Thoughts on writing: Lessons from academic papers

Over the years, I’ve written around twenty papers published in academic journals (under my real name–Oliver Buckram is a pen name), plus various book chapters and other work. I’ve written referee reports or served as a discussant for dozens more papers written by my colleagues.  And of course I’ve seen many student papers in my role as advisor and grader. What have I learned that’s relevant to writing fiction?

Kill your darlings

In an academic paper, you’re striving to communicate a set of ideas or facts to the reader. In fiction, you’re striving to communicate emotions, theme, and plot. In both cases, you need to ruthlessly remove irrelevant material that detracts from the unity of purpose.  It doesn’t matter how long you worked on the irrelevant material, or how hard it was to obtain the data.

When revising academic papers, the life cycle of unnecessary material goes like this: I realize section 5.2 is really irrelevant, so I shrink it a paragraph.  Later it becomes a sentence. Then a footnote. Then the footnote goes to footnote heaven.

It’s not about you

Newly minted Ph.D.’s often write papers that say “I ran regression X. Then I realized that regression Y was better. So here is regression Y.” News flash: no one cares. We just want to know what the truth is.  So, skip your personal odyssey and just give us regression Y.

Similarly, in fiction, the reader doesn’t care which character was originally the protagonist, or which scene you particularly enjoyed writing. They just want a good story (see: Darlings, Kill Your).

What is the point?

Bad academic papers often take the following form. The author discusses some ideas vaguely. He runs some inconclusive regressions which he explains poorly. He then concludes, summarizing how he “examined” the topic and “explored” the data, with possible mention of “complexities” or “important variables”.

You need to have a point. If you don’t have a point, don’t write a paper. Often, it is possible to detect pointlessness in the paper’s abstract or conclusion. 

Similarly, in fiction, the story needs to be about something: an event, a decision, a realization. Too many stories meander hither and yon, and then eventually peter out.

Be vivid and tangible

In academic papers, you need to translate statistical results into specific, usable form. Often the best way to do this is graphically, using a scatter plot, for example. Boring and abstract: variable X is positively correlated with variable Y.  Vivid and tangible: look at this neat graph of X on Y! Boring and abstract: the regression coefficient on variable Y is 0.03.  Vivid and tangible: A one-standard deviation increase in variable Y results in five thousand dollars of additional annual salary for the average worker.

In fiction, ideas, theme, and characterization are communicated through specific images, actions, and dialog. Boring and abstract: Joe was annoyed at Fred. Vivid and tangible: Joe glared at Fred and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

Get feedback

Your writing can be improved by getting feedback from trusted readers. In academia, we do this in many ways: by presenting papers in seminars and conferences, sending it to colleagues around the world, and through the publication process. In fiction, opportunities for feedback are fewer and generally less formal, coming from writing groups and writing friends.

The publication process for fiction is much, much more fun than for academic papers, for two reasons. First, in academia, papers must go through an often-excruciating refereeing process, where two or three anonymous colleagues/rivals/idiots demand various changes to your manuscript. In fiction, in contrast, friendly editors make helpful suggestions.  Second, academic journals do not pay their authors.  Instead, the authors pay the journal in the form of submission fees (one journal in my field charges $600), although these fees are typically an expense that is paid by the author’s university.

Have a goal

Students often crash and burn in the following manner. They decide to write a paper on topic X.  They go out and collect data on X, which takes them many months. A week before the paper is due, they sit down to write the paper. Problem: they don’t have a point. They have the data, but don’t know what to do with it.

They’ve done things in the wrong order. Ideally, you should start out with hypothesis Y. How can we test Y? Then you figure out what data is needed to test the hypothesis.

Now, your goal is allowed to change over time. But you do need to have a goal. And you shouldn’t do a ton of work on the data without a clear idea of how that work will ultimately advance your goal of testing an interesting hypothesis.

Similarly, in fiction, it is not enough to just have an idea (what if the internet is secretly made of cheese?). You also need to have a character and a dramatic situation (perhaps a cheesemaker stumbles upon the truth). If you can’t think of a way to use your idea, move on to the next one.

You don’t know it until you write it

In research, I often find that the process of writing itself adds great clarity. For example, I make a complicated table of results, then when I am writing up the results, I realize that I’ve missed something basic.  For example, I write the sentence “Row 5 of Table IV proves that XYZ is true.”  Then I realize that the sentence is untrue, and that I need to do something different to test XYZ.

In fiction, the same holds true. Characters may surprise you. Things which work in your head don’t work on the page. The process of writing is a process of discovery.

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