Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Self-Admonishments about Writing

From the bowels of a dissertation shrieks forth the Spawn of Endra:

[Note: I write "fuck" and "fucking" a lot in this post, and reading that may not be your bag. Or it might be a jolly old time for you! How do I know?]

Sir Mortimer Wheeler telling it like it is.
Nothing really game-related to discuss, but I'm coming off of getting a dissertation chapter basically done -- one which was THE most horrendously painful piece of scientific writing I've ever done (and my CV is not short for a grad student) -- and having one of those serious "what the fuck is going on with you?" sessions with my advisor (this time he was asking me). So it's been a lot of highs and lows the last few days and weeks, and I'm coming into parts of my diss I enjoy better. But to keep my momentum in writing, I've distilled a few items that I need to keep in mind. I've seen a lot bloggers I respect mention some of these thing as they talk about their writing projects or process in general -- from the notorious Happy Whisk to that dandy of the podcast James Raggi the 18th. (Quick Quiz: One is the instrument of Satan and the other makes delicious baked goods -- which is which? Answer below*).

Some of these admonitions are more specific to my genre (academic writing on the boundary of social and natural sciences), and some are personal peeves. Mainly I just want to put these down to remind myself of what I hate about my own writing so I stop doing it. (This should all be in first person, but it's in 2nd person. Don't take this personally, I'm not talking about you.)

The Process: You've got to fucking sit down and write, or at least try to write, every fucking day that you scheduled yourself to. That is, you've got to be putting words on the page everyday, no matter how crappy they are, or if it takes all day to write one paragraph. Allegedly some days it comes easier than others, but if you don't force yourself to endure, the good days will never come.

The Only Good Dissertation Is a DONE Dissertation: This is probably the first, most succinct, and most accurate advice I've ever heard about writing a diss. Even so, I am still struggling to face the reality that this applies EVEN TO MY DISSERTATION. Can you fucking believe that, dear readers? Even MY dissertation is a piece of crap, after all these years of blowing people out of the water and being the smartest grad student archaeologist in the room. Wow. This may not be readily applicable, to say, writing your Fantasy Heartbreaker or your first old school module, i.e., it may just suck and that's not really good for the person that buys your product. Having a done module won't make it good, but the analogy is probably that you have to have the first shitty iteration of the thing before you can get on to doing something better. Somebody posted an Ira Glass quote about this a while back.

Fucking Times New Roman: I've written enough with Word that I'm used to Times New Roman font, but I have now officially grown to hate its look so much that I need to start writing in a different font. For a while it has just been background and corporate nothingness, but now not only does it evoke Microsoft and Bill Gates and his crappy glasses, it evokes the nausea and tension that have been the last several months of working on the diss. If you're writing a gaming product, don't use TNR, even if you're trying to emulate the LBBs or something like that. Or I will vomit on your game.

Useless Words I HATE: Archaeologists run the gamut in their ability to write either (in the words of the great Sir Mortimer Wheeler) "the driest dust that blows", or the most flowery obtuse garbage imaginable. Most lack the grammar or vocabulary to do the latter, and aren't empirical enough to do the former, and they fall in between the two. The ones aspiring to floridity (often those bumping elbows with Old World classicists, non-ecologically oriented Mesoamericanists, and art historians) or technicality (often those collaborating with hard scientists) will use words that sound good, but carry no weight. These I officially hate:
  • significant, significance, etc., for big, a lot, important, substantial. I vow to never use this ever again unless I'm talking about statistical significance. I worked on a paper with a friend whose first draft had 23 instances of significant. In your writing, keep an eye out for words that you keep using like that. They make you look stupid.
  • implications: Often a stand-in for just saying what the implications of your research are, and suggest significance ... ugh. Especially bad in titles and abstracts where you should just say the result, not vaguely allude to implications (which must be significant). [In the spirit of full disclosure, my first sole-authored journal article committed this crime.]
  • timeframe for timing or date of prehistoric events. Given how shitty your chronology is, you probably don't have a timeframe, but you may have a sense of the timing of an event. And the connotation is wrong anyway.
  • Bayesian when you really just mean you used OxCal to calibrate some radiocarbon dates. Taking a frozen burrito out of the freezer and putting it in the microwave does not make you a physicist or an engineer. Nor a cook. Running OxCal does not make you a post-classical statistician.
  • suggests, indicates, etc. Most archaeological evidence is ambiguous, or at least when we're interpreting cause and effect, we rely on induction more often than deduction and the problem of equifinality limits our ability to say "This giant obsidian blade stuck through this person's skull means that he was an enemy of this tribe and was killed in battle." Usually you could also say something like "It is possible this was the king of this tribe and the giant obsidian blade was ritually stuck in his skull as part of the renewing-the-earth ritual and he was the most beloved member of the dynasty." So the writing gets bogged down in "This suggests that ..." or if you feel more ballsy "This indicates that ..." or "This is consistent with ...", all of which are dull words that suck the life out of you as you write. It's very difficult to just say what your observations are in a confident way, without obsequious qualifications, but when you can it usually sounds more interesting. But you don't want to overstate your case and get shit upon. These words are probably the most intractable, but even so other ways of phrasing the ideas may help.
There are more, I just can't remember them right now. Oh, and Christ! ... Of course:
  • robust: Unless you're talking about a distinct group of australopithecines, then fuck you when you use this word. How is this used in the literature? To refer to one's own research design, data, analytical methods or theoretical framework. To the discerning reader it always looks like you're trying to cover up weaknesses in these things. Examples: Robust chronology-building. Fuck you. Robust inference. Fuck you. Robust set of ecological models for human decision making. Fuck you. Now lookit, I'm not saying all of your shit isn't robust. But why are you telling me in the background section a priori (and I know what that means because I know what Bayesian means, mf'ers) that all your shit is robust instead of demonstrating to me in the results and discussion that it is? If your methods and data are awesome, I'm going to know. If you keep talking about how robust everything is I'm just going to think you're insecure about your science or your genitals or some other part of your life. Chest-puffing looks like chest-puffing whether it's done at a bar or on the page. And equally likely to get you called on your bullshit (i.e., an empirical test of your robusticity).
Argh. Well, I guess I needed to rant about writing. I'm happy to hear anyone's take on this sort of BS, and especially good ideas in the process category and how you stick through the hard times.

