Writing in large quantities

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.

  1. Environment fretting is an excuse for procrastination.
  2. 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.

  3. Planning can never be too detailed.
  4. 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?

  5. Consider the knowledge of your audience
  6. 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.

  7. Write the audience a letter
  8. 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.

  9. Notes come later
  10. 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.

29 responses to “Writing in large quantities

  1. Cullen Chandler

    Interesting method. I think it works great, if you’re in a position where you can read everything–books, articles, sources, whatever comes your way–in some kind of comprehensive fashion and think to yourself, “Hey, I think something!” Then you can begin the process of writing an unsourced letter to your imagined audience. But I don’t live in that world. I live in a world where students want their exams and papers handed back to them, a world where meetings happen, classes happen, and all kinds of other things happen. So when I set out to write a paper, it can’t be based on some notes I might have somewhere from something I read. It has to be question-based. I have to have a question, then find the sources that will help me answer that question. Where does the question come from? Something I read, most likely, lead me to ponder. And certainly the sources I will turn to first are those with which I’m already somewhat familiar. But I wonder how many people out there are in a position similar to mine. If I were to write advice for myself, it would be more along the lines of “Read some sources every day” rather than “Write for an hour every day” like I’ve seen. I’d love to see what other people say.

    • I don’t know if you realise how much I am also in that position (and, arguably trading on the reading I did for my Ph. D. still). I do in fact try and read some history every day, though these days it often has to be teaching relevant. I find making time for reading far harder than writing. And over recent years I have indeed written the plan first and gone and checked things later. So yes to all that, amen in fact; but the writing is the only bit I have worked out…

  2. Wait, you forgot the most important step! Go for a walk in you neighbourhood muttering to yourself like a mad person. Throw in occasional wild hand gestures or pull out a crumpled paper bag and start scribbling on it (this is to scare off the annoying schoolchildren). Then, come home and pour yourself a big glass of wine. NOW you are ready to write.

    Seriously, though, that is some good advice you’ve got there. I think #5 is particularly useful, as I can easily distract myself from the actually writing by having to go and ‘check one more reference’ or ‘read that article before I go any further’. I have just started work on something I’m hoping to have knocked off by the end of the summer (Feb). It promises to have many alluring sidetracks and tangents, so I will try your approach to keep me on track and focused.

    I’m a procrastinator, though, and I always have been. (I happen to be procrastinating right now, in fact.) Once I actually get the first few words on the page, the rest usually flows pretty easily. Oddly, I think this is a bad habit I developed when I was working as a journalist, as it was always the terror of the 4pm deadline looming that seemed to generate the best prose.

    • I have been known to write with a beer beside me but only when time is of the essence; I prefer to start the writing in roughly the same state as I stop. My drunk writing doesn’t seem detectably different to my sober (within reasonable definitions of drunk) but it’s not something I like to trust.

      There are times when one genuinely does have to read one more article, and this is basically why I have all these unfinished papers. But, once I’ve started writing I try very hard not to let things like that throw me off. The footnotes go on later in a second bout. (This is often longer than the actual writing.)

      I do know about the power of the deadline (and am indeed now procrastinating too), but I guess what one has to do here is make one’s own deadlines important enough to actuate yourself. Guilt yourself into accepting that this just has to be done and now. I never have any shortage of guilt so it’s easy for me, perhaps. Still, glad you found some use in my waffling!

  3. I just wish it were as easy as that for me. I seldom feel confident enough to put words to paper without having done lots of looking things up first, and I tend to get sidetracked for long periods by teaching and administration. What I really need to do is set aside time every day to read a little history so that I don’t have to spend so much time re-reading the things I want to write about.

    Meanwhile, I have to make the mental transition from Han China to Pliny and Trajan’s correspondence this week, and then try to explain the last generation of the Roman Republic…

    • Yes, indeed, as Cullen says and I agreed, reading is actually more difficult to achieve in the time we have, or so I find. When you’re also reading for teaching, it all gets very log-jammed.

