Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Cloud

I recently watched an excellent and insightful TED talk by Uri Alon. In his presentation Alon talks about the shared experience that most researchers have at some point on their journey from starting to finishing a project. The experience he is talking about is when everything goes wrong. You start at point A, you have a plan and you move logically in a straight line to point B, end of project. 

Can I have an "Amen" from anyone who's research journey looked like that? ....crickets....

This is exactly Alon's first point - somewhere between beginning a project and completing it, things start to go wrong, nothing works, we get lost, we wonder off into the mist, desperately trying to find a way to move forward. Alon refers to this period in research as 'the cloud'. 

The cloud can be a scary, isolating place. A phase of the journey where it is easy to become dangerously demotivated and depressed. My gut feeling is that most people that abandon their research probably do so when in the cloud. When you're in the cloud all you can do is keep trying new methods or old methods with new approaches, something, anything, until you fianlly find the thing that works, until you make the breakthrough, until you suddenly find yourself back out in the light with the endpoint in sight. Spoiler alert - the endpoint is usually not point B, that we pictured when starting out on the project, but actually point C, somewhere off in left field. 

Which leads us to Alon's second point. Only when you are in the cloud, can true innovation happen, can exciting discoveries be made, can the bounds of our knowledge be nudged out just a little further than they were yesterday. The cloud is where science happens. We need to abandon our fear of the cloud and embrace it for what it is - a fundamental and iterative part of the research process that pushes us to produce truly novel work. 

This concept of the cloud and its implication for research is not unfamiliar - most of us have been through it, but I'll bet you, that just like me, you thought you were the only one. I'll bet, that just like me, you thought that it was because you weren't a good enough researcher, that you weren't smart enough to skip the cloud. But it wasn't just me, and it's not just you, it's all of us. So why on earth didn't anyone tell me that it was normal? Imperative even?

Because, "In science we just learn about the results, not the process." 

The process. So simple yet so profound. 

I think that as academic writers we also have a lot to learn about the process. There seems to be this assumption that if you are a good writer, you simply sit down and produce a great piece of writing, end of story. Sound familiar?  

I remember several years ago being asked about my writing process. I can't recall what I said, but I do remember thinking 'Process? I don't think I have one of those...." The truth is that no writer, not even the great ones, sit down and produce an exceptional text in one go. Everyone has a process, a way of moving from that first rough draft to the published copy. 

If we are ever going to be good (or, one day, hopefully great) academic writers, it is imperative that we acknowledge this and embrace it. 

Hello, my name is Natashia and I have a process. 

It is not only okay, but normal and even beneficial, to lose your way when you write. To grapple with a chapter, to wrestle with your literature review, to spar with a conclusion. These challenges don't make us bad writers, they make for better writing. 

Because everyone's process is unique to them, it is important is to interrogate your own process. What is working? What is not? What could you do differently to make your process more productive? How will you safeguard yourself against demotivation and depression, against giving up or settling for mediocre? 

Establishing your own rituals and routines can be helpful. Favourite comfy jersey? Check. Steaming cup of tea? Check. Einaudi playing softly in the background? Check. Whatever works for you. 

It is also necessary to have a plan around drafting. I remember being told by a lecturer in undergrad that whenever you think you are finished writing an essay, you should put it away for a couple days and then read it again. While this is sage advice that I follow now, at the time I remember wondering how on earth could I do that, given that most assignments were finished at about 3am on the day they were due! But drafting is important, not just for the writing, but also for our thinking through the content we are writing about. In the Writing Lab we know that often when we see bad writing, it is not because the student is a bad writer, but rather because they are confused about what they are writing about. In academia we write about some fairly complex and abstract concepts, and it can be very challenging to think through content and package it in a way that offers a new perspective on old issues. So give yourself the space and time to think and write through multiple iterations of the same piece. Drafting is akin to the cloud, and it is only as we draft that great writing actually begins to take form.

Your process should also include support. Behind every great writer there is an exceptional editor - nobody does it entirely alone. Make use of a Writing Centre or join a Writer's Circle. Be open to other people's impressions and interpretation of your writing. After all, you're not writing for yourself - consider your audience.

Finally, remember that your end product will likely look very different than what you had first envisioned, and that is okay. Embrace the cloud. Only by working through the process can your writing ever evolve from first rough draft to polished prose. 

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