*HA! Trick question! The Whisk makes satanic, albeit delicious, baked goods.


  1. As someone who wrote a 70k+ word Doctoral Thesis on Social Interaction via Robot Proxies...: Preach it Brother!

    I have never ever ever found a PhD student who found their thesis easy or enjoyable to write. In fact every one I spoke to before starting on mine said 'Don't do it, it's hell on earth'. It was.

    And I didn't even get the Doctorate at the end! Hah!

    Good luck with your Dissertation :)

  2. Please don't start blogging in Comic Sans ;)

  3. I'm currently trying to hold an international group of authors together for a single scientific article - that's hard enough. It's exceeded the effort my Masters dissertation was.

    A PhD - get out of here.

  4. Whisk is the minion of Satan, yes? Shamelessly tempting we mere mortals with baked goods!

  5. And I agree: down with Times New Roman. I am a Calibri man myself these days, not really much better but at least it's not fucking TNR.

  6. @James: Man, writing a diss and not getting the degree ... ugh. I'm glad you still have a sense of humor.

    @TC: Comics Sans is for jerks. I plan to start blogging in a special mix of Jokerman and Webdings.

    @JP: Most of my international collaborations have been with English speakers. Kiwis are the hardest drivers when it come to publishing in my experience. See if you can rustle one up for your project.

    @Carter: Yes, Calibri is the new Word default. I may have a bash at it.

  7. So it's been about 18 months since I tendered a chapter for a book outside my usual field. Occasional whispers is all I've had back. In the meantime I've finished the diss and checked out. Any day now I'll start facing the writing demon again. Any day.

    Some more words I myself abuse: "however." Usually the contradiction between statements that I signal with "however" only exists in my own head. Or maybe I want to sound less declamatory, more reflective. But it just slows stuff down and makes me sound dumber, as you note (argh, "note"). "Complex." "Sociospatial" begs my entire fucking argument and yet there it is, in the abstract, god help me. Colons and semi-colons: these usually signal two separate thoughts that I'm hoping to associate in your mind as if one followed logically from the other, without my having to explain how or why.

    TNR is the mind killer. Palatino also makes me break out in hives. But I recently read a thesis in Lucida Sans and it just looked wrong. I'd like to use Caxton but the university won't allow it.

    I love the idea of writeroom or any of those other "no fuss, just the text" editors, but none of them handle footnotes, so I can't. Dammit.

    Today's pro tip is, never promise you'll revisit something in Chapter 4. I wound up excising Chapter 4 in corrections, then using Word's search tools to remove all references to Chapter 4, then proofreading through to see if any had managed to hide under Word's radar somehow. So I sent my diss to an interested professor yesterday, which made me open it up and take a look, and right there on the first random page I go to, in the footnotes: "for a full discussion see Chapter 4."

    And that's the end of my whingeing. You have my profound sympathy. Now get it done and out of there.