I've written before a couple of times on research strategies, but my research the past couple of weeks since I began writing my book has made something crystal clear me: there is one research strategy I learned several years ago (in my final two years in graduate school) that "changed my life." Because it was such an unexpected but enormous change in strategy, one that has made the drafting of my new book go very well so far, I'd like to share it with all of, in the hope that perhaps it will make a similar difference in someone else's life.
One of the things I've mentioned before (which took some people aback) is just how fast I work. I tend to write up paper drafts in a matter of days, if not weeks. It wasn't always like this. For almost my entire philosophical career up until my last couple of years in grad school, I was very much the "slow burn" kind of worker. I would spend many, many months on end hammering out drafts, rewriting them, etc. It was hard, but I figured it was "the way" to do things.
I've made no secret that I endured some struggles as a grad student. It took me forever to come up with a good dissertation topic, but once I did, I finished the dissertation in about 8 months. How did it happen? Simple: I got a lucky break. I received an unsolicited book in my department mailbox on "how to write a dissertation." I'm usually not into self-help books, but I actually sat down and read this one. And what I read made so much sense that I had to try it. The first piece of advice, which I've recounted before, is to force oneself to write some small number of pages (say 3-5 pages) -- completely unedited -- every day you sit down to write. Although this might sound strange, every person I've passed the advice along to that has tried it has reported very positive results. I literally saw two other people I passed the book along to go from having nothing done on their dissertations to finishing in less than 9 months.
The key to this piece of advice -- as the book made clear -- is its psychological impact. One simply "feels good" when one has gotten 3-5 pages written on any given day. Once you've met that goal (if it, say, takes a couple of hours), you are then "free" to do whatever else you want that day: go back and edit, read journal articles, whatever. The point is that it gives you the feeling of moving forward every day. That feeling in turn increases your enthusiasm. You can't wait to wake up the next day to move forward more. This is exactly the opposite, in my experience, of what most grad students face (and why they often get stuck at ABD). Trying the "slow grind" style on big projects -- getting "everything right" -- leads to a negative mood feedback loop. You go home oftentimes frustrated that you didn't get much done, and it makes it that much harder to get up and do good work tomorrow. The 3-5 page a day thing creates a kind of snowball effect where you feel better and better every day, and work harder, edit better (after you finish), etc.
But I've said all of this before. What I haven't said much about is the general process it gives rise to in terms of writing: a process which (if I recall) the book I read called "Throw up, then clean up." I just can't begin to tell you how effective I think this process is. During the past week-and-a-half, I have been writing 2,000-3,000 words on my book per day. Is it all good stuff? No! But, amongst the crap, I've gotten so much good stuff out of my head and onto paper that I can tell it's going to be pretty easy to cut out the bad stuff. And that's the thing: once you get your thoughts out there and onto paper, going back and cutting out all of the crap is *so* much easier than trying to get it all correct the first time around. Furthermore, the quicker you get it out onto paper, I find, the easier it is to discern the good and bad. I've found this way that a lot ideas I thought were good were not -- and I probably would have spend weeks or more thinking about them, whereas now I see which ideas aren't any good in a day or two. It works wonders.
So, I propose, try it out if you're having trouble getting things done. Throw up, then clean up!