Adventures in Ethics and Science

InaDWriMo: how it went.

Near the beginning of November, I announced my intention to jump on board with International acaDemic Writing Month. I put up a list of writing projects on which I was going to try to make some serious headway.

And my commenters asked, essentially, whether I was nuts.

My commenters are very, very smart. They hardly ever lead me astray, and this matter is no exception.

First, let me note that I did, in fact, accomplish some academic writing that I might not have without pledging that I’d be making some progress. Here’s my original list of writing projects with what I actually did noted in square brackets:

  1. Revise the philosophy of science paper that needs revising and send it off to the journal. [Nope.]
  2. Take the responsible conduct of research paper that really should be two separate papers, divide it into two papers, revise both of the descendant papers, and send them off to journals. [Didn’t happen, but I now have a clear plan for which sections of the existing paper will go to each of the descendant papers.]
  3. Write a full working draft of the paper outlined in longhand that I keep dragging back and forth in my backpack. [This paper has achieved a state of existence fuller than an outline but not yet at the state of a full working draft.]
  4. Draft two sections of the collaborative project started this summer and use these sections to nudge the collaborators back into action. [Nope.]
  5. Outline and draft the paper that a journal editor told me probably ought to be written by someone. [Nope.]
  6. Draft the essay it would be good to distribute to the “Ethics in Science” class Spring semester. [No draft, but I worked out some crucial parts of the argument in the process of writing the ethics lectures for the freshman engineering students. Currently I have a good detailed outline.]
  7. Work out a detailed outline of the other collaborative project in the works and send it to the collaborator. [Not yet as detailed as I’d like, but I did hammer out an outline here.]
  8. Write a detailed outline for the planned monograph. [Ha!]

My list was probably a reasonable set of goals for a whole semester — assuming that semester involved no new preps, and included no grader mishaps. As a set of goals for a month (or even two), it was hopelessly unrealistic.

And November? Is there a more hectic month in the semester (especially given the awkward placement of Thanksgiving)? Maybe InaDWriMo should be in March, so there’s at least a chance that attempts to write won’t be crushed by other demands on one’s time.

Ideally, of course, making progress on writing projects shouldn’t be something that only happens in one designated calendar month. And this raises an important question, one where I hope my very smart commenters will chime in with their good advice:

How do you fit writing in to the normal rhythms of your academic life?

Teaching (and grading papers), committee meetings, getting dinner on the table, all of that gets done on a regular schedule because it has to get done on a regular schedule. Writing is one of those activities that gets fit into whatever time is left. When some additional task gets thrown on your plate, the chunk of time left for writing can shrink into nothing. So, how does the writing get done?

If those of you who manage to make writing happen regularly can share your secrets, I’m sure I’m not the only one who will be grateful.


  1. #1 Alan Kellogg
    December 1, 2007

    No matter how many you say you’ll do, you always end up tackling four.

    The first will be the one who fully intended to do, and which will take up maybe 5 minutes of your time until you decide to set it aside and let it simmer for awhile. You will never get back to it.

    The next two will be backup projects which will each occupy a day before you decide they need to steep for a bit. They will get lost in your word processor’s arcane filing system.

    The last will be about a subject you just happened to run across halfway through the month. You will then spend the next fortnight writing it up, revising and editing, and then save to text the last night ready to post it as your entry. Only to have a hard drive crash that wipes the disc completely. Two years later, after you’ve sold that computer on Ebay, you will get an email from the buyer telling your he found this strange file on a certain subject. But since he couldn’t understand what it was talking about, he went ahead and deleted it. Just thought you’d like to know.

  2. #2 Neuro-conservative
    December 2, 2007

    It is indeed ironic that the most important aspect of our job has to be squeezed in at the margins. However, every minute spent savoring that irony is another minute in which you are not writing. :>P~

    Seriously, though, I have found that you just have to acknowledge that fact straight-up, and commit to making blocks of “free” time available when you would rather be doing other things: specifically, sleep and/or spending time with your family will need to be sacrificed.

    I would put it this way: How many hours do you sleep each night? Do you really need that much? The answer is no, you don’t — as you discovered when the sprogs were infants. So, my solution is to pretend that a paper is a crying newborn, and that you should feel lucky to get 4 hours of sleep many nights.

    Alternately: as much as you love your family, you might be away from them for 3-4 days for a conference. So, skip the conference and hole up in your office for a long weekend. Come home to sleep only after the sprogs are in bed and leave before they are awake.

    I have found these strategies to be immensely successful over the last few years. But there is a final ingredient that I suspect is necessary — the ongoing carrot/stick of untenured/semi-soft money status. Having already submitted your tenure dossier (and apparently received positive feedback from your chair), you have to think about where you will find the motivation for the necessary sacrifices. And don’t kid yourself — sacrifices are necessary.

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    December 2, 2007

    For me the problem has been having too many projects going at once, and it looks like you have the same problem. I have to submit a manuscript on Monday, so last week was booked to do nothing else. Once this is ticked off the list, I then have to review 3 papers, before moving on to the next piece of writing (latent trait models for multivariate QTLs. It’s not only philosophers who can be obscure).

    My advice – you numbered your tasks, so don’t start 2 until 1 is almost finished. That way you don’t need to write so much bold text the next time you put this list up…


  4. #4 Super Sally
    December 2, 2007

    You were very polite in NOT mentioning that you also had your parents descend for 10 days during the month that was, adding complications to your already complex life.


  5. #5 Roberta Millstein
    December 2, 2007

    I’m not a big fan of the skip sleep or neglect family solutions. I’d say, based on my 9 years with a 3-3-3 schedule:

    1. Do your best to make serious progress over breaks, especially summer (don’t *ever* teach in summer if you can help it). During the regular school year, just try to do small tasks (like small revisions).

    2. Take advantage of whatever opportunities there are to get time off from teaching (CSU East Bay had within school faculty support grants for this — you guys must have something similar). Or try for an NSF grant.

    3. Say “no” to committee work when you can. Really, you can do it. Practice in front of the mirror.

    4. Commit to conference papers; things with deadlines WILL get done. (They become priority rather than the-thing-that-is-last). I think this is what helped me the most.

    (Now my challenge is to get more done given that I have a teaching schedule that is more amenable to getting research done! Amazing how other things can fill up one’s time: agreeing to referee papers, or all the interesting new papers that I now have time to read, but that don’t necessarily get my own work written… or…)

  6. #6 Leah
    December 3, 2007

    I like Anne Lamott’s two big writing tips:

    1. embrace the sh*tty first draft. Seriously. I find it so much easier to work with stuff once I have something down on paper. Seems like you are already doing this.

    2. Set aside some amount of time to write every single day. Even if it’s just 15 minutes, set it aside. Sit down, set a timer, and don’t do anything but write for those 15 minutes. Some days, you might just stare at a piece of paper (or the computer monitor). Other days, you’ll get going and go way past the 15 minutes. But the key part is sitting down every single day to do the writing.

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