The beginning of a new project for me used to mean only that I had an idea and that I thought it was neat. What I learned through the course of graduate school and most especially through dissertating and then the writing of articles is that having a neat idea is totally not enough for major scholarly endeavors, at least if you're me. I've got tons of neat ideas. The difference between a neat idea and an article or a book, at least for me, is proceeding with deliberate care.
In other words, the most important thing I learned was that I needed to slow down and sit with my neat ideas before I begin researching or writing for a much longer period, and I needed to sift through the ideas that I wanted to explore and map out which ones were worth exploring and make actual decisions about how I would explore them. The thing that happens when I just explode a piece of writing is that I'm not really making decisions or choices. I'm not really thinking about what I'm trying to communicate, nor am I thinking about the audience to whom I want to communicate it. Thinking about those things on the front end, while I experience that as tedious, really does make it less painful when I begin researching and writing.
So while I still start with step 1 (Ooh! Neat idea!), it takes me a heck of a lot longer to move on to step 2. I don't pretend that what I do in the expanded step one is part of the practical work of researching and writing, nor do I regard the work that I do in this phase as procrastinating. Instead, I actually invest the time in step 1 to figure out how my idea works, why it matters, and how I want to approach it.
This involves the following school supplies:
1. Pens with which I like to write.
2. Mechanical Pencils. At this early stage, I find that I like to be able to erase. At the same time, I really hate dull pencils or having to sharpen pencils.
3. A journal, in which I record my thoughts about the project and in which I attempt to map out schedules for different tasks related to the project as well as to refine my ideas before I ever start "writing" or even "researching."
I used to think that once I had an idea that I had to begin "working" on it immediately. Working meant going to the library and mining the literature I'd be analyzing for things that fit my idea (notice I say "mining" and not "reading" here). Once I'd done a little of that, I felt like I was "supposed" to be writing, even if I didn't have a clear picture of what I needed to write, why I needed to write it, or how it fit into the larger project. My problem has never been that I didn't have anything to say, not really. Rather, my problem has been that I've wasted a lot of time writing before I'm actually prepared to write.
So, practically speaking, what does this phase of things look like? Well, I started my journal when I submitted my sabbatical application, though I didn't write much in it over the next couple of months. As the semester drew to a close, and I got definite word that my sabbatical would be a reality, as would a summer fellowship, I'd estimate that I've been writing in the research journal at least every couple of days, and I think about my Next Book at least once per day, probably spending 30 mins. to an hour thinking about it per day if we were to add all of my thoughts up. I've been doing things like trying to figure out the organization of chapters for my next book, coming up with reading lists for theory and literature, coming up with schedules for when I will do which pieces of work, playing around with titles (I always start with titles), evaluating how the literature I claimed I would analyze in the sabbatical application really fits together and whether I need to change up my choices at all, thinking about potential objections to the project, blind spots that I have in my approach, etc.
It's all very informal, free-writing sort of writing. But it also is clarifying the point of my project to me, and it's preparing me to start with reading and research throughout this spring. I think that I used to think that really spending time with my idea was not an efficient use of time, or that once I had the "neat idea" that it was self-explanatory and needed no justification or clarification. If I've learned anything throughout my years on the tenure track most especially, having dealt with readers' reports and editors and what have you, any idea that I have really needs to have a clear justification in my head and needs to be clear not only to me but to everybody else.
So I am very close to needing to move into the next phase of my process, though I'll continue to keep up with the journal and to do this sort of thinking work throughout. That's another thing that's changed with me: I think I have to do this sort of temperature-checking and evaluating throughout, now, instead of thinking I have the project solid in my head and then I never think about it again. This means that I'm going to hold off on the third part of the series until I'm actually beginning with that next phase - I'll have more and better things to say about it when I'm actually doing the things.
4 years ago