I’m a big fan of a writing strategy that, in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I call “storming the beach” – but that’s sometimes more vividly termed “barf and buff”. The idea is simple: early in a writing project, don’t stop to make things perfect. Instead, charge ahead with getting something – anything – on the page. Rough, awkward, incomplete – it doesn’t matter, you can fix it later. Did you write some crap? That’s OK: you can fix crap much more easily than you can fix a blank page. So barf out something terrible, and buff it later.
Like most good advice, “barf and buff” has a few dangers lurking in it. One of them has become A Reason I See Red On Twitter. (Yes, there are quite a few of those.) Here it is: barf-and-buff is not an invitation to cherry-pick citations.
A key piece of barf-and-buffing is that when you’re storming your way through a draft and there’s something you need to look up, you don’t stop. Want a better word for “obvious”? Can’t remember the reaction temperature? Need the lat/long for a study site? Unsure when Herschel discovered Uranus?* Don’t stop. Just flag the spot for later attention (I use three asterisks, which is easy to spot or search for later) and keep going. You can do your looking up when you’ve come to the end of your first draft and momentum isn’t so precious.
One of the things I often flag for later attention is a citation, but here’s where the danger lurks. It’s one thing to know you’ve read a paper showing that thing X is true, but you don’t have it at your fingertips right now. If so, sure, write “Cats are smarter than dogs (***Find that reference***)” and move on. It’s quite another thing to decide to make a claim now, and locate support for it later (“Cats are smarter than dogs (***Find a reference)”.
This is where my seeing red on Twitter comes in. Far too often – every day, it seems like – I see someone posting a question like this: “Can anyone point me to a citation for cats being smarter than dogs?” I’m not sure you could signal more clearly that you’ve already made up your mind, and are content to cherry-pick the literature to find support for the position you’ve already decided to hold. Of course, the question one should ask is “Can anyone point me to some citations on the relative intelligence of cats vs. dogs” – but tweets like that are, sadly, uncommon.
You might, of course, protest that if it turns out you’re wrong, and cats aren’t smarter than dogs,** you can simply change what you’ve written. That’s completely compatible with the barf-and-buff strategy, after all. But three things. First, asking for help with cherry-picking makes me doubt your openness to doing that. Second, the nature of doing science on the very complex system that is our universe means that if you dig hard enough, you can almost always find a citation to support a given statement. And third, it’s pretty common human psychology to be a little bit attached to the first way you wrote something, and a little bit resistant to making a major overhaul. You can of course (and I have), but writing in Claim X makes the path to writing it out again distinctly uphill.
So, please do barf and buff: it’s an excellent strategy for productive writing. But don’t extend it to shortcutting your literature review. If you must, write “Cats are smarter than dogs (***are they? Do a literature search***)”, to keep yourself honest. And if you crowdsource your literature search, please don’t ask people to become accomplices in your cherrypicking.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some literature searching to do.
© Stephen Heard February 2, 2021
Image: This kind of cherry picking is OK. © Matt Ryall via Wikimedia.org CC BY 2.0
**^I know, my example is a bit silly. There’s no possible universe in which cats aren’t smarter than dogs. Hang on, I’ll find a citation for you soon.