Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pleasure and Pain, Fiction and Science  

I really enjoy writing fiction, but I find writing science painful. And I just realized one reason why: stories are narratives, and since I write stories in chunks of scenes, the incomplete narrative can still be absorbingly interesting - like surfing past a few seconds of a movie on TV.

But papers are hybrid beasts: they report data and argue about what we can conclude from it. Since I write papers by core dumping my data then refining the argument, what I'm subjecting myself to when I edit my paper is a poorly argued jumble based on a quasi-random collection of facts.  It's not all bad - I do work from an outline and plan - but an outline is not an argument.

This hit home to me recently when I was working on a paper on some until-now unreported work on robot pets I did about ten years ago. Early drafts of the paper had a solid abstract and extensive outline from our paper proposal, and into this outline I poured a number of technical reports and partially finished papers. The result? Virtual migraine!

But after I got about 90% of the paper done, I had a brainflash about a better abstract, which in turn suggested a new outline. My colleagues agreed, so I replaced the abstract and reorganized the paper. Now the paper was organized around our core argument, rather than around the subject areas we were reporting on, which involved lots of reshuffling but little rewriting.

The result? Full of win. The paper's not done, not by a long shot, but the first half reads much more smoothly, and, more importantly, I can clearly look at all the later sections and decide what parts of the paper need to stay, what parts need to go, and what parts need to be moved and/or merged with other sections. There are a few weak spots, but I'm betting if I take the time to sit down and think about our argument and let that drive the paper that I will be able to clean it up right quick.

Hopefully this will help, going forward. Here goes...

 -the Centaur

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