Monday, March 10, 2008

Some Reflections on Writing

In spite of my earlier... lethargy... I did motivate myself to do a great deal this afternoon, including getting a fairly detailed out line together for the draft that I am to complete this week. Now, as I was working on the outline, it occurred to me how much easier this whole process has been than the previous times I've put something together to be considered for publication. (This sense of "easiness" may end up being a big fat lie that I'm telling myself, but I'm hopeful that it's not. So for the moment, I'm going to allow myself to believe that this time really will be easier, although that doesn't mean I won't bitch throughout the writing of this thing, never fear.) I think I've finally reached the point where I know how to write an article.

Now, this is an interesting thing to discover, as I've published more than one article, I have read hundreds of articles, and on top of that I've written a dissertation and revised it into a book, so you'd think that I'd have felt like I knew how to write an article before now. I mean, if I didn't know how to write one, how did I manage to do it previously?

Well, with lots of anxiety. Because I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. Or, more accurately, I sort of knew what the fuck I was doing. I knew the theory of it, and I knew the nuts and bolts stuff about how one was supposed to go about doing it and what an article had to include, but I didn't know - like, deep down - what the hell I was doing. And so there was a lot of freaking out, a lot of beating myself up, and a lot of hand-wringing, with each and every publication. But with this? Easy-peasy! See, there are just these blocks that you've got to fill in with stuff! It's not rocket science!

See, ideas have never really been the problem for me. I've got tons of ideas - some better than others, admittedly - for conference papers, for articles, for books.... I've always been good with the "coming up with a topic" part of things. If you were to look at my notebooks from undergrad, what you'd find interspersed with notes would be actual titles for papers that I might choose to write (for ideas come in the form of titles for me). I credit my experiences working for my high school and college newspapers for developing my "idea generation" talent.

And writing - in the sense of churning out pages - has never been the problem for me either. I'm pretty loose when it comes to the whole put-words-on-a-page thing. That, actually, also probably has something to do with the newspaper background, for there's nothing like writing for a deadline that's only hours (or less) away and knowing that one has to fill a certain number of column inches to get one used to the idea that the words one puts on a page need not be perfect in order to get the job done. So yes, I'm pretty fast and loose when it comes to getting words on paper, which is probably why setting writing goals involving word counts or page counts isn't really a meaningful measure of work for me because I can just blather on about anything and less than half of it will be of any sort of use. And yes, I would screw myself over by writing whatever in order to meet the goal, even if it sucked. That's just how I roll.

But so if it's never been the writing and it's never been the ideas, then what has caused me such anxiety related to article-writing?

Well, I think the biggest challenge has been organization. An article requires a weird size of an idea. Conference-paper-sized ideas are pretty manageable, ultimately. You have exactly the space in which to fully develop one - or at most two - small-ish ideas. But an article has to be more than that, and yet not too much more or you won't achieve the depth that you need in order for it to work as a publication. Also, I think that my dissertation/book got in the way of me thinking in terms of article-length ideas because I had to think so broadly in relation to it. (I never saw my diss as anything but a book - there was no way that it could work as a series of articles, and so being in that head-space for that length of time compromised my ability to think in smaller chunks.) And so, because the size of the idea was not natural to me, I never quite knew how to fit the disparate parts together. How could I provide critical context, theoretical context, and make an argument about the literature and make it all work together? How could I quickly transition from one part to the next without it seeming weird and forced? How could I make such a monstrosity readable? (For there are a lot of unreadable articles out there, and I really hate the idea that I would contribute to that pile.)

And so where I'd get stuck wouldn't be in step 1 (the idea phase) or in step 3 (the actual writing phase) but rather I'd get stuck in step 2 (the planning phase). How to begin? Where to start? How the fuck could I translate all of the ideas into prose that made any sort of sense? And so I'd first try outlining, but since I didn't have an intuitive grasp of what such an outline should resemble, my outlines always ended up being pretty screwed up at the beginning. And then I'd try writing my way in, but that generally wouldn't work because I didn't know where I was going. An article requires one (or me, perhaps this isn't true for all) to think about both details and the big picture simultaneously. You can't just think small (as in a conference paper), because you've got to be in conversation with the whole field. And you can't just think big (as in a book), because you don't have the space to address every single thing. And so I'd always end up feeling a bit confused and lost and then - somehow - the thing would come together. (This is not unlike what it felt like to write seminar papers for me.) But I wouldn't really know how.

