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05/04/2013

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Derek

Hey Marcus,

First of all great post! I have often found that my environment makes a huge difference in whether or not I ultimately get anything done or not, but I had not thought about it specifically until I read your post. Here's my experience:

To begin with, it does not seem to matter so much where I write. Although, I do have my preferred spots I find that I am able to write pretty much anywhere. However, the time of day and what device I am using to write with seems to matter quite a bit. For instance, I find that I write best early in the morning -- like 4 or 5 am, which coincidentally is a tip I picked up from this blog! -- and that after about noon I am useless. So, I tend to write in the morning and read in the afternoon. Another weird thing that seems to matter is the device I am using to write. For instance, I have a hard time writing on a laptop or desktop, but no problem at all writing on my I-pad (with an external keyboard and case to hold it up). The last thing that I find matters, although I'm not sure if this is a part of one's environment per se, is whether I have been writing everyday or not. For instance, if I don't write for a couple of days -- I'm on vacation say -- then I find that the first day or two back are basically throw away days; It's not that I can't write at all, but more that I just write bumbling non-sense. In fact, even on the weekends I make my-self write for at least an hour or two in order to avoid having a writing hangover on Monday -- though I do try to take the rest of the day off and if I find myself feeling burnt-out, some time away can be beneficial. Also, I have found that if I have a choice between reading something new and writing something new/re-working something old, I find that I'm almost always better off writing.

What do you guys think? What specific aspects of your environment do you guys find helps/hinders your productivity? Also, it often seems that I "just-like" some place over another for no apparent reason. Do you find that this happens to you?


**Also, I'm not suggesting that Marcus was solely focused on the place where he works, as if a place and it's defining characteristics are neatly separable entities. Rather, I was just trying to tease out some specific aspects of my work environment that I find important.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: thanks for your comment! I also have the experience if being more productive on some devices over others. Just getting a new laptop sometimes wigs me out.

Anyway, I'm curious about the writing in the morning thing. Did you really pick that up here? Has it made a big difference? Just curious! Like I've said before, it made an *enormous* difference for me when I started doing it.

Sean

Hey Marcus (first post, been reading for a few months now):

I was wondering if you had any thoughts specific to writing outside. For me such a habit sees impossible. Is it that you get to the park with nothing but your laptop and the paper already formulated in your head? Obviously you don't carry your books with you there, so is it more of a draft-writing space? Does it speak to the idea that you may be one of those academics who supports the 'write write write, with no intermediary revisions' strategies? I've been looking for a new environment, but I don't think I could ever see myself not writing at a desk. It may speak to the fact that I am constantly re-reading what I write and cannot adopt on 'just get it down on paper' free-flowing style. It doesn't sit well with me, but maybe that is something to consider as I move on into PhD. land. This is probably too general. I think the point is just for me to voice my amazement that you are able to write outside. Not my cup of tea.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Sean, thanks for your comment! I think a few different things enable me to do it.

First, as I've mentioned on the blog before, I have what I take to be a somewhat idiosyncratic way of coming up with paper topics. I've never been one to hammer away on small points. Instead, what I generally try to do is figure out one *big* thing that I think people in general are getting wrong. Here are just a few examples. In my dissertation, I argued that basically everyone was ignoring a critical issue about justice in nonideal circumstance. Or consider my paper "Reconceptualizing Human Rights." Here I more or less argued that everyone has been thinking about human rights in an unhelpful way. Or my paper "Unifying the Categorical Imperative". There I argue that once we pay close attention to one of Kant's root points about practical reason, we need to reformulate the Humanity Formulation -- and when we do that all of the formulas are easily unified (or seen to be strictly identical), just as Kant claimed. Or consider my paper "A New Theory of Free Will." Here again I went way far out and argued that there's a very different way to think about free will than people have thought.

Due to the nature of the kinds of papers I write -- and I expect they are not everyone's cup of tea, but whatever -- I generally don't *have* to scour the literature when I'm writing. All I need to do is cite books and articles very broadly, pointing out how people in different places all assume the same thing, in which case that's all the citing I have to do.

