Red Cabbage OR [Insert quote here]

A red cabbage

One of the joys of my job is being allowed to ask academics, ‘How do you write?’

The answer, often is, ‘I just write, and then plug the quotes in later’.

‘Just write’ –perhaps the most challenging two words in the writer’s lexicon.

So how do you ‘just write’ in that way?

First, you sit down at your computer, and you write up what you already know, hypothesise or intuit about a subject. Any time you get to something you know is needed in the document, but that requires you to break off typing to go and look something up… you use one of these 3 techniques instead. 

1. ROTKOHL

A red cabbage

A German-speaking student of mine does this, and I thought it was cute.  When he needs to put in more details, to flesh out an argument, to write a connecting paragraph, he writes ‘ROTKOHL’ into his draft.  Rotkohl is just German for red cabbage.

It’s a nonsense word, but it doesn’t mean ‘nonsense’.  Don’t replace it with ‘gobbledegook’ or ‘blah blah blah’, because those are terms that judge your writing. Do use ‘abracadabra‘ (your writing is magic!) or ‘Cowabunga‘ (you writing is both cool and makes erudite allusions to Renaissance artists) or ‘nectarine‘ (your writing is sweet and delicious).

Because this candidate is a musicologist, he is never going to talk about red cabbage in his thesis; so whenever he needs to go back to his draft, he can just search for ROTKOHL and easily find where he needs to fill in the gaps.

2. QUOTE, REF, DATE, PAGE

This is the most common way to do it.

What Baldwin calls a “history of violence” (REF), has been seen to shape contemporary responses. As Allende has suggested in her recent (DATE) article, the responsibility of the regime to recognise its role in the past is essential. (QUOTE). 

Sometimes people write the words in caps lock, sometimes in colour. These tags have the benefit of reminding you what you are looking for–do you need to add a year, a full reference, the name of the book, here?

It works well if you are visually scanning the text.  But if you use search and replace and write about referees, carbon dating or poetic quotations… you will find it too easy to miss the tags.

3. (Find that ref XXYY(???), maybe by Alexander?? 1976?? about page 200??)

This is what I do.  I often have a pretty good memory about what I’ve read, but I can’t quite recall all the details. I can often remember a quote almost verbatim, a number rounded to the nearest whole figure, a year to the nearest decade. I can often remember things that come before and after it, or about where it was in the book.

Writing in this fast <insert quote here later> way, means I can produce up to 4000 words in a good day of writing. I like to get into a zone, and keep producing text for two or three days before I move on to the edit and then proof phasesof the project. That means there can be a lot of text  to comb through, and (was this in chapter 4?) and (probably 1933) too often don’t stand out enough.

However, (was this in chapter 4???) or (prob 1933XX) are really easy to search for using Ctrl+F. I would never use more than one question mark in academic prose, so any time there are two, it’s a sign to look things up (or delete a typo).  In the same way, there are no words with double x in them, so searching for XX or YY will always be safe (don’t use ZZ, you’ll catch all those fizzing, dizzying, jazzy, grizzling nozzles and pizzas).

The main thing, though, is to realise that many academics are surprised and dismayed by your slow, painstaking, carefully fact-checked first draft. That’s what you do in the second draft, and continue to refine as you work through the stages of the writing process.

This is how many scholars, highly productive and well respected academics, manage to get so much written. Feel free to do likewise.

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I’m not doing a thesis, so this is a bit off topic.

    Apart from Research Whisperer articles & the odd research paper, my ‘writing’ is often preparation for a presentation or talk.

    Over time, I’ve realised that there is a definite pattern to how I work. I really love showing off in front of a crowd, so I privilege that part of the creative process from the start.

    1. Think of a clever hook. This is often the single most important idea that I want to get out there. It often becomes the title. Examples include “Naked metadata” and “Wild metadata”. Bask in the glory of my cleverness revealed.

    2. Imagine what I am going to say. Rehearse it in my head, over and over, expanding it as I go. I ride to work most days, and an hour each way is a great time to do this sort of practice. Imagine the rapturous audience reaction to my wise words.

    3. Write it out in full. Generally this occupies one all-nighter, shortly before the deadline. It isn’t hard, as I have the whole thing in my head, pretty much complete. Even though it isn’t difficult, I still put it off to the last minute. This is one reason why I’ll always avoid a thesis – you can’t do it in one big all-nighter.

    4. Pare back to slides and speaking cue cards. Often these are the headings of the different sections of the talk. Again, this gives me an opportunity to imagine the fun I’ll have presenting.

    5. Practice the talk out loud and edit for time. Strangely enough, this isn’t as much fun as the rest of it – I think because it is purely mechanical and not creative.

    6. Present. Enjoy the rush. Relax.

    The nice thing about this method is that I have a full ‘script’ of my talk that I can give out with my slides or put on the Web afterwards.

    Also, I can pretty much recite the talk from memory if need be, as I have most of it memorised by the time I write it down.

    Because I imagine that everybody else is just like me, I thought everybody did talks this way. It wasn’t until I saw my partner struggling over a presentation that I realised that my method might be a bit different from how other people do it. I think that it is really valuable to understand how we write (or fail to write) – it helps us understand what we can do well and what we need to work on.

    Jonathan

  2. Jonathan, thanks for putting this out there. I, too, was absolutely gobsmacked to discover that not everyone wrote like me. I think the more we get this stuff out in the open, the more opportunities people have to enjoy successful writing, rather than having to sweat it out alone.
    I love your hook idea. A hook like ‘naked metadata’ gives your writing not only a purpose and clarity, but a coolness that the content needs to live up to. ‘Building your thesis on the corpses of your enemies’ is a blog post that came as a title… and the need to deliver on its promises made my writing much, much better.
    Also, love the fact that you imagine the audience, and imagine that audience loving your work. These visualisations are so useful for creating a presentation that the audience probably WILL love.

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