But somehow, from doing this enough times, I have developed a sense of how I write an article - not just a sense of theories about what articles are supposed to do or what they include. And now that I've got that sense, the whole thing doesn't seem so daunting. (You know, I remember somebody leaving an ungenerous comment on the blog once that said that if writing articles caused me so much angst that perhaps this wasn't the right profession for me. I remember responding that it was my blog and I'd bitch if I wanted to, or something along those lines. What I'd respond now is that the reason I felt such anxiety was because nobody ever taught me how to write an article, and articles in my field don't have a hard-and-fast format as they do in some, and so every time I had to write one I felt completely clueless and like an impostor, and I didn't have much faith that I'd ever get it together enough to complete any article that I started. The problem wasn't with my fitness for the profession - or even with writing generally - but with this particular format in which I'd had absolutely no instruction at any point in my education and yet upon which one's success in the profession depends.)

So how does Crazy write an article?

  1. Crazy devises some idea that has legs. Every time this has started out as a conference paper idea. Indeed, some conference papers do grow up to become articles, something I'd never really understood when I started giving conference papers, as when I started doing those, I'd always cut them down from longer seminar papers. I didn't understand that a conference paper was a beginning of an idea - not a distillation of a larger work.
  2. Crazy realizes that she has to write an article, and so thinks about how she'll flesh out that baby idea that was the conference paper. The result is usually that she needs to read or reread a substantial amount of theoretical and/or primary text material.
  3. Crazy reads the criticism that she didn't read or only skimmed briefly when writing the conference paper. Yes, it's true: I don't read all of the criticism that exists for an 8-page conference paper. Sue me.
  4. Crazy jots down bunches of notes, and thinks through what she's going to do more fully.
  5. Crazy comes up with an outline. The outline usually looks something like this: introduction, general theoretical/critical context, primary text stuff with additional critical context, theoretical interlude where I more fully develop the general theoretical stuff from before in relation to the primary text stuff, more primary text stuff with additional critical and theoretical context, conclusion. You will note that this outline has five parts. It's true: I learned to write in an academic context with the 5 paragraph essay format. You will be happy to note that my articles have more than five paragraphs.
  6. Crazy types in quotations under each of the outline headings. (Also, there are usually subheadings within the main five)
  7. Crazy writes around the quotations.
  8. Crazy prints the thing out and does editing and revision on the hard copy, making notes about places to add, to cut, etc.
  9. Crazy finishes the draft.
  10. Crazy lets the draft sit for a couple of weeks, returns to it, makes final edits and revisions, and then deals with the bibliography, which is a thankless task and that makes her cry when she thinks about having to do it. (Side note: I really hate alphabetizing. Like really, really hate. It's a dumb thing to hate, but it's true: I loathe the alphabetizing. Passionately.)
And that's it. I think in the past I would get bogged down first in steps 4 and 5, and then I didn't believe it was "right" to type in the quotations once I had an outline before writing, and so I'd try not doing that and get angry at myself and finally "give in" to "cheating" by doing step 6, and then things would go smoothly once I'd done that (or relatively smoothly). This time around, I'm sailing through the steps, and I'm not chastising myself for liking to choose the quotations first and to type them in first. I mean, hell, if they are what I'm examining, why is it *wrong* to type them in first? That just makes no sense.

I am not at all saying that this is the one true way to write an article. It may be a really dumb way to go about it. Who knows. But I think the reason this process is easier for me this time is that I'm accepting that it's my way and going with it rather than trying to do it in some imagined "right" way and finding myself stuck.


k8 said...

This is really useful! Thanks for writing it.

As far as bibliographies go, I love EndNote. It does all of the work for me.

Feminist Avatar said...

I could have written this, except I don't think I've quite reconciled what 'my way' is yet.

If it makes you feel better my phd bibliography had two 'F' sections- one after 'E' and one after 'H'. I think I must have pasted one reference in the wrong place and then merrily added extra entries to whatever 'F' I scrolled to first.

Maude said...

thanks so much for writing this! i haven't written an article yet (which i'm sure had _nothing_ to do with my lack of success on the job market this year--HA!) and it's something i have been concerned about because i was told to think of my diss as a book and write it like one (though it's going to need a lot of work) not like a series of articles or seminar papers. and honestly, the thought of trying to put together an article, from relative scratch, frightens me. and all of my conferences thus far have come from seminar papers already written, which is how i think we're told to approach conferences in grad school.

so, i will be copying your post to file away into my "how-to be an academic" file.

i like your approach. it meshes well with how i approach my writing (though not exactly the same), but i always need some sort of guide, even if i don't follow it.

sorry for hijacking the comments just to say "thanks."

michele said...

Crazy - I too want to say thanks. I've read and lurked for a long time but want to post my gratitude for your list.

I'm ABD and have been silently chastising myself over the dissertation writing because I also start from the quotations and then build up around them. I always felt like that wasn't the way I "should" write, but I've continually found it the easiest way to write, whether it's dissertation chapters or articles. So I'm grateful to hear I'm not the only person who does that and maybe I'm not a fraud after all if the quotations gets organized first!


Geeka said...

Seriously: Endnote. It will save your sanity, and it integrates nicely with word.