Sculpting a document

2012 August 18

I must write prolifically for my work: documentation, research papers, presentations, and even blog posts like this. The largest document I may ever author - my dissertation - is waiting for me to begin. Although I like the products of my writing, I never enjoy the process, and each new composition starts with a new period of procrastination. I suppose my gut feeling is that if I take enough time to mull over my ideas within my head, I can avoid wasting time editing them on paper. Recently, I was struck with a realization that has convinced me otherwise.

Consider another instance of human creativity: sculpting. I'm no sculptor, but I imagine the process of creating a bust does not begin by extracting a head-shaped spheroid of marble from the earth. Rather, I would bet sculptors must start with a crude boulder that they steadily refine - first in large chunks, then later in small chips - reaching their vision in iterations.

This insight has given me new perspective on writing. My experience has shown that extensive editing of documents will happen whether I procrastinate or not. Therefore, the wasted "effort" lies not in editing, but in procrastinating. The sooner I throw down a lump of words on the table that I can start to mold, the sooner I will have the sculpture I see in my head. (I should probably have more confidence in my early words anyway; it's not like my first drafts look like the work of a five-year-old.)

I wish this realization were more profound, but it isn't. Its self-evidence makes me feel like an idiot for not changing my behavior sooner. I forgive myself, though, because I know that most of my successful life changes have come from applying seemingly obvious lessons to long-held habits.