Recently there’s been a lot of talk on blogs and twitter related to academic writing and ideas. I’ve been struggling a bit (maybe more than a bit) in these areas lately.
DNLee’s piece on fear of academic writing struck a real chord with me. We’ll not discuss how many papers I’m essentially sitting on right now. Several literally only need to be formatted and submitted (side note: can scientific journals please just agree on at least reference format already?). Others were recently rejected and I need to spend some time with the reviewer comments before sending them back out again.
And yet they sit, sometimes untouched for months. This is Not Good. Why do I do this?
In response to DNLee’s post, the always brilliant Dr. Isis shared her thoughts on the writing process. My process is similar to hers in some ways, different in others. While I wish it had occurred to me to put a giant whiteboard in my startup budget, it didn’t. Even so, when I sit down to analyze some new data I start by writing my research question(s) on a blank piece of paper. Usually with a Sharpie because this seems like an important occasion to be bold. Then, I write out what each table will be and then each figure. If I’m not sure whether something is better in a table or figure, I note that too.
Every single time I analyze my descriptive variables first. This is usually Table 1., though I’ve occasionally written a paper that didn’t require that standard descriptive information. Each subsequent step of the analysis is dictated by my research questions and the data I need to show to address the question. Sometime during grad school I also started writing exactly which statistics I ran (because I would sometimes forget which confounders were included) and any findings that come out of each step. Explicitly. With a Sharpie. Then it’s back to the computer and I actually make the tables and figures. Then, I print out all of my tables and figures and move away from the computer, somewhere that I can spread everything out and look at it. At this point I usually scribble down some thoughts about interpretation. Sometimes I talk to other people, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I wait a day before I do anything else. Next, I write the results. While I’m writing the results I will also scroll down and add bullets to the discussion because that’s usually when I make most of the connections that need to be made in that section.
This is the first place I tend to get hung up. At first I would self-edit too much while trying to write the discussion. I’d get hung up on whether that sentence sounded weird or if that transition sucked. Eventually I realized that and started forcing myself to quit it already. Now, if I hate a sentence, I’ll actually type something like “that sentence sucks – fix it” in italics and just keep going. Unfortunately, I’ve sent a draft off to a coauthor with a statement like that in there more than once – they’ve come to expect it from me. When I really get stuck on those types of editorial things, I at least try to get bullets and fragments for each of the points I want to make. Paragraphs wind up filled with italicized sentences and fragments. Eventually, I leave it and go back to write the methods and introduction.
And then I’m stuck. I have one paper that’s been sitting in exactly that state for over a year. Introduction, methods, results done – discussion points down, no transitions. It’s not that I’m having trouble interpreting the findings and synthesizing them with what we already know…it’s the filler. I get caught up on it not sounding right. Frequently I wind up going back, cutting the italicized criticisms, and leaving it how it was in the first place. More often I do edit, but sometimes I think I just need to get fed up with it, accept that it will never be perfect, turn it into a complete sentence, and stop screwing around.
I need to do this, now. Today I set some deadlines for myself to finally get some of these 99% finished papers off my desk. Two grants due on 2/3 and self-imposed deadlines for 3 papers over the rest of February. Completely and totally doable. I just have to do it already.
When I started in my doctoral program, I was afraid I would never make it because I didn’t have any good ideas. At the time I was working for a PI who had been exceptionally well-funded for decades. He always knew what the next step would be – we could see it in the planning phase of a grant. He didn’t just know what this study would address, he knew what the next two, or maybe even three, would address. That was something I really was worried I wouldn’t have. This fear pops up again every few months or so, usually when I start thinking about conferences I’d like to attend over the next couple years and what I could present at each one.
In March of last year, right before Miss Baby was born, I received a call for an early investigator award from a society closely related to my discipline. It required a letter of intent within a month, and I knew just the study I wanted to propose. But, in the process of planning for that LOI and, hopefully, the full proposal, I realized my idea was way too big. I didn’t have one idea, I had done what my former PI did without realizing it. All he did was take one big idea and break it down into steps, and that was what I needed to do.
In that process I also realized I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do in the timeline dictated by that grant. It was a one-year award and I have one very involved and one lesser study ramping up this year, and three brand new masters students who can’t take a lead role in any of them. Couldn’t have done it. Instead, I decided I would spend the fall planning, break that big idea down into smaller ones, and identify a series of funding opportunities to knock off one piece at a time.
The first of those proposals went in this past Friday. The next will go in at this time next year. This plan – this one big idea that I didn’t realize was as big as it is – may realistically take 5 years (unless a bigger funding opportunity comes along to tackle more aims at once). If I had rushed it and proposed the big idea, and if it had gotten funded, I don’t think I would have done a very good job, realistically. The science will be a lot better this way and it’s much more manageable given the resources available in my department and at my university.
For really the first time in my career I feel like maybe I can come up with enough ideas, now that I’ve suddenly realized they don’t all have to be the idea.
Now if I could just submit those papers. Because unproductive scientists don’t get grants.