Thoughts on Writing

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lately I've been having numerous conversations with graduate students frustrated with the process of writing research papers.  Mainly they appear overwhelmed with how labor-intensive the process is, and how long it takes to generate much satisfaction.

When responding, I'm finding it helpful to talk about cooking.  I love cooking, always have.  My strong preference is for slow-cooking -- I like the art of braising, how flavors deepen and meld as meats and veggies turn golden. It never fails to amaze me how the results are even better if left to rest in the fridge for a day before serving, since that time allows the fat to congeal and thicken, and then to be skimmed off, leaving a sharper (and healthier) result.

In my experience, a good research paper requires braising.  I think many people don't anticipate this, instead expecting a stir-fry. Those are neat-- you simply do a bunch of slicing and dicing in advance, line everything up, turn the heat on high, and you're done in minutes.  Preparation pays off, and immediate satisfaction is guaranteed. But as anyone who's eaten stir fries knows, the feeling doesn't last-- you're hungry an hour later.

Writing a good paper requires commitment and patience.  Yes, you need a good idea, but you also need the good sense to put the paper down from time to time, and let it simmer.  I've been known to simmer my papers for as long as two years, before removing the lid to check and see how things look.  (Yes, it's because as a sociologist I'm not fearful of being scooped and my work usually isn't time-sensitive-- and yes, I did this pre-tenure too.)  The best part is that I inevitably find something new when I look-- my view is not only freshened, I'm wiser, more skilled, and excited again about the work.  I can skim the fat quite easily, since it's hardened. I may even involve a second cook in the kitchen at that point, to get the seasoning right.  But no matter what, every single time, the paper is better for the braise.

It's thoughtful, satisfying, and worth every minute.  Try it. And enjoy, along with a nice shiraz.