It’s not lazy to do the easy writing first

I’ve used jigsaw puzzles as a metaphor for writing before, and today I’m returning to that surprisingly fertile ground. If you’re not into jigsaws, don’t worry: as an alternative framing, I can offer Things My Mother Told Me That Were Not True. (Also ground I’ve ploughed before.)

When I was growing up, my family put a lot of stock in what’s sometimes described as a Protestant work ethic. My mother in particular was pretty strong on this one point: if you have an easy job and a hard job ahead of you, don’t be lazy: do the hard job first. To return to the jigsaw puzzle metaphor: start with the sky, not with the deck chairs. Well, there are surely tasks for which that advice makes sense, but I’m here to tell you that neither jigsaw puzzles nor writing are (usually) among them.

When I write a new paper (or anything else), I ease myself in. I start with the truly trivial: a title page, the acknowledgements, and some section heads. This tricks me into thinking writing is going well, and gives me a little momentum. It also helps me think about what I’m going to write in a more organized way than if I was just daydreaming it. Methods come next, mostly because I’ve probably already written most of them, then Results. Discussion is harder, but a lot easier once I know what I’m discussing; and the Introduction is hardest, but (similarly) a lot easier once I know what I’m introducing. So yes, I’m leaving the hardest part (for me, the Introduction) to last; but doing so isn’t lazy, it’s efficient.*

I take a similar approach in revision. In fact, in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I suggest that when you’re ready to revise some writnig after receiving comments from colleagues or peer reviewers, you make this easy-first system very explicit. With reviews in hand, I suggest you mark each comment as “Category I”, “Category II”, or “Category III”. These are, roughly, “easy”, “harder”, and “hardest”.

Category I comments are those that flag problems with straightforward solutions – grammar and spelling errors, minor re-ordering, that sort of thing. Category II comments are ones that seem sensible, but for which the best response isn’t totally obvious to you (yet). This might be the suggestion of an analysis or a statistical test that you aren’t sure can be done with your data, or a new angle for the Discussion. Category III comments are those that seem misdirected or impossible to address – ones where you’re tempted to think the reviewer was drunk or stupid.

I’m pretty sure you can guess, but: start with Category I and work up. While you’re addressing the easy comments, you’re refamiliarizing yourself with what you wrote, and buying yourself time to think (consciously or subconsciously) about the harder Category II and III comments to come. It won’t take long to deal with the easy comments, and you’ll feel good about your progress – a nice way to feel when you start in on the harder comments. Category II comments will take more thought, and more work, and deeper thought about the manuscript – just what you need to get ready to tackle the hardest comments once it’s time for Category III. Usually, by the time I get to Category III, the thought I’ve put in shows me that they aren’t, in fact, coming from someone drunk or stupid; I just hadn’t figured them out yet.**

Now, I’ll admit that my “save the hard stuff for last” rule has one important exception. Sometimes, the whole job hinges on the hard part, and it’s not clear whether the hard part can actually be done at all. I recently did some text-mining analysis that would only work if I could get counts of Google search results for a particular term, broken down month by month over many years. I didn’t know how to do that, and for a while it looked like maybe I couldn’t (some Google search formats show the number of results, but many don’t). Until I knew whether I could pull off the data gathering, there wasn’t much point writing the Methods describing it. So rather than “save the hard stuff for last”, maybe my rule should be “save the hard stuff last as long as you’re sure it’s possible”. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, though, does it?

© Stephen Heard  November 15, 2022

Image: own work (both assembly and photography), released CC BY 4.0


*^t’s remarkable how often lazy and efficient point to the same way of doing things.

**^Not all the time, I will admit. I recently dealt with a reviewer who thought that significant P values are more likely when sample size is small, and that if more than one factor might influence a phenomenon, you can’t do anything at all unless you measure and analyze all those factors at once. I was tempted to erect a Category IV.

 

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2 thoughts on “It’s not lazy to do the easy writing first

  1. Jason Bosch

    Isn’t there a saying about how important lazy people are? Something like if we didn’t have lazy people everyone would manually carry everything. Lazy people invent the wheel or, in modern times, automate tasks.

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  2. gspivak

    I’m posting this comment on behalf of a colleague who I shared this blog post with. She found it quite helpful.

    “I really like this article. And interestingly, it aligns with a recent adult ADHD podcast episode I just listened to that said the same thing. The approach of doing the hard stuff first is pretty popular with many neurotypicals, but people like me get overwhelmed easily and need a sense of momentum to power us. Of course, as both you and the author said, there are times when it only makes sense to do the hard stuff first, but those are few and far between for me.”

    Liked by 1 person

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