Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Disadvantages of Irregular Writing Schedules

How many of you were either explicitly taught or learned by imitation (of your adviser or some other mentor) that you should begin writing only after you have all your data in hand?

That was the procedure I was taught.  I was further advised in my current job (government) that the accepted procedure for PIs was to conduct research projects in five year cycles, with the first three to four years devoted to design and conduct of the research followed by a year (or two!) of analysis and writing.  This particular schedule was designed by bureaucrats who don't write or publish themselves.  They were quite adamant that this was the way to do research and publish it.  I ignored this advice.

I give the above example to illustrate an extreme case of putting off writing for years.  This extreme schedule would sound like professional suicide to most scientists.  If you think about it, though, this pattern is is not unlike the schedule students follow in their dissertation work: several years of data gathering and analysis, followed by an intense period of writing--often compressed into a few months at the end of their program.  Writing something every three or four years clearly affects overall productivity.  Less obvious is that irregular writing can have a serious effect on one's ability to write well.  Imagine if you never wrote anything substantive (other than email or minor documents not meant for publication) for three years and then were faced with a large writing project (the product of years of research).  This is a recipe for disaster...or at least a bad case of writer's block.  No wonder that many Ph.D. students find themselves paralyzed at the point they begin writing their dissertations.

The Ph.D. student then goes on to a post-doc position in which they are expected to conduct and publish at a shorter time interval, e.g., two years.  Some succeed, but many fail to publish according to expectations (in my experience).  After this, they (may) find themselves in an academic or research position in which it's expected that they publish three or more papers or reports per year.  Many attempt to continue the writing schedule they learned in graduate school:  spending most of their time conducting the research, then madly writing for a short time at the end of the project, otherwise known as "binge writing". Those who continue the binge writing approach, which worked during graduate school (sort-of), find it increasingly difficult to meet more ambitious writing goals.  Some work never gets published; as these unpublished works pile up, our guilt and frustration mount over time.

If you don't write on a regular schedule, you may find yourself struggling to produce something other than a pedestrian manuscript. Since most of the top-tier science journals reject 80% or more of submitted manuscripts, weakly-written manuscripts don't have a chance (and may even be rejected by mediocre journals that are trying to improve their impact factor rating). Those scientists who who regularly hone their writing skills and put as much (or more) effort into crafting compelling papers as they do in designing and conducting their research are going to take up that limited journal space.

Just as a musician must practice constantly to sustain and improve their skills, so must a writer.  As I'll explore in later posts, good technical writing (or any writing, for that matter) requires constant practice, improvement, and exploration.  

Unfortunately, many scientists fail to recognize how an irregular writing schedule affects their overall productivity, their writing skills, and their self-confidence.  How do we break bad writing habits, especially if such habits are common among your peers and encouraged by your mentors?  Well, we've already started by first recognizing that binge writing is counter-productive.

In the following posts, I'll look more closely at this and other barriers to productive writing and some skills a technical writer must develop to ensure a long career of productive, enjoyable writing.

In the meantime, see this list of books for guidance on writing. The list is designed for students preparing their thesis or dissertation, but contains suggested reading that is useful for anyone at any stage of their career. Interestingly, the list contains two books that I've recommended in this blog: If You Want to Write by Barbara Ueland and How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia.

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