Two reasons I haven’t started writing yet

That title was true when I thought of it, but no longer was once I’d typed it. How meta-ironic!

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately – partly because I’ve actually been doing some (hooray sabbatical!), and partly because I’m excited about the 2nd edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, which will be released in just a few days time. One thread that runs through the book is that “writing” is both a noun and a verb, and thinking about the verb form is really important to a career in science. Are you writing? When, and how? Narrowing that down a little: I can’t tell you how many times over my career I’ve asked someone how their writing is going, and been told that they haven’t started yet.* But I think that’s a mistake. If there’s a project advanced enough that it exists to be asked about, you probably should have started writing about it. Let me explain.

There are actually two very different reasons why, for a particular project, I might not have started writing yet. In The Scientist’s Guide, I call them “unintentional non-starting” and “intentional non-starting”. It’s clumsy, I know, but I think the contrast is worth emphasizing because it leads to different action for the two cases.

“Unintentional non-starting” is just procrastination: putting off the task even though you know, deep down, that there’s nothing stopping you other than reluctance. We all do it. Even pigeons do it: in a study by James Mazur, pigeons were given a choice between pecking a key that interrupted food delivery soon, for a short while, or later, for longer. Guess what they chose, even though it gave them less total reward? Me too (not the food delivery, I mean; I was going to write this post yesterday.)

Procrastination is a fairly well-understood psychological phenomenon, and there are ways to avoid it. For instance, you can divide a large, daunting task up into smaller, easier ones; you can reward yourself for completing each bit; or you can boost confidence by reminding yourself you’ve succeeded with similar tasks in the past. These little pieces of self-manipulation work, and there are many more (which I discuss at some length in in The Scientist’s Guide.**

“Intentional non-starting” is different. Many writers are reluctant to write until two things have happened: they’re completely finished gathering and analyzing data, and they’ve decided on everything they want to say.

Waiting until all the data are done and analyzed means missing some real opportunities. First, writing the Methods before you do them, or while you’re doing them, is far easier than trying to remember later, and it can alert you to problems before it’s too late to fix them. Less trivially, writing about (or plotting) data you expect to gather can help enormously with planning your work and finding the story you intend to tell. These practices are both part of a strategy often called “early writing”, which involves starting to write up a project early in, rather than after, its execution. Of course, writing before you’re finished often means having to revise later. What of it? Revising is so much easier than beginning with a blank page that it’s better to write the “wrong” thing than to write nothing.

The other kind of intentional non-starting might be even more ill-advised. I remember, early in my career, thinking writing as a rather mechanical process in which, having completed the work and composed a paper in my head, I would simply transcribe the completed story onto paper. It will probably come as no surprise to anyone that attempts to realize this strategy failed miserably. Almost nobody composes an entire paper in their heads before writing anything down; and almost nobody writes better when they wait for the magical inspiration pixies to generate their text. Instead, writing is a dynamic process, in which the story we’re telling twists and changes as we explore what we think by writing about it. Write an outline, then fiddle with it; write some text, see if it works and how it might feed back to improve the outline. It’s often hard to know what you want to say, or how best to say it, until you try. Once again, this means revision; but once again, what of it?

I suppose all this can sound like I’m scolding you, since you probably have a piece of writing you haven’t started yet. Don’t worry, I do too! I’m my own worst writing enemy. I’ll make you a deal: you start yours, and I’ll start mine.

© Stephen Heard  Feb 1, 2022

Image: © John Spencer via CC BY 2.0

This post is based in part on material in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (Chapter 5, Getting Started). There’s a lot more there about writing behaviour; if you suspect you could use help finding ways to write more productively, check it ou!

*^While sometimes the person I’ve asked is one of my students, remarkably often the person I’ve asked is me. The “haven’t started yet” response doesn’t seem to be any less frequent.

**^You didn’t think I’d give it all away for free, did you?  Go on, order the book. Even better, have your PI or your library order it so you and your colleagues can share it. </shameless self-promotion>



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