4.3 The pre-writing step
I know, for example, that this section of my article is gonna be about X and Y, so I have all the information pertinent to X and Y in that key part of the Word document in my road-map. Another one of his quote says, "The general attitude that you ought to be quantitative and comparative in your thinking in medicine is a very powerful idea that isn't natural to doctors or at least it wasn't from the Greeks on to about 1930." So I rifled around in my purse, found a little piece of scrap paper, and started madly scribbling notes because I got the crux of the story.
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In this next module, we’re gonna talk about the pre-writing step. This is the step where you get organized and put all your information at your fingertips. The pre-writing step is all about getting organized. I’m gonna try to get you out of the habit of writing and gathering information simultaneously. I’ve talked a bit about this before, but I’d love to tell the story about when I was a graduate student. Whenever I was working on a manuscript as a graduate student, if you walked into my office, you would see that my office was blanketed with papers. There’d be three papers on the printer, two on the filing cabinet, three spread out on the floor behind my chair, a couple papers spread out under my desk, a couple spread out over my desk. There’d just be papers everywhere. And I’d have a good sense of where each paper was located. God forbid anybody come in and rearrange my papers because I knew where they all were. My writing process would look something like this. As I’m writing the discussion section, I might realize, oops, now I need to get a piece of information from that clinical trial by Smith et al. Where’s that paper? Oh, that paper’s on top of the filing cabinet. OK. I pull the paper down, rifle through it, find the fact I need, carefully put the paper back on the filing cabinet, then I would type that piece of information into my computer, into my Word document. And it would keep going like this. And it was a really long, drawn-out process. Notice how I wasn’t doing any writing that whole time. I was just looking for information. Now, I dated myself a bit here because I realize that people don’t use hardcopies anymore. But there is a digital equivalent of this where you’re toggling between Google and PubMed, and email, to find your information. This is a painful way to write. I dreaded having to write when I was a graduate student. I’d go on these long bike rides to procrastinate. I even rode across France once. I had more time as a graduate student so I could get away with that kind of procrastination. But as I got more serious about writing, and started writing for non-academic publications with serious deadlines, I quickly realized that this writing process wasn’t going to cut it. I had to come up with a much more efficient way to write. I learned that I had to gather and organize my information before I sat down to write the first draft. So I came up with my own organizational system. What I do is I collect and read through lots of manuscripts and documents and, as I’m reading them, I extract key pieces of information, whatever, statistics, details, ideas, that I think I might use in my final draft. I also pick out good quotes if I’ve interviewed people for the story. I dump all of these into a single ongoing Word document. At the end, I end up with this really long Word document, and I move the material around in the Word document to get it organized. I lay out the sections of my story and I move the material around so that all of the details and quotes and references pertinent to a particular section are all together in the same place in the Word document. I also file all of my original sources into folders in case I need to find them again later. But I end up with a Word document that contains basically all of the details and information that I am going to need to write and these details are laid out roughly into different sections of the story. Now, think about your own organizational system. If you don’t have a good organizational system then create one that suits you. Find what works for you. But take some time, spend some time thinking about how you can get yourself organized. A lot of people feel like it’s a waste of time to spend time organizing, but it’s not. It will save you so, so much time down the road if you have an efficient system for organizing your thoughts ahead of time. If you spend more time organizing before you start writing, your writing will be less painful, you’ll spend less time in that step that’s really hard, which is the composing prose step, and what you write will come out to be much more organized. You want to develop some kind of road-map. I use the term road-map as opposed to outline. A road-map is like an outline but it lays out the sections of the paper in very broad terms. There’s no A, B, C, 1, 2, 3 – that’s too much trouble. But before I sit down to write, I have an idea of what’s going in each section of the paper and roughly what’s going in each paragraph in that section. I know, for example, that this section of my article is gonna be about X and Y, so I have all the information pertinent to X and Y in that key part of the Word document in my road-map. Now, here’s an example of one of my road-maps. I took a screenshot to show you what my road-map looks like. Notice that my Word document here shows pages 30 to 33. This Word document is actually probably 60 pages long. I just throw things into the Word document as they come along. I won’t end up using all of this at the end of the day, but