How to Write a Lot — The Writing Task

We often con­sid­er writ­ing an ardu­ous task, bemoan­ing things such as writ­ers block, or loom­ing dead­lines; and the writ­ing require­ment of acad­e­mia usu­al­ly won’t alle­vi­ate this.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way, the seem­ing­ly sheer cliff face of a writ­ing task can be scaled, and often with rel­a­tive ease. Welcome to the Friday the­o­ry ses­sion of the work and research meth­ods series, today we will be cov­er­ing writ­ing. Last week I inti­mat­ed that read­ing is not a stand alone process, and that writ­ing is its strong part­ner in crime. So if this is the case, then why is writ­ing so hard?

Well one of the rea­sons is in the same vein as why read­ing is so hard. Our pri­ma­ry modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion have become short­er and short­er, from when the long form let­ter ruled supreme, through to the tele­graph, phone calls, email, Facebook and now Twitter. Our com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and there­fore our reg­u­lar writ­ing tasks, are becom­ing pithi­er and short­er. So on the whole our long form writ­ing suf­fers from length of con­cen­tra­tion and fre­quen­cy. Have you ever tried writ­ing a dis­ser­ta­tion or even a blog post on a phone key­board? Yeah… So instead we talk about writ­ers block and dead­lines, and then sub­se­quent­ly con­sume copi­ous quan­ti­ties of caf­feinat­ed bev­er­ages while star­ing at a blank word proces­sor doc­u­ment, and inter­rupt­ed only by fre­quent pan­icked glances at the clock, cal­en­dar, task list, research pile, and social media. Perhaps this is a lit­tle hyper­bol­ic, although I’m will­ing to bet that for many read­ers this pic­ture res­onates at some lev­el.

writers-block1What can be done about it? Well, sim­ply put the main thing to be done about the dif­fi­cul­ty of writ­ings is to write. The major­i­ty of advice that I have received over my years of hav­ing to write reports, papers, pre­sen­ta­tions, essays, etc (and com­mon­ly bemoan­ing the process), is to sim­ply write a lot. Now that most like­ly sounds pithy and trite, like telling some­one who is strug­gling to climb over a fence to sim­ply climb over the fence. But while it is trite, it is also true. Writing begets writ­ing, and writ­ing reg­u­lar­ly makes the over­all process eas­i­er. Indeed, stud­ies have shown that reg­u­lar writ­ing increas­es the num­ber of fresh ideas for the writ­ing task. 1 Nevertheless very few of us have the prodi­gious writ­ing out­put of some­one like Colleen McCullough, who report­ed­ly wrote up to 30,000 words a day! 2 However, there are meth­ods and mech­a­nisms that can be put in place to assist in the writ­ing process. Here are some of the top meth­ods on my list of writ­ing strate­gies.

Writing Regularly

keep-calm-and-don-t-stop-writing-2One of the best ways to get those writ­ing juices flow­ing is to write reg­u­lar­ly. I know quite a few peo­ple who sim­ply set aside a cou­ple of hours a day in their sched­ule to write. In that writ­ing time they sim­ply write on what­ev­er is cur­rent­ly on the agen­da. It could be for a paper, or project, or a con­fer­ence; so long as it is writ­ing. The ded­i­cat­ed time set aside helps to get a lit­tle bit done every day. However, for me this isn’t opti­mal, as some days with the lit­tle man I bare­ly get a chance to write at all. For me I instead aim to write a cer­tain amount per day, a task focused goal rather than time focused. While I don’t ded­i­cate time, I do set myself a task every day to be writ­ten. This type of reg­u­lar­i­ty works bet­ter with my sched­ule, and my thought process­es. But whichev­er one you do it gets you writ­ing reg­u­lar­ly, and set it as a goal. As Bandura showed, short term goal set­ting increas­es the moti­va­tion for the task. 3

