Daily Archives: February 9, 2011

On process

At the beginning of this academic year, I set out to significantly revise my writing process and work habits. I’d been tinkering with my composition process for about a year, focusing on laying out the steps of my argument, the evidence, the organization, etc., before attending to the quality of the prose and the smoothness of the transitions—in other words, trying to follow the advice I give my own students and those I consult with in the writing center. After telling writer after writer not to get bogged down in word choice or mechanics until all the bigger-picture pieces were in place and all the necessary connections had been made, I finally gave it a try myself.

Around the same time, I started coming to terms with the fact that much of what I wrote would never go any farther than the text editor on my computer. That if, as I was telling my students, writing really is thinking, I needed to be doing a lot more writing, and I couldn’t expect all of it to find its way into a finished product. I was working my way out of the seminar-paper mentality in which everything I wrote needed to lead up to a paper to be turned in, otherwise I was wasting my time. I started piling up file after file of notes. I tried a few mind maps, and a few plain-text files, but I ultimately settled on a Scrivener document full of nested folders of notes. For a while it was just notes, but now it looks like this:

This new process was considerably more generative. Even better, I no longer had that constant nagging feeling that I’d had an important insight when pondering something on the bus or while falling asleep and then subsequently forgotten it. When I thought of something relevant, I wrote it down. (I also stopped thinking about my work when I was falling asleep, which did wonders for my sanity and general well-restedness.) But that still didn’t address the most important change I wanted to make to my writing process, the one piece of advice every writer will give you: Write every day. This advice takes many forms—Jerry Seinfeld’s don’t break the chain, making writing a habit, using your morning for writing. All variations on a theme: write every day.

I set the arbitrary goal of half an hour of writing a day and then proceeded to completely ignore it about as often as I followed through. Some days, I flip over to my text editor, read the first sentence of what I’m working on, and then go check if there’s any more email or if anything’s popped up on my RSS reader in the past thirty seconds. I do this over, and over, and over again. The half hour goal was intended to lower the stakes a bit—I didn’t need to produce a certain number of words or pages, or work on an actual draft of something, I just needed to write. Instead, it was just another thing I was avoiding in the morning.

I think part of the problem is that if I sit down and open up whatever I’m working on—usually some part of my prospectus draft—and just don’t have the fortitude to get started on it right yet, I often don’t have anything else to turn to. Part of me feels like I should be focusing all my energy on my prospectus draft all the time, which the more rational part of me realizes is a sure-fire recipe for burnout. So I’ve been brainstorming things I can do with my first half-hour of writing when I need to work my way up to the main event:

  • Work on a blog entry—this is one of the primary reasons I’m trying my hand at blogging.
  • Read back over something I’ve already written and free-write about it.
  • Skim through a book, chapter, or article I’m using and make notes about impressions, connections, usefulness, etc.
  • Identify a question or objection a reader might have and answer it.
  • Reflect on my writing process—how have I approached my writing recently? What’s been successful? What can I change?

I’m hoping to keep adding to this list until I have enough ideas to cover all the different forms of resistance and inertia that keep me from starting that first half-hour.