33: On writing

Research has to be ‘written up’. To some, writing comes easily – though I suspect this is on the basis of learning through experience. To many, especially research students at the time of thesis writing, it seems like a mountain to be climbed. There are difficulties of getting started, there are difficulties of keeping going! An overheard conversation in the Centre where I work was reported to me by a third party: “Why don’t you try Alan’s 500 words a day routine?” The advice I had been giving to one student – not a party to this conversation – was obviously being passed around. So let’s try that as a starting point. 500 words doesn’t feel mountainous. If you write 500 words a day, 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month, 10 months a year, you will write 100,000 words: a thesis, or a long book, or a shorter book and four papers. It is the routine of writing that achieves this so the next question is: how to achieve this routine? This arithmetic, of course, refers to the finished product and this needs preparation. In particular, it needs a good and detailed outline. If this can be achieved, it also avoids the argument that ‘I can only write if I have a whole day or a whole week’: the 500 words can be written in an hour or two first thing in the morning, it can be sketched on a train journey. In other words, in bits of time rather than the large chunks that are never available in practice.

The next questions beyond establishing a routine are: what to write and how to write? On the first, content is key: you must have something interesting to say; on the second what is most important is clarity of expression, which is actually clarity of thought. How you do it is for your own voice and that, combined with clarity, will produce your own style. I can offer one tip on how to achieve clarity of expression: become a journal editor. I was very lucky that early in my career I became first Assistant Editor of Transportation Research (later TR B) and then Editor of Environment and Planning (later EP A). As an editor you often find yourself in a position of thinking ‘There is a really good idea here but the writing is awful – it doesn’t come through’. This can send you back to the author with suggestions for rewriting, though in extreme cases, if the paper is important, you do the rewriting yourself. This process made me realise that my own writing was far from the first rank and I began to edit it as though I was a journal editor. I improved. So the moral can perhaps be stated more broadly: read your own writing as through an editor’s eyes – the editor asking ‘What is this person trying to say?’.

The content, in my experience, accumulates over time and there are aids to this. First, always carry a notebook! Second, always have a scratch pad next to you as you write to jot down additional ideas that have to be squeezed in. The ‘how to’ is then a matter of having a good structure. What are the important headings? There may be a need for a cultural shift here. Writing at school is about writing essays and it is often the case that a basic principle is laid down which states: ‘no headings’. I guess this is meant to support good writing so that the structure of the essay and the meaning can be conveyed without headings. I think this is nonsense – though if, say a magazine demands this, then you can delete the headings before submission! This is a battle I am always prepared to fight. In the days when I had tutorial groups, I always encouraged the use of headings. One group refused point blank to do this on the basis of their school principle. I did some homework and for the following week, I brought in a book of George Orwell’s essays, many of which had headings. I argued that if George Orwell could do it, so could everybody, and I more or less won.

The headings are the basis of the outline of what is to be written. I would now go further and argue that clarity, especially in academic writing, demands subheadings and sub-subheadings – a hierarchy in fact. This is now reinforced by the common use of Powerpoint for presentations. This is a form of structured writing and Powerpoint bullets, with sequences of indents, are hierarchical – so we are now all more likely to be brought up with this way of thinking. Indeed, I once had a sequence of around 200 Powerpoint slides for a lecture course. I produced a short book by using this as my outline. I converted the slides to Word, and then I converted the now bullet-less text to prose.

I am a big fan of numbered and hierarchical outlines: 1, 1.1, 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.2,…..2, 2.1, 2.1.1, 2.1.2, etc. This is an incredibly powerful tool. At the top level are say 6 main headings, then maybe six subheadings and so on. The structure will change as the writing evolves – a main heading disappears and another one appears. This is so powerful, I became curious about who invented it and resorted to google. There is no clear answer, and indeed it says something about the contemporary age that most of the references offer advice on how to use this system in Microsoft Word! However, I suspect the origins are probably in Dewey’s Library classification system – still in use – in effect a classification of knowledge. Google ‘Dewey’s decimal classification’ to find its Nineteenth Century history.

There are refinements to be offered on the ‘What to ….’ and ‘How to ….’ questions. What genre: an academic paper, a book – a text book? – a paper intended to influence policy, written for politicians or civil servants? In part, this can be formulated as ‘be clear about your audience’. One academic audience can be assumed to be familiar with your technical language; another may be one that you are trying to draw into an interdisciplinary project and might need more explanation. A policy audience probably has no interest in the technicalities but would like to be assured that they are receiving real ‘evidence’.

What next? Start writing, experiment; above all, always have something on the go – a chapter, a paper or a blog piece. Jot down new outlines in that notebook. As Mr Selfridge said, ‘There’s no fun like work!’ Think of writing as fun. It can be very rewarding – when it’s finished!!

Alan Wilson

December 2015

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