I have been working on writing one book and helping to revise another one recently. For a while I found it really hard going because I expected it to work like writing a paper (or blog post) is for me now. But gradually I came to realize that I needed to write in a different way and that in fact there were other situations when I wrote that way. I have gotten very used to writing with or from a point of view, where as for the book I was needing to go back to the way I wrote my very first papers – writing to find my point of view.
Every piece of non-fiction writing has a point of view. By which I don’t mean the perspective from which the story is told (e.g. 1st person vs 3rd person), which is the meaning of point-of-view in fiction writing. In non-fiction writing I am using point of view as synonymous with slant, angle, spin, argument, claim, thesis, hypothesis, interpretation. It is impossible (and deadly boring and misleading) to write as if you are just laying out a set of facts with no personal take or view point on those facts. Indeed the main point of most good non-fiction writing (journalism possibly aside but even there I doubt it) is to convince others of your point of view by marshaling your arguments with evidence and good writing. This is true whether it is a biography, a history, an essay, an editorial, a term paper for class, or, yes, a scientific paper. In a scientific paper the slant is usually of the form “X is true and important”, but of course figuring out X is really critical. You need a cohesive narrative to organize your facts and to decide which facts to emphasize, include but downplay or just throw away. And your reader needs to walk away feeling like they know what you were trying to say. Nothing is more frustrating than spending valuable time reading something and walking away and thinking the author didn’t have a coherent point And that is where my ah-ha moment came in. I had gotten very used to sitting down to the blank page to start writing when I already knew what my point of view was. It was pretty easy. Words flowed – it was more just a matter of finding time to write. But now suddenly I was staring at a blank page without knowing what my point of view was. I could force myself to fill a page, but I knew the words weren’t coming together into good writing. And I would get frustrated and unsure of what to do next.
Eventually I realized there are two very different kinds of writing. Writing where you already know your point of view, and writing to discover your point of view. The first happens when you’ve done a lot of advance homework to figure out the point of view and the writing flows but you don’t learn anything new from writing. The second is slow, awkward, and involves massive amounts of rewriting, but also can be very illuminating. Once I recognized this distinction I came to realize that I had done the latter, writing to find a point of view, in other cases besides writing a book including:
- Writing review papers
- Writing most grants
- Writing many of my first papers
I think I had forgotten that I sometimes write to discover my point of view because the papers I did that on were so far in the past that I had forgotten how I wrote them. And the grants and review papers were always done on such a deadline that I eventually just had to bludgeon my way through whether they worked out not and were a fog in my mind anyway. But it shouldn’t have been a shock. As a PhD adviser much of what I help students do is to help them figure out how to find a point of view and they (like me as a student) rarely manage to figure it out before they start writing.
I want to be clear that writing to find a point of view is an ugly, two steps forward, one step backward, throw-away half of what you write, very inefficient process. So you should avoid it whenever possible. Always do the homework to figure out your point of view before you start writing if you can. For writing papers this usually looks for me like presenting my results several times to several different groups and having lots of conversations about it, trying out different points of view, seeing what gets other people excited and engaged and what I can defend. And also just explicitly talking about what my main point is and asking people for their opinion. This is because literally talk is cheap (timewise) in comparison to writing,
But there are times when you cannot get your point of view first. For me these are usually the most novel, creative types of writing. Where I’m really trying to do something novel but also de novo where I haven’t spent the last year doing experiments and analyses to baby-step my way towards the point of view.
So what do you do if you have to start writing without a point of view? You start writing until you find your point of view. Then you rip everything up, throw half of it out, reorganize everything and tweak everything that remains all steering towards a point of view. Writing to the end without discovering your point of view is not an option. Discovering your point of view and not rewriting everything to line up with that point of view is not an option (unless you want your reader to be really mad at you).
