Some dead-of-the-dark-winter thoughts from Palinurus's Unquiet Grave. On page 20: "Three faults, which are found together and which infect every activity: laziness, vanity, cowardice. If one is too lazy to think, too vain to do something badly, too cowardly to admit it, one will never attain wisdom." The idea is picked up again on page 30: "Sloth rots the intelligence, cowardice destroys all power at the source, while vanity inhibits us from facing any fact which might teach us something; it dulls all other sensation." It seems to me that Connolly here writes rather vaguely (though not falsely) about cowardice and laziness, but he sharpens a very important point about vanity. We can bring the two passages together in a single sentence: If we are not willing to do something badly we will not be sensitive to facts that might teach us something. Much more can be said on this, but the whole point of aphorism is of course to let the reader mull it over.
Friday, December 19, 2008
It's the last day of the sixteen working weeks. I am looking forward to some lateral thinking over the holidays. I'll probably post a couple of thoughts before the new year begins, and intermittently during January. My regular blogging routine will start up again in February. All the best from RSL.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
"The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."
There is no substitute for knowing what you're talking about. No writing advice, and no style of writing, can help you write well about something that you have not properly understood. The question, then, is: When have you understood something well enough to write about it?
There is no straightforward answer. In fact, it depends on what you want to say. A simple rule of thumb is that you should never write everything you know about a topic; you should leave a great deal unsaid. Hemingway's image of writing as the tip of the iceberg is apt here: for everything you say, everything you put down on the page, there should be a great deal that is left out, that is not said. Most of your knowledge should be under the surface.
If you find yourself writing a paragraph that exhausts your knowledge on a given topic then it is unlikely to be well-written. Your sentences should always be written in a way that suggests questions; and you should have answers to the questions they suggest. In fact, any sentence that expresses knowledge will always suggest questions. Much of the stylistic problem of writing descriptive prose lies in controlling those questions.
As a writer, you have to make decisions about how to say things and those decisions are best thought of in terms of the questions that the curious reader will most likely be left with after reading what you have to say. We might also say that your problem as a descriptive writer is to manage the reader's curiosity. In a sentence that covers one part of the topic you imply questions to be answered later. If you do this right, the reader feels a series of small but significant intellectual satisfactions.
If you move from one sentence to the next implying only questions you do not answer, the reader will get frustrated. But you cannot, and should not, try to answer all the reader's quetions. The important thing is to be conscious of what questions the reader is likely to be left with at the end of the reading. This is where an imaginary conversation with the reader begins.
You can only make the necessary decisions about what questions to raise, and which ones to leave open, on the basis of deep knowledge about the subject. I mean "deep" in precisely the sense in which all writing is necessarily superficial. If you know only enough to write a paragraph of true sentences about a subject, then you know only enough to a write one good sentence. That sentence should mark the centre of your knowledge, and it should indicate (implicitly, elegantly) fruitful questions for further discussion.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
The Yale Writing Center has an excellent statement on plagiarism, telling us that it involves a
fundamental question for writers: “Where is my voice in this project?” Seen in this light, the strategies that help you avoid plagiarism can also be strategies that help you gain power as a writer. Once your guiding question about your relationship to sources is “Where is my voice?” you are well on your way to using sources in an effective and legitimate way.
It has long been my view that we must reframe the plagiarism issue in terms of scholarship skills not moral integrity. There are, of course, "urgent moral and intellectual reasons to avoid plagiarism," as the people at Yale put it. But their suggestion that it is, at bottom, a question of developing your voice as a writer is also important. To my mind, more important.
Once a case of a plagiarism is discovered, it often goes a long way to explaining a certain lack of confidence in the writing. The writer was unsure of his or her own voice or place in the conversation and was therefore unable to accurately reference the contribution of others.
Consider the poorest possible way of avoiding plagiarism: quoting large passages from other writers. This practice is sometimes defended as a way of a giving full voice to the work of these other writers and letting readers interpret them in their own way. But it is actually a very imprecise way of using other people's work. The prose that they wrote was suited to the context in which they were writing—most locally, the text from which the quote is taken. The extensive quotation will therefore often include a lot of irrelevant details and qualifications that connect it to this original context, not yours. It can therefore be misleading to write,
Jones has argued that '...'. Smith says the same thing: '...'. It is true that, as Ernst has put it, '...' But Phillips's response to this criticism is apt; he has pointed out that '...'.
