Tuesday, January 05, 2010

On Writing - Part I (Bad Habits)

In the comments to the last post, human asked for a post about my writing routines, habits, planning, etc., and when I read that request, I thought, "Have I not written that post before? Surely I've written that post before!" But having blogged in this space since January of 2006, and having blogged in general since 2004 (God, seriously?), I have officially reached the point where I have no freaking clue where to begin looking for old posts I've surely written, and doing a search for "writing" on this blog does absolutely no good. So, though I'm convinced I can''t have been an academic person writing a blog for 5 years who hasn't done a post about this, I'm going to write a post about it now that's almost definitely redundant.

So writing. There are tons of books that give advice about writing productivity, about identifying the kind of writer a person is, about "best practices" for writing without anxiety, etc. etc. As somebody who teaches writing, I spend a lot of time introducing students to such things on a small scale and on showing them how to manage their lives as writers. As a professor, a good chunk of my job requires me to write - and not only the scholarly portion of that job.

But so first things first. For about the first Oh, 20 or so years of my life, my "writing habits" basically involved a three-step process, which went something like this:

1. Ooh! Neat idea!
2. I have a thousand other things I must do before I can sit down to pursue this idea in writing. Really. I do. No, this isn't procrastinating! How dare you say this to me? But clearly I must wait to write until I know what I want to say! And until I've read a lot of things! And, and, and....
3. Vomit out a piece of writing.

Now, to be fair, there was a step 3-and-a-half, which did involve some revision, although that revision wasn't terribly careful. You see, back in olden times when the above was my way, I didn't have a computer (and then when I first got a computer I still didn't compose on it). And so I would write every paper long-hand, and then while typing (on public, university computers) I would make revisions, though these were not executed in any systematic way.

Obviously, the above is not a solid strategy for writing anything of great depth or complexity. But I record it here because it's still pretty much the bones of my writing process. For example, if you want to know how I write a conference paper, the above is a pretty good representation. It is also pretty close to how I write blog posts (though I don't compose them longhand!). But the above "process" isn't terribly efficient, it has the potential to produce a great deal of anxiety if you use it for stuff that really matters, and it just doesn't work for anything longer than 1500-2000 words - or, at least, it doesn't work for me.

I realized that was the case twice in my graduate education. (Yes, twice. I think this is an example of how when we're encountering a difficult new challenge we regress as writers.)

Situation 1: I was in my MA program and I was in my first ever theory seminar. I had to write a seminar paper. I slogged away on a topic that was a piece of shit. I knew that it was a piece of shit, but I didn't quite understand why. I was doing everything I usually did when I would write a paper. At the last minute (a week before the 20+ page seminar paper was due) I totally changed my topic and wrote the entire thing in a mad dash (which may seem like it was not a change of approach, but it was, for the new topic that I chose incorporated all of this work I'd done on a presentation, plus research I'd done in another context, plus some of the salvageable stuff from the original crap topic: instead of vomiting out the seminar paper, I really synthesized material from across contexts and created something deeper than had been my tendency to that point).

Situation 2: This is the one and only time I'd characterize myself as having experienced writer's block. I was working on the opening chapters of my dissertation, and I could not produce any writing for approximately 3 months. I mean, I wrote. But I didn't actually produce any writing - anything readable or that had any reasonable relation to what the dissertation would ultimately become. I freaked out that I didn't know what a dissertation was. I wondered whether I had made an awful mistake in pursuing my Ph.D. Only when I stopped trying to use my old process - a process that pretty much relied on my natural talent as a writer and not on hard work and careful strategy - did the chapters start evolving. Again, it was about realizing that I couldn't just vomit out pages and have them be wonderful. It was about slowing myself down as a writer, thinking more deeply than I really wanted to think, and writing through the challenges and changing course when it became clear that my original ideas needed to be refined. (You know, maybe that's the biggest problem with my natural tendencies in writing - it's really hard for me to shift gears when my original bright idea isn't quite right once I begin writing. I have no problem scrapping sentence after sentence, but I have a really tough time realizing that I need to refine or change an idea.)

But so anyway. As I said, it's not that I've entirely abandoned the above. In some respects, I think that my ability to do the above has kept me a productive scholar in a job situation where I don't have a great deal of time to devote to my scholarship. Nevertheless, I do think that I've supplemented it with strategies that make it easier (and possible) for me to move forward with longer, more sustained projects.

In the next installment, I'll try to talk about the habits I've developed that I think are good, and some actual things I do throughout the course of a writing project. I need to get busy and take care of some school-related work before I tackle my non-work to-do list.


human said...

Ooh, yay, thank you!

Your description of the three-step process made me laugh, but that's how I've done it for years. Lately I've been figuring out a better, more strategic way to go about things, but it's a lot of work and it feels like the old way should be "easier" even though really, it's not.

Kerri said...

Glad to hear I'm not the only one who uses the idea, procrastinate, vomit approach! I'm also working on being more methodical in my academic writing. But what about creative writing? I worry that if I'm too structured with it, I'll stifle my creativity. However, as it is, I get very little accomplished.