Friday, March 22, 2013

Forcing yourself to write

  For someone in the sciences, I sure write a lot. That's not a surprise to anyone in academia, I think, or indeed in a professional career. We can't get away from grant writing, job cover letters, manuscripts at various stages, emailing colleagues, posters, and (in some cases) blogs. And yet whenever I teach science writing, or have a science course that emphasizes writing, students complain about that aspect and how it's not 'real science'.
On my to-do list is to estimate how much of my time is spent writing to give students an accurate picture of the daily science grind. And I admit, I don't have a passion for writing. I don't like sitting down and mashing out an Introduction, though I do like the research side of it, tracking down and reading the research trail that came before. So when I have to write something, it becomes a matter of forcing myself to sit down and not get up. Writing at home is the ultimate test of will power to not get up and clean or do ANYTHING else. At work, it's much easier, but I'm still (even as I write this) distracted by the interwebs. I've tried not turning on my wireless, but it's amazing how soon I need to find a particular article, check a phrase, or use online tools for analysis. I admit that once I get going it's easier, and it sure is satisfying to have a finished draft. However, I know it won't be a finished draft for long - soon I'll have to revisit it with comments from colleagues! And I also know I'll be unsatisfied with what I previously wrote, and that I'll rework it in order to pursue clarity and concise writing. So if I have to write a lot, but have a lot of inertia to overcome before actually doing it, how does it get done? And, I should say, without any all-nighters? I'd love suggestions, but here's what I've found helps (mostly for papers, but for other material as well):
 - Outlines. Oldfashioned, perhaps, but then your headings and subheadings are all ready for text. Getting an outline done makes the writing task so much easier.
 - Despite what I said before, not turning on the wireless. I go to a coffee shop where the internet is slow and where you have to register using your browser. Based on our documented video-streaming patience, I'd say that a webpage loading for longer than 2 seconds is enough to force me back to my paper.
 - Plan a reward. Even if it's just another cup of coffee after another hour of work
 - Back-outlining. I like outlining, can you tell? Once my paper's in good shape, I use the text to make a new outline based on what I actually wrote. Compare that to the original outline...did I lose my way, and the thread of the research?
 - Write with someone else. Not someone you'll be chatty with, but someone whose diligence will encourage (and guilt) you into writing.
 - Make yourself accountable to someone. For me, this means putting a writing goal on a white board in my office, where I can't forget it, and where my husband can see it. This could also be having a writing buddy who knows your goals and can check in with you.
  Now, luckily, writing this post is not a procrastinating technique. I'm happy to say that two drafts are out to collaborators, but I do dread when they'll come back. Especially when I'm pretty sure they'll re-write sections that they'd approved in the past. But for now, I can feel good about writing for a little while.

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