Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tips in the writing struggle

How does one stay sane as one struggles to produce talks, lectures, grant applications, and papers?
Is there some efficient methodology?

I am in the midst of a period of several weeks where I have to give about a dozen talks/lectures. I also have several papers being finished. Hence, this issue is on my mind. Here are a few thoughts that hopefully are helpful to others. I realise that different people have different styles.

I think there are several major obstacles to producing material in a timely manner with a minimum of stress: perfectionism, procrastination, loose ends, and distractions. These are somewhat related to one another.

First, get started a quickly and early as possible. Just get something down on paper. A rough outline is a good place to start. Don't censor your thoughts or agonise about details. Just do it!

Then start adding material, editing, and polishing.
But, spend a limited amount of time. This will mean having the self control to not include that figure, reference, or extra result, alternative derivation, that you would really like to but is going to require some time to track down. This is were perfectionists go astray....
I also find I can easily get distracted by new ideas or new information that is fascinating to me personally but marginally relevant to the task at hand.

Once you have the bare minimum of material, try and produce a version of the document [or power point slides] that is good enough for public consumption/presentation. Imagine that you have to give the talk today not tomorrow or submit the grant 2 weeks early. Then you can sleep on it, give it to colleagues for feedback, or perhaps allow for the reality that you need to move onto other responsibilities or allow for some unforeseen problem like getting sick or dealing with a family or administrative crisis.
I find meeting these artificial deadlines early makes more me much more relaxed and objective. Otherwise one is furiously working up until the last minute.

Then as time allows this final draft can be added to and polished.

I hope this is helpful. It is a struggle.


  1. Great advice Ross, and it is very helpful for you to note that this process is a constant struggle even for seasoned people such as yourself. I agree with everything you said, and would add: don't succumb to the illusion that at some point in the future (tomorrow, next week, next month) you will magically have more time and more motivation to write. Accept the fact that life is busy and that you have to make time to do the things that are critical to your ongoing professional success.

    1. David,
      Thanks for the helpful comment.
      I agree with your addition.
      I think senior people are prone to the illusion that they will have more time in the future.
      Junior people are prone to the illusion they will have more motivation.
      Some are prone to both illusions.
      It is amazing how much you can get written in just one, two, or three hours.