Synopsis of the book ‘Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus’ and other thoughts on writing well

I recently read the book Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus by Robert Boice. Even though I don’t have any job interviews yet, I figured I should start reading some books on being a faculty member so that I am ready for when the time comes. It turns out though that this book is full of gold on writing and general working that applies to my current position as a Post Doc, and really applies to anyone who writes for a living.

As such, I wanted to write a general synopsis to both cement my own thoughts on the book for future review and make what can be a long and at times tedious read accessible to a wide audience. While the book was divided into a teaching and a writing section, I have synthesized the categories from both sections as they apply to writing.

Primary Themes

Boice really pushes back on the notion prevalent in the Academy (and among writers generally) that genius only happens in these mad binges of creative madness. The problem he points out is that these binges are inevitably followed by prolonged lows (hangovers really) that can bring with them exhaustion, depression, and low self-esteem. Counter to this is the theme of the whole book – moderation. Small amounts of work conducted throughout the day will accumulate more output over time than long binges conducted less frequently. With that premise established, let’s look at each of the steps he recommends to equip you and me to write (or work) moderately, and as a result see products accumulate at a greater rate than our peers.

  • Active Waiting

Active waiting is the brain work you do before the work begins. Active waiting depends on mindfulness. Before beginning to write, focus on posture, breathing, and be intentional about the task you are about to begin. This helps facilitate what some refer to as ‘deep work.’ Deep work is focused work where you lose track of time and just fall completely into the work. We should also note here that your physical space will influence your mental space, write in the same place every day if possible, and make sure it is tidy.

Active waiting depends on holding back. Take just a little extra time before working to prepare. Prepare your body, your mind, and your notes. It is like warming up at the gym or starting your day with some quiet time before you check your email! By the way, if you don’t start your day with some sort of reflective time (prayer, meditation, or even just silence), then you are missing out on what I would guess is the biggest secret to combat anxiety in this world. But back to writing. Keep your body and mind neutral. Combat the excessive highs or excessive lows. Another way to think about this is the breathing and stretching done before beginning a yoga class. You feel your mind let go of the outside world and fall into the moment. This is something I have been trying to practice more with my family time as well because I want to let work go and focus on just being present with my family. Be present in the moment, this will help you jump into writing and to stay on task.

  • Begin before feeling ready

By this, he means really begin before you even would normally consider being ready. As an academic example, I have lately been taking notes down for analyses I want to run for projects that I don’t even have the data for yet. I even wrote a Methods section for a paper right after doing the lab work.

Before feeling ready is where most of the free writing and outlining occurs. Each of us thinks and learns different. Some of us need to talk our ideas out loud (see the let others do the work section). Some of us need to free write, or draw diagrams, or print things off and write on them. Either way, the idea here is that you are piecing together, and recording, ideas related to upcoming projects well before you ‘officially’ begin working on them. This could include collecting papers that have analyses you want to run, or just asking around about how others have tackled the kind of dataset you are going to be working on.

Most importantly, this step means transferring these early notes into conceptual outlines. I learned about these in my ACT prep class (well originally in elementary school), but did not begin using detailed outlines in my academic writing until recently (including this article). In theory, outlining will keep your writing on track and reduce the amount of unnecessary words. If possible, write less! And, this type of writing allows you to prioritize what is more important and cut through much of the less important stuff. In addition, these forms of preparation take a lot of the thinking out of the writing, allowing you to write more in less time when the prose actually happens.

Finally, this form of beginning early allows for more playfulness, more creativity, and less stress. The reason is because you have been given more time to stew on an idea. It allows you more opportunity to draw in ideas from outside your normal field, which many have recently been describing as a quintessential element of creativity.

  • Brief regular sessions

Brief regular sessions are all about working in short spurts that lead to more accumulated products over time. This contrasts with the perfectionist idea that if you can’t do it all at once, or it you can’t spend hours and hours on something then it isn’t good enough. Reject perfectionism. Perfectionism is unrealistic, because a ‘perfect’ piece of writing is actually the offspring of a million mediocre drafts! Works evolve over time into perfect pieces, but we often just see the end result and wonder how someone got there. The way they got there was by ‘touching’ their manuscript many, many times.

