It’s almost the end of the summer, which marks the end of writing season in academia. Here is some advice for writing a scientific paper, as told through a series of tweets. What would you add?
Tag Archives: writing
One of my recent blog posts entitled “just write, damn it” got a lot of hits and positive feedback. All the feedback was for just writing and none was in favor of planning first. I was surprised that my methodological and analytical readers preferred to cannonball into writing without a lot of planning.
Someone told me about an approach to writing a dissertation that was somewhere in between just writing willy nilly and planning. It’s called the One Draft PhD Dissertation [pdf] by John Carlis, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Minnesota. His approach is to sketch a blueprint of a dissertation by planning what will be in each paragraph and then jump in and write each of those paragraphs. He writes:
What’s my story? While writing my dissertation and, at the same time, working as a professor (yes, it was stressful), several streams of thought happily converged. I read lots about writing, and was particularly struck by the forward to the John McPhee Reader, which described his disciplined, design-before-write way of work. I read Richard Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, which has this message that translates to writing: teaching (writing) is about them, the students (readers), not the teacher (author). I taught software development using Yourdon and Constantine’s “Structured Development” (Addison-Wesley, 1975). Convergence began when the strong parallels in their content struck me. By then I already believed that software should be designed and not hacked, and, coming to the same conclusion about a dissertation, I decided to try to transfer software notions to writing. Since a paragraph is a unit of development, like a software procedure, I, following McPhee, chose to design everything down to the paragraph topic sentence level before writing. And it worked!
The one draft dissertation is a 5 step process:
- Believe you can do it.
- Understand that the purpose of a dissertation is to defend your claimed contributions to your field.
- Write for the right audience. Start by sketching a blueprint by writing for yourself then do the formal writing for your committee.
- Acquire draft writing skills (paragraph topic sentences, story telling, and logic to tie paragraphs together to tell your story)
- Design a dissertation.
What does “draft” mean? Here a draft is a completed unit, something that you give to others for review. I do not consider small scale revising, say editing within a paragraph while leaving the structure alone, the same as re-drafting. Do not misunderstand; “one draft” does not mean that you just start from a blank slate with final words of truth and beauty rolling off your fingertips. No, producing a dissertation is work, but it is merely work, not some mystical thing… You should believe that you can produce a one-draft dissertation, because focusing on contributions allows you to first choose vocabulary, craft figures, and grow a story tree down to paragraph topic sentences, and to then, for an audience of other experts, draft, one at a time, what you have the skill to draft, namely, paragraphs.
This approach has been tested on his students. It’s similar to one of my writer’s block antidotes. When I’ve struggled with writing something new, I often dive in and plan my story paragraph by paragraph by writing topic sentences, much like in the One Draft Dissertation. It’s planning, but it feels like another way to jump in and write. Just write topic sentences, damn it.
Finally, here is the average length of a dissertation by field, courtesy of beckmw.wordpress.com.
I’ve had little time to write lately, so writing feels like a guilty pleasure when I have the time to do it. I am advising four PhD students who often ask me about the writing process. I’ve almost forgotten about how hard technical writing was for me back when I was in their shoes.
Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself jarred my memory. This weekend, I was listening to the audiobook while working on on my yard. One passage about writing got my attention:
[Bill] Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: “One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damned thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?” These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.
Part one is really great advice. I’m a firm believer in writing as you go. I’m not so sure about part two for students writing their first article or thesis. First, most of the time it is even feasible to write until you reach the end. Second, organization helps when writing a lengthy manuscript (lengthy here is relative to newspaper articles). It’s usually easier to write when you have an outline that lays out your ideas in a straightforward fashion. You should know where you’re going. But if organization paralyzes you, I recommend just starting the damned thing and reorganizing later. Students seem to struggle with writing sins of omission – the biggest mistake is not getting started. If you want to finish something, you need to start it first.
When searching for Roger Ebert’s comment on writing, I found similar advice from Matt Zoller Seitz about writing movie reviews on rogerebert.com:
Just write, damn it. I believe that ninety percent of writer’s block is not the fault of the writer. It’s the fault of the writer’s wrongheaded educational conditioning. We’re taught to write via a 20th century industrial model that’s boringly linear and predictable: What’s your topic sentence? What are your sections? What’s your conclusion? Nobody wants to read a piece that’s structured that way. Even if they did, the form would be more a hindrance than a help to the writing process, because it makes the writer settle on a thesis before he or she has had a chance to wade around in the ideas and inspect them. So to Hell with the outline. Just puke on the page, knowing that you can clean it up and make it structurally sound later. Your mind is a babbling lunatic. It’s Dennis Hopper, jumping all over the place, free associating, digressing, doubling back, exploding in profanity and absurdity and nonsense. Stop ordering it to calm down and speak clearly. Listen closely and take dictation. Be a stenographer for your subconscious. Then rewrite and edit.
This isn’t quite the right advice for writing a thesis, but students should hear this. Students know they are supposed to organize. They seem less familiar with the idea of puking on the page, knowing that they can clean it up and make it structurally sound later. The latter approach is how I start almost all of my blog posts (most get cleaned up later).
How do you write?