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On the nonlinearity of drafting a manuscript

August 9, 2007

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 crap…now 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


8 Comments leave one →
  1. Thermochronic permalink
    August 9, 2007 6:59 pm

    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.

  2. Kim permalink
    August 9, 2007 9:31 pm

    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.

  3. Brian permalink
    August 9, 2007 9:40 pm

    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

  4. Gunnar permalink
    August 10, 2007 4:52 am

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

  5. teci permalink
    August 12, 2007 1:28 am

    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

  6. November 13, 2007 12:42 am

    Then, of course, there’s the fact that your evil brain only throws up your best writing ideas when you’re away from anywhere you can write them down – walking/driving home, in the shower, out in the pub drowning your writer’s block sorrows…


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