I have to be brief here at the moment, given claims on my time, which is ironic because as you all know I find it much easier to go on at length. Rare is the day when I don’t hammer out something on the keyboard; even my e-mails have on occasion been printed out as booklets to be read on trains, so loquacious do I get in text. This is how come I wind up with fourteen draft papers, of course; I find it a lot easier to think in text than to organise material inside my head. But I feel bad about pointing this out sometimes; it’s certainly annoyed those close to me struggling with writer’s block in the past, and there has been a lot of this on the Interweb, this late lamented summer, among people I read (largely collected here and heroically fought here).
I don’t want to write self-help here or preach or assume any kind of superiority. The people who are having problems with words are all, after all, in better jobs than me; they have got some important things worked out. I, meanwhile, pontificate academically rather than finishing things and making marks. But I can write. So I thought I’d at least try and explain how I set about it, and if it’s useful that’s great and if it’s not it can at least document my freak status a bit better. I can’t go on at length because I have to write, ironically: I am only just keeping up with the lectures, which is the kind of writing I enjoy least; unless one’s very lucky one uses them once only, has no chance of feedback from the informed, and fundamentally they are only a script, not to be stuck to rigidly, lest the dozy audience are sent even more quickly to sleep. There is no sort of writing less rewarding than this. But it has to be done. And that’s the key really. Let’s work from outside inwards.
- Environment fretting is an excuse for procrastination.
- Planning can never be too detailed.
- Consider the knowledge of your audience
- Write the audience a letter
- Notes come later
It is a limited amount of help to me to have a clean desk, I find that physical clutter is easily mirrored in my head but I often have to plan on trains, in snatched minutes at work, add paragraphs here and there between house-work and meals, and it’s possible. If you know what you need to say, it can be done, and if you don’t, there’s your first problem. So fix that first then ensure your environment is better next time, perhaps.
I’ve certainly written, or delivered, things from a short list of bullet-points; in fact that was what I aimed to take into all my undergraduate exams in my head. That said, it only works if those bullet-points link to fully-developed ideas in your head, and if you’re doing new work those ideas probably aren’t fully developed. There are a bunch of ways to plan writing, most of which don’t suit me; I just scribble stuff on a piece of paper then try and put it into a sensible order once I’ve suitably conditioned, erased, supplemented or otherwise tweaked it. But that’s not the start; how do you get off the blocks?
OK, this is the only trick I might have; and maybe you all did this anyway and I’m insulting your intelligence, sorry. But, though you can write for writing’s sake, if you want to communicate you can make that the core of your planning. Firstly, what is your big idea? If you had to give an elevator pitch, what would the one-sentence argument of your paper be? Don’t verbalise it yet. Instead, picture to yourself the personification of your target audience. Imagine that what you are writing is a personal letter to them. Imagine that they wrote asking you to tell them about your topic. What do they need to know to understand that idea? Write those things down as keywords or headings. What is the established view, how does your view differ? Or, if you’re presenting new evidence: what is known, what are you adding? How does this show what you want it to show? Can you summarise that for them now? Work out, in other words, how you would tell this to a friendly and intelligent audience. What would they need to know to get it? How would they most enjoy being told your theory? These are the things that I think need to be in the plan.
With this accomplished, you presumably have a lot of bits that eventually have to go into an order, even if they all refer to each other. These bits can be done separately. (If they can’t, you may need to clarify them.) You may find that you can work up a skeleton full of headings, and then fill it out bit by bit; these headings may not need to be in the final text. Do it when you can, but don’t drop it and come back to it ages later; trust me I know. Write your plan while it can stay in your head, and if it can’t, write smaller chunks of plan and fill those out. Think of it as something the recipient could refer to if someone asked, ‘hey your friend is doing some work on x, right; what does she think?’ Give them what they need to explain to that interlocutor. And eventually you have a first draft.
Do not slow yourself down by looking things up while writing, or if you can bear it, while planning. That way lies shiny distraction and sidetracks. Write your argument, then source it. If parts of it don’t really seem to be sourced where you remembered, this is an okay time to find out; it’s a shame to have to throw away done work but your thinking now has a structure and you can more easily rebuild than build.
And this, as I say, more or less works for me, as these thousand-plus words would seem to testify. It’s been many years forming up as a method, and if it saves you some time that’s great. If not, call it weird and flawed by all means; after all, I don’t have very much in print. But the words, it does make. Maybe for you also.