The Write Stuff

I’m a slow writer and I need many drafts to create something that I feel is worthwhile.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following this blog for some time. I’ve explicated my writing process on several occasions, and over the years while the materials have changed (I RARELY do literal cut and paste jobs anymore), the methods certainly haven’t.

This might come as a surprise to anyone who realizes that I’m a blogger and puts two and two together. Blogging is a sphere which, of necessity, requires you to develop content quickly and efficiently. So how can a blogger be an admittedly “slow writer”?

Now let’s start here: I’m not talking George R.R. Martin slow. In fact, I think that guy ought to be ashamed of himself. My beloved did the math at one point and determined that Martin produces something like 250 viable words a day. WHAT? If I wrote that slowly, they would boot me from my program and make me wear a sign of shame around my neck to tell the world that I was an embarrassment to the ivory tower and writers everywhere. When I say “slow”, I mean more that I need many many drafts to forge and re-forge a piece of academic writing in order to temper it and make it stronger. I’m up to something ridiculous like fifteen drafts of one piece I’m working on right now (don’t worry, I’m about to hit the “send” button on that one, so before you get lecturey about over-drafting just stop and take stock of the fact that I’ve been working on it for a year and a half now because it’s been interspersed with other projects).

Academic writing is completely different from any other style of writing. When I blog, for example, I generally require one hour from inception to publication of a post. This includes

This morning's drafting session

This morning’s drafting session

research. When I write creatively, I produce a preliminary draft of content very quickly and go back over it a few times before I feel like others can lay eyes on it (more like three drafts than ten). I can produce 2,500 words of first draft creative fiction in about an hour. More disposable content, like facebook and twitter updates, are just banged out in about point five seconds.

Each of these styles of writing is important to one’s development as a writer. I believe that writing is an under-appreciated and under-developed aspect of the academic work. While we’re expected to generate writing at pivotal points in our career, there’s very little support (unless you create it yourself) for exercising and bettering your writing. So many academics hold their writing process to close to the chest that it’s often difficult to trouble-shoot your own process. I have taken to asking mentors and peers, at conferences or other socially appropriate forums, what their writing process is like just to get new ideas about things I could do better. I’ve learned a few tricks (some of them more palatable than others; there is no way in any universe that I’ll be waking up at 6AM to fit in three hours of just writing before I go about the rest of my day but I’m glad that it works for some people), and I’ve mostly learned this: everyone’s process is different. Much like a workout regime, some basic rules apply universally: repetition is a must, sustainability is key, and knowing when to push yourself and/or rest will help you be more productive in the long run. Other than that, just do it. Find whatever works for you, and get going. Do it today, do it tomorrow, do it the day after. Keep writing; the only way to fail here is by inaction.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that once I get to the drafting stage, I can roll home without much problem. Drafting time is my favorite point in the writing process. This is the point where I get to take my colored pens and hone my work until it’s shiny and better than it was before. There’s something so satisfying about the instant gratification of taking a piece of writing and making it be better. There’s also an immediate visual cue that red-penning a page gives you; “LOOK HOW MUCH I CHANGED! THIS IS HOW MUCH BETTER IT IS NOW!” In a field that functions so basically on intangible items, this kind of tangible and visible change is a welcome breathe of fresh air and something that I, kinesthetic learner that I am, desperately need to feel satisfied.

Also, when I draft, I can take my work for walks. It keeps me focused to have a stack of papers in front of me and no internet to distract. I take my draft, go to a local coffee shop, buy a cuppa, and stay until I’m done. This breaks my work up into logical and manageable chunks and keeps me from mid-day burnout. Sometimes even a little sunshine and fresh air (on my way to/from wherever I’m going for the day, for example) can help to give me a little boost when I need it most.

So keep on keeping on, brave writers! Venture boldly forth and practice, practice, practice.


A tip: if at first you don’t succeed, re-analyze your plan of attack and try again.

Over the weekend I tried desperately to get some work done on this one paper I’ve got looming.  I did get one draft pounded out, but try as I might I couldn’t seem to do any editing.  Every time I sat down to work, I realized that something else needed to get done: my desk needed to be cleaned, my floor needed vacuuming, I had other things I needed to write, I hadn’t answered x, y, or z e-mail, etc.

It took some serious oomph before I realized I had to resort to the old stand-by: print and red pen.

When I was in my Master’s, I didn’t do anything electronically.  Every single paper I wrote was something that I would (admittedly) preliminarily type, but then hand-edit.  Draft after draft after draft I would ink to my heart’s content and, after about six to ten drafts, I would have something worth turning in.

In recent years, I’ve tried to become a bit more “green” and conscious of precisely how many trees I was killing in the process of producing 60-80 finished pages of writing a semester (multiply by 8; the average number of drafts I go through; yikes).  Not to mention the money I was spending on ink and paper (which, believe me, wasn’t insignificant).  I developed some ability to edit at my keyboard and I’ve even produced full papers without printing more than three drafts.

But this one was simply eluding me.  It was taunting me on the screen and I was left with no recourse.

I printed, and went for a walk.

I find that, given the right environment and the right project, I can be much more productive away from my desk than at it.  This only works for papers in draft form as, before they are

mid-way through my draft; a still-life.

mid-way through my draft; a still-life.

coherent, I have to reference the piles and piles of books from the book fort I’ve built on the floor next to aforementioned desk.  But once I do have something I’m playing with, once the words are on the page, often times the only way I can advance past this is to go to a coffee shop and not let myself come home until I’m done drafting.