Nonetheless, you sometimes find several pages in a row that move along in this manner, often simply stringing together very long block quotations.
If your voice is limited to that of a polite moderator, introducing one "speaker" after another, then you are obviously not a participant in the conversation. And in academic writing that's what you have to be. If you solve this problem simply by removing the quotation marks and references to other writers, you are of course engaging in simple plagiarism. "When you plagiarize," the Yale Writing Center reminds us, "you join [the] conversation on false grounds, representing yourself as someone you are not." But they go on to make the much more important point: "the act of stealing another’s words or ideas erases your voice." The real and lasting solution to the problem of plagiarism, then, is to learn to recognize your own distinct voice in the conversation you are trying to enter. It is not just about confessing to your own unoriginality; it is about actually making an original contribution.
Monday, December 15, 2008
This week I'm going to be posting mainly about basic scholarship, i.e., the way your writing develops in relation to your reading. It is an important part of how you "enter the conversation" that constitutes research in your field.
Even Wikipedia's founder, Jimbo Wales, advises against doing it, but you can always find someone who will defend the practice of citing Wikipedia. Here are some clear statements against it by the Writing Center at Yale and the Williams College Libraries. And here, for good measure, is Wikipedia's own cautious statement. Most of this advice is directed at undergraduates, perhaps because it assumed that scholars wouldn't even consider the idea.
There is, unfortunately, some evidence to the contrary.* Lisa Spiro's post is interesting, but I think it misses a very basic point, which the Yale Writing Center puts in forceful terms: "to rely on Wikipedia—even when the material is accurate—is to position your work as inexpert and immature." The key word here is "rely". Any specific criticism of Wikipedia can be countered, but why on earth would we ever rely on Wikipedia? Scholars do the research that Wikipedia sometimes summarizes very nicely (sometimes wholly ineptly). Wikipedia relies on scholarship; each article is based on "reliable sources". Not the other way around.
I want to stress that the question is whether you can cite Wikipedia as a source, not whether you can use Wikipedia as a resource. That distinction is absolutely crucial. Spiro forgets it when she makes the following argument, for example: (the quote is from Wales's remarks)
"I still would say that an encyclopedia is just not the kind of thing you would reference as a source in an academic paper. Particularly not an encyclopedia that could change instantly and not have a final vetting process". But an encyclopedia can be a valid starting point for research. Indeed, The Craft of Research, a classic guide to research, advises that researchers consult reference works such as encyclopedias to gain general knowledge about a topic and discover related works.
An argument for consulting Wikipedia, however, is not an argument for citing it. An argument for starting somewhere is not an argument for staying there. Moreover, she cites the second edition of The Craft of Research. As I have pointed out in a earlier post, the third edition is unequivocal: "Few experienced researchers trust Wikipedia, so under no circumstances cite it as a source of evidence (unless your topic is the Wikipedia itself)" (37, my emphasis).
My view is that there is never a reason to cite Wikipedia as a source in your academic writing. Never. Use it for the purpose that it was intended: as a starting point for serious inquiry of your own. I also like to point out a side benefit of the "anyone can edit" policy: you will sometimes find an interesting and unorthodox angle on the subject matter that, properly speaking, shouldn't even be in an encyclopedia (because it expresses a subjective or minority point of view as an uncontroversial fact). That angle may shed new light on your own position. But it should always, always, always be developed on the basis of much more reliable sources. (These will sometimes be provided in the the Wikipedia article itself.)
Beyond that, we might approach Wikipedia as a community to be studied ethnographically through first-hand observation, interaction, and interviews. In such cases, however, I don't think we should treat the various versions of the articles as "primary sources" (as we might treat, for example, a novel). What you can do is describe what Wikipedia says on a particular topic, and in so doing, you may of course quote from it. Here you should provide the URL, but keep in mind that Wikipedia has now become an object of study, and there are a lot of things you need to do in order to make sure that you are seeing that object properly. Do you understand the revision history of the article you are talking about? Have you studied the discussion that led to the version you are reading and do you understand the consensus? Do you really understand what Wikipedia is and how it works?**
Matt Kerschenbaum, whom Spiro cites, has argued that (1) there are "content domains" about which Wikipedia is essentially reliable and (2) you can use your understanding of how Wikipedia works to see whether the article you are citing is subject to controversy. On this basis, he says, you can make a reasoned judgement about "whether or not to rely on Wikipedia". I don't want to deny the first point. There are certainly content domains of Wikipedia that are more accurate than others; and some articles are quite good. Wikipedia even has a form of internal (but not formal) review that marks articles as "good" or "featured". But I strongly disagree with the second point, which Spiro restates as follows:
With Wikipedia, as with other sources, scholars should use critical judgment in analyzing its reliability and appropriateness for citation. If scholars carefully evaluate a Wikipedia article’s accuracy, I don’t think there should be any shame in citing it.
