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