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I think the advice to read widely is good, but there is a provisory: don't over read; at some point you need to start writing or you'll generate nothing. Also, writing will help you understand what you're reading, so sometimes it's best to write as you read. Don't worry about having to delete material or throw material out.

I agree that if you're trying to be productive, you should write every day. When I was working full time at philosophy I'd spend 6 hours a day reading and writing and another 4-5 thinking about the topics I was working on (including when I should have been sleeping). That's what it took to crank out 3 papers a year or so.

Having a schedule isn't a bad thing for sure, but for me sometimes I just have to write when I have something to say. I've worked late at night after getting out of bed, because I couldn't stop thinking about something or another. Maybe people with more self control can put it off until the morning, but perhaps it's also best to write when your brain wants to write and not force a schedule if you don't have to. I realize this might work better for postdocs and grad students than professors who have other responsibilities besides research, but remember coffee is your friend! I can't write without caffeine.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Neil: Thanks for sharing this. My process is remarkably similar, and I think your tips are spot on!

Like you, I normally begin with only a vague idea of what I want to argue, and then figure out the details as I go. And, like you, this process leads to a lot of "overproduction." I probably write three times as many papers as I end up publishing, deciding only after writing them (either in whole or in part) which ones are working out and which ones don't. I don't consider this wasted time, as my sense is that every paper is good practice for the future--practice writing, practice thinking, practice editing, and so on. Finally, like you, I often return to papers later (sometimes years later) if and when I figure out how to fix what I took to be a fatal problem.

That being said, I think you and I may do a few things a little differently. The first thing I do when I have an idea for an argument is to quickly survey the literature (mainly by reading abstracts) to see if anyone has defended the same thesis or given a similar argument before. This not only helps me see whether the argument is original; it also gives me a very rough lay of the land in the literature (without spending tons of time reading full articles). If the argument I've come up with hasn't been defended, then I start writing. On the other hand, if something like it has already been defended, then I try to figure out whether I have anything original to contribute to whatever has been written about it. If I think I do, then (once again) I sit down and start writing. Finally, if not, then I give up on the project right then and there and move onto something else. This is, I think, one benefit of the approach of beginning with a very quick literature search (rather than reading a ton): oftentimes, it only takes a brief literature search to figure out whether to proceed at all!

What I then typically do (and this does seem a bit different than what you do) is "jump right in" and draft the paper in full, focusing primarily on the positive argument. Whereas you say your typical process is to write a detailed first section of the paper (where you lay out the lay of the land in the literature), I'll typically just sketch that part very quickly, given what I've gathered from my quick cursory literature search. Then I'll move right onto drafting the rest of the paper, working out the argument as I do. Then, only after quickly drafting the whole thing--and after I figure out whether I think the argument works--will I go back and do a "deep dive" into the literature, polishing up the early parts of the paper that situate it in the rest of the literature.

Again, I generally find it helpful to leave this part for last, as my sense is that it can save a lot of time (viz. what's the point of doing a really detailed literature survey before I've written up the rest of the paper and have some idea of whether my argument works?).

Other than that, though, it sounds like we do things very similarly. It's nice to hear how other people work, as I always wondered whether other people work in this general way!


That's pretty much how I write, too. I have loads of (vague) ideas, but the arguments only really come out in the editing process. Editing is *a lot* easier than writing from scratch, and research is a lot easier to perform once I've got a solid direction, and know what kinds of things to look for.

I always try to write up a 3k-ish word conference paper first, and then I flesh it out from there.

I'd also like to chime your point about presenting papers: the main benefit I get from conferencing (apart from socializing!) is the challenge of distilling my point into a twenty-minute presentation. When I get back to working on the paper afterwards, everything is *much* clearer.


Marcus, how do you go about "surveying the literature?" I have a hard time figuring out how I am supposed to find everything that's ever been written on a topic, especially when the topic is a kind of niche area that doesn't have an obviously demarcated literature.

Neil Levy

I completely agree that it is dangerous to allow reading to swamp writing, Pendaran. I learned this the hard way. I sat down to educate myself by reading classics of philosophy: the first Critique, Being and Time, and so on. I don't think I retain anything from them, because I didn't put them to use. They're just gone. So reading too much doesn't just delay writing; it is pointless. You need to write while it is still fresh. That's true for me, with my bad memory, anyway.


I've had a similar experience to Neil. In the two or three years I spent doing my dissertation, there were many things I read during my initial flurry of reading which I forgot. Years later, as I reviewed those references, I thought "wow, these are important quotes/ideas/references relevant to what I did/am doing now". I've now learned that I can only hold about a dozen or so works in my head at once (and really only 2-3 without the help of substantial notes). So I write with about 6-12 references in mind. I expand the citations by either relying on citations from my older papers to fill in gaps, or by doing new dives through the literature on subsequent drafts.

There may be a time and place for reading a flurry of things, e.g. when first learning a literature, but at least for me writing requires focus on a few sources.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amanda: I'm not sure about niche topics without a clearly demarcated literature.

But in general I survey the literature by looking up Stanford Encyclopedia entries, giving them a quick read, and then by doing philpapers searches of key words (e.g. 'nonideal theory'). Then I go down the list of papers, reading abstracts quickly and jotting down some brief notes on each article's abstract in a Word file. At the same time, I download full papers and store them in a labeled folder for reading later.