I really do think we should be ashamed. Some sources are simply not worth the trouble of our critical judgment; the unreliability of Wikipedia is pretty much right there on its surface. Use your critical judgment to assess the facts presented in Wikipedia, not the source that presents it. Once you have confirmed the fact, cite the source that allowed you to do that, not the website that made the original claim. We do not just rely on our sources ourselves; we are asking our readers to rely on them as well. We owe each other better sources than "the encyclopedia anyone can edit".
* Update: I'm now trying to do study of my own to determine the extent of the problem in organization and management studies. Preliminary results are quite good. The Social Science Citation index registers only 28 citations of Wikipedia, none of them in major management publications. I've only found one instance of what Spiro calls "straight citation" and it occurs in Tourism Management. It does look as though medical and legal publications allow Wikipedia as a reference (I don't have access to check them out in detail). But even here, like I say, there aren't many.
** This paragraph was rewritten on Dec. 19, 2008.
Friday, December 12, 2008
The spring break (Easter holiday) begins on April 4 next year. There are 9 weeks from the beginning of February to the break, and 7 weeks from the break until the end of May. Those 17 weeks (including the one-week break) are what I usually propose to call your "working weeks". This morning, let me issue the Sixteen Week Challenge again.
Decide, first, how much writing time you have during those sixteen weeks. This will depend on your teaching load, your other commitments, and your writing goals. But the important thing is to find a finite amount 2 or 3-hour "writing blocks", i.e., time you can set aside in your calendar for writing. You could have anywhere from 1 to 5 of these in a given week. A maximum of around 80.
(I don't recommend planning to spend whole days on your writing. Plan always to spend half days writing.)
Next you need to get a sense of where your various writing projects are at. How far along are the texts you are working on. These could include your journal articles, your dissertation, books, and even book-proposals. (In the case of your dissertation or book, however, take each "project" to be a smaller unit, like a chapter.)
The question is: What stage will my writing projects be at on Monday, February 2, 2009 and where should they be on Friday, May 29? You need to answer this question in the light of the time you have given yourself. And you need to be able to fill in your writing blocks in advance with tasks that will bring you from where you are to where you want to be.
This is neither an exact science nor an authoritarian regime. Think of it like your teaching: you begin with a pretty clear sense of what you will be talking about and when (and where) you will be saying it. You don't know exactly what you will say, of course, but you know you will say something intelligent about, say, strategic management at, say, 9:10 AM on March 10. Your writing time should be just as firm.
This year, don't make a New Year's resolution about finally writing this or that paper, or finally getting disciplined about writing. Just take the Sixteen Week Challenge. Think of Palinurus.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Birgit Vibeke Lindberg, one of our PhD students, passed away last week after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. The funeral is being held today.
Here are a few words from her obituary, written by her supervisor, Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen, and department head, Eva Zeuthen Bentsen, which was published in Politiken on Tuesday.
Birgit was woman who had a strong presence at the department. You were never in doubt about her mood when she came to work, and she was never indifferent to her surroundings. So she was also a colleague that most of us had a personal relation to. There was always life and warmth when Birgit was at work. She leaves a place that will feel empty for a long time.
Here at RSL, our best thoughts are with her. Peace.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Jonathan Mayhew has recently put up two short posts on scholarly writing that are worth reading. He offers a few basic principles and some supplementary suggestions. It is important to keep in mind that Jonathan takes academic expertise seriously. He believes, without the usual irony, that academics should know more about their subject than, well, anyone else.
