Writing – Good Habits

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Our PGR Director at SSPSSR is compiling a student information sheet on good academic writing. I and a few other colleagues were asked to each contribute a short paragraph on our writing habits. I have to admit that at first this sounds like an invitation to expose our eccentricity!

Anyways, this is my confession:

Good academic writing starts with a good cup of coffee and is completed by a good glass of wine. I feel this is true at least in a metaphorical sense, in case you are not interested in any one of these drinks! It’s relatively easy to explain the coffee part: it’s always important to start with a sharp mind. After substantial reading and before one is about to be engulfed by research notes is the moment to write. But before turning to the keyboard, it is worthwhile to take a coffee time to map out what one has read and to branch out one’s argument. Once a ‘mind map’ is drawn, one can consider oneself to have successfully landed on the second page of the developing masterpiece. I find the idea to work from the ‘second page’ useful and comforting. It is comforting because a blank first page is a daunting nightmare for most people. I say this with confidence for I once watched Slavoj Žižek confessed in a documentary that even he had problems with breaking into the first page. In fact, he always needed to cajole himself into typing down a few pages of ‘something’ before he could start the real writing. The idea of working from an imaginary second page is also useful because academic writing is a (long) process that simultaneously requires a clear argument and a reflexive agenda. Everyone knows that the Introduction is always the last part to be (re)written. An attitude of working from the second page, rather than the defining first page, helps to curtail the perfectionists’ tendency to procrastinate. Relatedly, the reason I think a nice glass of wine completes a good writing session is because it’s a leisure activity that does not tax one’s mind but diverts one’s fixation on the paper’s argument. Thus one is able to look at the writing from a distance, from a different perspective, or even to think ‘outside the box’. For those who don’t drink, mathematicians often find listening to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier a healthier alternative. Finally, it should be highlighted that a good article takes weeks (even months) to write and it often goes through 3-4 drafts. Thus when I talk about the coffee-wine habit, I am actually describing a working routine. Refined ideas which emerged from last evening’s wine will be fed into the next morning’s coffee. In other words, a good quality paper is a result of a number of consecutive ‘coffee-wine cycles’.

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