Damnit Method for Writing Papers

So today was this date when I was supposed to send RMOUG the papers I’m going to present at the conference.
Normally I’m pretty good about having papers ready well in advance, and indeed the time-series paper was done few weeks back.

But there was the other paper. “Everything a DBA Needs to Know about TCPIP Networks”. I’ve been avoiding it to the point that I only finished writing it this morning. Which is totally unlike me.

Its not that I dislike the topic. On the contrary – I love TCP and am very passionate about it. This blog is full of posts where I explain TCP. Its nearly as much fun as queue theory and CPU scheduling. And its not like I had nothing to say – I had tons of stories and examples and network captures and techniques and even few opinions to share.

The problem was that I also had a bunch of things that I did not want to say, but felt like I have to.

You see, I started working on the paper by thinking about my experience. I had few war stories in mind where knowledge of networking saved the day, and I planned of sharing the stories and the knowledge with the audience. So far so good.

But when I started planning and outlining the paper, I shifted my thinking from my knowledge and stories to the potential audience. What do “they” need to know and to see and to understand. Generally it is a good idea to think about the audience when writing papers and preparing presentations, but this also meant that a lot of stuff that I did not want to write about found its way into the paper outline.

All of the sudden writing my paper meant that I have to write about things that I don’t want to write about, and the paper feels like a school paper and I’m avoiding it just so I don’t have to write about all that stuff.

So yesterday, when it looks like I’ll never finish the paper on time because I can’t even start writing it, I decided to take a second look at the plan. I figured out that the only way the paper will ever be finished is if I’ll give myself full permission not to write about things that I don’t want to write about.

It went like this:

  • I’m not writing yet another introduction to networking. I’m not describing any layers model, I’m not drawing IP datagrams or 3-way-handshake diagrams or anything with arrows going back and forth. Enough people described layers and IP and TCP basics and I don’t have to. This paper will not include basics, damnit!
  • I don’t care if every single DBA on the planet is tuning SDU sizes. I can say that other people are doing it, but I still think it is a waste of time and I won’t do it. No demo code for how tunining SDU size can improve performance, damnit!
  • I’m not doing any tuning that involves calculating exactly how many bytes go into each packet and how much space goes into the header. Its annoying and a waste of time on any known network. I’m not counting header sizes, damn it!
  • I’m giving some tips on how to use packet capture software, but I’m not teaching everything about Wireshark. Some things are out of scope, damn it!

After that I felt much better and proceeded to write the paper in about 4 hours. Amazingly, even without all those topics, I still have a fairly large paper full of content barely covered elsewhere and which is demonstrated with my own stories and examples.

I hope that if you ever have to write a paper, you will also give yourself full permission to write only about what you see as the interesting stuff and to skip things that bore you. I really believe that a paper that was fun to write is also much more useful for the reader.


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