There are different ways of taking that. Generally, you and your peers should be the place non-experts go for knowledge about a certain set of topics. Obviously, there will be degrees of expertise within your field, and no one is saying that you have to be the absolutely most knowledgeable person in your area. There will normally be someone you can look up to. But it can be useful to ask yourself: on what specific topics should academics in your field go to you for detailed knowledge? The standards you maintain in that area will say a great deal about your work.
Then there is the question about language and writing. When defining your area of expertise, make sure you are able to write well and easily about its central topics. That's a relative idea, of course. Just make sure it's not an area that you have a great deal of trouble expressing yourself in.
Also, if much of the tradition can be traced back to French or German or Spanish or even Latin texts, spend some of your time learning that language. The main character in Don DeLillo's White Noise is an expert on Hitler who, to his shame, doesn't know any German. When his department hosts a major international conference, he decides he'd better learn and secretly finds himself a German teacher. But by then it is, of course, too late.
Tony Tost, my favourite living poet, once said that when he's writing a poem he's "basically just trying to be brilliant". I think Jonathan's advice just details this attitude towards one's work. To be brilliant you have to have the necessary skills, but you also have to know where to stand in order to shine. Where is your light needed?
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
my bad, people
I could fast-forward life
and look at all this with a numb eye
to be like the total past
K. Silem Mohammad
Af few weeks ago, I raised some concerns about Karl Weick's collage of Alfred Schutz and Robert Pirsig. I've now taken a closer look, and the passage can actually serve as instructive example of common problems of interpretation and translation, i.e., quite literally problems of doing research in a second language. In Sensemaking in Organizations, Weick writes as follows:
The idea of retrospective sensemaking derives from Schutz's (1967) analysis of "meaningful lived experience." The key word in that phrase, lived, is stated in the past tense to capture the reality that people can know what they are doing only after they have done it. (24)
Now, as I already pointed out in that last post, "lived" is not really in the past tense because it is not being used as a verb. The past participle is here being used as an adjective, and adjectives don't have a tense.
There is a deeper problem, however. Weick seems to be be suggesting that Schutz chose his words carefully in order to "capture" a particular "reality", i.e., in order to suggest a particular interpretation. Weick then draws attention to exactly that sense of the of the words. But Schutz wrote the original in German, and in German "lived experience" is written simply "Erlebnis". I've talked about this with native German speakers, and there is simply no "pastness" anywhere in that way of putting it. It could just as well have been written "experience as we live it" or "living experience"*. The "key word", "lived", was required by the translation in order to capture the important difference between Erlebnis and Erfahrung, both of which might otherwise be translated simply as "experience" in English.
So the take-home message here is not to attribute undue significance to the word-choices of authors you are reading in translation. In principle, there is nothing wrong with saying, "I find the past participle here to be a useful reminder that ...", but in this case the whole thing seems to be a misreading of Schutz at a deeper level as well. As far as I can tell, Schutz uses Erlebnis to refer precisely to our present experience. Still more strangely, as I read Schutz's chapter on meaningful lived experience, he is talking about the projective character of experience, and therefore about how we do make sense of our actions before we carry them out. But I'm far from an expert on Schutz.
*I don't have the German original on hand, but it will be interesting to read it. Weick quotes Schutz again on the next page (25). "When, by my act of reflection, I turn my attention to my living experience...", writes Schutz (51, my emphasis). "Living experience" might be translating the same single word, Erlebnis, but there is no past participle in sight.
Monday, December 08, 2008
People sometimes ask me for advice about blogging. The last time that happened, I promised I would write a post on the subject. But, as I sit down this morning to compose it, I find I am full of doubts. After all, am I the right guy to ask? This blog gets about 25 visits a day (easily two of those are by me). That's hardly a very successful blog. If my goal is traffic, I'm doing something wrong.
I use blogging primarily as a way to develop my thoughts in a relatively disciplined way. A good journal or diary is usually written for posterity. That is, it is written on the assumption that one day people will want to know what you were thinking along the way to your great works, and that forces you to write better than you would if you were just writing for yourself. Blogging provides a less presumptuous version of that constraint. You still have to imagine a reader, but not your own future fame.
And this is really the main advice I have. Whether you are blogging by yourself or as part of a group, let the content drive the project.
One way to think about this is in terms of your time commitment. Don't spend too much time at the beginning thinking about how the blog will look. It takes literally minutes to set up a blog. Already from the first hour of your blogging life, most of your time should be spent writing content. You will learn a lot of tricks along the way, and eventually you may have the sharpest blog online. But without the habit of contributing interesting content (by your standards) it's not really going to mean anything.
