Red Cabbage OR [Insert quote here]

A red cabbage

One of the joys of my job is being allowed to ask academics, ‘How do you write?’

The answer, often is, ‘I just write, and then plug the quotes in later’.

‘Just write’ –perhaps the most challenging two words in the writer’s lexicon.

So how do you ‘just write’ in that way?

First, you sit down at your computer, and you write up what you already know, hypothesise or intuit about a subject. Any time you get to something you know is needed in the document, but that requires you to break off typing to go and look something up… you use one of these 3 techniques instead. 


A red cabbage

A German-speaking student of mine does this, and I thought it was cute.  When he needs to put in more details, to flesh out an argument, to write a connecting paragraph, he writes ‘ROTKOHL’ into his draft.  Rotkohl is just German for red cabbage.

It’s a nonsense word, but it doesn’t mean ‘nonsense’.  Don’t replace it with ‘gobbledegook’ or ‘blah blah blah’, because those are terms that judge your writing. Do use ‘abracadabra‘ (your writing is magic!) or ‘Cowabunga‘ (you writing is both cool and makes erudite allusions to Renaissance artists) or ‘nectarine‘ (your writing is sweet and delicious).

Because this candidate is a musicologist, he is never going to talk about red cabbage in his thesis; so whenever he needs to go back to his draft, he can just search for ROTKOHL and easily find where he needs to fill in the gaps.


This is the most common way to do it.

What Baldwin calls a “history of violence” (REF), has been seen to shape contemporary responses. As Allende has suggested in her recent (DATE) article, the responsibility of the regime to recognise its role in the past is essential. (QUOTE). 

Sometimes people write the words in caps lock, sometimes in colour. These tags have the benefit of reminding you what you are looking for–do you need to add a year, a full reference, the name of the book, here?

It works well if you are visually scanning the text.  But if you use search and replace and write about referees, carbon dating or poetic quotations… you will find it too easy to miss the tags.

3. (Find that ref XXYY(???), maybe by Alexander?? 1976?? about page 200??)

This is what I do.  I often have a pretty good memory about what I’ve read, but I can’t quite recall all the details. I can often remember a quote almost verbatim, a number rounded to the nearest whole figure, a year to the nearest decade. I can often remember things that come before and after it, or about where it was in the book.

Writing in this fast <insert quote here later> way, means I can produce up to 4000 words in a good day of writing. I like to get into a zone, and keep producing text for two or three days before I move on to the edit and then proof phasesof the project. That means there can be a lot of text  to comb through, and (was this in chapter 4?) and (probably 1933) too often don’t stand out enough.

However, (was this in chapter 4???) or (prob 1933XX) are really easy to search for using Ctrl+F. I would never use more than one question mark in academic prose, so any time there are two, it’s a sign to look things up (or delete a typo).  In the same way, there are no words with double x in them, so searching for XX or YY will always be safe (don’t use ZZ, you’ll catch all those fizzing, dizzying, jazzy, grizzling nozzles and pizzas).

The main thing, though, is to realise that many academics are surprised and dismayed by your slow, painstaking, carefully fact-checked first draft. That’s what you do in the second draft, and continue to refine as you work through the stages of the writing process.

This is how many scholars, highly productive and well respected academics, manage to get so much written. Feel free to do likewise.


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

Listen: sometimes it helps to wish your writing well

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment with your writing, but there may be difficult feelings there. It can help to move from rehearsing how badly you feel, to articulating a beneficial wish for everything and everyone around you, including yourself. And apply it more specifically to your writing practice. 

Maybe you could dial up the positive talk, to yourself and others. How does that feel? What grace could be experienced?

Read More

Get the latest blog posts