Two weeks ago I had the pleasure to interview Professor X on the topic of writing. Professor X is an extremely busy faculty with an enormous publication record. He is the director and co-directors of multiple programs/departments, and an advisor of graduate students on top of running his own research lab. Yet he juggles them all pretty efficiently, thus this is one of the reasons I chose to interview him as I could learn a thing or two on how to be successful on this road we called academia.
Besides his ability to juggle many things at once, Professor X is quite personable. Unlike the examples mentioned in class regarding some awkward responses from the faculty that students got during their interviews, Professor X was very open, honest, and energetic. He welcomed my questions as he anticipated the next. The conversation just flowed from one question to the next with ease. To recap, I opened my interview with Professor X by asking him what is his takes on writing. I was surprised and impressed at his honestly when he said “it’s the hardest thing to do – psychologically and emotionally…” He elaborated that it is a difficult task to overcome all the barriers to do it. However, once he’s in the zone he can write for hours without a break; it is “as rewarding as reading a book.” I can totally relate to this. I often found myself staring at the blank page for a while to find the perfect word/phrase to start the paragraph. But once the light goes off on the top of my head, I would type away. Just like how I would stayed up late to finished chapters of a book.
Professor X further suggested that to prevent being ‘stuck’ or ‘to get the feeling in the mood’ is just to write whatever that comes to mind then correct them later, and never cite while you write. The latter advice was new to me, but professor X explained that doing so will help keep the ideas flowing without any interference since looking up the references and inserting them –the process itself can be distracting from the stream of thoughts; once he’s finished for the part then he will go back and look at places where references are needed. I found this idea to be very useful. In the past, I rarely write without citing, I will put [ref here] before continue on the next sentence; but I couldn’t help to feel like if I don’t insert the reference then and there I might miss it later on. Also, the idea of turning in a draft with “[ref here]” still is not quite so exciting. However, I have been practicing what Professor X told me, and it is hard at first because my left brain will tell me to go find those references to insert but my right brain tells me otherwise. I have resisted the urge to insert references or googling to find information. I am beginning to like this strategy as I am able to write more with less distraction (sometimes in the past I would look up references and ended up reading them for few hours).
Next, I asked whether Professor X found writing enjoyable and if he writes more professionally or leisurely. He enjoyed writing especially once he’s in the zone, and most of his writing are academics. He shared that at this stage of his career (full professorship) he allowed himself to be more creative in writing such as writing a review. When he first started out as an assistant professor, he had to write more “academia”, more science, and more technical to establish his career. However, as he became more established he showed his creativity in writing a review paper. This prompted me to ask my next question about his writing habits. Professor X has several modes of writing, but most of which consist of weekly writing. When he’s in the zone then he writes daily, 2-3hrs periods without breaks. However, when he’s out of it or procrastinating, he will “struggle to do it weekly” he smiled as he talks about this (I think this is something we all can relate to). He write best early in the morning, the first thing he does when he gets up is to write as “morning hours have gold in mouth” [this is when our brain is at its freshest and clearest]. I guess I do kind of similar thing although it is after my morning workout and the commute to lab. But when I would arrive at lab with everything quiet and peaceful. I would turn on my computer and write for 2hrs daily. I felt my mind is quite sharp then, and after accomplishing my writing goal I felt quite productive for the rest of the day.
Finally, I wrapped up our interviewed with a question on his secret to stay motived or productive in writing and whether he has any advice for writing well. He said is to keep the TV off, start early, and be consistent…minimize all the distractions. Another useful advice I take away from our conversation was that “quit on a good note” not down beat. Whenever he found himself stuck he would work on a different paragraph, or take a little break, but never quit, then come back and start on a different page. The ideas will eventually come back to us, and when we end in a positive note we will be more motivated to write for the next session.
As Professor X had said writing is tough process, and as we all know it takes a lot of hard work, disciplines, and motivations. However, writing can be enjoyable especially after we master the art of it. I think with hard work and dedication we all can be as successful as Professor X, Professor Y or Z in our department one day, and who knows next time around it might be us giving advice to our young students on the the art of writing. I am glad to have the opportunity to meet up with Professor X as I have learned some valuable tips from him.