Today we are fortunate enough to have a guest blogger who is a workshop leader and expert on publishing, Tara Gray. She wrote the book Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar. She will describe what I think is an incredible strategy for increasing the focus, efficiency, and speed of your writing. She calls it "read-to-write." And now, let’s hear from Tara!
Many scholars think you should finish the literature review—and the entire research project—before “writing it up.” If you finish your reading first, you will read slowly and most of what you read will turn out to be irrelevant to your paper (McCloskey, 2000, p. 29). You will conduct a literature review of the “general and often wasteful sort that precedes most writing projects” (Boice, 2000, p. 128). Don’t follow this recipe: “The simple way to avoid the stomach-churning agony of having to finish your thesis: read another book—repeat when necessary” (Groening 1987: 19).
Unfortunately, neither the literature review—nor the research—is ever finished. Instead of trying to finish your literature review first, try to streamline it. Streamline it by writing first and then reading (Drake & Jones, 1997, p. 31). Write from within, from what you feel and know. You will write faster and with a more authentic voice—your own. As you write, leave “holes” in your prose to be filled later, “Find a statistic to support this point: _________________” or “Find an opposing point of view: _________________ or “Find this citation: _________________.” Once you have drafted something, turn to the literature and begin “reading-to-write” (Flower et al., 1990).
When reading-to-write, your reading is sharply focused, which means you read quickly. Most scholars read to learn.” You can always learn so reading to learn is a bottomless pit. Don’t read to learn; read to write. Read to fill in the holes of an already drafted paper (Boice, 1997, p. 29). One writer (John Talbot, personal communication, June 15, 2004) explains it this way:
I’ve learned to resist the temptation to read every book and article on a given topic before I deign to add my two cents. Much better to get the paper going first, to write my say, and then to survey the literature to see if anybody else’s opinion supports, contradicts, mitigates, or, in the most dire cases, cancels my own.
Don’t wait to start writing until you finish the research, either. Streamline your research by writing—informally—throughout the project. All writing need not be formal and nearly finished, as for example, a certain paragraph within a certain section of a certain paper. Instead, think of writing as something you do to generate thought and to keep a record of your ideas, however crude, so they can be reviewed and revised later. The crudest writing about a given idea is superior to the best thinking precisely because it can be saved, reviewed, and revised later (Gray, 1999, p. 136). As you write, imagine you are writing a letter: “I don’t know why I got the results I got in the lab today… Perhaps it was because… No, I don’t think so. I think the reason was… Tomorrow I will try something different.” One physicist (Dallin Durfee, personal communication, June 15, 2004) explained how writing this way improved his research and saved him time in the end:
I’ve begun to write about my physics experiments while they are still in progress, allowing me to see weaknesses in our experiments and realize what data will be most useful in making cohesive arguments early on, before research time has been wasted on unfruitful ideas.
So write from the first day of your research project: research as you write, and write as you research.
*This excerpt was adapted from the book, Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar by Tara Gray. For information about her widely acclaimed workshops, see taragray.com.
Tara's strategy and many other strategies for publishing are covered in my recent book.
Boice, R. (1997). Strategies for enhancing scholarly productivity. In J. M. Moxley& T. Taylor, (Eds.), Writing and publishing for academic authors (pp. 19–34). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil nimus. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (2008). The craft of research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Drake, S. M., & Jones, G. A. (1995). Writing your way to success: Finding your own voice in academic publishing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.
Flower, L., Stein, V., Ackerman, J., Kantz, M. J., McCormick, K., & Peck, W. C. (Eds). (1990). Reading-to-write: Exploring a Cognitive and Social Process. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Gray, T. (1999). Publish, don’t perish: Twelve steps to help scholars flourish. Journal of Staff, Program and Organization Development, 16, 135–142.
McCloskey, D. (2000). Economical writing, (2nd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.