Beware of a (wo)man of one book

“Beware of a man of one book.”
English Proverb

Pat Thomson has an interesting post on her website talking about the dangers of uncritically offering and accepting advice when it comes to academic work. She takes a critical look at the “advice ‘market'” and highlights some disturbing cases. For example, people likely overgeneralizing from their own experience to those of others, and people giving advice who haven’t even finished their thesis. Her advice is to check the sources — esp. what they have accomplished, references, etc. — and compare.

I mostly agree with her posting. It’s easy to get carried away if you are doing something difficult and suddenly you find something that works for you, that makes the work manageable. Surely it must also work for others, mustn’t it? And I have written a few enthusiastic postings myself, e.g., “How to Write a Dissertation Thesis in a Month: Outlines, Outlines, Outlines” or “Scrivener — A perfect program for dissertation writing“. And I’d still highly recommend both. Well, at least to try them out.

But I (hope that I) also stress that these are options and as far as I know I never guarantee success. One of my goals with this blog is to show options of doing things differently, and then to use the output in quality and quantity to evaluate whether it works for you or not. Because all too often, people do things in an unnecessary complicated way. To use Pat’s analogy of building fences, they use a teaspoon to drive in a fence post. And dang, that hurts while looking.

There’s an advantage of using the options view when you offer advice: You don’t think that your way is the only way. If you are interested in the topic, you look around, talk to your colleagues and look online, read around, create a toolbox of different ways of doing things. Interest is epistemic and you learn a lot, compare, and look for connections. And ideally, you go beyond your discipline and look at what people from other domains are doing.

I think that the problems in writing academic texts are usually mostly the same. For example, dealing with complexity, i.e., turning all the information into a coherent text. And when it comes to this task, I am extremely skeptical of using a words first approach, something that is suggested by some people giving academic writing courses. For example, if you are stuck, “just do some free writing.” It’s a words to content approach, where people write a lot of text and refine it again and again in an attempt to work out what they want to say and get to a well-crafted text. It seems extremely wasteful to me, a view that is shared by others.

I’d always go content and structure first. But the way to determine the content and structure — that can change. Like written, I’d recommend an outliner. But if you can’t stand an outliner, there are other options. Try mind maps. If it doesn’t work, how about bullet point lists? Index cards perhaps? Perhaps go on a more abstract level and create a flow diagram. But first work out what you want to say and how. Then dive into the words. You will have to revise it and improve the writing in any case, but let’s try to avoid doing major changes in content and structure.

I guess the content and structure first approach is a more, well, structured, or rational, approach to writing. Which probably works well for people who do not want to spend their days immersed in writing. For whom writing is primarily a craft with the goal of communicating clearly. And which can and should be facilitated by technology as best as possible. To use Pat’s analogy again, it’s not lovingly hand-carving a fence, it’s building one that fulfills its function first.

And that might also be something to keep in mind. While the criteria of good academic writing are mostly the same, not everyone enjoys fiddling with the words.

But overall, good “advice” from patter. As a reader, don’t look for the silver bullet which will make your work effortless and guarantees success. This might lead you to go for advice in the form of “do this and I guarantee success”. And in any creative endeavor (and science is inherently creative) no-one can guarantee success. I’d treat every recommendation or advice as an option, something to try out and see whether it works for you. While I think that some tips can greatly facilitate writing and I enthusiastically recommend trying them out, you still have to do the work and there will be phases that are stressful or boring.

And again, have a look at tips beyond the word-level. Tips that focus on facilitating the work with technology when it comes to structure or content. Times have vastly changed within the past decades with an explosion of knowledge (or at least: published papers), yet many people who give courses on academic writing/work ignore the ways in which technology can help to handle this complexity.

So, go beyond the technological range of a teaspoon.