I spent the morning at a coffee shop on campus getting some diss writing done. It was about time.
In November and December, I was actually on a roll. Then the holidays happened and it all fell apart. On two occasions last week I sat down to write and accomplished virtually nothing each time. This is almost always the case after I’ve taken a break from writing. I’ve had enough up-and-down cycles like this in my life now to realize why, yet I still seem powerless to overcome the transition back into writing each time. Maybe if I type things up here it’ll speed the process along next time.
The biggest mistake I make? I get so stressed about how much I have to accomplish, about how much lost ground I have to make up, that I try to make it all up in one sitting. I procrastinate starting to write again until I have an entire day to dramatically set aside for “writing time.” Then I sit down, look over all that I have to do, and then I begin to feel extremely tired.
However, every time I’ve managed to overcome this paralysis, and have actually been proud my name is on the results, I’ve followed a few general rules. There’s nothing earth-shattering or original in this list—any how-to guide for writing probably goes over these things—but I seem to have to relearn them every damn time anyway, so they may be worth sharing.
Warm up: Do not just sit down at your computer, open up your file and start writing. Get your brain moving first. If you’re writing an academic paper, for example, read a related article you know you’ll be referencing in some way. When you stop paying attention to the article and start thinking about your own project, stop reading and start writing (the “stop reading” part is important: your goal is not to read the paper, it’s to jump-start your writing).
Outline: This is probably obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. If you just start writing at line 1 you’re likely to wander all over the place. Anyone who’s ever graded papers can spot a paper that was written without an outline within the first page. Make an outline. Leave yourself lots of room in between points and fill things in as you think of them. Preferably, do this outline in whatever format will be easily accessible to you throughout your week so when you have ideas, you can put them right into the outline.
I’ve actually rediscovered the joy of good ol’ pencil and paper for outlines and pre-writing notes. This pains me: the advantages of having everything on a computer are numerous—not the least of which is that I’m much less likely to lose something on my computer than I am on my desk or in my backpack—but I just find the kind of all-over-the-place thinking the brainstorming/outlining phase requires works better with pencil for now. Just a simple text file (my preferred method) forces you to be too linear and organized. The main rule of brainstorming is that you have to write everything down. If you have to stop and think too much about where the idea fits into the long nested list you’ve typed up, it’s too late and you’ve forgotten it. So I’m trying to use paper more these days. I’ve tried outlining/note-taking software but have been unimpressed.
It’s okay to write out of order: This is crucial, but for some reason it goes against my own instincts, and from talking to others over the years, I think it feels unnatural for a lot of people. Especially the analytic, organized kind of people that find themselves in jobs that require lots of writing. Start in the middle. Or the end. Or whatever feels easier at the moment. If you think, “Ok, now when I get to this point down here I want to say X,” just write X. Right then. Or at least as much of it as you can until you get stuck. Then move on.
Be modest: As I hinted above, this is the hardest for me after a long break. It’s much, much smarter to write a little bit each day for a week than to sit down and try to get it all done in one day. It is so hard to get into this habit though. You may have been able to crank out those 3-5 papers as an undergraduate in one night, but you simply cannot write a real paper (let alone a dissertation!) this way. If you can get one or two good pages—or even one or two good paragraphs—written in one sitting, be happy with that. And…
Set yourself up: When you’re on a roll, don’t feel like you have to spend all that positive energy right then and there. In other words, if you’re feeling good about where you’re at, don’t keep writing until you feel confused and lost all over again. Stop when you’re ahead. Make a few notes about what you want to write next, and then you have a nice place to pick up the next day.
Pick a friendly audience: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve read on writing comes from Steven Pinker, who frequently recounts the following bit of advice from one of his early editors:
When you try to present science to a wide audience, don’t feel that you’re writing for truck drivers or chicken pluckers. They probably realistically won’t buy your book. And if you try to aim at everyone, you’ll end up talking down or condescending. Write for your college roommate, someone who you respect as being as smart as you. They went into a different line of work. They’re joining the conversation late. They need to be brought up to speed; but assume that your audience is as intellectually engaged and as smart as you are.
This advice is specifically about writing for a general audience, but I find it’s great advice for any kind of writing with an ambiguous audience, which in a diverse, fractured field like sociology is almost always the case. When you write an academic paper, your goal is to engage with particular “literatures.” So, for example, in the case of my dissertation, the section I’m writing now is primarily geared towards political sociologists and cultural sociologists, but my topic—open source software—also overlaps with people who study work, organizations, technology & science, and more. This ambiguity of audience gets mixed with the status anxiety that most graduate students feel: not only are you writing a variety of literatures with their own arcane jargon and reference points, but you want all of them to think you are absolutely brilliant so they’ll want to hire you. This tends to stifle one’s ability to write clearly and easily. I’ve decided, at least for my project and my personality, it is ultimately smarter to take the advice above and write for the imaginary college roommate and go back later and add in the details any particular audience may want. Ultimately, with a dissertation, this is what you’ll be doing anyway as you try to break out bits and pieces of the dissertation for publication as articles. (Any previous roommates reading this, feel free to request a copy. I’ll anxiously await your requests… )
Turn off the internet: This is pretty simple, but hard to do. Close Gmail (and quite Google Notifier), quit Twitterrific, put the phone away (because, of course, even that has internet access now), etc. (Here’s an article by Cory Doctorow on “writing in the age of distraction” that has a few more tips on minimizing distractions as well.)
Ok, now I’ve just got to remember to re-read this post after my next writing holiday before wasting several frustrating & unproductive days.