The Scholar's Frenemy

Jul 17 2012 Published by under [Information&Communication]

Your scholarly activity may involve cultures or rats, people or databases.  You may experiment in a jungle, a shiny lab, or a clinic.

No matter what the particulars, you receive no credit for your research until the world learns about it through official channels.

Yup, you will have to write. Even an open access, online-only new-age "journal" requires words.

That's why most scholars view a blank page, be it paper or on a computer monitor, as their major enemy; yet they must confront it and make it their friend by filling it with meaning.

Why is the writing process so hard for so many people? First, many say they have no time. The other aspects of their jobs consume every waking minute, so they cannot find the block of time they need to write. Second, when they find a few minutes, they become paralyzed. They try to self-edit and make their first draft ready-for-publication, ultimately resulting in deserting a blank document at the end of their writing period.

No soldier goes into battle without tools or instructions. Here I hope to collect some weapons in the war on empty word processing documents.

Just Write

The most important rule of writing is to make like Nike and JUST DO IT! Turn off the tiny editor in your head and grind out words. A first draft is never a final draft; even a final accepted manuscript undergoes more editing before actual publication much of the time. The first step in conquering the blank page is learning to wound it with fonts rather than holding out for the final killer prose.

Make Time

Many writers swear by a scheduled time for writing. They put it on their calendar. They make it a sacred event, something that will not be interrupted.

Some of us cannot quite make that happen, at least not as regularly. For us, the strategy comes down to writing when we can.

Remember, no one concentrates well for more than about 30 minutes; we would be healthier if we got up and moved about every 20 minutes or so. Whether scheduled or not, write like hell for 20-30 minutes, take a bio break, and then come back and consider your words. Or do something else; at least you have words in your document! Now you do not have to start a project because it's already begun! You have made it through the blank page, the first barrier to your project! Congratulations!

We all have times when we sit staring at our blinking cursor, daring us to enter insipid statements with our keyboards. How can we overcome this fear (or laziness; I'll admit to it)? There are some tools.

Structured Writing Blitz

This technique works well with a partner or in breakout groups. Everyone begins by writing about 4 sentences along the lines of:

  1. What is the problem?     This maybe an actual problem. It may be a hypothesis to test.
  2. Where do you need to go?     What's the ideal solution for the problem? How would you test your hypothesis?
  3. What is the solution?     How can you make this happen? What resources and collaborators do you need?
  4. What are the alternatives?     If you disprove your hypothesis, what next? If your solution doesn't work, where else do you turn?

After getting this skeleton together, you can start fleshing out your idea. Then, swap documents with your partner or share them in the group. Let the others poke holes in your thoughts, trying to kill your "baby" (it's much easier than trying to shoot down your idea yourself). Take notes and began expanding and editing; it's a great way to start an abstract or a paper or a proposal.

Software Slave Masters

Sometimes you just need that stick to make writing happen. For me, Dr. Wicked's Write or Die, as its tagline goes, puts the "prod in productivity." You set up how many words you want to write in a given time period. A bare-bones text box appears; you can even disable the backspace key to prevent self-editing. If you slow down, the screen gradually turns color and warnings appear. In kamikaze mode, slowing down results in your words disappearing from the screen. When you hit goal, a congratulatory message appears.

Some programs work as carrots instead of sticks. Written? Kitten awards you with a cute kitten every 100 words, While not the motivation I need, it does work for some people.

Some more generic productivity techniques can also work. The Pomodoro (named after the Italian kitchen timer shaped like a tomato) involves chopping tasks into 25 minute blocks followed by 5 minute breaks. That's just about the perfect length of time for a concentrated task like writing.

Low-Tech Free Association

Stop "Writing"

Sometimes a text document is not the place to begin. Sometimes you need to start with something less structured.

Like a whiteboard. Scribbling on the walls may be forbidden, but scribbling on a whiteboard lets you make somewhat random thoughts visible. They can then be coded, erased or rearranged and reconnected as necessary. I find this structure far less confining than a traditional outline although both accomplish roughly the same degree of organization.

If you just cannot bring yourself to use writing utensils, software can provide a similar free-though experience.  Mind-mappers such as Personal Brain let you connect, reconnect, interconnect and otherwise manipulate items in a fluid nonlinear manner.

Finally, some folks just do not like the keyboard or the pen. Through the use of a secretary or voice recognition software they can generate their written documents. I am a far more visual than aural person, but there are those who still swear by their Dictaphones.

Find Accountability

Probably the most important step you can take is making writing social. I do not mean taking your laptop to the coffee shop and making friends (although that might work); no, you need colleagues who will take you to task if you fail to write something. They can also be excellent editors and critics, as well as cheer you on when writer's block occurs.

Find a small group of folks who also write and need motivation. You do not have to be in the same academic area; the point here is to make each other accountable to the group for getting things done. Groups can even be virtual. If you tweet, search the hashtag #madwriting. Folks will set up a session, write like hell for a given period, and then tweet their word output.

In Conclusion

A number of tools may help you start projects. Some tools can prod you along, especially if you have others holding you accountable. At the end of the day, the only way you can generate your documents is to sit down, shut up, and write.







9 responses so far

  • Those are great ideas! I always find it easier (or at least less daunting) to 'edit crap' than to start from scratch. So writing something, anything is the goal of the first #madwriting session.
    I have to say that kitten reward sounds pretty great.

    • Pascale says:

      You are so right about the power of getting that first horrible draft on paper, even if it bears NO resemblance to the final product.
      I have found the stick more powerful than the kitten, but whatever works.

  • It is also really important to recognize that even though your not dragging a pen on paper or hitting keys on a keyboard, you may still already be "writing", in the sense of preparing your work in your head before getting it on paper. Different people write differently, and the notion that you should just force out some shitty draft no matter how you feel about it is not right for everyone.

    For me, my writing process involves a lot of what might seem like procrastination from the outside, but I have learned to recognize as part of the process. When I do first put fingers to keyboard, what comes out is always very polished and near-final draft quality.

    • Pascale says:

      Some folks (Bob Chickenshit comes to mind) spit out nearly perfect prose. Those writers do not need this advice; they are not having issues.

      Most people do not find writing easy. While some thought is always appropriate (otherwise you may as well just let monkeys hammer on keyboards), many people get hung up in mental masturbation, trying to get the words right in their heads. In the absence of a deadline, they may never get anything written. This post is for them.

    • TheGrinch says:


      That's what I want to write like. Maybe, someday! How did you get to where you are now?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    When I hit a writing block, sometimes I would get out one of my past publications and reread it. Then I would say to myself, 'That was awsome!", and start typing.

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