Don’t Write Just Yet: Writing Doesn’t Have to Be (That) Painful

There’s plenty of advice out there on how to be a more productive academic writer. It tends to boil down to binge writing is bad, writing to schedule is good. I’m not going to challenge this, but putting a kind of different version out there. I argue that with the right preparations, writing doesn’t have to be all that painful.

The basic premise is taking the concept of mise en place seriously; that’s what chefs do in the kitchen. Plainly, it means having all the ingredients ready before you start cooking. I argue that once everything is properly ready, once everything is in place, the actual writing isn’t as difficult as it is often said to be. Using a schedule will still be useful, writing is still a job, and breaking down tasks is still a good idea; we just don’t write for writings sake, to get X words on a page each day.

Let’s take a step back. As academics, part of our job is to write. Our biggest enemy is procrastination, because, let’s face it, there’s always something else to do, and we never really have time to write (administration, teaching, supervision, contracted research, family, social engagements, media, outside interests, being tired, …). The problem is that the task of writing a paper, a chapter, or even a book is simply too big. Scheduling and breaking down this task into smaller ones are our friends here.

phd022405s Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham Source:

The preparations before we actually write should also be broken down into smaller tasks. A simple and effective way is to start with the big picture and work the way down. The beginning is actually quite easy: we need a template of a paper (this will vary a bit by disciplines). The next step is to fill in the blanks: for each section (introduction, theory, findings, etc.),we write down a few keywords of what should go in there. What are the major lines of research this paper relates to? What are my contributions? What are the key findings I want to communicate?

At this stage, writing the paper is very easy, because as long as they stay in our heads, all ideas are simple (and brilliant). Putting them on paper often shows us how these ideas are incomplete, which is why many advise to write early and often when doing research. My take on this is to focus on putting it on paper, but forgetting about sentences/prose; keywords will do just as well. This is the stage at which some write a draft abstract, because an abstract will also identify the broad lines of a paper and its main findings — it’s a way to force yourself to define what the paper is about.

Next, we work our way through all the sections, and fill in the blanks (once again), noting what goes into each paragraph. What’s my opening going to be about? What aspects of each literature do I want to refer to? Which figures do I need? What’s my take home message in the conclusion? etc. Again, we’re using keywords, because that’s a way to committing things to paper (and a way to ensure we’re actually making progress). We quickly see if there are gaps at this stage, whether we’re trying to put too much into a paper, or whether the paper will be balanced. If there are gaps, we can do the necessary analysis, or do focused reading (not “I need to do more reading” in general).

Once again, we need another round of filling the blanks. We want to know exactly what goes into each paragraph. I often do this is two rounds, defining what goes in, an then tweaking the order in which bits appear. Each paragraph will have a main idea, and the keywords help us identify we have enough (but not too much) information for each paragraph. At this stage, we should know which papers and authors we’re going to cite (where). We should also know what relationships our hypotheses describe, or which coefficients we want to discuss (and what we want to say about them). Roughly one or two keyword per sentence seems to work out well.

Now everything is in place, well almost. This is the latest moment to decide which journal the paper will target, or ensure we know enough about the chapter requirements. The length of journal articles varies, and at this stage we can make adjustments relatively easily. I usually assign a number of words to each paragraph before I start writing.

At this stage, writing should not be that difficult. Because we have worked our way from the overall structure to how to structure individual paragraphs, we know that the result will be relatively balanced. Because we have put all the keywords, we know we won’t go down a tangent. We also know that each paragraph will contribute to the overall message. So we simply need to write (type) to produce the sentences/prose. With the ideas already on paper, writing really means typing.

Obviously we’ll do a few rounds of editing to polish the paper and make sure everything is right. Because the overall structure is right, we probably won’t need to do time-consuming restructuring when editing. Because each paragraph has a plan itself, we can easily divide the task of writing into many smaller tasks, and we end up with less of this painful cutting down papers. Generally it is the case that the better you are prepared, the less editing there is to do.

This said, we still need to work on our manuscripts regularly, probably daily. It is still the case that the more we write, the better we get at it (as with any task). It is still the case that only words on paper count, but we don’t write for writings sake, and we certainly don’t binge write!

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