I’ve been writing a chapter draft over the Easter holidays, which prompted me to think about finishing.
I don’t know about you, but I love the editing stage because it means my article or chapter is nearly done and I will shortly have another achievement to list on my CV. I know that sounds boringly pragmatic and instrumental, but there it is. While I have a deep love of scholarship and a healthy interest in ideas, my urge to write is driven by an interest in career maintenance – pure and simple.
In his superb book “Writing for social scientists” (which should be renamed “Writing for everyone”), Howard Becker talks about the importance of being the kind of writer who can get stuff “Out The Door”. He suggests writers need to think more like companies who make gadgets like phones and computers. Electronic consumer goods companies have similar problems to writers, but they have shipping schedules they must stick to if they want to stay in business.
The engineers will want to delay shipping until the product matchs the vision in their heads, but the marketing people will be happy with ‘good enough’. Even if the new gadget is rough around the edges, the marketing people will still make the engineers get it Out The Door. According to Becker the logic of the marketing people is simple: if it sells, there will be money for to build the next version. The next version will be be better, but, meanwhile, this one will do (some companies are great at doing this and still turning a massive profit).
Your success as a ‘company’ who can get that writing Out The Door will be affected by your temperament as a researcher. If you are the kind of researcher who has a curiosity problem, as I talked about a couple of weeks ago, your ability to get it Out The Door can be hampered by a tendency to get bored. I have a friend who struggled mightily with her Masters degree because she hated working over what she called ‘cold cases’ – her chapter drafts. Once the ideas were on paper she claimed her curiosity had been satisfied and she was ready to move on. This is where your marketing department needs to call you in for a performance review: that attitude is not going to shift enough product to keep the company afloat.
Sometimes however, boredom is not the dark side of a creative turn of mind, but a lack of commitment to seeing the idea through. Just like the idea of having a baby is different from the reality of wiping its bottom 6 times a day, thinking about ideas is a lot less work than writing about them. The problem with intellectual labour is, although it can be hard, the effects of the struggle are not visible. My very favourite scene in the sitcom “Big Bang Theory” is where two of the characters, Sheldon and Raj, are collaborating on a physics problem. The scene consists of jump cuts of the two scientists, staring at equations on a whiteboard, while the theme to the movie ‘Rocky’ plays. The scene perfectly captures the inner experience of intellectual struggle vs the outer appearance of … well, pretty much nothing.
For all our labouring in the footnote salt mines, there will be no callouses on our hands, so it can be hard to see your commitment problem for what it really is: work avoidance. If you realise your will is flagging, your inner marketing department has to call in pizza for the engineering department and get them doing overtime. Promise yourself a reward for completion – chocolate, TV, a walk in the park – whatever it takes to keep Mr or Ms Bottom in chair town long enough to get it Out The Door.
If you couple a lack of commitment with a tendency to excessive self critique you will be in real trouble. I have seen some of the brightest people fail to get a PhD because they measure their efforts against the best The Literature has to offer. Unfortunately the best work is often written by academics with years and years of experience of their craft; no matter how hard you try, you will never catch up with them. These people are the most likely to fall victim to the seductive whispering of the inner engineering department: “Just one more week and it will be perfect – we promise”. This is when your marketing department needs to step in, take the project out of your hands and ship the bastard anyway.
For some lucky people doing a PhD is an intellectual luxury, but for most of us plebs it isn’t. Many of you will soon be out there with a newly minted PhD looking for work; some of you will be there already. We can rail against the quality and quantity metrics which dominate academia as much as we like, but they are a fact of life for now. In my opinion it’s only going to become increasingly competitive. As Becker points out: people will judge you on what you have done – not the ideas you have in your head. Finished theses, chapters and journal articles are the only tangible proof of your invisible labours in the footnote mines.
So remember: your inner engineering department does not always have your best interests at heart. You may not like your inner marketing department, but when they do their job properly you won’t go broke. Repeat after me: “Perfect is the enemy of Done”. Speaking of which – I’m off to finish editing that chapter now. The marketing people are nagging at me to “ship it already” 🙂
How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)