My advice to would-be bloggers, then, is "just do it": set up the blog without thinking too much about what it is going to look like or who is going to read it. Contribute often, but keep the posts short. Get into the habit of writing brief notes for public consumption about things that interest you. You'll never regret having that habit. And you won't know what "go the distance" meant until you do. The blogosphere is a field of dreams.
Friday, December 05, 2008
If you are new to research, of course, your claim doesn't have to challenge the experts, just impress your teacher.
Booth, Colomb and Williams
(The Craft of Research, 3rd ed, p. 126)
In academic writing it is never enough to be right. At our monthly craft seminar, yesterday, Rob Austin put it very nicely: your work needs to be "compelling", and this requires that it be both insightful and convincing. Booth, Colomb, and Williams talk about "making your claim significant" (124-126).
Part of this means being aware of what counts as evidence for a particular group of people. Your research process will have to generate exactly that kind of evidence, and your research writing will have to put it before your reader.
Nicole Berry, an anthropologist now at Simon Fraiser University, apparently held a talk about this issue in 2004.
As I write my dissertation it seems to me that the linguistic data that I have, particularly long transcripts in Kaqchikel Maya, severely restrict my audience, the same way that including lengthy mathematical formulas would repel potential readers.
It is very true that some forms of evidence repel certain audiences. But there are many academic audiences that simply require you to express yourself with mathematical precision, others that require you to quote from your transcripts in the original language. In both cases, you are then normally just as obligated to translate these expressions into prose that can be understood by an ordinary academic reader.
Many members of your audience will take your word for the translations. They will expect both the peer review process and (post-publication) the critical community of your peers to ensure that everything is more or less in order on matters they can't understand. In the long run, the fact that your basic understanding of Kaqchikel Maya (or your math) has not been questioned by those among your peers who are qualified to do so, builds your credibility. It's what makes you an expert.
It is important to make this mental transition to a more general academic audience. At some point (preferably before writing your master's thesis) you have to stop trying only to impress your teacher. Instead, try to be compelling, as Rob says. That means understanding not who exactly you are writing for but what kind of reader you want to convince. Decide on your audience. Then find the relevant evidence.
Thursday, December 04, 2008
Jonathan raises an important point in his comments to my last post. If you find that Wikipedia is a great help to your research—if, for example, it is the place you learn some important detail about your subject—then you are free to (not obligated to) thank the project. Over the long term, such acknowledgements by respected academics may even change its status in the academic community. As Booth, Colomb and Williams put it, "Few experienced researchers trust Wikipedia, so under no circumstances cite it as a source of evidence (unless your topic is the Wikipedia itself)" (Craft of Research, 3rd edition, p. 37). There are still technical reasons not to trust Wikipedia as we might trust Britannica, but maybe one day a convention will emerge that will allow us to cite Wikipedia. That day has not yet arrived.
More generally, keep in mind that there is a difference in general between referencing a source for the purpose of telling the reader why to believe what you're saying (the primary reason) and the purpose of thanking the author for his or her contribution. In some cases, keep in mind that accomplishing the latter might actually undermine your ability to do the former. Thanking certain sources (depending on how you do it) might raise doubts about your scholarly judgment or just "the company you keep" (as Booth might put it).
If your original source is unreliable in your judgment then you have to do some work checking the accuracy of what you learn there. You may acknowledge the source of inspiration to do that work. (You might never have known if not for that original dubious source, after all.) But remember to take credit for the fact-checking yourself. Also, if checking the facts in question means simply looking it up in an authoritative reference work or other work on the subject, notice that the source you are thinking of crediting probably just got it from there. And if it had just cited its source, your work would have been that much easier.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
[See also this more detailed post.]
There are all kinds of uses for Wikipedia. Because Wikipedia is open to input from anyone who is interested in a subject, you sometimes find little nuggets of specialized information that you would not get (as easily) elsewhere. Its "neutral point of view" policy also often ensures that arguments on both sides of controversies are presented (sometimes in a somewhat artificially "balanced" manner). A good article really can teach you something about the subject matter.
Wikipedia is also a reasonably dependable source of reliable sources of information. That is, it often cites perfectly good sources. But it is not itself a reliable source of information.
