Planning, writing, doing, and thinking: reflections on the writing cycle

After a hectic semester, I’ve been in the thick of writing the thesis proposal and finding committee members.

As I was writing the thesis proposal, I noticed two very interesting facts about the act of writing.

Writing for a purpose serves to highlight where the gaps are present in communicating for that purpose. Writing, thinking and doing follow a cycle that reinforce one another.

I’ve come to realize that this is really important, and knowing this fact impacts the way I approach writing. As opposed to merely writing because I have to do so in order to communicate an idea, I now do so with a view of trying to produce a polished piece of work. Here, I’d like to write out 6 observations from experiencing this writing cycle.

Initial planning guides the structure

Writing – with purpose – serves as a way of focusing a writer’s efforts and thought processes on a final goal. Defining the purpose is important. Without purpose, the writing is mere rambling. But with purpose, the writing has a chance to be elevated to a higher level.

Therefore, planning plays a crucial role. Planning is essentially plotting out the direction of the writing. Initial planning brings together what the author thinks are the important points that are required to bring across the message that s/he is trying to communicate.

The exact method for planning is going to vary from person to person. It will take several rounds of iteration in order to find the correct way. For me, I found that writing out 3-5 short sentences (like the headers in this blog post) really help me to focus what I’m going to write. But that took several iterations of trying to find out the way my mind best likes to plan.

(side note: I think what really happens is that we’re not predisposed to some particular method, but a general family of methods, and that as we get better at writing, we end up settling on a single method by habit. After all, it works.)

I think that initially, the plan should be as brief as possible, and the writer should be as emotionally uninvested in it as possible. Like any project, being uninvested at the beginning ensures that there’s room for evolution and adaptation of the work.

(side note: This takes humility! Smart people like to think that their initial ideas are the best. I think that’s when they move from being smart to being dumb. The smartest people know they’re probably going to be wrong at some point, and instead of trying to prevent themselves from being proven wrong, they’ll embrace the fact and pivot accordingly.)

After planning, we start writing

Once a rough plan is up and running, I found that writing has to commence as soon as possible, and that the first draft has to be done as quickly as possible. As opposed to trying to gun for something polished at first, the best strategy for completing a writing project is to get everything down on paper as soon as possible.

Initial ideas will be wrong, things won’t flow, and it’ll feel unnatural in many parts, but that’s OK! The advantage of writing on a word processor means that it’ll be so easy to go back and rewrite that section that sounded so awkward and unnatural.

I have a small but simple letter-sized poster on my desk that keeps me reminded of this fact. It says:

It don’t matter how bad your writing is right now. Just write.

The writing will reveal gaps in knowledge. And that’s OK!

While writing, we need to keep in mind that there will be points of knowledge that we realize we didn’t know about. Here’s the kicker – until we tried putting certain ideas down into words, we didn’t know that we didn’t know much about those ideas.

That’s a great piece of information! As the writing continues, there’ll be a continuing list of things that require more info. This may be background knowledge to explain a point more fully, in which case, more reading is needed. Or it may be points not yet proven by evidence, in which case, more experimentation is needed. That brings us to the next part, “doing”.

Doing brings evidence of what we’re trying to communicate – or evidence against it

In grad school, we do experiments. Those experiments might be at the bench, such as those that are performed by chemists and biologists. Or they could be performed at the computer, like simulations or analysis of pre-existing large datasets. The latter kind is the kind that I do on a day-to-day basis right now. (That may change later, but who knows!)

Either way, “doing” serves as a way of filling up the gaps in information. Whether the doing means running a simulation, writing code to perform some analysis, or going back to read the literature to fill up the gaps in knowledge, doing basically tells us more information that we need to continue writing.

The results of doing prompt us to think

Often, the “doing” portion reveals something that we didn’t know before. For example, re-reading some papers I had initially skipped over re-framed one of my hypotheses in viral packaging. In this case, once I truly understood the analysis method and the arguments presented forth in some of the packaging papers, I became convinced that I was wrong about my initial hypothesis. This dovetailed well with me pitching my new hypothesis to a different lab to see whether we might be able to work together.

The thinking informs planning and writing

Armed with the new information, the writing process can re-commence. Instead of being stuck, I can now proceed with confidence again… until I reach another pothole :-).

With new information, I can revisit the plan (or outline) and identify where things might be better improved upon. Planning by reorganizing, adding, and pruning can all take place at this stage.

The new ideas can also shape the way I proceed with the writing. I might rewrite sections of what I’ve already written, in order to correct what errors I might have had before. I might make minor tweaks to ensure that my message is being communicated. I might reorder some sections in order to make the flow more logical.

The cycle doesn’t have to break when the writing is done

Because graduate school is a place where deep work over a long period of time gets done, the process of writing a body of written work that reports on an idea or the results of testing that idea tends to last a long time. Writing that body of work while doing the experiments needed for it has helped me focus on what I read and what I code. As long as I’m still working on the idea, the cycle doesn’t have to break. That’s one way in which the cycle of writing, doing and thinking never stops.

But on a bigger scale, I think that the cycle also doesn’t have to break. Deep work gets better and better as time goes on. Keeping a daily journal, with the purpose of using it as the basis for future communication, is one way of ensuring that the plan-write-do-think cycle doesn’t end. By writing down what’s been going on and what needs to get done the next day, I can focus my efforts on the most important portions of each day, and allow trivial things to fall by the wayside. By identifying the “doing” that needs to happen along the way, what I will think, plan and eventually write up becomes much clearer.