Writing sum­maries

While often we have far more things to write about than there is time to write, occa­sion­al­ly there are lulls, or peri­ods where you don’t have enough time to ded­i­cate to that long-form argu­ment, or a larg­er piece. In these sce­nar­ios I gen­er­al­ly have a hand­ful of oth­er writ­ing tasks that can fill the gap. One of these comes from last week’s the­o­ry post, on read­ing. When read­ing in the ‘study­ing’ method­ol­o­gy the idea is to absorb the infor­ma­tion but also mark up the mate­r­i­al for lat­er record­ing as a ref­er­ence. This tran­scrip­tion and syn­the­sis of argu­ment from my read­ing tasks forms one of my reg­u­lar writ­ing tasks as well. It’s almost killing two birds with one stone.

connectomeIn addi­tion this phase also is a great rein­force­ment tech­nique for the read­ing process. The act of writ­ing a syn­op­sis or sum­ma­ry of the work in your own words is a great way of rein­forc­ing the mate­r­i­al. It allows for a dif­fer­ent set of neur­al con­nec­tions to be formed, rather than sim­ply absorb­ing the mate­r­i­al sec­ond hand, in the syn­the­sis process you are mak­ing it your own (this still means you have to cite the orig­i­nal idea). To harken back to Bruce Ellis Benson’s idea of aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing as improv, in writ­ing your syn­op­sis you are learn­ing the flow of the music on your own instru­ment. Writing out what we read helps us to tune our sig­nal-to-noise heuris­tics, and real­ly absorb the things that mat­ter. As William Zinsser reflects:

Writing is think­ing on paper, or talk­ing to some­one on paper. If you can think clear­ly … you can write — with con­fi­dence and enjoy­ment’

Blogging

blogOccasionally though you may have writ­ten all your syn­opses, or for var­i­ous oth­er rea­sons don’t have any ‘on-top­ic’ things to write about. Well for this phase it is great to have an alter­na­tive writ­ing out­let. It just so hap­pens that you are cur­rent­ly read­ing my alter­na­tive out­let. Basically every sum­mer (Dec/Jan) when I have had a bit of a lull in the aca­d­e­m­ic year, I tend to write for my own means. For sev­er­al years this meant doc­u­ment­ing var­i­ous motor­sport relat­ed items that I had worked on in the past year, or fix­ing up a jour­nal paper or two. However, this year I decid­ed to focus much of my extra­ne­ous writ­ing on this blog, and in an incep­tion like moment am actu­al­ly writ­ing this arti­cle on writ­ing to ful­fil my reg­u­lar writ­ing com­mit­ment. Not only do I get to explore some of the aspects of study­ing that I enjoy, and answer some ques­tions that I am reg­u­lar­ly asked in my tutor­ing role on cam­pus, but it keeps the writ­ing juices flow­ing. I would encour­age you to start your own blog, write a bunch, and then send me the link.

Enforced writ­ing

The final aspect of writ­ing reg­u­lar­ly that I will briefly touch on is that of enforced writ­ing. I have some friends who set them­selves a spe­cif­ic word lim­it every day that they must hit. Personally this doesn’t work for me, as it feels quite rigid and doesn’t fit with my writ­ing style. But if it keeps the brain stim­u­lat­ed, then by all means go for it.

Writing Differently

The next tac­tic I will touch on more briefly, that of the need for vari­ety. In acad­e­mia, as with many fields, the style of writ­ing rarely changes, and it is easy to be staid in the writ­ing style. For exam­ple I still find it dif­fi­cult to talk in the first per­son in a jour­nal paper, and pre­fer to use ‘this author’ or ‘this paper;’ despite the first per­son being accept­able. Further evi­dence can be found in that I am foot­not­ing on a blog…  In that regard it is very easy to fall into a rut, espe­cial­ly when it comes to the use of florid lan­guage and jar­gon. But more on style in anoth­er post. It is worth chang­ing up your writ­ing style occa­sion­al­ly, and one of the best ways to do this is to try for a dif­fer­ent method­ol­o­gy or audi­ence.

NaNoWriMo

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There are two ways that I do this from time to time. Firstly, it can be enjoy­able to write a short piece of fic­tion, as aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing can sap the cre­ative juices. A cou­ple of times now I have par­tic­i­pat­ed in the NaNoWriMo event. NaNoWriMo is a cel­e­bra­tion of National Novel Writing Month, and encour­ages writ­ers to sit down and write a short nov­el in the 30 days of November. Now the 50,000 word draft can be a bit daunt­ing, and I only made it to the word lim­it once, but it is still worth doing. It is a fun lit­tle event, and a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to turn some writ­ing time to a dif­fer­ent end. However, for my pur­pos­es the tim­ing is prob­lem­at­ic, as November is the end of semes­ter in Australia, and is also con­fer­ence month. Still I hope to bash out a nov­el again some time. Perhaps this time it will be worth some­one else read­ing.

