Not my title, but the title of the half-day workshop I’ve just attended led by Helen Sword, an academic from New Zealand. It was extremely thought-provoking and has made me question how I write. Please see her webpage, Writer’s Diet for more information and resources. I’d especially recommend the “Writer’s Diet Test” where you can paste up to 1000 words and get it rated for how flabby or fit your prose is (and no I’m not telling).
As a research scientist my main measurable output is peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals. I’ve always found writing papers difficult and frustrating so it was a relief to find that pretty much everyone else also finds writing hard. One thing that particularly struck home was the idea that there is no right way to write; on another training course I had been previously encouraged to write every day, even if only for 30 min, but this has never felt like a good idea as I have always needed to get in the flow. One of Helen’s conclusions from interviewing a large number of successful academic writers is that there is no one single right way – you have to find what works for you. This made me realise that over the years I have been, perhaps sub-conciously, experimenting with different approaches. Below I’ve described what works for me, as well as listing some ideas presented in the workshop that I found particularly appealing.
- Clarity and speed. I’ve found that when I’m writing up a research project if I don’t have a clear understanding of not just what I’ve done but what it means for the broader area then when I try to write it is hard, slow and my language gets very turgid and waffly. This I now take as a warning sign to go and think more and read more. I’ve found giving a talk or seminar about the work forces me to put everything in a logical order and makes me think about the weaknesses. Constructive questions from the audience are always a help too as are questions were it is apparent I didn’t explain something well enough. Then I get the figures “camera ready” – this includes writing the legends. Finally I make a mindmap of the paper which outlines what points I want to make and, crucially, the order that I want to make them. Only then do I start writing. Here I’ve found the key thing for me is to write almost as fast as I can type. Then my language is closer to if I were speaking and is more natural and direct and is less turgid, waffly and impersonal. Once I have a complete version I pace the lab reading it under my breath (i.e. out loud but not so anyone can hear me). I instinctively know when the language is garbled and I correct it straightaway at the computer. Sometimes I print out a version and scribble on it but this seems to take more time. Editing is always hard, but at least you have something almost ready in front of you.
- Frame of mind. I hadn’t really thought of this, but the quality of your writing is very likely to depend on your mood which in turn can depend on what you’ve just done and the surroundings you are in. For example I love writing on trains (in the quiet carriage!). There is something about staring out the window and then writing another couple of sentences. I have tried early in the morning as I’m usually up early but it never works too well. Instead I will try going for a coffee or doing some exercise and then start writing. It is all too easy to get sucked into “more hours spent staring at screen ‘= more writing done”. It is a creative activity, after all.
- Writing as a craft. I can’t really remember being taught much in the way of style or formal grammar at school beyond verbs, nouns and adjectives etc. I think I learnt more grammar from learning foreign languages and comparing back to English as is natural to do. Anway, I have certainly never been directly taught style, so I intend reading some books on style and prose. Let’s hope some of my stylist instincts are not too far off the mark. The other aspect to thinking of writing as a craft is that the main way to get better is practice. So I guess this blog will help…
- Monitor your progress. I admit my heart sank at the thought of counting how many words I’d written each week. Then I remembered RescueTime: this is an app you can put on your PC or Mac and it monitors what other applications you have active and then it emails you every week and tells you how much time you spent on each one. Since I typically only write papers using one application (TeXShopt) I can get a good estimate of how much time I’ve spent in any week on writing.
- Prioritise my writing. Want to write? Put it in my diary. Then let nothing else take priority.
- Using the Pomodoro technique to get over the hill. I find once I’m in the flow with writing I enjoy it and want to keep going, but, and you knew there was a but, it can be hard to get going. Pomodoro is a simple time management technique where you work on a specific task (writing) for 25 mins with no interruptions, no emails, no nothing. Then you take a 5 min break and do it again. I have a simple Pomordoro app for my Mac. You can’t live by Pomorodoro, but I have found it helpful to get me into my flow when I’m starting writing.