Telling a story: from the creator’s of South Park

September 9, 2011


In this video clip, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park talk about how their writer’s room works. Their two steps are just as valid as you design your talk or outline a grant proposal.

Step 1 is random brainstorming. They use a huge whiteboard to jot down scenes and situations they think would be funny. At this point its all about getting down the ideas. Structure comes later.

When your designing an essay, take a notebook and pen and just scribble down things you think should go in. Don’t censor yourself too much. If it sounds interesting, it probably is. Without compelling bits, you won’t have much.

Step 2 links the ideas together. The classic formula for South Park is three Acts, strung together make a show. How do they recognize which bits go together? It’s definitely *not* Act 1, and then, Act 2, and then Act 3. Act 2 can’t just follow Act 1, it has to be introduced. They way they put it, it’s Act 1 therefore Act 2 but Act 3. That’s when Matt and Trey know they have something interesting.

When you’re presenting a seminar, you don’t want the first thought in their mind “why did they put that slide there?”.  You want, instead, to create a tension. In the seconds before you hit that clicker, create the anticipation of your next slide. Likewise, in the introduction to a paper, the best writers make sure that each paragraph is foreshadowed by the one that came before. For example…

There is increasing evidence that the globe is one really gynnormous turtle. What we think of as mountains are the ridges of the turtles shell. When we see flat plains, we are seeing the smooth plates, arching subtly to the horizon. Valleys are, of course, the sutures between the plates. Our turtle world hypothesis is complete and consistent with known facts as presented by geologists. Astrophysicists, on the other hand, have raised the logical question as to how “Turtle-earth” is suspended in known space.

Here we present the hypothesis, backed up by Hubbell satellite photos, that it is “turtles all the way down”….

Remember its all about…


An academic’s short guide to achieving balance

September 9, 2011

From the website of the amazing artist Andrew Goldsworthy

Over the coming weeks we will be covering a number of overlapping topics, all toward the goal of making graduate school more fun and useful. This week we will focus on time management, next week on how to read the literature, and the week after *that*, a bit on writing, particularly grant writing.

Luckily, as this blog has been around, off and on, for five years, we have some blogposts to mine on the way toward introducing new stuff (and updating the old). So check out these five oldies but goldies.

  1. If we want to achieve balance, we have to articulate what we are balancing. For that, see The Five Uber Skills of Academia .
  2. Every day we find ourselves encountering a long list of things we would like to do. Each has its own timeframe; each its own difficulty and reward. To get some sense of how you can begin to organize those tasks, and immediately feel better about yourself, read Getting Things Done: getting started. 
  3. How do you keep track of all the things you want to do? I am a big fan of The List–one big outline you open at the beginning of the day that remains parked on your desktop until you power down at the end of the day. We’ll have more to say about it over the week.
  4. OK, as we move from strategic (big picture) to tactical (simple tools) let’s tackle one of the biggest hurdles between you and a productive day: email. Here is a simple set of rules that allow you to master email, not the other way around.
  5. Finally, one of the single most encouraging developments in the past decade for academics is the evolution of Second Brain Software. It contains a link to James Fallow’s introduction of software that allows you to achieve a mastery of your reprint collection.  Things have come some way since this post (one of the first on the blog) Fallow’s is still one of the best introductions I know.