Beki Grinter

How to Write Faster

In academia, discipline, empirical on August 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I’ve just finished reading Michael Agger’s essay in Slate Magazine (thanks Sarita Yardi for pointing it out to me): How to write faster.

Agger reiterates the Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent piece in recounting the anxiety that people feel about writing. But then goes on to describe different approaches to writing. We don’t talk much about the process of writing. The products yes, the fact that we are writing yes, but how do we write?

I write linearly by which I mean I start a paper at the abstract and keep going until I have gotten to the conclusions. No drafting. No outlining. I just start writing text. Sounds great perhaps. But the failure modes are obvious. When I write the abstract and introduction I have inevitably started to write the paper that the conclusions and discussion won’t exactly be about. I attribute this shift in content to final steps of the analysis process occurring in the writing itself. Another cause, I’ll read something as I am writing and decide I need to incorporate its results into my paper and that inevitably changes the direction.

The product of these course corrections is that I frequently have a paper that I have written the introduction for repeatedly. And now I’m wondering whether anyone whose reviewed my papers is thinking, “oh yeah.” (This a the risk of not posting anonymously.). But, I’m going to come to my own rescue by saying that no-one is perfect and that we should all share our writing processes.

Agger also mentions Robert Boice. Boice’s advice presumably comes from his advice for New Faculty book. I’ve heard very good things about this book. I’ve read some of it, and I have to admit that it doesn’t speak to me quite as much as I think it does other people. But, one thing I do take away from the book is that it’s important not to let the stress of faculty life overwhelm you. He advocates for stepping back from and considering actions, and making time to step away and get to a point where you can make decisions that prioritize the important over the immediate, and help you move forward in reasoned ways. I think that’s great advice.

And in writing one way I do this is by turning off my email. This works pretty well for me, because if I have a lapse in concentration and move to my dock (Mac user) I don’t see the little red icon of “unread mail” (and since I am someone whose inbox is my to-do list, the unread mail icon is equivalent to the new mail to read icon. I know that’s not true for everyone, because once I studied different email habits.

The blog is also my “write daily” practice. I’m not sure whether I notice the affects in my academic writing yet. I notice it in my academic thinking more. And it really helped me when I gave a talk. So, I feel that it’s generally a positive thing. The blog has also made me realize that my writing can be wordy. I spend time trimming the number of words. And I hope you’ll all be pleased to hear that I try to do the same in my email too. I also know that some of you won’t believe this, but it’s true, and for the rest I blame my education.

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  1. I agree with the “turn off the email” point. When i write i am in an offline system so i do not have that kind of distraction. The most irritating thing in this machine (which is online) is the chat application (Pidgin) blinks when some one sends some message. It is immensely annoying when working. Even when working offline, sometimes i hallucinate that something is blinking on the corner of the screen!

    I have some problems writhing anything. I come up with the draft idea quickly and write the thing somewhat fast, but i keep on refining again and again, and this process seems to never stop. After every refinement i have a gut feeling that something is missing or incorrect or could have been better. I understand that one writeup could not contain all of the details and neither it has to be perfect, but it is very difficult to stop myself to get yet another refinement done. This terribly delays the final writeup (for the blog or some other media). This is kind of a disorder I think. So i am now trying to take an aggressive approach to write more frequently and write at one sitting or two.

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