I keep moving my own cheese!

I don’t even know if I’m alluding to that book title in a way that makes sense, but it will have to do.

So, I’m working on an article that I’m *determined* to finish by the end of this summer. I’ve been toying with it for way too long now because it kept getting moved to back burners because of other work with deadlines, but this summer is free of such deadlines, so NOW is the TIME to get it DONE. (Yes, I’m now shouting. I do that when I get excited. Also, I apparently write in overly long sentences that verge on being run-ons.) *However*, it is proving harder than I expected; that’s where the cheese comes in.

See, once upon a time, this article was about X. Then another article came out on the subject that kind of blew my mind. It didn’t scoop me, but I had to take it into account. As a result, I kept fiddling with what my argument was. From X it evolved into X-and-Y, then more-Y-than-X, then back to X, but dropping Y, and adding Z. And so on. Finally, this summer, I think I decided what I wanted it to be, and sat down last week to map it out. And then this week I started rewriting. AND THEN IT ALL CHANGED AGAIN! AS I WAS WRITING! (See, excited again!) I really should nickname it “Whac-a-mole,” because it feels like playing that arcade game, but the idea that I’m moving my own cheese — changing my mind about what the argument is as I write it, and then needing to deal with that change in order to get what I want (a publishable article) — works, too.

From what I’ve heard, this happens to other people all the time, but this is not at all how I usually write. I’m the have-it-all-mentally-mapped-before-I-even-start type, not the create-as-I-go type. Talk about having to deal with a change in rhythm!  It’s kind of exciting, actually, especially since the changes may make it a better argument, but it’s also kind of frustrating, as I really do like to have the abstract whole conceptualized as I write. I worry that I’m working very inefficiently this way, or that the article could become a mess without my realizing it. (Yeah, that’s what another reader is for, I know. I’ll have to enlist a colleague or friend.)

So how do you write? Do your ideas and arguments change as you write? What do you do when they do?

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6 thoughts on “I keep moving my own cheese!

  1. I re-outline! Actually, the last thing I do with a paper after I’ve written it is to outline it again based on what I’ve written. It doesn’t really matter if the paper is a mess in the middle, but it has to be coherent at the end. Dierdre McCloskey talks about this in her book on academic writing. She would literally cut and paste paragraphs after writing a paper (using scissors!)

    It also helps me a lot to present my work because the powerpoint forces an outline that makes sense. (Not very helpful though if you’re in a field where people read papers instead of presenting ppts.)

  2. If something really changes, I try to peel it off and see if I can finish the first one before pursuing the new theory. It’s difficult to resist the siren call of a really good idea, though, and I’ve been known to set aside the less-compelling thesis in favour of the new argument.

    Right now, the article I’m completing was first presented in a keynote in October. I made pretty good notes (and an all-important outline!) at the time so I’m able to dive back in without too many delays. I’m trying just to polish it off, though, and not take it in new directions because I have two more writing projects that need to be completed this summer.

  3. Ooh, a *re*-outline (a *post*-writing outline) would work. I think I’ll keep plugging away and then go back and outline things to make sure they still make coherent sense.

    And yeah, this has already been presented to death in various incarnations — hence some of the messiness and changing ideas. But I could *pretend* I’m presenting it as I re-outline.

  4. I’m still emptying the lint trap on my brain, so I can’t coherently respond to your questions, but I can tell you that I feel like I’m in a very similar place with my work right now. And I’ve decided that, for now, I’m just gonna write my way in and see what emerges.

  5. I used to only have one mode of writing, which was a short-blast, “get-it-done” thing which was then occasionally subject to major rewrite but usually only after feedback. When one of my pieces goes through more than two drafts it was obviously difficult. I still do this, but it’s now rare for me to be so clear about my point, which may tell us only that I got to the end of a major project and am having trouble zeroing in on the next, or it may tell us that I just don’t think a sharply as I used to, which may also be true. But as a result I’ve now got two other things going on, one where I write to find out what I think, something I used to do much more when I was younger but then I learnt how to plan. I actually use the blog for this, and there’s five future blog posts queued up waiting for me to decide whether they’re posts or just turn them into a paper (or both). And the other thing I’m now doing is moving round the big topic taking sort of edges off it with a plane, each `shaving’ in this metaphor being a conference or seminar paper, the hopeful result that at some point I’ll see what’s actually in the thing and be able to bring it out more deliberately. At the moment I just have a lot of data and some ideas, but I’m not sure how to turn the data into answers, or even exactly what questions to ask it so that answers come forth… So I keep doing the, “an interesting aspect of this research has been…” thing to take off another layer. But of course every one of these involves thinking about the big issue and how to present it, even if all I get from each one is “no, not this way.” So I do think that if one’s stuck, writing is a good way to unstick. And I also do think blogs can help here, even if no-one ever sees the post. Writing for an informal audience makes things easier to approach.

    This comment is obviously one of the write-to-find-my-thoughts ones! But I do recognise what you describe too. The five blog-posts were sort of an attempt at something I’ve been wanting to write since 2003, and still haven’t, even though I’ve published work that I thought was that thing I was trying write… This cheese moves at a glacial pace, it seems. “But nevertheless it does move…”

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