Why writing a paper is like Bananagrams

I know that these are two seemingly unrelated things, but bear with me here!

First, some of you might be asking, what is Bananagrams? The short answer is, it’s a game which I received for my birthday from my grandparents; I used to play something similar with friends in high school which we called Speed Scrabble. It’s pretty much Scrabble played without a board, where everyone has to make their tiles into a grid of words. Once one person has used up all their tiles, everyone has to take another tile and try to add it to their grid, and so on until there are no tiles left.

Once you’ve made your grid, it’s usually pretty easy to fit one more letter into the grid by making small words. Mostly, you avoid having to totally rearrange your grid and you’ll just keep making more two-letter words for as long as possible: but after a while, you’ll run out of places where you can add those letters because you don’t have enough long words. If you don’t want to get stuck, you have to be able to rearrange your tiles to incorporate new letters – maybe just switching some letters out, maybe creating longer words to give you more space to add new tiles. Without making major changes, you don’t stand a chance of winning the game.

But why is this like research?

Well, the comic at the top of this post (from the awesome PhD Comics) probably gives you a bit of a clue. As I’ve mentioned before, something that you realise during a PhD is that it’s a very slow process – and part of the reason is that it involves a lot of rewriting.

Take the example of writing this blog article and writing a paper. While I’m writing this article, my writing process goes something like this: I first make rough notes, half sentences and dot-points. Then I’ll build up my arguments a bit more, flesh it out into full sentences and group these into logical paragraphs. I might change the order of a couple of paragraphs, add a bridging sentence here and there or trim unnecessary ramble. I’ll read it over once more, checking that it reads well and for any typos, before clicking ‘Publish’.

The same applies for most Bachelors or Masters papers I wrote during university – sure, I added references and probably reread them a bit better than this blog article, but if you put the first draft and final version side-by-side they would be much more similar than different.

Writing an academic article starts and ends in the same way (moving from dot points and thoughtsΒ to [hopefully] publication – although, unfortunately, not quite as simple as clicking a ‘Publish’ button), but what happens in between is a little different. Every paper goes through at least three versions, probably more like five, as it gets comments from colleagues, at conferences, the review process, and as your own ideas change or you read a new article which gives you some inspiration. It’s tempting – and much easier – to keep the same structure for as long as you can, and just add the new ideas in where they fit best, but the paper will morph into a strange being with arguments going in different directions. So at some stage you’ll probably have to kill your darlings and change the argument of the paper, restructure it or even cut parts out because the focus has shifted or narrowed and they just don’t fit anymore.*

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Rewriting is one of my least favourite things – I hate having to break down something that I’ve already put so much work into, before reconstructing it in a slightly different (and hopefully better) way. Of course, restructuring is much easier when you’re holding Scrabble tiles instead of complex theoretical arguments, and when the game lasts ten minutes instead of four years. But maybe next time I have to rewrite, I can take heart in the fact that sometimes, it’s the only way you can win.

 

*If you’re like me, you can paste your favourites into a document titled ‘Sentences-ideas-arguments_maybe_useful_later.docx’. They probably won’t be useful, but hey, a girl can dream.

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