Writing without a point of view is not efficient. It is a lot of work. My best guess is it takes 2-3x longer to finish when you start writing without a point of view as to start writing something with a point of view. So by all means if you can get your point of view before you write, do it. But if you absolutely cannot get your point of view any other way, sit down, force yourself to write garbage. And your point of view will emerge. Then you can rewrite your garbage. I’m sure it is theoretically possible to write all the way to the end and not find your point of view, but I don’t think it is very common. Indeed, to the contrary, I have found that I have had some of my most creative, interesting and worthwhile ideas emerge while writing to find a point of view. The chapters in my book have been a slog (until I revised my expectations), but I am happy with how they are turning out. And some of my very best research ideas emerged from writing grants that never got funded but that I wouldn’t have ever thought of if I hadn’t slogged through the writing without a point of view stage because of a grant deadline.
To give a concrete example, I spent a good chunk of November and December writing a chapter on macroevolution to go in my macroecology book. Now I have always been an evolution-friendly ecologist and I didn’t expect it to be hard. And indeed I was easily able to launch into a summary of Darwin and the modern synthesis, connect these points to a Price-like equation that captures key aspects of evolution, cite a number of cool papers that take macroecology-style summaries of evolution that present histograms of the frequency of heritability or selection strength and such across many studies, etc. But the whole time I was writing I knew that my writing was pedestrian, boring, read like a listicle and felt disconnected from macroecology. Then I realized that my point of view was that most of microevolutionary processes identified during the modern synthesis disappeared in macroevolution and in particular that selection happened so fast that a macroecologist or macroevolutionist could get away with assuming it was instantaneous, but that Drawin’s ideas of descent with modification and fit to environment were very relevant to macroevolution. Now I expect somebody (probably Jeremy) will disagree with that point of view. But it was a point of view that did all the things a point of view should do. It:
- Told me which things were important so I could focus on them, discard some irrelevant stuff (even though they are generically considered “important”) and generally shorten and tighten my writing.
- Providing a coherent narrative so the reader felt like they started in one place and got moved to a new place by investing time in reading what I wrote (even if the place they got to was vehemently disagreeing with me and vowing to prove I was wrong)
- Completely organized my focus (i.e. let me write with a point of view) for the second half of the chapter related to phylogenies and the fossil record. This was an area I knew less about, but my reading was quite directed and I came up to speed quite quickly and was able to write quite quickly.
- In the end I think I had not just a review of material but a novel point that made it worth the effort even for people who knew much of the material
The net result was that I had 20 or so coherent pages that I was happy with (at a first draft stage). Now I have written 20 pages in 24 hours under the gun before* (albeit not great writing) and certainly have cranked out 20-30 pages of good writing in a week (of 30 hours of writing) when I knew where I was going. This chapter took more like 90-120 hours. But I got there. And I got there faster than waiting and thinking and reading until a point of view emerged before I started writing. I had been trying that on my book for a couple of years and I can tell you it wasn’t going real fast. I think synthesizing lots of material in your head is very hard to do. Devoting the time to writing, even if you throw most of it away, is actually a great way to get the creative juices flowing and make them happen somewhat on a schedule.
And now that I recognize writing without a point of a view as a legitimate but slow form of writing, I am much happier. I know what’s going on. I know it generates forward progress. And I know it ends up well even if it is a twisty road. So I just get on with it instead of waiting (often months) until my perfect point of view emerges. But I also know that I have to go back and do the rewriting once I’ve found my point of view.
What do you think? Have you experienced these as two distinct styles of writing. Under what types of circumstances do you write with a point of view vs. write without a point of view?
* You could argue that writing to a deadline is a 3rd major style of writing. In my experience the point of view usually emerges on the last page or so. But the writing leading up to it is completely disconnected. So really, if it is something you care about, you should allow enough time to go back and rewrite the whole thing to have a coherent point of view. Conversely, you could argue that writing without a point of view is basically creating an artificial deadline to force you to plow ahead writing even if it is not good writing until the point of view emerges.