      The thing about not having the confidence to write, though, is that paradoxically the best way to find out where one’s weak spots are and what one actually thinks is to try and write the thing. Then, I guess, get someone you trust to critique it sagely and kindly to look it over. I ought to do that more. But that’s where the judgement comes in, for me; it’s actually less threatening to submit it because that’s supposedly blind whereas the friend may think the less of me for reading it. This, also, though, is just a habit of mind I try to quell because it is so obviously unhelpful. If I don’t submit stuff nothing gets better. So…

  4. I like #3, 4, and 5 and Bavardess’ para 1. I have often done that at my country home. Going to the back of the property and standing on an outcrop of billion year old rock tends to focus me. I’d do that today but I am on a peninsula of the Great Lakes instead.

  5. All very useful advice and worth putting in one place like this. Thanks Jon.

    The thing I want to emphasise, endorse, applaud, whatever… is that it’s generally bad practice to write in order to figure out what it is you think, you have to know what you think first. Otherwise the paragraphs tend to come out backwards, unfolding like a mystery story, the audience being astounded by ‘Poirot’ suddenly revealing all at the end and only retrospectively realising what the clues were, rather than being carried along, (hopefully) engaging in lots of head nodding and afirmative mumbling as they see exactly where you are taking this interesting new point and are thrilled by the brilliance of your logic and argument construction…

    In an ideal world ;)

    • I would actually endorse writing to see what one thinks, as long as one then starts the process again. Once one’s done that one should be able to plan a better version. But it’s much more energy-efficient to try and explain it to someone in conversation for that effect, I find, if you can find a willing victim. Mine have got fewer lately.

      • True. I am assuming we are talking about ‘Writing’ – in the sense of final products for examination or submission to publishers in the above remarks…

  6. Now that I’m writing “popular” archaeology, as when I was doing heritage education, I find that considering the audience has become easier. I can mostly just assume no prior knowledge, and if it’s not crucial to explain something it can usually be left out.

    In academia there was a very difficult line between not wanting to belittle nor confuse the reader; one reader may be a specialist and another may have only the vaguest idea as to the backstory… or in the case of my gracious parents who did the language editing of my Greco-Bactrian numismatics dissertation: “I have read this five times and I still have no idea what it’s about… something coins.”

    I really wish the write-now-edit-later came more naturally for me, as it seems for you.

    I used to be able to write a rough outline, type up a logical essay quickly, fine-tune it and hand it in. At some point in a language class someone sat me down, I suppose, and complained about my long sentences, sub-clauses and clarity and I got self-conscious. Now I write very tight and condensed first drafts that are much harder to edit. Add a university lecturer who got angry if I ever had an unreferenced thought, and whenever I need to use footnotes I feel compelled to reference even original thought to something, or I get anxious. But I’m taking this post of yours as a challenge to get back to the point where a first draft isn’t an emotional and mental drain anymore!

    • Well, I have found that blogging does help with the free expression of thought, at least, and I also had to be told off for my syntax: no more than one of colons or semi-colons per sentence unless it’s a list, Jarrett, etc. But the different levels of audience is a real difficulty, I agree; trying to get this right for review of something abstruse is almost impossible, because you have no idea whether the reviewer is going to be one of the few people who knows the stuff, and therefore thinks you’re using much too much detail, or is someone who needs to be told `where Carolingia is’ and therefore wants more background.

  7. highlyeccentric

    Can I join the “thinks in text form” club? :D I think in words. If I can’t write the words down, or talk someone’s ear off… I don’t think complex thoughts. Imagining talking or writing sort of works sometimes, but not reliably. It results in REALLY LONG EMAILS, me going on for hours to unsuspecting listeners, and so on.

    I don’t like point five, though! If I can’t cite it at the time I draft it, it probably shouldn’t be there. This means I have to write with all my notes and so on to hand – being able to open up the book, refer back to my notes, etc, is what keeps the argument tight and going where it ought to go. Otherwise I *think* Joe Blow said such-and-such, but actually, it was a weird combination of Joe and Fred and Janet, and none of them actually said it at all.