Then, if there are particular papers that seem relevant to what I'm arguing (i.e. they've pursued a similar line of thought), I give them a quick read to see whether the argument I'm toying with is still original enough to develop, etc.

This ordinarily doesn't take very long. I can usually tell pretty quickly whether an argument I've come up with has already been given, and whether the literature has "room" open for what I want to argue. Then I'll usually draft up the paper based on what I know of the literature, or if there are particular papers I think I need to read in full before starting, I'll give them a full read. Then, after doing this and drafting the paper, I'll usually go back and read other papers in full to fill in my "lit review" in the paper where I show how the paper's argument fits into the existing literature.

Tom Cochrane

Hi Neil
I think there's more to your process. You're probably one of the best-published philosophers alive right now! I have some questions.
1. What's your journal rejection rate like?
2. Do you ever write with a particular publication venue in mind? Are do you just start at the top ranked and work your way down?
3. When you review your papers, what sort of virtues are you checking for?
4. Like Marvan above, I don't commit to writing a paper unless I think it's got something original to say. Is originality a big factor for you? What's the priority of this as compared to say, scholarship (being situated in a certain debate, referencing the current literature)?
5. Are you following any structural templates (e.g. problem-solution-objections/relies) or generally following the material where it leads?
6. Are you highly perfectionist about your material (to the extent say, of radically working an essay over a long period) or will you submit relatively quickly?
7. Where work is rejected, do you send it right out again or make sure all referee problems are accommodated?


Thanks Marcus - that's helpful!

Neil Levy

Hi Tom,

Thanks for the questions. I'll have a go.

1. Rejection rates. I can tell you for the recent past. From the start of 2016 to the end of 2018, I submitted 21 distinct papers to journals (with rejections, there are of course more submissions than distinct papers). 18 of them were accepted (3 retired permanently). The rejection rate per submission (rather than paper) was just below 55%
2.I start thinking about the journal midway through the process (unless I'm writing a reply). Because the Australian research assessment exercise really emphasises journal prestige, I aim high. I work in different fields, with distinct sets of journals. The journals appropriate for applied ethics has only a little overlap with those for general philosophy and those for cognitive science. So I have different sets of journals in mind for different papers. I don't literally start at the top and work done. Sometimes I go in the opposite direction. Journal submission is partly a matter of luck, so I don't take a knock back from Nous (say) to show the paper isn't good enough for the top 5 (it's evidence, but reasonably weak evidence).
I'll take 3 and 4 together. Originality is by far the virtue I most emphasise. Partly this is a matter of my strengths and weaknesses. I'm not a very precise thinker (in many ways, I'm an atypical philosopher). I'm not good at making fine distinctions. What I'm better at is generating ideas. I'm in no way downplaying the importance of fine distinctions. My weaknesses here mean that others, with different skills, can identify problems with my work that I don't see without their help. Sometimes those weaknesses are fatal. The emphasis on originality has increased for me, though I've alway thought it was important. I had an epiphany of sorts, writing a reply to a reply to me. I realised I was bored! I want to do new things: both new debates (for me) and new things to say on those debates. That's what I aim for - I certainly don't always achieve it.
5. I guess I have a template. Not explicitly, but I suppose I have an idea of what a paper should like (that is, what reviewers expect). Intro: brief introduction of the problem and my solution. Section 1. The problem in more detail; in this section much of the scholarship occurs (I identify the problem with the help of others). Section 2. Why other responses (already in the literature or - if the problem is novel - extrapolated from the literature) fail. Section 3. My solution. Section 4. Objections and replies. Conclusion. That's a rough template. It may be that the problem has parts that lend to extra sections.
6. Not perfectionist at all. It's not unusual for me to send a paper out a fortnight after I had the original idea. I'll take longer if there are opportunities for audience feedback coming up. I'm impatient: if I don't have an opportunity to present the paper soon, I'll send it out.
7. As I said, I get more rejections than acceptances per submission and in most cases the paper is sent out again. Some of those rejections - more than half - are desk rejections so there's no reason for revision. Sometimes the reports are useful and sometimes they're not. I know from my own experience and observing others that initial responses to reviews are untrustworthy. I put it aside for a couple of days if there are reports and then come back to them. If I'm right in a common first reaction - they didn't understand the paper - I try to make it clearer. If they have objections, I take them seriously. But sometimes I remain convinced that there's no reason to respond. Quite commonly I think the report is reasonable *and* doesn't warrant a response. A reviewer can reasonably want to see a paper developed in a certain way but I can reasonably not want to go that way. I do want to say that I have had many R&Rs with really great reports, that led to big improvements in the paper. Of course I have my share of referee horror stories too.

Tom Cochrane

Thanks very much for your reply Neil.

55% is an extremely good acceptance rate (assuming that means about 2 rejections per 1 acceptance), particularly if you aren't being highly perfectionist about them (i.e. making them impregnable to referee objections). This is why I think you must demonstrating certain virtues in your writing that make it particularly acceptable to reviewers/editors. If I get some time, I shall have to examine your style closely! Anyway, you have a paper on OCD that I intend to read, since it's a shared interest.

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