— Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) October 4, 2012
Have you ever thought this or something like it? Have you sat down to “write” and then get frustrated that you didn’t really spend that time writing? Or look back at the work you did this week and think “I didn’t get any writing done”?
Publishing isn’t the only use for writing
When you hear advice to write every day, it doesn’t mean “write something that will eventually be published” every day.
Grant proposals are an obvious case. What you write in a grant proposal is very different from what you write in an article. Of course it has it’s own use — securing funding for your project. But that just means that if you don’t get the grant, you feel like the time spent writing the proposal was a waste. And with success rates what they are, you can feel like that while you are writing it.
However, writing a grant proposal serves an important purpose even if you don’t get the grant.
A grant proposal helps you articulate a research plan that can then guide your time management and prioritization. It can make you more purposeful and focused in your research and writing, providing clear goals and steps towards achieving them. Perhaps parts of one grant proposal can be used for other opportunities, or even help you structure a book proposal or a conference.
Writing is a complex process.
You need to articulate your thoughts using language. The language that comes most easily to you may or may not be the language in which you will eventually publish.
You then need to structure those words into some kind of coherent (usually linear) narrative.
Your ideas are not naturally suited to the form you need to express them in. A lot of work goes into sorting your thoughts, finding the right words, and focusing your argument.
Writing is not transcription
When we talk about “writing up” research it makes it sound like the writing stage is a simple transcription of what you know into a form that is easy to share with others.
However, the process of writing is part of the analysis or interpretation of the research. This takes time and effort.
You don’t have to start linear
The thoughts in your head are not arranged in a linear narrative. They have complex interconnections.
You may or may not think in words.
Letting go of the idea that you have to write coherent sentences can help you get those thoughts and ideas out on paper where you can work with them. Try some of these:
- Mental maps
This is one reason many people find Scrivener useful (it is now available for Windows as well as Mac). It allows you to write in small pieces and then expand on particular ideas, rearrange the pieces, sort them into “chapters” or “articles” or just file them as “research”.
Others have found the presentation software Prezi useful for mapping out articles and other writing. You could use it even if you never use it for actual presentations.
Writing to warm up the engine
You might also find it useful to write just as a way to get your brain working in the morning. This writing doesn’t have to be purposeful or useful at all. This principle is explained in a bit more detail on the home page of 750words.com.
You could journal. You could write letters to your gremlins. You could write letters-you’ll-never-send to managers, politicians, or anyone else who is really pissing you off right now and distracting you from thinking about the stuff you need to be focused on. You can write about your dreams, about the view out your window, about the weather.
It’s like stretching before you go out for a run.
Some people use 750words.com for this. Others use a notebook. You could use scrap paper and put it directly in the recycling bin when you’re done. The usefulness of this kind of writing is that it gets stuff out of your head and warms up the synapses that turn thoughts into words.
You don’t have to use everything you write
If you write to think, then not everything you write is going to be something you want to share with others.
It is not a waste of time to write things that will never become conference papers, or articles. Or unsuccessful grant proposals. Or book proposals that you decide not to submit to a publisher.
If what you write helps move your thinking forward, it was worthwhile. Remember that “moving your thinking forward” things that look like going off on a tangent, or even failing.
You need a writing practice
Edited May 30, 2016.