Writing with a point of view vs writing to discover a point of view

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.

20 thoughts on “Writing with a point of view vs writing to discover a point of view

  1. Yes indeed, excellent post. I am struggling at the moment with my ‘popular science’ aphid book. Having written a whole pile of blog posts about aphids I thought it would just be a matter of stringing them together with the odd sentence or two, Not so, I am having to find a voice that builds a bridge between my blog writing and my formal science writing, but I can feel it happening….

    • Glad to hear I’m not alone! Actually talking to other colleagues who are writing a book after becoming fairly accomplished at publishing papers, I find it is not at all uncommon (although not universal) to have figure out a new approach.

      Are you finding your voice by writing your way through it or other means?

      • A mixture – I resorted to a sheet of paper and roughed out a map of the book and figured out which blog posts went where and then devised thematic chapter headings and looked at what was missing and am now writing my way through it 🙂

      • Interesting. I had a very detailed outline and thought that would be enough. But I’ve discovered it was not enough for me.

  2. Great post! Although I’m in a different field, I’ve also come to find that writing without a definite hypothesis helps to hone my ideas and organize my thoughts. However, I take issue with the statement “you should avoid it whenever possible”. I think this type of writing should be encouraged when ever possible. Although the writing itself may take time, I think it ultimately is more efficient then simply wondering through broad literature searches trying to come up with where to go next. I’ve found that even short sessions of ‘writing to discover’ can really help direct my research, and help summarize my ideas for later when i finally do develop a definite Idea and am ready to write a manuscript.

    • Probably a more careful, accurate way to have written it is “you should only write this way when you have the time and willingness to do lots of rewriting.” I agree it can be very useful.

      But I do want to steer graduate students who don’t take time to find their point of view before they write that often it can be much more efficient to find the point of view first.

  3. You’ve just described exactly the experience I’m having right now writing two of my thesis chapters Brian; one with a point of view, one without. The latter hurts my brain.

  4. In fact, yes very much so. Have just finished a review paper with several colleagues that was essentially this process, and after one rejection and then major revisions, we have (eventually) found our clearer point of view, though probably still not perfect. I like this way of writing as well, though very discouraging sometimes (the extent of rewriting). But your text makes me think that this is more normal than one might think and accepting it will make it easier (maybe). THANKS !

  5. Interesting discussion. I wouldn’t have thought that starting to write before you know where you’re going is very common. It sounds inefficient to me. Personally, before I’ve figured out what I want to say, there’s a great deal of note-taking (both pen-on-paper and typing), and if that counts as “writing” then I suppose I do this. But before bothering with paragraphs and sequences of paragraphs with logical flow, to my own imperfect recollection I’ve always had a decent sense of where I was going first, perhaps with the exception of the very first couple of papers (pre-Ph.D., after which I learned my lesson!). There were chapters of my book whose narrative I wasn’t sure of when I started the project, since I didn’t know all the relevant literature, but I didn’t do “real” writing until I’d figured that out.

    I guess my question is: Is this actually more efficient in some circumstances – e.g., reading, note-taking, pondering just isn’t getting the job done, so maybe writing whole sentences/paragraphs forces the mind somewhere it otherwise hasn’t been able to get? If so, I think I get it. If not, I’m not sure I get it.

    • I’m not sure it is more efficient. And in general, I found myself surprised to be writing this post. I’ve always been an advocate of figure out your story before you start writing. And that mostly works for me. And indeed I was so stuck in that mode that it was basically bogging me down. Progress on my book only happened when I gave myself permission to write in a way I had argued against writing for years.

      My old “know in advance way” wasn’t working for me writing the book. Even though I had a detailed outline. The outline gave me what I wanted to cover but not really the how. I spent a long time trying to figure out the how before writing paragraphs (like you describe), but it just wasn’t coming. But it did come when I wrote something and ripped it up. So, yeah, I guess I would have to say that in this specific instance it has turned out to be more efficient. Writing a chapter twice over a month is more efficient than waiting 6 months for it to come then spending two weeks to write it (on at least some measures).

