Thursday, August 09, 2007

On the nonlinearity of drafting a manuscript

Do you write papers in a neat, orderly fashion? Kind of like they taught you back in grade school -- with the outline first, and then you go write each section and subsections?

I sure as hell don't.

I've been writing up another big chunk of my dissertation work lately (you'll notice my posting frequency has increased too....hmmm). I find it hard to stay in one section of the paper for more than 10-15 minutes. While working on the Introduction, I think of something I need to discuss in the....well, in the Discussion, so I type a few reminder phrases as a place marker. As I scroll back up to the Introduction I remember that I forgot to look up the number that goes where the highlighted red "X" is. That's right, I need to address that aspect in the Introduction so when I reveal my data later it all fits together nicely....yes, that'll be awesome! But, oh i'm opening a spreadsheet. Oh crap....I found a seemingly small, but cascading error in one of the tables. Did I really do that wrong? That was stupid. How bad is it?

Instead of dealing with it right away, I decide to go back to the text and finish my train of thought. What train of thought?

cartoon above from here


Thermochronic said...

I am also in the process of re-writing, my trouble is that I always just want to re-write the whole thing from scratch, I hate revising, starting over seems so much more straightforward. You can see, time management is not one of my strong points.

Kim said...

I usually start writing a paper somewhere in the middle. Descriptions of field relations, or thin sections, or maybe other sorts of data. If I'm really stuck, I'll start with methods if I need them. Then I'll go looking for pictures (or take some thin section photos) or plot some data in a new way. Then I write a little interpretation. Then I make some more figures. Then I figure out what should go in the introduction, and I write a little of that. Then I re-write the descriptions of the data so they make sense. Then I start hunting down references to make sure I'm citing the right people correctly, and re-write the introduction. Somewhere along the line I write a conclusion and an abstract.

The entire process takes months, at a minimum.

And then I get the paper back from reviewers, and sometimes need to restructure the arguments completely.

My graduate advisor said that I should start by making all the figures and then build the paper around them. I don't think in that way; I only realize that I need a certain figure when I realize that my argument needs some kind of illustration.

I had a thesis student once who wrote everything as a sort of free-writing, and then physically cut the entire thing apart and taped it all together on a piece of paper. I can't imagine doing that myself, but it worked for her.

Brian said...

I typically have most (~75%) of the figures done by the time i'm really getting into the writing....although fiddling around with figures is a great thing to do while you have writer's block but feel you need to keep working on the paper.

I can't imagine doing the physical cut and paste either....that's kinda wacky...but, whatever works

Gunnar said...

I feel with you. Somehow I use the same "method" of writing.

teci said...

Wow. i totally relate with all of you guys :D

i say i'm a writer and i blog *really* often, so research paper writing is supposed to be way easy right? But noooooo...

But fellas, let's just all put it this way:

Our minds are way faster than our bodies. ;p

(I automatically hear in my head, my advisers and parents and friends all saying, "Then hurry and catch up already!")

Ah. But genius works in its own time ;p

Best of luck with all of us! :D