Friday, November 07, 2008

Writing and More Writing

(serious image)

I agreed to do some research for the Bar Council on direct access to barristers. The report was due yesterday but I asked for an extension today. Avis Whyte, my colleague, and I eventually got it in. It was the result of poring over a huge pile of documents, interviewing various experts and users, and carrying out three web-based surveys. It was only a small project after all. But considering what the summer has been like, I enjoyed having this project around.

As with most writing projects the actual writing never occurs in a consistent stream. It comes instead in a mad burst as the deadline approaches and one optimistically says, "No sweat. We can do it." Hubris? Yes. It's surprising that one never really learns.

I was tempted to reflect on this after reading "How To Write Anything" on Tomorrow's Professor Blog. Actually I didn't want to reflect at all: I was hoping to get the answer.

It starts with a quotation from Peter De Vries: "I write when I'm inspired, and I see to it that I'm inspired at nine o'clock every morning." In my case it's more likely to be ten o'clock and only then after at least three espressos for rocket fuel.

The diagnosis is clear:

Here's the situation. You're working on a big writing project-a proposal, paper, book, dissertation, whatever-and in the last five weeks all you've managed to get done is one measly paragraph. You're long past the date when the project was supposed to be finished, and you just looked at your to-do list and reminded yourself that this is only one of several writing projects on your plate and you haven't even started most of the others. If you're frequently in that situation (and we've never met a faculty member who isn't) we've got a remedy for you.
That's me...often.

The answer is enticingly lucid. Don't say "I am going to spend the next 14 hours sitting here writing and nothing else." It's not true. You won't. And you will beat yourself up afterwards for not doing something you could never do in the first place.

The answer? "Dedicate short and frequent periods of time to your major writing projects."

Richard M Felder suggests,

A much more effective strategy is to make a commitment to regularly devote short periods of time to major writing projects. Thirty minutes a day is plenty, or maybe an hour three times a week.
The result will be,

These short writing interludes won't make much difference in how many fires you put out each day, but you'll be astounded when you look back after a week or two and see how much you've gotten done on the project.
It comes with one proviso: "Do your creating and editing sequentially, not simultaneously."


Here's another common scenario that might ring a bell. You sit down to write something and come up with the first sentence. You look at it, change some words, add a phrase, rewrite it three or four times, put in a comma here, take one out there҆and beat on the sentence for five minutes and finally get it where you want it. Then you draft the second sentence, and the first one is instantly obsolete and you have to rewrite it again...and you work on those two sentences until you're satisfied with them and go on to Sentence 3 and repeat the process...and an hour or two later you may have a paragraph to show for your efforts.
So there is an answer, of sorts. And I know that I can be productive when I write a little each day. Why we want to kid ourselves that we can easily do the mammoth writing periods, I don't know. Is it because we think it's macho? Do I imagine Hemingway writing that way? Is it sissy to write in short spells? Who knows?

OK, having learned my lesson, how shall I put it into practice? Well, it won't be next week because the editor of a journal has just emailed me with "friendly reminder" that I promised them an article by the end of next week. But this was long ago in the summer and there was so much time that I didn't have to worry about it. I was so unworried I forgot.

I think I'm for a couple more mammoths before I can take on board Felder's ideas. So it goes...

(not so serious image)



John Flood said...

Avis Whyte emailed me: I'm surprised you had any juice left in you to write this blog. It's soooo true. I really don't envy you having to produce another piece by the end of next week. But, judging by todays efforts, you work well under pressure. Well done.

Monkey Mind said...

Spot on John. Perfect timing for me too, as a I pull my empirical material to the ground to punch and strangle it. I like this gentler, more elegant approach.