Thursday, September 15, 2016

Paper Writing, and how to do it better next time (spoiler alert: no insights, just ideas)

Paper writing is the #1 inherent drag, for me, in the academic thing. There are other drags that are just accidental - like if the office printer stops working or whatever - but you can't really have academia without some kind of papers. (at least academia in its present form, hedge hedge disclaimer disclaimer) So here I'm wildly introspecting, coming up with some thoughts.

Why is paper writing hard? Because you have to keep a thing in your mind that is bigger than you can keep in your mind. A 10 page paper is bigger than you can keep in your mind. By the time you're ready to write a paper, you've done a few mostly-related studies, and you've come up with a kinda-coherent story, but it's not really coherent, so you've got to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to remember it all.

What am I thinking next time? Do the work in this order:
-0.25. Read a little bit
0. Studies
0.5. Read a lot
1. Story
2. Graphs
3. Everything else

-0.25. Read a little bit. Make sure you're not wasting your time with the studies you're going to do.

0. The studies. This is just most of your work. You usually have an idea why you're doing these, but you're never really sure, until you're done. So, do the studies, gather the data, figure out your results, and just kind of putz around with them for a long time until they've seeped into your brain. Ask yourself lots of questions about your data and write python scripts to prove or disprove them.

0.5 Read a lot. Test out possible stories you can tell based on your data and read papers until you can tell if that is a decent idea or not. Maybe you should do this before your studies? But that 

1. The story. This is #1 because this is the time (usually 2 weeks before a deadline in a mild panic) when you sit down and say "ok! gonna write a paper!" You should probably get all the coauthors in a room and lock the door and you can't come out until you have a story. This sounds painful, and it probably is. Maybe bring beer? Do as the ancient Germans did and make decisions mildly drunk and then confirm them the next day sober? I am quite serious about this.

2. The graphs. These are your evidence. After you've figured out what you want to prove, figure out the graphs that will make your point. (Sub out "graphs" for "math" or "photos" or "collections of anecdotes from interviewees" as appropriate.) Make those graphs. I guess they can be kind of rough, you can visually polish later, but they should be able to make your point. (not sure about this; maybe you should polish them right now.)

3. Then the rest of it should be easy. I mean, all the putting down words. Nobody reads them anyway. Just reference your graphs a lot. (I am being sarcastic, it is never easy.)

I have no idea if this is a good list. What I've done for the papers I'm writing now is basically studies first, then everything else in a big old blender of worries, and it's not pleasant.


  1. "Do as the ancient Germans did and make decisions mildly drunk and then confirm them the next day sober? I am quite serious about this."

    Totally going to try this! Now I just need to find a decision to make...

    1. yeah! edit: also Persians. posting this here half to bookmark it:

      (and maybe the Germans? but no sources.)