Write now, I’ve become the person I detested
BY RANDY MCINTOSH
In grad school, I remember being at a pub with other students as we groaned about an upcoming deadline for a mid-term paper. The comments were along the lines of “I sit there and stare at the screen for an hour”, or “How could the prof assign such a stupid topic?”, or “I have a lot of ideas from the papers he assigned, but I can’t put the words onto paper.” As we continued to share our misery, a fellow student who we all secretly loathed (but only in the most positive sense), came up to our table to ask how we were doing. We told him we were talking about the mid-term paper that was due in a few days, to which he responded that he finished his last week and was just polishing it up a bit before he sent it to the Prof just before he came to pub. He expressed satisfaction at this because that would give him time to work on his Soc for Neuroscience abstract that was due in two months. We sat stunned for several moments, trying to come up with a clever biting reply. This did not come until about 30 minutes and 2 pints had gone by and was some feeble comment on the fact he missed Wings night and had questionable choices in shoes.
Despite having met several academics since then who have professed to “absolutely love writing!” and churn out material faster than I can read them, I have never reached that level of performance. I am a pretty decent writer, I think, and write English gooder than many of my colleagues. But I have never been a prolific writer. I have had a lab of prolific student and postdocs and a large network of collaborations, but to create a paper from a blank page is heavy lifting. There are times when even a 3-line email can linger for hours or days before I finish it.
So, considering this history, the plan I came up with to write a book this year seemed like a really bad idea. I was, however, determined to give it a try. In the summer of 2017, I started collecting various blogs and books with tips and tricks for writing. Some were quite good (e.g., How to Write a Lot), others were a bit over the top, like one with yoga routines that made me sleepy, but not a better writer.
The Pomodoro method was good for a few days, until I started getting more interested with how long 20 minutes was rather than what I had written (e.g., “Okay, let me check. Oh, it’s only been 5 minutes?!?”)
One thing I tried was to create text from slide talks I had given that provided an overview of some of my work, writing as I reviewed the slides. This could help to serve as a basis for a book. The approach worked fairly well for getting together a decent book chapter. To make it a book would still require a lot more research to fill in the gaps and a lot more writing to give it substance. The thought of that made me decide to go buy a scone and coffee and have a nap.
The challenge for many of us is to get stuff on paper so we have a working draft. This is where I thought dictation could help. Dictation software has been around for a couple of decades and now is integrated into our computers and smartphones. I tried dictation software – I really did. It doesn’t work well for me, and with 5 yrs. of weekly voice classes, I remain firmly committed to mumbling when I speak, but I do sing much better.
Voice memos are also helpful when you don’t have a keyboard handy when an idea strikes you. Just make sure you check these later! I reviewed my voice memos one time and found a great idea, but it was one day after I sent in my grant proposal.
Then came Boxing Day, 2017 (Dec 26 for my USA colleagues). I have this problem with quite vivid dreams that often play out like a complex movie. Sometimes it can be quite entertaining, like the time I dreamt that the head of lab where I was postdoc-ing decided to have everyone in lab dress in drag to help boost morale.
On Boxing Day early morning I had another very vivid dream involving two of my colleagues (not that kind of dream!) and decided to get out of bed and immediately write it down. Within an hour I had 5 pages written, which I then sent to my colleagues, and thought about for the remainder of the morning. By the time lunch rolled around, and from the feedback I got, it was clear that these 5 pages were going to be the foundation for my book.
And I have been writing it daily since then, and now it’s around 150 pages. I can’t tell you what its about right now, because I am shy, but I think its hit a sweet spot that’s provided some great energy. I am going with this flow.
So now I get up waaayyy too early, make some tea and crank out 4000-5000 words in a few hours before my very understanding wife gets up and the cats start wanting their breakfast.
What has helped the most is adopting the idea of “Write first, Edit later” or as I call it the Vomit Method, so named after my cat’s tendencies to up-chuck hairballs in precisely the place where I have to put my foot before I turn on the light. The Vomit Method is basically throw it all down (or up) first and clean it up later. What used to be a heavy lift – creating new content – is now as easy as… well, I won’t repeat the analogy.
The funny thing is that now I am using this for everything I write - grants, emails and blogs. The idea is to get it out when the moment strikes you and edit afterwards. I’ve trained myself to use the backspace key less; don’t worry about spelling and typos and go (turn off autocorrect though as the replacements are harder to find if they are really words rather than just misspelling). We often get hung up in the flow sometimes, so if there are parts of a composition that are uncertain in the moment, I put in a placeholder and continue.
Doing this has gotten me to the point where I resemble the person we used to be jealous of in grad school, although I still have better shoes. I am not trying to sell you anything, I don’t have a 12 step program, or a freemium website, I don’t want your money (unless you work for granting agency, then have I got an idea for you!). We all need to write as academics - we don’t have to be excellent at it, but we need to do it. Find the path that gets you there.
Okay, I gotta go, I hear a hairball coming.
 Some typos may be intention, eh.