On Ideas and Fear of Academic Writing

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?

Where’s a girl to start? (source)

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.

Now, while I’m thinking about sucky transitions…Scicurious and InBabyAttachMode have both written recently about generating ideas. Timely, because as previously mentioned, it’s grant time.

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.

How awesome would that be? (source)

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.

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