Food for thought on an effective strategy for writing

Food for thought as you approach your next writing project:

Imagine you are painting your bedroom. How do you do this? Do you take the primer paint, and then paint one square foot, let it dry, then paint the first coat of that same square foot of wall, let it dry and then paint on the second coat of that same square foot and let it dry, then move onto the next square foot of wall and repeat the whole process? Would you ever actually use this strategy for painting? No - that would be insane, inefficient, and although the individual square feet of wall might look good, the places where they connect and overlap with the other square feet will look less than ideal.

This is the same when it comes to writing. It is tempting, or at least sometimes we can get caught in a bit of writers block, where we work to perfect each sentence one at a time, before we move onto the next. This process of writing is also very inefficient, and although the individual sentences might be perfect, the structure and flow of the document as a whole will be lacking.

So what is the “best” strategy for writing? It’s the same process as the “best” strategy for painting your bedroom. Start with the primer, paint the whole room with it. This is analogous to creating your outline for the document you are writing. Then move onto the first coat of paint, and again, paint the whole room. It doesn’t have to be perfect, because you will be applying a second and perhaps even a third coat of paint. This is analogous to writing your first draft based off your outline. To quote Nike, “just do it!” Don’t think to hard about spelling, grammar, what words to use. You can improve all of this later. Almost think of a free flow of consciousness under each bullet point in your outline. You write the entire document.

Then you apply the second coat of paint to your room. This is analogous to your second draft of your document. You can now spend time improving the spelling, grammar, and what words to use. Again, you go through the entire document. After this, you should now have something with decent structure/flow and decent spelling and grammar. If you decide to spend more time, by applying a third or even fourth coat of paint to your document, you will refine it even more, and produce an even higher quality document.

I have tried many strategies for writing throughout my academic training and career, and this is one that I have found to be the most effective and efficient. I must thank Dr. Ian Taylor (Botanist from UBC) from whom I learned of this analogy of writing a document being like painting a room. It has truly served me well, and I hope it does for you too.

Tiffany Timbers
Assistant Professor of Teaching in Statistics & Co-Director of the Master of Data Science program (Vancouver Option)

I am an Instructor in the Department of Statistics and an Option Co-Director for the Master of Data Science program at the of Univerity of British Columbia. In these roles I teach and develop curriculum around the the responsible application of Data Science to solve real-world problems.