Category Archives: Book Reflections

Writing and the Fear of the Future

A few years ago, I wrote a post about writer’s block. More accurately, I wrote a post about the limitations of that particular framing in the sphere of academic writing. For most academic writers, writing is the solution rather than the problem; more writing is often the best way to work through our writing troubles. I’m not disputing, of course, that people feel ‘blocked’ when they try to write; I am simply arguing that those inhibitions are often connected to tangled thinking rather than an inability to write. To respond to these snarls in our thinking, most of us need to use writing. An early version of that post had another section on the psychological issues associated with committing to our own ideas and then sharing them with the world; however, since the post was getting too long, I abandoned the second part. Since I’m currently unsettled by the prospect of completing and sharing my book project, it seems like a good opportunity to revisit that topic and reflect on this aspect of writing anxiety.

As I move from a first to a second draft of my manuscript, my experience of writing is sharply divided. On the one hand, I’m really excited about this project, and that excitement has manifested itself as a pretty enjoyable drafting process. On the other, I’m increasingly paralyzed by the thought of a future in which others actually read the book. As long as I’m writing, things feel good. Once I contemplate being finished with writing, I start to lose my nerve. Being done means that I won’t ever be able to make the book as good on the page as it is in my head. And I can vividly imagine all the ways in which people will be critical of my imperfect efforts. As a result, I’m resisting the move from the open-ended drafting process to the decision-making revision process, to the moment when I say, ‘this is good (enough)’.

To move myself forward, I’ve been trying to think about the sorts of things I say to other writers in these moments:

Recognize the paradox at the heart of writing. Getting writing done is good because it moves you closer to being done; however, getting writing done can feel bad because it moves you closer to being read by others. When this paradox goes unrecognized, you may imagine your anxiety is caused simply by deficiencies in your text. Some of those deficiencies may be real, but addressing them alone may not resolve your anxiety. To work through the anxiety, it’s crucial to understand the underlying psychological dynamic.

Picture your audience as full of people who need to learn from you. In other words, don’t write for people who have nothing better to do than to criticize you. Instead, try the more natural act of writing for people who don’t already know your subject. Writing is easier when you imagine being read by an eager beginner rather than by a jaded expert. Of course, graduate students often do write for an audience of people with extraordinary expertise in their field; as a pragmatic matter, those readers may have to be catered to in one way or another. Despite this unavoidable circumstance, it’s still an excellent idea to picture an ideal reader who will be edified by your expertise.

Embrace your expertise but acknowledge your inexperience. Despite your undeniable subject matter expertise, you are more than likely undertaking a task that is novel for you as a writer. Maybe it’s a master’s thesis when the longest thing you’ve ever written is an undergraduate capstone project or maybe it’s a doctoral thesis when the most demanding thing you’ve ever written is a master’s thesis. Or maybe it’s your first national grant competition, research article, or book manuscript. Academic writing projects have a frustrating tendency to increase in degree of difficulty as you go along. Acknowledging the growing pains as you learn to write in new ways will help you to remember the importance of self-compassion.

Focus on what you need to feel finished. Given that perfection is unattainable, your project will inevitably have to be wrapped up before you are entirely satisfied with it. The key here is to distinguish between the things that you know have to happen in order for the project to be successful and the things about the project that just make you nervous; focusing on the former can help you resist the general anxiety associated with the latter. To help yourself focus on what you need to ‘feel finished’, try creating a list with two columns: in one column, put all the things that need to get done; in the other column, put all the things that make you generally uneasy about your project. Items may move between columns as you evaluate and re-evaluate what absolutely has to happen before you allow your writing out into the world. The important thing is to have the two categories, so you won’t come undone at the thought of trying to fix everything all at once.