Different Styles

The sec­ond way that I mix up my writ­ing is to try a dif­fer­ent style. There are many meth­ods of writ­ing, and one that I have exper­i­ment­ed with twice—once actu­al­ly for NaNoWriMo— is nar­ra­tive writ­ing through a ‘stream of con­scious­ness’ or ‘free writ­ing.’ This mode of writ­ing is sim­ply writ­ing for a cer­tain dura­tion of time what­ev­er flows through your head. Colleen McCullough is said to have used this type of writ­ing, and that it con­tributed to her prodi­gious out­put. Essentially you write with­out con­cern for gram­mar, spelling and you don’t cor­rect any­thing. The idea is to fol­low your mind where it leads, includ­ing all those tan­gents, diver­sions and your small rab­bit war­ren under the hip­pocam­pus. A lot of the time it pro­duces rel­a­tive­ly unus­able writ­ing. But it can be a way of shift­ing so dra­mat­i­cal­ly out of a set mode of writ­ing that it fresh­ens up your entire writ­ing style and per­spec­tive.

Sectioning Work

phd_targetFinally I want to briefly touch on break­ing work up in to small man­age­able sec­tions. I know a lot of peo­ple are daunt­ed by the prospects of writ­ing large bod­ies of mate­r­i­al. Quite a few first year stu­dents I meet won­der how they will write a 2,000 word essay. Later year stu­dents won­der how they could ever write a 3,000 word piece, let alone their 6,000 word project. Many in both cat­e­gories are in equal parts shocked, awed and dis­mayed at the prospect of writ­ing an 80–100,000 word PhD the­sis. However, if these tar­gets are bro­ken down in to their rel­e­vant sec­tions the over­all scope sud­den­ly appears more man­age­able. That 100,000 word the­sis is real­ly only 8 12,500 word chap­ters, and each chap­ter is real­ly 5 2,500 word sec­tions. All of which sud­den­ly seem more work­able. Plus if you keep break­ing it down, and you end up dai­ly, then that PhD the­sis is only 139 words a day if you are work­ing 5 days a week, 11 months a year for the nom­i­nal 3 year dura­tion! Quite man­age­able real­ly. The added bonus is that break­ing your work down lets you see the flow of the argu­ment bet­ter, and helps you stay coher­ent. But that is a top­ic for anoth­er time.

Finally there are many good books out there to help you in this process. I have found three exceed­ing­ly use­ful, for both method­ol­o­gy and style. They are:

Kidder, Tracy, and Richard Todd. Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. New York: Random House, 2013.
Silvia, Paul J. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. 1 edi­tion. Washington, DC: APA, 2007.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

good-writing-is-hard-workUltimately though, as even William Zinsser admits ‘Writing is hard work.’ But if we write reg­u­lar­ly, then the process comes a bit more eas­i­ly, and rather than focus­ing on the writ­ing task we can focus on writ­ing style, which is arguably even more impor­tant. After all how can one edit and refine their work if there is no work there to edit in the first place. So focus first on get­ting words out on the screen or page and then per­fect­ing them. Undoubtedly they wont come out exact­ly right the first time, or the sec­ond, or even per­haps the third, but get some­thing out so you can work with it. In the vein of Confucious or Yoda, ‘to write a lot, you first have to write.’ Next week we will take a look at the sec­ond aspect of writ­ing: style.

Would love to hear your feed­back and sug­ges­tions on how you write, and the process­es you have for writ­ing reg­u­lar­ly. Tell me below, in the com­ments.

Chris

About Chris

Notes:

  1. Boice, Robert. Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. New Forums Press, 1990.
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/30/books/colleen-mccullough-author-of-the-thorn-birds-dies-at-77.html?_r=3
  3. Bandura, Albert. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman, 1997.