It does two things: first it removes any possibility of distraction (especially if I’m a good good girl and turn my phone off for the duration of my writing session), and secondly it gives me the impetus to work faster.  If I want to go home in any reasonable length of time, well then I had better get to business hadn’t I?  Often, there are artificial limitations on this: how long can I sit without a break for the necessities (food, nose-powdering, etc.), but if I work diligently, I can crank out a draft of a 20-page paper within the two to three hour time window that my attention span and biology usually allot for.

So that’s just what I did yesterday.  I took my draft, I took my red pen, and I bought myself a giant iced coffee and went to town.

Luckily, it was a random daytime during a Monday so there weren’t many people there to talk around me (something I can’t abide while I’m working).  I also happen to know a great place that doesn’t play obnoxious music (another thing I really can’t work through).

Done!  I can go home now, right?

Done! I can go home now, right?

Writing, actually writing, the old fashioned way with a pen, is very romantic.  Whenever I do so at a coffee shop, I can’t help but imagine myself into some antiquated notion of academia where we all wear tweed suits and use monocles.  There’s something nostalgic about it; an act that connects you to your forefathers.  Everyone I’ve ever read wrote this way (and certainly those I most admire wrote this way); pen in hand, caffeine source nearby.  I guess unless you’re Kerouac in which case I’m not sure I’d want to write the way you wrote…

Anyway, my ploy worked!  This paper is in great shape, all of my projects are under control, and despite any misgivings I may have about walking away from my desk at the end of today (because I know there’s more work to do, I just can’t do more work right now), I can comfort myself with the fact that everything is where it should be and nothing is getting left out in the cold.

…Unless I’m forgetting something huge.  Which is always a possibility.

To Rewrite, or not to Rewrite?

Today, dear readers, I write you from the brink of an age-old academic quandary.

I will be giving a paper at this year’s ASTR conference.  ASTR follows a work-group model rather than a conference-panel model, and this will be my first experience with such.  What this means is that every individual in a given work group has written a paper.  This paper is sent around to the other individuals in the work group.  Everyone in the work group reads all the papers.  Then, at the conference, we all sit down and talk about the guiding idea of the panel in hopes of coming to some kind of higher understanding of this idea.

On the whole, I think that this round-table style is much more productive than the

no matter which model a conference goes by, coffee is a necessity. This is a life truism though, rather than a conferencing factoid.

traditional read-and-listen model.  What it does mean, however, is that I need to send my paper to a group of academics who have never met me before to read, critique, and be ready to discuss my ideas.

This is an extremely daunting proposition.  Compound this with the fact that the work groups consist of a vast range of scholars – from graduate students to department heads.  My work group is particularly large and particularly vast in range of experience.  There will be people reading my paper who have been in the field much longer than I have and who know much better than I do what they are talking about.

The paper I’m presenting is a paper I wrote for a seminar this semester past.  I did a lot of research and put many man hours into this paper.  For that, it most certainly needs some work before it can be sent off to aforementioned group of scholars.  As I sit here, cradling its pages between my hands like the body of a newborn infant, I am faced with an important decision: To re-write, or to re-vise?  That is the question.

William Fualkner famously said of revising, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings” (though he was likely quoting Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch).  Stephen King later agreed with him (“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when I breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” On Writing).

Yes, yes, I know I must be ruthless, but so often I feel like completely scrapping something is the cheater’s way out.  While it may seem less time-consuming in the long run, in reality to just burn what I’ve written is to invalidate all the work that I’ve already put into it.  So while, at this moment, dashing the brains out of this poor pile of pulp only to allow a bigger, stronger, faster model to emerge from the slurry seems like perhaps the most advisable solution, I have to remember something: I spent a lot of time on this.  I edited.  I slaved.  I wrote and re-wrote.  All that time and energy must have produced at least pieces of a finished product.

So, generally, when I’m feeling like just starting over would be best, I take a moment to recall the hellish process of editing.  I allow myself a moment of silence for the many many stacks of pages of drafts that were fed to my fireplace.  And then I realize that no, there must be something in here worth saving.

I start with my abstract.  I go through it and write myself a clear logic train.  A rhetoric map.  “Fact: X.  Fact: Y.  Following in this progress, you reach my inevitable conclusion which is Z.”

abstract outline on right, prep to red-pen on left

Then I proceed into a harsh red-penning of my previously-produced paper.  What do I absolutely need?  What can go?  Ignoring the length of the final paper, I cut and slash my way through the prose jungle until I’ve boiled things down to their essence.

Then I take those bits and I re-arrange them.  Sometimes I physically cut and move them around on a table until I have something that makes sense.

Then I reverse-outline what it is I’ve wound up with.  I boil things down to topic sentences; what am I saying?  When am I saying it?

I compare the reverse outline to my rhetoric map to discover where my holes are.  Do I need a bit more research on weird fact B?  Do I need to explain logic leap C a bit better?  What do I need to do to ensure that we all wind up smoothly at the station of my final destination?

Then I set to work.  Sometimes this involves more research; a trip to the library, some ILL articles.  Sometimes this just involves a few days in the bunker holed up with my previous research and a fully loaded French press.

Then, a few drafts later, I have something.  It’s very different from what I started with.

Then come the external eyes.  Always always vet your writing by an outside party if you can possibly manage it.  Work out paper-shares with folks in your department.  Find a friend willing to proofread in exchange for dinner.  The more outside eyes you can have on a piece, the stronger it will become.

After this step, I generally have to go back in for a draft or two and adjust a few things – generally not a complete overhaul at this stage since I’ve already spent so much time living with the paper.

And then I have something.  Is it finished?  Well, it will never be finished.  But at least it’s evolved.

So that’s what I’m facing down now.  The next step in the evolution of a paper.

Well, hey hey and away we go.