As I’ve been working on my book manuscript, I’ve been struggling with a persistent tension: I know that I should let problems emerge through writing, but I want to solve those problems in advance through better conceptualization. At the first hint of trouble, my inclination is to stop and rethink. As with most writing challenges, there can be value in both approaches. If there’s a significant problem with the plan, surely it’s wasteful to simply carry on implementing that plan. On the other hand, as I’ve frequently argued in this blog, our best chance of understanding the problem often comes from using writing to clarify our thinking while working towards a full first draft. In most cases, moving ahead—even when we sense that something is off—is often our best chance of grasping the problem. In fact, here’s a (not-yet-revised) passage from the chapter I just finished:
I often meet with writers who are working hard to improve the first half of a chapter or an article; in these meetings, we find that so many questions lead us to a discussion of what is yet to be written. Those writers are often hampered in their ability to fix what is already there because of the uncertainty caused by what isn’t there. To be clear, I’m not advocating pressuring yourself to finish any piece of writing as quickly as possible. Writing often starts and then needs to stop for more research or data analysis. Or because life gets in the way. But serious structural revision will work best once you’ve reached that end point, and the value of getting to this stage is notable enough that you may wish to push ahead, allowing the draft to be manifestly flawed.
Despite having just written these words, I’m still struggling with the desire to create a perfect plan. Even though I know that the strengths and weaknesses of the current plan will emerge from writing the chapters, I’m fixated on the notion that I can reconceptualize my way out. For some writers in some writing circumstances, that reconceptualization might be the right strategy. I’m pretty sure, however, that this stepping back from writing to do more planning is just me losing my nerve. It was fun while it lasted: there were big sheets of paper and a variety of post-it notes and lots of coloured pens. And maybe it helped me see things more clearly. And maybe I’m being a bit puritanical about it: if I enjoyed it, it must be wrong. Whatever the timeout meant, I’m putting a stop to it. I have put away my beloved markers and am going back to the hard work of implementing my imperfect plan (just as soon as I publish this post).
I’m not pushing ahead because of some abstracted notion of productivity but rather because I literally can’t make a better plan right now. Knowing that the current plan may be wrong is a valuable perspective to carry with me, but that insight isn’t leading to any more meaningful actions. I’ve written out my worries (What if chapter five is now too long? What if, despite being too long, it is also not enough? What if the reviewers were right about my inadequate understanding of applied linguistics?) and now I’m going to give it my best shot. I’ve written about this type of anxiety before on the blog, so I’m going to end with a passage from that post:
… I have come to accept how easily I am thrown off my game by potential problems. Current problems would be one thing: it is genuinely hard to write when you hit a conceptual roadblock. But I am dissuaded from writing by the mere possibility of problems in the future. What if I’ve chosen the wrong approach to this issue? What if my observations are completely trite? What if my argumentation doesn’t fit my desired conclusions? The sane reaction, obviously, is to keep writing until the potential problem becomes a real problem or fails to materialize. I’m working on getting better at blocking out the ‘whatifs’ when I write. Do you know that Shel Silverstein poem? It’s one of my favourite kids’ poems: Last night while I lay thinking here/Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear/And pranced and partied all night long/And sang their same old Whatif song:/Whatif I flunk that test?/Whatif green hair grows on my chest?/Whatif nobody likes me?/Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?…
This post is the fourth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’ll try to pause to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process itself. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.
Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude each of these book reflections posts with a status update. Needless to say, the complexity of life over the past four months has made writing extra challenging. I have now finished my provisional revision of Part One and completed a full draft of Chapter Four. My original schedule had me further ahead and contained the optimistic claim that ‘a viable schedule always includes time off’. While I still wholeheartedly believe that, I’m going to spend some of my vacation time this month trying to catch up. Here’s my revised schedule:
- December 2019: Chapter One
- January 2020: Chapters Two and Three (plus Part One revision)
- February 2020: Chapter Four
- March 2020:
- April 2020:
- May 2020:
- June 2020:
- July 2020: Chapters Five and Six (plus Part Two revision)
- August 2020: Chapter Seven
- September–October 2020: Chapter Eight
- November 2020: Chapter Nine (plus Part Three revision)
- December 2020–March 2021: Full Revision
I’ve left March through June of 2020 blank because I think that’s a legitimate representation of my writing experience in recent months. The challenges of parenting during a lockdown and the demands of transitioning to emergency remote teaching were enough to swallow up all of my planned writing time. I’m using this schedule as a reminder that I’m not simply ‘behind’ on my writing: my writing was overtaken by unexpected events. I’m still planning to meet my deadline, but none of us knows what the upcoming academic year has in store for us. Whatever gaps you may be experiencing between what you needed or hoped to do in 2020 and what has proved possible, I hope that you are being kind to yourself and reworking your own schedules to reflect what is possible for you right now.
I love the bit about puritanical -“If i enjoyed it, it must be wrong.” That feeling is pretty deep in many of us. Damn those ancestors!
As usual, a very smart and insightful post.
“The Lure of Planning” is a great title and exactly how it feels like. I just rearranged chapters big time with bright markers and am fearful of returning to the writing. It feels like I made a blueprint for a bridge without knowing whether it will hold. Thank you for reminding me that the only way to find out is to climb it step by step and that there is nothing to fear but taking a dive into the free flowing river of thoughts.
That’s a beautiful image, Alice! We can also lower the stakes of writing somewhat by thinking of the bridge as a low footbridge over shallow water–if the bridge gets wobbly, you can just step off and tinker with it. You might get your feet wet, but you’ll still be able to easily step back on the bridge whenever you’re ready. All the best with your writing!
Greetings from mysteriously un-covid but nevertheless paranoid Tokyo.
I just sent off a one pager of advice to a doctoral student from Vietnam, a good thinker lurking behind a curtain of academic writing naivete. Half of the page was links to your blog. Say no more! Your stuff is a great ignitor and sweeper away of fog. Can’t wait to see the book.