Writing and rewriting

How long does it take to ‘write up’ great research.  A couple of months ago I followed a witter conversation started by the remarkable Rebecca Skloot.  She is the author of the incredible Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which I wrote a post about earlier.  She claimed she hated to write.  Her first draft was always agony. She only practiced her craft and made her prose sing during the rewriting.

The same is true for the technical writing that I do for evaluations and reviews, my academic research and the little bit of work I do for a more general audience.  The first draft is really the thinking stage.  The initial analysis is wrenched out of the data, my head and my guts and put on the computer screen.  Only after I have got the arguments out into the open can I do the kind of critical thinking to turn initial guess work into tightly structured arguments supported by the data.

I am beginning to realise the three forms of writing have the same objective but require different levels of effort in producing output for their unique audiences.

Consultants notoriously underestimate the time required to refine the writing / thinking.  Frameworks like the one described in the McKinsey Mind (a book I have discussed in previous blog) helps to streamline the process by keeping the big picture in mind from the beginning of a project.  In the analysis of the district case studies I did in Ghana for the ARISE project  I tried to keep a strong theoretical model front and centre in all of our data collection and analysis.  It still took me forever to write the report and I think that is because while I had a very clear framework and research hypotheses, I didn’t develop recommendations while we were in the field.  In more recent projects my colleagues and I start drafting recommendations from the first day, discarding them if they are not supported. I hope that is going to make that final rush to complete the report less stressful.

The most important output for consultants is the recommendations.  Because of the wicked problems that abound in social sector consulting, the recommendations in the work that I do are invariably based on both objective fact and on an understanding of the priorities and worldviews of the stakeholders.  What this means for the writing process as a consultant is that the arguments in support of the recommendations must be based on fact but also responsive and actionable for the client.  The onus to write well and therefore think elegantly is less rigorous because the greatest impact is achieved by getting into their headspace.  Many consultants have done away with reports altogether – the punchy presentation backed by data and insights is sufficient.

Academic writing needs to be closer to the data than a consultant’s report. The conclusions have to convince other experts that the findings are robust and replicable and the implications are novel.  Good academic research has to be presented in papers in 3,000-5,000 words.  Conference presentations and lengthy reports will not cut it and in most disciplines books aren’t not the medium for scientific innovation.  The classic research paper is a beautiful creation with barely a wasted word.  A typical academic will spend weeks or longer preparing and revising a paper before it is ready to be submitted and then make substantial changes after peer review. With each rewriting the argument becomes stronger.  The introduction becomes more authoritative, the methodology fortified, the findings and discussion moulded and the conclusions bolstered.  Academics allow more time for perfecting papers than consultants but experienced academics already know much more about the questions and the answers they expect to find than consultants do at the beginning of a project.

Creative non-fiction and other long non-fiction writing must be even more time consuming.  These writers have to anticipate and cater to the values, aspirations and knowledge of their clients like consultants but do not have the advantage of knowing them.  Like academics they have to marshal their facts and their arguments to convince far more readers.  Because those readers have different interests and attention spans the argument has to be entertaining as well as compelling. No wonder Skloot thinks that the real act of writing is the revising.

Writing a polished piece, whether as a consultant, academic or author, takes time refining the argument and its expression.  The products are not so much on a continuum as at different spots in a multidimensional space of communication styles shaped by the requirements of evidence, expression and audience expectations.


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