Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Busy week

This has turned into a rather busy week: in addition to scheduling several interviews for a new project, I’ve been dealing with the last edits to my long-developing piece on cubesats, which appears headed for the February issue of Scientific American. Incredible.

Edits to the cubesats article
working on the edits, via flickr

I’ve had a great time working with my co-author (I need to collaborate on more articles– it really is a good experience), but still it’ll be really nice to have that piece out. I suspect there could be an interesting short book in here.

I recently had an epiphany about writing. My academic training hammered into me the idea that ideas need time to mature, that more time in the tumbler of your mind would only improve the brilliance your argument, and that books should be long and take years and years to write. In order to guarantee that your work is well-regarded and stands the test of time, you need to write carefully and deliberately.

But what if that’s backward in an important respect? What if importance and timelessness– that elusive quality that gives ideas a life far beyond the author’s– aren’t things that authors can really control, but are constructed almost entirely after the fact, but readers and reviewers and respondents?

This morning's coffee
coffee at Cafe Zoë, via flickr

That suggests that you should write a lot, in order to give your ideas a better chance of surviving the Darwinian competition between ideas: like salmon, only a few will make it to adulthood, so your strategy should be one of fruitfulness rather than intentional profundity. You should get books out quickly while the ideas are still timely– and thus, ironically, make them more likely to be regarded by readers and critics as timeless. Put out the best work possible in Prolific Mode rather than Thorough Mode, and just accept that only some of it will survive.

I don’t know if I can actually pull that off, and I know lots of writers will consider this completely pedestrian an insight, but I think it’s worth a try.

[To the tune of Tzimon Barto, “Preludes: Prelude No. 8 in F sharp minor (Molto agitato),” from the album Chopin: Preludes & Nocturnes (a ^r-star song, imo).]


  1. Alex, I spent yesterday with Bob Twiggs at Morehead St. University as part of my work with Kentucky Space. He’s always a delight and I an assure you that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As you’ll no doubt point out, the miniaturization revolution has spread to space. In fact, it has made our work possible – in addition to our plug and play micro-g “CubeLabs” on the ISS, we’ll be flying some impressive and very tiny tech soon! It’s a good time for space exploration.

  2. In theory I totally agree with your Prolific Mode thinking (it’s just that I seem to never be able to pull it off in practice). For other inspiration along similar lines, I every now and then read Howard S. Becker, Writing for social scientists.

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