      And although I’m still hesitant to tell grad students to sit down and write to find out what they want to say, I’m also a bit more humbled and realizing that I have to go to that mode sometimes too (and I’m realizing it is not just the book but certain review papers and grants too).

  6. i always chose the titles of my books first, forming the conceptual framework for the book as a whole and for each separate chapter…also, i began with a detailed outline, choosing many citations before the writing process began…

    • I agree. In essence the writing captures the thinking in a place with enough clarity and permanence that the thinking can be edited, revised and rebuilt. My brain can do that in my head for a linear one result paper pretty easily (at this career stage). But I cannot do that for more synthetic work like review papers nor really original thinking like grants, nor apparently a book which is a combination of the two. I outlined and thought and outlined and thought for months without getting what I needed. Writing did the trick though.

  7. I really enjoyed this post, and have found that the further I get into my academic career (and the more I try to diversify my research interests), the more often I find myself trying to write to find my point of view. It can definitely be frustrating at times, though I honestly find that it is more often than not a very rewarding experience once you come out the other side. Thanks for the read!

  8. Hey Brian, wow, get out of my head! This post exactly sums up how I felt writing our ‘niches’ book years ago, and I think I speak for Mathew Leibold as well that the same sort of process occurred as we wrote our new ‘Metacommunity’ book that just came out (shameless plug: https://press.princeton.edu/titles/11176.html)

    It’s interesting that Mark Vellend had a different experience, but perhaps not surprising either. He had such a laser focus in his excellent book. But perhaps we were searching a bit more for ours. Yes, we had a strong outline, lots of ideas of where it was going, etc. But in the end, it took so many different courses, changing chapter order and content, etc. Interestingly, in our case, we also experienced an extra frustration in this, which you may find too. The literature is so vast and so fast right now, that we’d finish a chapter and put it ‘away’ in the dropbox to move on to other things. And six months later, on the next iteration, a dozen new papers would be written, or our ideas would evolve as we worked on other chapters, and we’d have to go back and dismantle what we had thought was almost complete.

    Clearly an extremely inefficient process, and maybe Mark’s approach is smarter. But I certainly experienced exactly what Brian is saying in writing my two books, and the experience was much different than when writing most papers (though I think I’ve had similar experiences with writing some ‘concept’-type papers, where you learn what you’re trying to say as you go).

    • I haven’t experienced the phenomenon you describe of needing to rip apart chapters on returning (just because I haven’t gotten that far). Really hoping I avoid that but not really sure of any good reason why I will.It makes sense.

  9. I do lots of writing to discover my point of view in blogging (including in some of the posts related to my authorship paper, including this: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/should-ecology-papers-have-guarantors-who-take-full-responsibility-for-a-paper/ and this: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/who-should-be-senior-author-on-papers-resulting-from-collaborations-between-multiple-research-groups/) It’s part of why I enjoy blogging! I’ve been thinking lately of writing another post related to emails, because doing that helps me work through things (I think of it as processing).

    In trying to think of where I’ve written to discover my point of view, I can think of a paper from when I was a grad student as a clear example, but also that recent authorship manuscript. So, I wonder if, for me, it’s not just a career stage thing but also a function of how long I’ve been thinking about a topic? I suppose I’ll get more chances to collect anecdata on this as I continue to work on new things!

    • “a function of how long I’ve been thinking about a topic”. I agree. I think needing to write to discover a point of view is a function of a number of things including career stage, degree of creativity involved and size and complexity (e.g. book vs paper). But definitely also time spent. When I write a research paper I’ve probably written a grant on the question, collected data, analyzed it for several months, shared it with lab group and maybe the departmental ecolunch. Its been kicking around in my head a long time. That definitely helps to discover the point of view. Whereas when writing, e.g., a review paper none of those things have occurred. Its pretty much dive into the literature and then write which is a much shorter amount of time spent thinking.

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