Researching with a "Squirrel Brain": 4.5 Tips to Embrace the Journey of Writing and Editing
I am learning how to appreciate and work better with my "squirrel brain". Ideas excite me and my mind jumps from branch to branch, pursuing and dancing with that sweet sweet idea as long as I can and for as far as the trees will take me. If you are like me then I suggest embracing the squirrel brain: it makes life way more exciting because you learn a lot and enjoy the research process.
Practically, though, this means that I wind up with too many words, references, footnotes, lines of thought, and a whopping references list. So I need to squeeze that accordion of a paper and bring it back to size.
To fold the accordion, you will need to become a sharp(er) editor.
Herewith I share four new tips that I have gathered like acorns. Each have been new tips that friends and colleagues have shared.
These tips have helped me with editing, and to feel better and more confident about my writing process. I hope that you will find them useful, too.
ONE IDEA PER PAPER
Your squirrel brain will convince you that all of your ideas are AWESOME. And, they probably are. But they do not all belong in one paper.
So you will need to streamline.
One great way to streamline is to write out the core idea of your paper on a post-it. This handwriting effect is great for thinking through ideas. It also forces brevity since it must fit on a tiny piece of paper. Then stick the post-it to a corner of your screen. You will be reminded of your initial idea and can subsequently go through your paper to make sure that each paragraph meets or adds to the post-it brief.
2. CREATE A PARKING LOT FOLDER
You may be sad that you are cutting some of your great ideas. You will definitely be rueful that you wrote out all of those words that are not falling like autumn leaves to the ground. To get over this, I suggest starting a new folder called Parking Lot. Here, you will "park" all of those ideas. You may return to them, you may not; either way you will feel a whole lot better knowing that they are waiting for you.
3. DO AWAY WITH THE ZOMBIE OF A PASSIVE VOICE
The passive voice separates the actor from the action in a sentence. The effect is to make sentences vague and indirect. The active voice, while more work, will make your writing crisper and much more direct.
I read a really great mnemonic device about this, and it has to do with .... zombies! If you can add "by the zombie" then you have a passive sentence.
Here is an example:
"The prison system was expanded in 2015... by the zombie!"
Here is a revised version:
"A 2015 law expanded the prison system."
The law is the actor, and the actor is now the subject of the sentence. In other words, it is clear that the law (not the zombie) is performing the action.
Go through your writing. If you can add "by the zombie" then you have a passive sentence. Once you see the fruits of your active labour, you will find a clearer piece of writing.
And yes, MJ is still the king.... of zombies!
4. THE REVERSE-OUTLINE
My friend, Prof. Beatrice Jauregui, introduced me to this process. She got it from a member of a writing group and she taught it to me at a session of our writing group.
Speaking of which, tip 4.b. is JOIN A WRITING GROUP IF YOU CAN! It's a great way to feel together while you are writing alone. There is also good research on how groups increase productivity, especially for junior and emerging researchers. You can set goals together. You can also share tips and lessons learned.
Here is how the reverse outline works:
After writing, make a one-sentence summary of each paragraph (the topic sentence)
Ensure that every sentence in the paragraph corresponds to the topic sentence
Then write or regroup the topic sentences in the order appear
Looking at this "reverse outline" will help to you structure the argument most logically and effectively
Double-check that the argument enhances the one idea that you have settled on for the paper
You may find that whole paragraphs or even sections do not belong in this paper. But, never fear! You now have a parking lot to put them in!