Perhaps all this well-meaning advice can give me a list of helpful reminders: remember that making progress can paradoxically make me more anxious; remember that I truly believe the book will be helpful to lots of graduate student writers, even if my own peers may disagree with things that I say; remember that I’ve never written a book before and thus naturally lack confidence in my own ability to do so; and remember to focus my energy on the long list of concrete things that actually need to get done for this book to be all that I want it to be.

What about you? What do you do when the fear of the future gets in the way of your writing?

This post is the seventh in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’m pausing to talk about my progress and 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 is to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: At this point, I have a first draft that I’m pretty happy with, but my revision process has stalled. In addition to my fear of the future, I have also struggled with the cumulative weight and pressure of the lockdown and inevitable fatigue with online teaching. I’ve been taking stock of my progress over my vacation, and I’m excited to dive back in. I also got a formal extension to my due date, which is soothing to my soul. As I engage with the revisions in the coming months, I’m sure I’ll have reflections to share here. Many thanks to those of you who have reached out to express enthusiasm about the book.

There’s Always December

November was Academic Writing Month, a month dedicated to collegial online support for writing productivity. Some of you may have participated; some of you may have laughed at the very idea; some of you may have resented the public show of productivity at a time like this; some of you may have tried and found it unhelpful; some of you may have never even heard of it. For the first time in many years, I tried to keep up with #AcWriMo myself in order to finish a first draft of my book manuscript. Switching up the way we work is always revealing, and I thought I’d use this post to reflect on the experience.

Overall, I found it pretty helpful. I now have a complete rough draft, although it’s definitely more of a ‘zero draft’ in places. Getting to that milestone was obviously important to me, but here I’m more interested in the fact that I was able to write fairly consistently throughout the month. I’m not short of ideas about how to sustain a consistent writing practice; this blog is full of my thoughts on writing productivity. But having thoughts has never ever been a guarantee of putting those thoughts into practice. Despite my awful track record when it comes to taking my own advice, I actually managed to write somewhat consistently throughout November by working with the following principles:

Write ‘every’ day: When I say write every day, I don’t mean write every day. I simply mean that it’s a good practice to pre-commit to writing on all the days that you have available for writing. That way, you won’t have to decide on any particular day whether or not you’re going to write. Taking the decision out of it will cut down on the decision fatigue that will eventually work against you. For this month, I committed to writing some amount on 20 days: all the weekdays in November, except the last one (which I’d allotted to starting this post). I didn’t manage to write on all those days, but I wrote on more of them than I would have without the pre-arranged plan.

Set concrete interim goals: Tackling a writing project with lofty and poorly defined goals can be unnerving. When your daily goal is simply to make progress on a larger goal, it can be hard to keep yourself honest. Instead, I recommend giving yourself concrete interim goals that will guide you through each writing block and then coalesce into a strategy for meeting the ultimate goal. It can be so much easier to settle into writing when you have a specific task that can be completed in the available time. I wanted to finish rough drafts of my final two chapters, Chapters Eight and Nine. To make that happen, I broke the larger goal down into both weekly and daily goals. I’m truly terrible at articulating these micro goals, so I had to rework them frequently. But the fact the goals weren’t perfectly aligned with my actual writing progress didn’t prevent them from being of great value as I got down to writing each day.

Work towards a full draft: Planning your writing schedule to prioritize creating a full draft is a great idea; getting to the end will mean that the full arc of your text can then inform any further decisions. In order to make this idea work, you have to be willing to sacrifice local polish for overall shape. When we polish our writing before establishing an optimal shape for the text, we run the risk of investing in material that isn’t serving our needs. In my case, I was actually trying to finish a full draft, but this advice is scalable. You can prioritize getting to the end of a section or a chapter and still reap these benefits. The point is not to write more or faster. The point is to revise more effectively by giving yourself the greatest possible amount of insight into the goals of your own text; that insight is inevitably deepened by the creation of a full text, one with a beginning, middle, and end.

