Saturday, September 10, 2005

On writing

Brian Bialkowski, a recent Ph.D. graduate, has an article in Inside Higher Ed with some sound advice on how to go about the process of writing your dissertation.

Stop telling yourself that the dissertation has to be great, that it has to redefine your field, that it has to be such a wonderful piece of scholarship that you will be able to trigger a bidding war between publishers the day after your defense. A dissertation doesn't have to be great. It doesn't even have to be good; it just has to be good enough [Emphasis added].

He seems to be saying that you are not writing a bestseller that sell millions of copies, and beat Freakonomics. You are just writing a thesis to be read by five people in your field! So, worry about the bestseller after you finish your thesis.

A second, very valuable advice about writing is also the motto of Nike: Just do it! The value of this advice is truly immense. I can point to at least a couple of big guns in academics (and blogging) advocating this approach in a systematic way.

Here is John Quiggin:

I try to write 500 to 750 words of new material every day. 500 words a day might not sound much, but if you can manage it 5 days a week for 40 weeks a year, you've got 100 000 words, which is enough for half a dozen journal articles and a small book.

and, Tyler Cowen (here and here):

Get something done every day. Few academics fail from not getting enough done each day. ...

Here is an article from more than a decade ago that presents interesting perspectives on the 'mechanics' of good writing. In particular, it has some sound advice on how to present complex ideas in a way that makes it easy for people to understand what you are trying to convey.

All this, of course, is for academic writing, which lays a lot of emphasis on competence and efficiency in conveying (sometimes complex) ideas. What do writing courses in English departments do, particularly in the first year of college? Take a look at this post (via Notional Slurry); along the way, you'll also learn what deductive writing and inductive writing are, and which one is better!

Finally, if you are interested in the question "Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong?", read this excellent Guardian essay by Ben Goldacre [link via Cosmic Variance]. On the other hand, if you are interested in clear and accessible discussions of some of the recent scientific breakthroughs (with links!), here is some great news: Sunil has started a new series on 'Everything Scientific'; Volume 1 in this series is here.


  1. Anonymous said...

    A related Ph.D. comment by Sanjay Subrahmaniam:

    "... while writing a thesis can be stressful and time-consuming, it is not the most difficult part of academic life. It is the second project, the post-thesis effort, which is most difficult. Recent graduates in the United States, he says, focus on too much on getting their first book out and getting tenure instead of channeling their energies into starting their second big project."


  2. Anonymous said...

    hmm......perhaps I should take that advice and actually start writing those papers (and perhaps start on my thesis as well)....

    ps: thanks for the shout out as well!)

  3. Anonymous said...

    that it has to redefine your field
    That was my goal at first, then it changed to "doing a good PhD". Then, I became wiser, and removed the 'good'.

    Anand, I agree with Subrahmaniam. I see assistant professors slog a lot for their tenure. Sometimes wonder whether that is worth the effort.

  4. Abi said...

    Anand, Sunil, Vishnu: Thanks for your comments. Anand, thanks for the link to Sanjay Subrahmanyam's perceptive views [quoted in Abraham's interesting blog].