Why Do I Hate Writing Research Down?

Obviously, I don’t hate all writing, or else I wouldn’t have a blog. It’s also not true when it comes to documentation because code documentation is one of the things that I try to do habitually and that I harped on all the time while I was an engineer. For some reason, though, I can’t motivate myself to write my research down, even though I view it as essential and essentially the same as code documentation. I need to pull my own teeth to start writing.

Even now, I’m experiencing an incredible stubbornness to just doing it. I have a deadline (not for a conference) to get something written down soon, which will serve to get some material written, but I would much rather be personally motivated to do it. If I want to do it, I’ll do it better. So I’m writing this out as an exercise to help me figure out why I’m being such an ass about it, to glean some advice from my readers, and maybe to help anyone else who is having trouble with a similar motivation.

When put on the spot, I could probably invent a couple inane excuses as to why I don’t want to write. They wouldn’t be accurate, however, because I really don’t know why. So here’s a few possibilities:

  • Procrastination: This is incredibly likely, but it’s outweighed by the fact that I still don’t want to write under my imminent deadline.
  • Pride: Also another possibility. I’m not denying it, since pride often accompanies (if not causes) stubbornness. But what would it be pride over? That I shouldn’t have to write? I’ve been aware since I chose this career change that writing will be an integral part of my work. Whither the pride, then?
  • Perfectionism: A strong candidate, but writing is an iterative process, and perfectionism undoes writing by dragging it out, not preventing it from starting.
  • Fear: Hmm. I think I might be getting somewhere. I don’t know where exactly it would stem from, but since I typed the word, it’s lingering there.

I’ll pause there for now, and I’ll go over some of the suggestions that people have already given me for motivation (all good):

  • It’s necessary anyway: I’ll have to write anyway, and I’ll have to revise a bunch of times, so there’s no point in putting it off.
  • It will help reveal flaws: I both agree and disagree with this. Mostly I agree, but it’s a good enough reason to just write it down.
  • It will help in communicating the research verbally: I really like this idea, and I’m eager to try it out. Now if I could just get over the hump…
  • Write every day: John suggested this in the comments to help overcome the inertia. The procrastinator in me dislikes this idea, but I think it’s important enough to try.

I want to work this out now, as early as possible, so that I’m not wasting so much time trying to motivate myself to write. The fear thing seems weird to me. Am I just having a fear of rejection or judgment? I thought I made this change ready to face both.

So, readers, any suggestions on motivations? How did (do) you get over the hump? Do you think it’s just some stupid fear of rejection/judgment? Or is it something else?

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18 responses to “Why Do I Hate Writing Research Down?

  1. I don’t like to write stuff down because I have really shitty hand writing.

    • Hehe. What’s funny is that after I started school again, my hand started to hurt from writing notes down. Years of typing had coddled me.

    • I have coworkers and students that can’t even re-read their own handwriting, and they somehow expect that I should be able to read their stuff.

      I think the trick is just that: train. You write often, as much as you can. I keep a log book where I detail my daily activities at work; research, phone calls, etc. I fill a 180-page notebook every six months or so. Over the years, my handwriting improved quite a lot.

  2. I read somewhere that you can finish nearly any project if you work on it 15 seconds every day. The trick is “every day.” And if you do put in 15 seconds, you’re likely to put in more. Or more realistically, maybe you commit to 15 minutes a day. Same idea. Overcoming inertia is everything.

    Usually when I fail to finish a project, it’s because I go for days at a stretch giving it *zero* time, not because I work consistently but progress too slowly.

  3. I am a PhD dropout and I think I can offer some advice on the subject:

    - Many times procrastination equals perfectionism. You are a likely candidate/

    - Fear. You may be used to writing things down, but you are not used to write them down “the academic way”. And since people think high of you, you think that you are expected to write well. You are not. You may say that fear equals pride in this case.

    • Those both make a lot of sense. Thanks for the advice.

      I think you make a good point that these misbehaviors are linked to a large degree. It’s probably just a big messy ball of all four.

  4. I’ve got a big writing project I need to work more on. I got a lot done on it today thanks to your blog. I worked on it to keep from feeling like a hypocrite after the comment I left!

  5. Fear can stem from a deeper source than simply fear of writing something bad. Plenty of brilliant people write poorly. I think the deeper fear is that once you write it down, it can (and will) be judged by the community. Regardless of the quality of writing, they can judge your ideas on a scale of interest. If you write it down and no one finds it interesting, then the work you’ve put into the topic has in some sense been rejected by the community, which can feel like YOU’ve been rejected by the community, particularly when you’re just starting.

    There are three things which can temper this fear:
    1) rejection from a journal or conference isn’t necessarily final. Sometimes the competition can be fierce, and you just didn’t make the cut, even though your ideas were plenty interesting. There are other conferences and other journals.
    2) one community’s garbage is another’s gem (or something like that). If your ideas are rejected by one community, try to find another community that finds what you do more interesting. Within a single area of math there are generally many different sub- and sub-sub-communities.
    3) even if one paper/set of ideas you have is outright rejected by every community you tried, you’ll have other ideas.

    In terms of getting over the hump: this is like a fear of drowning preventing you from getting into a swimming pool. The way to get past it is to cannonball, but into the shallow end. Don’t overreach — you won’t drown in the shallow end — but dive right in with the skills and ideas you’ve got.

    In another sense, though, this is a deeper fear. Even though mathematics is suppose to be eternal and independent of the lives of mere mortals, it’s really not. What’s “useful” and “interesting” is judged by other mathematicians. It’s about people. And even though eternity can’t reject your proofs or ideas, people can. (And if your ideas are rejected over and over, then maybe it is time to try a different area of research, or a different job altogether.)

    • Rejection from a journal or a conference is indeed not the end of the world nor of your work. I have attended conferences where the portion of papers with a board member as co-author was inordinately high, which makes you realize that in science, science is far from everything.

      Timeliness is also very important. If you publish something very interesting about a subject that’s not trendy right now, it may get rejected/dismissed just because of that. Sometimes replacing ‘mpeg’ by ‘h.264′ will make the difference, getting you published, even though the ideas you present in your paper are exactly the same whether you apply them to MPEG or H.264 video. I guess it’s also the same with other branches of science, including math.

      So you have to fight cliques and transient fashions in addition to producing genuinely good and original science.

    • Josh & Steven: thanks for the replies.

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  8. Writing down research (as opposed to other kinds of writing) forces you to confront the possibility that you’ll realize that you got your research wrong. Which is why it’s inherently scary. Sometimes the prospect of having to start all over again is actually more daunting than the prospect of merely getting rejected and moving on. If you’ve ever done any home sewing, it’s that same horrible feeling as when you have to rip out stitches.

    This is all irrational, of course. It’s better to have to revise than to call your work “complete” but still have the nagging awareness that it’s flawed.

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  10. I just spent the last month working on how to communicate my current research: writing and speaking. I found the best thing I could do was to just start writing something, even if it was terrible or I eventually threw it away.

    I draft all my writing in pen in a sketch book before I go to latex, so there’s this nice added benefit of having all my original writing around. This makes it easier to consult multiple versions and think about different options for how I want to present something. Often I find that I don’t understand why one avenue of attack in writing is wrong until I’ve pursued it.

    I’m not sure what would work for you to get you over the hump, but I think devaluing the quality of your draft writing is a good strategy.

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