Much of its unique value comes from its open and dynamic platform, which is also what makes it a poor source of authoritative knowledge. Wikipedia is "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit" and many of its articles change several times a day. So it is of little use to the reader to know that Wikipedia makes a particular claim about an event, or that Wikipedia defines a certain concept in a particular way.
It does not help to specifiy the date you read the article, or to cite the particular version of the article you're quoting from. Either way, you would have to have some special reason to believe that this version of the article is right. And if you have such a reason then you also have a better source for the point in question. Cite that source, not Wikipedia.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
I've beeen meaning to write something about Kurt Vonnegut's classification of writers for some time. Here's the classical statement, from chapter 35 of Timequake:
Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter any more, have been either swoopers or bashers. Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn't work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they're done they're done. (118)
I wonder if this distinction holds in its pure form even for writers of fiction. It is especially the basher I'm doubtful about. Does anyone really write without going back over what they've written? But as a description of two different atttitudes to writing, I think it holds.
I started out as a basher by nature. Perhaps even by gender: "Most men are bashers," says Vonnegut, "and most women are swoopers." But I have come to appreciate swooping more recently. I think academic writing is best done by swooping, and I am usually not very hopeful about writers who claim to be bashers. A linear writing process—one that has no way of reversing its direction—is much more likely to get stuck, blocked, or cramped.
Writers who are swoopers, it seems to me, find it wonderful that people are funny or tragic or whatever, worth reporting, without wondering why or how people are alive in the first place. (119)
That probably captures part of the reason swooping is more advisable. In academic writing you are allowed to take the existence of other people more or less for granted.
The only way a basher can "revise" a text is to start over. To rewrite it. A swooper knows that the first draft is only that, and that the final version will emerge after much fixing. A basher finds the idea that there is a "higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum" version of the text abhorent. Drafts are discarded, not corrected. Like I say, given this choice, I think swooping is the wiser approach to academic writing. Try not to worry too much about why people are alive as such.
Monday, December 01, 2008
Walking him over to the kindergarten this morning, my son, 5, said something profound. "I've decided not to be a thief when I grow up." Really, I said, why on earth not? "Because that way I won't get caught." Well put, no?
I tried to capitalize on the opportunity. When deciding on a vocation, I told him, there are three important things to keep in mind. First, find something you enjoy doing. Second, get very good at it. Third, make sure it's something someone will pay you to do. The order is probably important. But he wasn't really listening anymore.
We walked past the furniture upholstering workshop and waved to Harry through the great big showroom windows. One of the professors (we live essentially on campus) drove by and noticed my boy's interest in real workmanship. "That's right," he shouted. "Much better than academia!" But academic research is also a craft, right?
Tonight I read Jonathan Mayhew's reflections on the virtues of his recent book. It reminded me of why his blog is so important. Jonathan enjoys what he does, does it well, and gets paid for it. There is no melancholy in that. No Palinurian death drive (the urge to jump ship because your captain is a decadent fool).
I don't know if he is just pretending, of course, and is, deep down, as much of a resentful academic as the next guy. At Bemsha Swing he doesn't let on. It reminds me of something Nabokov said in a 1969 Vogue interview:
I do not believe that speaking about myself can encourage the sales of my books. What I really like about the better kind of public colloquy is the opportunity it affords me to construct in the presence of my audience the semblance of what I hope is a plausible and not altogether displeasing personality. (Strong Opinions, p. 158)
You should read Bemsha Swing exactly for that: a plausible academic personality. Of course, you never really know what Nabokov thinks, deep down, either. But it doesn't matter. We know enough now not to get caught.
Orgtheory draws our attention to What's New. Fabio recommends especially the post on time management, and I would add that the idea of rapid prototyping is worth familiarizing yourself with.
Tao's immediate inspiration for this comes from software development. Our own Rob Austin (with Lee Devin) has suggested that prototyping in this sense is an important aspect of "artful making". In the case of academic writing, I'd add, it is a way of emphasing the craft of it.
The basic idea is to make sure that you are developing your ideas by way of iterations of expression of them. You are making sure that your argument works at every step along way. The prototype gives you a way of deciding whether it works as you had hoped. And this gives you a very concrete sense of how to proceed. It ensures that you are not just developing something "in your head", but that you are actually working on the paper.