Start writing before you are ready

Perhaps nothing separates successful from struggling academics as much as a facility with writing. You don’t need me to tell you that you should be writing every day at a certain time, for a certain number of minutes. You may be crushed with other kinds of work, but you neglect writing even for one work day at your mortal academic peril.

What should you write? Some will tell you that this is less important than that you write. You could write a blog. You could write cohesive notes for a future project. You could write a letter to your parents, or to your children, or to both if you are lucky.

But, since we are talking about academic success, it is probably best if you write something that directly contributes to that success: grant proposals and articles. But, you say, you have just submitted all the grant proposals you are likely to write for awhile. After all, the next NSF preproposal deadline is not until 23 January for DEB or 18 January for IOS. Why start now? Your research is going great, but the projects you have direct charge over are not at the writing stage. Your students have not recently given you manuscripts to review. What should you write now?

Well, first of all, there should always be papers or proposals you are working on. Don’t wait for deadlines to begin developing new proposals. Active research can benefit if you craft an introduction and a methods section before the work is done. Even if these change a lot before the final version comes along, it is good to lay them out now. Your students should also do this. If you are all caught up on this, write a review or a perspective. Teach others how to think about your field in the broadest sense. Don’t have an idea? Find one. Collaborate with someone distant to come up with something new. Write a paper on your core area for a different audience. Be the one that defines your field.

But, you tell me, you are working on a review. However, it is in the information gathering stage, not the writing stage. You are not ready to begin writing. Do it anyway. Even if you have not entirely decided what your review will be about in detail, you can begin writing. Write an abstract. That will help define the project, even if you go in a different direction as you get seduced by the literature. Write a little bit after reading a few papers. Read for an hour or two, write for an hour, for example.

All the other advice pieces on writing say I must not begin until I have an outline. I do not have an outline. I cannot have an outline until I have read many more of the hundred or so papers that go into writing a review, even if fewer ultimately get cited. How can I start now? Well, you may begin now. You should have an idea of the narrative flow, an idea of the story you want to tell, at least for a small piece. You can write this small piece before you know exactly what big picture it will fit into. The act of writing itself helps to define how you think about the material. Writing is a profoundly creative act that helps you find linkages and insights that were not clear to you before. The sooner you begin writing, the better your piece will be.

The flip side of early writing is a willingness to jettison text that ultimately does not fit in the final story. This is fine. The act of writing has served its creative purpose. You have plenty of text to use. Hone it down to tell the best possible story on your subject. But keep on writing all through the process.

OK, now I’ll get back to that review I’m writing and write away, though I’m far from a complete outline. I have my laptop on a 40 by 30 inch pad of newsprint and scrawl bits of outlines, references, and insights all over it. Wish me luck!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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3 Responses to Start writing before you are ready

  1. Nancy Dudek says:

    If you don’t know what to write, dig up something old that you wrote a long time ago and re-write it. You’ll be surprised how forgetting about your document and editing it later will make your words really shine.

    • Wow! What a great idea! Or would it be too painful? I’m trying to get my students to write a thousand words a month on anything with not too much success. Maybe I’ll have them rewrite their grad school application essays. Or their undergrad essays if they still have them!

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