when I rearrange it and put it in all the right bins, I’ll at least know all of the information that I have. Here, I was writing a magazine story about how biostatistics is a hot field. That was a particularly enjoyable article for me to write since the other thing I teach at Stanford besides writing is statistics. I knew I was gonna have a section in that article about the history of biostatistics. This was a feature story, so I interviewed people, and a lot of what you see in my road-map is just quotes from the people I interviewed. I highlighted my favorite quotes, the ones I wanted to make sure got in the story. And indeed, a couple of these quotes actually did make it into the final article. So, this is Brad Efron talking at the beginning here, and he says, “People blundered around for 2,000 years to decide whether A was better than B.” Another one of his quote says, “The general attitude that you ought to be quantitative and comparative in your thinking in medicine is a very powerful idea that isn’t natural to doctors or at least it wasn’t from the Greeks on to about 1930.” So both of those quotes actually ended up in this section of the final article. I also wanted to give some specific examples of early success stories. So I put some details here about Henry Kaplan, who used biostatistics to help transform Hodgkin’s disease into a curable disease. Notice that in my roadmap, I have all the dates and names and details that I need right there at my fingertips. When I sat down to write that history section, I wrote it very quickly because I already knew what was going in that section. It was just a matter of putting it into prose. Having this road-map makes writing more efficient. Besides getting your information organized, another thing you should be doing during the pre-writing step is brainstorming and thinking about your piece, preferably away from the computer. When you sit at the blank Word document at your computer, it’s a bit confining and angst-producing. Often you don’t get your best ideas when you’re forcing yourself to sit at that computer. So here’s something I like to do. I’m a busy person. I need to be very efficient with my time so I do a lot of writing and pre-writing while I’m exercising. I will think about how a piece is gonna be structured. I’ll think about what the main take-home messages are. It’s great because when you’re exercising, your brain just wanders, and it gives you an opportunity to make new connections or come up with a structure for your story. Sometimes, I come up with my most memorable lines or a really good word that I know I’m gonna end up using in my piece. One time, I was doing a feature story, and while I was out running, I was thinking about this one scientist and how he had just fallen into this research area. And I thought of the word serendipity – that’s just the perfect way to describe it. So that word ended up in my piece. And when my editor was editing that story, he actually picked up on that word and said, “That’s a great way to put it.” He ended up having me frame the whole paragraph around serendipity, so that word turned out to be very powerful. You can also brainstorm while you’re driving. I do a lot of brainstorming during my commute. I even now pack a tape recorder and I will talk out sections of my story into the tape recorder and then write them down when I get home. Just like when you’re exercising, your mind tends to wander when you’re driving, and this freedom can lead you to new ideas and new connections. So whenever I’m working on a big feature story, I force myself to turn off NPR in my car so I can use that time to work through my story. If I’m waiting for an appointment or standing in line, I often use this time to mull over a piece, too. For example, this week I had an appointment, and I was waiting for a few minutes for my appointment. And as I was sitting there, my mind was kind of chewing over this feature story I’m working on about validation. And suddenly, it just came to me what the crux of that story is. So I rifled around in my purse, found a little piece of scrap paper, and started madly scribbling notes because I got the crux of the story. And that never would have come to me had I just been sitting there at the computer, you know, waiting for it to strike me. So a lot of pre-writing can be done away from the computer while you’re multitasking. Finally, pre-writing is about organization, so I want to give you some tips for organizing your paper. This may seem obvious but like ideas should be grouped. If you’ve got multiple paragraphs talking about the same thing, they should all be collapsed into a single paragraph or at least the paragraphs should be abutting one another, should be close together. Often, when I’m editing papers, I’ll find the same topic discussed in multiple different paragraphs strewn throughout the paper. And I tell students to move them together and this often reveals unnecessary repetition. Another tip is when you’re discussing controversies, as we often do in scientific papers. Don’t bait-and-switch your reader too many times. Authors typically will present, “Here’s argument A; here’s the counterargument to A; and here’s the rebuttal to the counterargument. And then let me start that whole sequence again for B, and then let me do it again for C.” It’s hard on the reader if you go back and forth, pro and con, pro and con, too many times. A better way to organize those discussions is to put all of the pro arguments first, then all of the counterarguments, then all the rebuttals. That tends to be easier on the reader.
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