One of my favorite expressions is “if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” I believe that the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was the first to use this expression. How does this apply to academic writing? After a little thought, I came up with these five examples of putting things off that would have been better accomplished had they been completed at the appropriate time:
First, not doing a full outline before beginning to write a draft. Even in my senior honor’s seminar, open only to the best students in our program, many students give me a funny look when I ask them whether they do an outline before they began working on their papers. Okay, you say, those are undergraduates, what do you expect? However, when I ask the same question of graduate students and even faculty, many say they can’t be bothered, offering various excuses including “it takes too much time,” “I like to discover my central theme as I write,” and my favorite, “it hampers my creativity.” I liken this practice to hikers walking into one of our large national forests on a week long track without a map. What do we call such people? Lost. Somebody will eventually need to rescue them. In academic settings, the rescuers are often editors and reviewers.
Second, skipping a difficult section while writing a draft. Assuming that you prepared an outline, you have an end goal in mind and so the problem is just to execute. However, the only way to test whether the outline actually represents a coherent narrative for your story is to go through it from beginning to end, in order. The difficult bits that you skip over, assuming that they can be written later, might actually be the points where you eventually discover that you can’t get there from here. When writing an outline, it is fairly easy to convince yourself that, as seen from the mountaintop, there is a walkable trail from the park entrance to the creek. On the ground, however, the unbridgeable chasm that was concealed by the tall trees becomes readily apparent. It is much easier to do it right the first time than to walk back to the entrance and start over again.
Third, not recording the full reference for a book, article, or blog post when you first take notes on it. It is easy to convince yourself that you can always come back later and get the rest of the reference you need for the bibliography. Moreover, there’s a chance that you won’t actually use the material in your paper, and so why spend extra time writing down all that information when you’ll never need it. Indeed, why bother? The answer becomes painfully apparent when you discover the incomplete references on the morning you plan to submit the conference paper, to meet the announced deadline, and you find that the library server is down.
Fourth, not doing the descriptive statistics before beginning the multivariate analysis in a statistically based paper. I try to teach my students the relevance of this potential misstep when they bring me the first draft of their paper and I point out the implausibility of a coefficient or two. Could it really be true that people with college degrees earn less than those who dropped out of school? Quite likely, somewhere along the way, a coding error or data transformation mangled the true values. Carefully scanning means, standard deviations, skewness, and other basic properties of the data goes a long way toward reassuring me that you actually understand your data.
Fifth, sending out a paper for comments from your friends and colleagues before you have proofread and copyedited it. Nothing says “I don’t care about your time” more than sending a colleague a paper full of typos, misspellings, botched grammar, and other mistakes that could have easily been caught with an hour or so of careful reading. I suggest first running the paper through a standard spelling and grammar checker on your word processor, then printing the paper out and reading it line by line. To ensure perfection, you might try having a very patient and loyal friend read it aloud to you. Here’s your chance to discover the true meaning of a “strong tie.”
John Wooden was surely right: although each of these shortcuts will seem to save you time in the short run, the gains are purely illusory. You have merely embedded problems in your work that will come back to haunt you later, especially when they are discovered by others. Do yourself, your friends, and your reviewers a favor: take the time to do it right the first time.
Nice essay Howard. I completely agree on 3, 4, and 5. I’m less sure about 1 and 2. I used to write detailed outlines, but in recent years I rarely have, at least for papers, and I think my more recent papers are far better than my earlier ones. I did write extensive outlines for each chapter of my recent book, but those eventually evolved into detailed notes, such that they didn’t really look like outlines by the time I finished them. It might be one of those things that works more for some people than for others, and thus defies a general rule.
I REALLY enjoyed this! Something I’ve been thinking much about lately, with my first revisions going back out to journals. One article I just sent is a meta-analysis on which I am the first author…and AMEN to the “not recording the full reference when you first take notes on it” advice you share. I unfortunately did not, which really came back to bite me when all I had was “Smith et al. 2010” to go off of to RE-find the study. It was a huge pain but a great learning experience.
The post also reminds me of the so-called “15 Secrets of Ultra Productive People” (although I’m not a fan of the perennial top-10 lists on LinkedIn) in which said ultra productive people touch a task once and complete it the first time while they are focused on it.
Great advice–thank you!
When I worked for McCrory stores in the 80’s and 90’s this quote was presented as John G McCrory (1860-1923) says: Now Mr Wooden was born in 1910. If he originated this quote before he was 14, maybe John G. McCrory over heard it. More likely Mr Wooden read it on a wall posting at a McCrory store, or heard it from someone that worked at a McCrory’s. McCrory was 50, and a retailer for 28 years when Wooden was born. McCrory died in 1923, Wooden was only 13.