    • Cullen Chandler

      I’m with you on the notes. When I work with my students, I try to get them to put the notes in as they go. Certainly, it takes longer–although not that much longer with tools like EndNote or RefWorks–but then they don’t get confused. I find this helps cut down on inadvertent plagiarism and/or insufficient documentation. And I can say that a present project I’m working on has become quite a pain because apparently EVERYONE FOR A HUNDRED YEARS has simply known the date of my manuscript, yet NOBODY has documented it.

      So please, put in your notes first. Otherwise you risk doing history backwards by deciding upon your argument before you’ve consulted sources, or you risk plagiarism, or you risk perpetuating an undemonstrated “fact” in your own work.

      • Well, the latter two things get trapped when you do add the references, but the former I suppose is a point. I don’t know that having the argument and then substantiating it is bad practice, though, if it provokes discussion and you can substantiate it. I should perhaps has emphasised that step six is to put the references in and eliminate or revise anywhere my memory of the sources has failed me…

    • If I can’t write the words down, or talk someone’s ear off… I don’t think complex thoughts. Imagining talking or writing sort of works sometimes, but not reliably. It results in REALLY LONG EMAILS, me going on for hours to unsuspecting listeners, and so on.

      That sounds awfully familiar

      As to point five, well, I find that the tightness of which you speak can be applied afterwards by checking things; otherwise I lose momentum something awful. But to each their own, I certainly don’t think I’ve got any kind of one true way.

      • highlyeccentric

        Hmm. I think I deal with the momentum loss by going back to the coloured pens and paper and rewriting another essay plan (essays always need to be replanned mid-essay), so that I can see where I’m going. If I have *time*, a blog post may eventuate.

        That sounds awfully familiar…

        Glad I’m not the only one. :D Add “extremely lengthy waffle” to that hypothetical beverage we plan on drinking, when I finally get around to leaving these antipodean shores!

        • I think I’d always assumed that was on the cards :-) The cards will probably end up covered in notes, too. But I don’t think I like the replanning idea; that way, for me at least, hangs the idea that actually, if there’s space and time to replan, it doesn’t actually need doing NOW and being able to create that sense of urgency is most of what makes me write so much.

          • highlyeccentric

            The re-planning effect may be responsible for the fact that, when I pulled out an essay that I *remember* as being about how Yvain wants in Gawain’s pants loves Gawain more than anything else on earth was *actually*, according to the essay coversheet and the introduction, about the role of the minor female characters in the poem. Ooops.

            • I think that’s less a question of replanning and perhaps more one of what parts of the material you subsequently had a use for, madam…

              • highlyeccentric

                *innocent look* My thesis proposal, of course!

                • Of course! I no longer recall what else I might conceivably have meant. Wow, WordPress haven’t implemented this many indents very well yet, have they?

                  • highlyeccentric

                    Mind you, “Yvain wants in Gawain’s pants” sounds like a thesis in itself….

                    Er, no. I in fact can’t see what I’m typing right now. Poor form, WOrdpress.

                    • ITYM “The pink knight? Deeper readings of homosociality in Arthurian Romance”, HTH. Though, actually, that sounds far less original. Okay, stick with your title!

                      I’m replying to this from the Dashboard so as to see what I’m doing. I guess the fault lies more in the theme design than the basic WordPress software but someone somewhere ought to have seen this coming.

                    • highlyeccentric

                      It happens quite a bit on LJ, so the theme designers would’ve been silly not to know about it. But perhaps it’s hard to fix. IDK, the world of website design is a mystery to me.

                      Insert very mature joke about deeper readings here.

  8. LJ does handle it better, but only where they abandon the diary’s own templates for comments. Web design is basically pretty simple until you need a script for anything. It’s an easy magic trick to learn should one ever be back in the real world for a while; small organisations that can’t keep their website updated because ‘the person who knows about that left’ and so on will love you for it. There are some useful tutorials at the World Wide Web Consortium’s web-pages. Anyway! How about: ‘If he readeth me any deeper yet, ’twill be in my entrails!’ Er, no, OK, perhaps not.

  9. Pingback: Take note(s): a miscellany of how-to posts « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  10. Pingback: This Fortnight on the Internet (6/28-7/11) « Worthless Drivel

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