Friday, February 01, 2013

Research Practices

One of my most radical ideas, to some people, is the strict separation of the writing process from other research activities. Many scholars think they do their best writing as an extension of, especially, their reading. They spend the day moving back and forth between reading other people's work and writing their own, guided by a feeling of having, or not having, something to say. When they write, their desks are piled up with the books and articles they are reading.

Very few people will actually spend even, say, six solid hours on any given day actually engaged in reading and writing when working this way. But they may let the day go doing nothing else of note for as many as eight or ten hours. Such a day will include wholly unproductive acts of procrastination and background administrative work, like answering emails and booking flights for conferences. It may also include work on other texts, like abstracts or research proposals. Whatever comes up.

But even if we imagine that someone can actually devote six full hours to work on a single paper or book chapter, shifting back and forth between reading for it and writing on it, it is my view that those six hours will be better spent in two blocks of three. One should be spent reading and taking notes. The other should be spent writing six paragraphs, twenty-seven minutes at a time.

Remember what I said yesterday, too. You should not write something you just discovered. So the three hours of reading should be spent a few days (even weeks) before you write about what you've read. If you do want to spend "a whole day" engaged in research, you will be writing (in the morning) about something you learned a while back, and reading (in the afternoon) for something you'll be writing in the days or weeks to come. Again, this is where some people despair. They thought what was keeping their text together was the continuity (some would even "integrity") of their writing process with their reading process.

As I argued yesterday, the problem with this "organic" approach to writing is that makes your article a record of what you're thinking about in the moment, not what you've learned over a period of time and now know comfortably. But it is true that it makes certain demands of your memory. I should point out that one of the qualifications for research should properly speaking be a reasonably reliable memory for what texts say. But you should not rely solely on memory to provide the content of your writing. This is why most people take notes while reading. It's the traditional way of assisting your memory.

During your reading sessions, you carefully take notes, keeping a record, not of what the text says (which would ultimately mean transcribing it), but of what the text has taught you, what you've "taken away" from your confrontation with it. You then bring these notes to your writing sessions. But, because your writing is focused (in our example) six paragraphs, each of which says one thing you know and supports it, you don't need all your notes. You don't need a representation of all your reading, or even the whole any particular text you've read. You only need the notes that provide you with support for the particular claims you've made. These notes can be selected at the same time that you decide what paragraphs to write.

I'll say something more concrete about how to take notes in a future post. It's not actually something I'm very good at. But once you understand the process that note-taking is supposed to support, the art becomes much easier to think about and develop consciously.


Andrew Shields said...

Writing not as discovery, but as transcription?

You're definitely pushing your ideas into new directions now (or at least into areas that you have not previously put this way, as far as I remember).

Thomas said...

I think I'm just getting more explicit about it.

Do note that I'm not suggesting that writing is trans-scription, i.e., "writing across" (from one text to another), which I reject even as a note-taking practice.

I'm talking about writing something "down", the root meaning of de-scription.

What I'm trying to break is the hold that our image of "creativity" in writing has on us even when it comes to straight, descriptive writing, i.e., scholarly prose.

The idea that the scholar should discover what he or she thinks "in the act of writing" is more pernicious than we think.

Scholars should write down what they know. This will release their creative energy in the domain where it belongs, namely, in their thinking.

Anonymous said...

This is a true post although I think the reason people use the "organic" concept is so as not to wait until one has read enough.

I just figured out something fundamental -- the super-simple abstract. Three lines or something like that. It is so as to write without reading.