing, while leaving the amount of “real” work I do largely unchanged. That’s not really much of a cost, and I might even classify it as another benefit. With the admittedly important caveat that watching less television has made me undeniably useless at trivia night.

my new favorite blog

…teaches you How To Write Badly Well. For instance, if you want to write badly well, you must Refuse to leave the present tense:

I sit at my desk and remember how, years ago, I wonder what my life will be like when I am fifty, which I am now. I’m imagining that I’m living in a big house, I remember as I sit in my one-bedroom apartment. Now I pour myself a drink and cast my mind back to a time when I’m full of hope and passion which is never to be extinguished, as it is now.

‘What am I doing?’ I mutter to myself, taking a sip of my drink. In my memory, I’m seven years old, sitting in the highest branches of a tree which is being planted a hundred years before I am born. Now, though, the tree is long dead. I’m chopping it down at the age of twenty and thinking about when it is supporting my weight at the age of seven. I look at my watch.

‘Late,’ I mutter to myself. It is eight; the retrospective is just starting, half an hour ago.