Brief regular sessions are advantageous because they keep the work fresh on our mind. When combined with mindfulness and conceptual outlines, we can easily pick up right where we left off. This method also allows you to clarify your work over time. When planning your day, prioritize the most important tasks. For me, this means getting into the lab first thing in the morning, otherwise I will put off my lab work. If it is writing, I start my day with writing. Never start your day with emails if you want to get anything done. Use the best of your day for what is most important. Nonetheless, look for those extra minutes, even as few as five or less, to think about, jot down notes, and work on a manuscript. This is how to be productive over time.

  • Stop before finished (timely stopping)

Timely stopping is about stopping before diminishing returns set in. Boice states that we should finish every task with some gas in the tank. This keeps us fresh for the next time and creates a sense of anticipation for starting back up again the next day. Apparently, Hemingway always finished writing before he felt done, so that is something to think about. He also had a colony of six-toed cats, something else to think about…

Stopping can also refer to taking breaks. We all know we should look out the window to rest our eyes, but taking frequent breaks also helps our mind unwind and fills our energy tank. Breaks spent with other people are usually the best way to recharge. Personally, I like to get up and make some coffee to take my mind off the work at hand for a few minutes.

Finally, finishing the task before you are exhausted allows you to set the stage for the next day. This can mean taking notes or creating an outline for the next day, or, finishing your whole workday early to make a ‘to do’ list for the next day. Either way, you want to finish while you still have some gas in the tank to prime yourself for the next day. This allows you to start the next day more quickly, reduces friction to starting which allows you to jump back in more easily, and also allows you to dedicate that starting time to breathing and focusing instead of trying to figure out where you left off.

  • Moderate over-attachment to your work and to criticism

Embrace criticism. This applies to both criticism from your peers/lab group/department, as well as from reviewers. I think the biggest impediment to our growing from criticism is pride. In a way, this parallels well with my advice to graduate students about embracing failure. When someone critiques or criticizes our work or ideas we often take it personally because it is an affront to our personal ability. Instead, we need to distance ourselves from the criticism, apply it to the work in question, not our whole life or personal value and worth, and learn from it. We embrace criticism because it (almost) always makes us better! Most of the time when I find myself pushing back on some criticism it is because the other person is asking me to do more work, and I hate doing extra work! Afterwards, I usually come around to seeing that they pushed me to learn something new, or just improved the work. I am always grateful to someone who helps me grow, even if I resist in the moment.

  • Moderate negative thoughts and emotions

This is the twin to embracing criticism. We should be writing and working with neutral emotions and mild happiness. Just because an idea or emotion comes along (such as the temptation to complain, gossip, stew in negativity), we don’t have to welcome it into our minds and lives. Moderate and push out negative emotions while working. Moderate negative emotions while receiving criticism.

Often, negative emotions lead to tension in our body. A tense soul (mind, will and emotions) leads to a tense body, which leads to reduced productivity. Focus on remaining relaxed (i.e. neutral) in your body, thoughts and emotions. Fight against the urges to dive headlong into madness and the hamster wheel syndrome.

  • Let others do some of the work

No one should be writing, or teaching, or working alone. You need writing partners, mentors, and mentees. Most of my best ideas have come from other people or have been refined by other people during discussions (see steal like an artist in my advice to graduate students). No successful person works alone in an impenetrable ivy tower. We need others to help us talk through ideas or to point out holes in our writing.

We also learn best when we teach others, thus, mentoring those younger or less advanced than us helps us to see new ways of improving our own work. The way this works in our lab is that during lab meetings we take a few hours to critique and improve each other’s work each week. While it is difficult to have seven people point out the fundamental flaws in your piece of writing, these diverse persons each see different ways of improving the manuscript that I could never have come up with on my own. This is letting others do some of the work!

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