Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Rule of the Last Few Inches

In Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle (this author's best novel which I highly recommend), a great scientist Sologdin shares with his friend a set of rules that allowed him to preserve his capacity to create scientific breakthroughs even in the midst of Stalin's Gulag. In research, says Sologdin, the most difficult but also the most important stage is the one when the work is almost done. The temptation to let the project stand the way it is becomes enormous. Declare the work finished, step aside, and reap the rewards. 

However, it is precisely at this stage of the very last few inches of the way when a researcher who manages to stick with it just a little longer should expect to be amply rewarded. Final revisions are not just useless, often tedious work. Going over the project in search for a few words here and there that need to be changed can often offer one unexpected insights. It is tempting to forgo the last few inches because, more often than not, the resulting piece of work will not look visibly incomplete. However, some important new breakthroughs can be lost if we skip over these painful and boring few inches.


Pagan Topologist said...

This is precisely why I have been known to write twenty drafts of a mathematical research paper. Thank you!!

Pen said...

This sort of thinking is also applicable in art, too. I never think my solo is good enough--so I practice the day before the concert. I never think my writing is good enough--so I might go through three drafts in under a day.