dik Harris

Professor Emeritus, Physics

Q: What do you do when you are struggling with a particular point in your writing?

A: As with so many aspects of my academic work, the answer to “How do you ...” requires significant thought to become explicit. So, after that thought (!):

The most important action that I take is to step back from the writing. Ideally, I step back and do something else: in my days as an active researcher and teacher, I might have switched to completing a calculation or trying again to solve a problem in data analysis. Or, of course, I would have switched to preparing my next class or the next assignment for my course. Nowadays, when time-constraints are less pressing, I might leave academic work aside for a few hours, with the hope that on my return I would have a different perspective on my own work.

And that is the key, I think. Take the time to step back for a fresh look at what has been achieved so far. Sometimes, this is almost as if I become another person, reviewing—as if for publication—what is presented to me. Are the ideas clear? Would a different arrangement of ideas be more clear? Is there an important element missing?

But, what if time is in short supply? Suppose I do not have the luxury of a time out? After all, that is—it seems—often the situation of an undergraduate student. At the risk of being thought patronising, I can only suggest two things: plan ahead, so that some time is available, and take that time out, even if it is only 15 minutes over a cup of coffee. And there is always the sympathetic friend, who will take the time to criticise and make suggestions. The work will still be your own, so this is not “cheating”: academic work need not be a solitary endeavour!