Second, and this is pretty funny, on occasions I *do* head to the dog park with stacks of books and articles. I'm sure it's all quite comical looking, seeing me trudge in with stacks of books, but whatever: I'm not easily embarrassed! ;)

Third, I often whatever quotes or sources I need elsewhere, for instance when I'm reading in my office or wherever else I read. I typically write down quotes and page numbers by hand so that when I write at the dog park I have a scratch of paper to pull them from.

Finally, I kind of do write without intermediate editing, in the manner you allude to. I learned this pretty late in grad school, but it has done wonders for me. I basically write entirely off the top of my head to get the main summary, arguments, objections, and replies all written out and only later, at the revision stage, throw in all of the citations, etc. For *most* of my career up to my last year of grad school, I did what you say you do: read and re-read what I write. I don't do that anymore, in large part because I received a book during my dissertation stage that advocated the process I now use, which I like to call "Throw up, then clean up." It may sound strange, but I've found that if I basically write entire papers from start to finish with basically no editing and *then* go back and edit the entire thing (rather than editing as I go along), I not only get stuff done way faster; I get it done *better*.

Anyway, I don't know if this sort of thing works for everyone, but given my experience of life before and after learning the strategy, I would never go back.

Derek

Hey Marcus,

Sorry for the late reply. I replied earlier, but I must not have submitted it correctly because my response never showed up. Anyways, I actually did pick up the idea to write in the morning from here. Although, I have picked up quite a few things from this blog I found the posts titled "Research Strategies" and "More Research Strategies" *exorbitantly* helpful. Here are some of the more beneficial things that have happened since I have been writing every morning.

1.) Increased productivity -- Perhaps this one goes without saying, but the sheer increase has been mind-blowing. In the last couple of months I have pounded out five new papers, an outline for my book/dissertation (three of the papers will most likely be incorporated into the book, though I wrote them first) and a rather inordinate amount of outlines/notes of readings. The mind blowing part for me is that I struggled to even write one paper -- outside of class at least -- last year and I was not especially happy with the ones that I wrote for class.
2.) I can see my ideas build on each other each day in a way that they never did before. I have always struggled with the thought that I have nothing to write and so have ended up just reading and reading and reading in hopes that an idea will strike me, fully formed and that I will then be able to just spit it out on the page. Of course, that never happens. The habit of writing everday has quelled this tendency and I have learned that If I just start writing I have plenty to say. Further, I have all afternoon to read and so I am able to read just as much as I was before.
3.) I no longer "force" myself to write on one specific topic. Instead, I often work on several projects at once. Using this method I find that my ideas are able to breath a little, so to speak. For example, I often think of ideas for one project while working on another and, since I don't feel so much pressure to get a paper done as quickly as possible, the ideas in my paper seem to grow more organically and end up being better for it.
4.) I feel more productive and so I don't feel so much pressure to work nights and weekends. This allows me to spend more time with friends and family. Ironically, even though I work less now I feel that I get more done. I suspect that a large part of this is because I feel better emotionally and hence am always motivated to pick up where I left off the morning before. Research has also become enjoyable again and less like I'm running on a hamster wheel haha.
5.) Lastly, and this is a tip I picked up from Stephen Mumford -- check out the handout posted on his website "The Mumford Method" -- I write detailed outlines first and then, after I have done all of the creative/philosophical work, I write a draft. In my experience, this has a number of benefits. For one, I am not focused on trying to "follow the argument" while also trying to present the argument in a clear and focused manner -- which always seems to end up in a jumbled mess. Instead, once I commit to writing a draft I can focus solely on presenting my ideas in a clear and engaging manner. Another perk is that I am able to get feedback on my outlines quickly, as people are much more willing to comment on a three page outline than they are on a thirty page draft! I have just begun revising my papers using the "reverse outline" method, so I will let you know how that works out. This is where I picked it up --
http://getalifephd.blogspot.com/2011/08/easy-way-to-complete-major-revision.html

Marcus Arvan

Awesome! Thanks so much for sharing...sounds like you had almost exactly the same experience as I did when I first tried this stuff. Very cool.

Marcus Arvan

Also: mind if I share your comment in a new post? I think readers might find your experience helpful.

Derek

That's no problem at all. Go right ahead.

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