Wednesday, January 06, 2010

On Writing - Part II (The Beginning of a New Major Project)

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.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I am so happy to see someone else say this: "my problem has been that I've wasted a lot of time writing before I'm actually prepared to write." I recognized that about my own process last year, and have been trying to figure out a more productive approach. Thank you for these posts!

Earnest English said...

Thanks, Dr. Crazy, for posting this. I also keep a journal on articles and even proposals I'm writing, because freewriting is easy and actual academic writing can be hard -- though I can lapse into actual academic writing if I let myself in the freewriting/journal work. Also, I have a much better sense of what I want to say if I've struggled to say it over and over again and articulated what I'm NOT trying to say a bunch of times. The only problem with this strategy is that I don't particularly like reading a journal on the computer and so find myself printing it out. Maybe I should keep these journals longhand. Or maybe I should just live with the fact that I have to print and mark things up and highlight. (I bet the next generation will not want to do this stuff by hand.)

Anyway, thanks for this. It's giving me ideas for the article I'm working on.

Keep on keeping on!

Dr. Crazy said...

Earnest - actually, my journals are just that: an actual bound journal and I only write in them longhand (though I've sometimes taped typewritten things inside, etc.). This is partly just habit, in that I've kept various sorts of journals since I was about 12. It also, though, is all about the slowing down. I type much faster than I think, and sometimes I can type things without actually being present in what I'm typing. In contrast, writing stuff out longhand forces me to sit with ideas more. I don't actually think this is generational, either. I often have my writing students use longhand for some exercises, and they often tell me that it was a revelation how much easier it was to do certain tasks in longhand vs. on the computer. Also, writing in longhand can help with easing anxiety, as it's not "real" writing, if that makes sense.

My current journal is hot pink and it was purchased on my way home from my birthday trip this year, not really knowing what exactly I'd use it for. I think that both the color and the time of purchase are potentially fortuitous. (Yes, I have lots of superstitions when it comes to writing.)


English Adjunct said...

This is so helpful, thanks for posting! I've noticed my major problem is organization and I think if I would take the time to think through the idea before writing, organization would come much easier.

Thanks again!

Kerri said...

I'd like to thank you as well. I've had the same problem, beginning to write when my ideas are not yet fully formed. The act of writing (actually typing whatever it is I'm working on) often gets my brain going, and then I find I have to revamp the whole thing. I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to write in a journal regularly. Maybe if I look at it as a form of pre-writing for future projects, that will help.

Bitter said...

Me too!

As I've been starting a new piece of writing (only an article, but still), I've been noticing how profoundly my work habits have changed over the past few years ... and for the better. And, like you, the changes reflect my realization that "vomiting on the page" isn't working for me anymore ... that there is so much more contemplative work that is required. For me, this is both about methodology but also about content: as I've matured (a little bit anyway) into my professional identity, my writing has become more textured, my arguments more ambitious, my research more in-depth. IOW, since I am no longer writing "close reading of novel A" but rather "analysis of cultural context of novels A, B, and C," I need much more time on the front end to develop my archive, do my research, and think about argument ...

Earnest English said...

It's interesting to look at what people mean by writing here, whether it's notes in preparation for writing scholarly academic discourse or only the actual scholarly academic discourse writing. Boice does say that exemplars (or whatever word he uses to distinguish productive professors) *do* "write before they're ready,* though I take that to mean all the note-taking and mulling and journaling. In addition to writing as a way of conveying ideas, arguing points, and being persuasive, writing is also a way of exploring. So I wonder here if when people say they write too early, they mean that they're trying to write to communicate already thought-through ideas too early. Whaddyathink?

Obviously, I'm fascinated by this discussion!

(my word verification is untald: the untald story of scholarly writing?)

Dr. Crazy said...

Well, I can't speak for anybody else, but when I say "write before I'm ready" I mean attempting to write polished academic prose before I've really done the work of organizing my ideas. My tendency is to think that I'm ready to write polished prose before I'm ready, and the result is that I write reams of crap, much of which gets completely thrown out and that doesn't really contribute to the final product. It's sort of busy-ness for the sake of being busy, as opposed to productive work. So for me, the challenge is to allow myself to conceive of journaling or thinking AS important work - instead of rushing to the actual production of pages, which looks like work, but which often ends up being a waste of time. Does that make sense?

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and: what I think about Boice, as well as books like Bolker's "Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day" is that they are great for people who experience a lot of anxiety around sitting down to put words on the page, but for a person like me, I've never found them terribly useful. My writing problems are not about being blocked or lack of consistent productivity, or anxiety about doing different kinds of writing. My writing problems are about not letting ideas marinate for long enough, which then means I'm writing without a purpose or without a clear focus, which then means that the writing - and I can knock out pages without breaking a sweat - ends up being really pointless and a waste of energy and, probably more importantly, time.

Bavardess said...

Thanks so much for this post and the previous one. The advice to invest more time in contemplating and thinking through ideas before committing them to paper is golden. I use a paper journal, too, partly because it gives me much more freedom to literally map things out, draw boxes, connect random ideas with lines/arrows etc. I find typing on screen far too linear and structured for those earlier stages of working out ideas.