Use writing to solve writing problems: When pushing yourself to create a full draft, it’s crucial to use writing to figure out what you think. I found Chapter Eight relatively easy and fun to write; I found Chapter Nine (my conclusion) to be a special kind of torture. To deal with my paralyzing dread of conclusions, I tried to write my way out. The rough draft of this concluding chapter is still full of ALL-CAP rants to myself about the absence of a coherent end point. But those backchannel conversations with myself allowed me to figure out what was wrong and to find a way to bring things full circle, at least tentatively.

Don’t write alone any more than you have to: Writing completely alone isn’t natural for us; even when we are literally alone, we still value the involvement of others. Maybe we crave that involvement even more right now. Building a writing community—actual or virtual—means that you don’t have to be completely alone in your writing. Over the past month, reporting my daily writing achievements, such as they were, was helpful to me. #AcWriMo may be an attenuated form of writing community, but it was still motivating. The recipients of my reports (people following the #AcWriMo hashtag on Twitter) didn’t really care. Nobody was going to berate me for not writing or question my commitment or progress. But having announced that I was going report my writing progress each day, I felt a tug of obligation to do so. And I was grateful to have expanded the web of obligation beyond just myself.

I did ignore one of my key principles: Write at your best time of day. In general, writing is such an important and challenging activity that I recommend doing it at the time of day when you have the most energy. However, my priority this month couldn’t truly be writing; instead, like many of you, I was most concerned with managing the unfamiliar routines of online teaching. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to settle into writing when my mind was engaged with preparing for this novel form of teaching. I wasn’t exactly violating this principle: I was following its spirit, which says that you must devote your best energy to your most important activity. It was just that writing couldn’t have my best energy when this new frontier of teaching needed it more. Instead of writing at my best time of day—earlier for me is always better—I was writing at the end of day, once all my teaching and teaching prep were done. It wasn’t ideal, but I appreciated the #AcWriMo motivation that helped me to squeeze in some writing at the end of these busy days.

When #AcWriMo was new, someone added a tagline: “Write like there’s no December”. I’m afraid I can’t find who said it first. It’s an appealing slogan, one which helps to convey the essential absurdity of having an ‘academic writing month’. If you are going to engage in an artificial push to write more in a month than you usually do, you are likely going to need to play some mind games with yourself. Like pretending that there’s no tomorrow. But, of course, there is a December—unlike any December that we can remember but December nevertheless—and we all need to figure out what this means for our writing.

There’s always December in the sense that you might say, if you didn’t get much writing done in November, ‘there’s always December’. There are so many reasons why you may not have written a lot in November: the ongoing pressures you are facing during this pandemic; the ordeal of the interminable American election; a disinclination towards arbitrary productivity measures; the rhythm of your teaching schedule. And, even if you did get lots of writing done in November, there’s still always December. It’s unlikely that you’ve exhausted all your writing tasks, no matter how much #AcWriMo may have helped.

So, there’s always December (or January or some point in the future when other things in your life start to get back to normal). If you’ve got writing to do and that’s not been possible during these most peculiar times, I hope you are holding out hope. Things will get back on track, and past writing struggles don’t have to predict future performance. Whenever your life allows you time for writing, there are things you can do to improve your chances that writing will happen in those times. Significant among these strategies is the willingness to write in public: to make commitments aloud; to feel the accountability engendered by those commitments; and to take the encouragement that comes from an online community that wishes you well. Whatever the month, you don’t have write alone.

This post is the sixth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’m pausing to talk about my progress and 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: I’ve now finished an extremely rough first draft, which puts me more or less on schedule. I say ‘more or less’ because I’m unable to predict the time it will take to fix what’s wrong. There’s so much wrong! I don’t say that out of modesty but out of fidelity to the truth. I look at people’s writing for a living, so I know of what I speak: this manuscript needs a lot of work. As I said above, my desire for a complete draft to work from has inspired me to treat as provisionally finished things that are manifestly unfinished. I don’t regret this, but I know that much of the hard work is still ahead of me.

Personalizing Your Revision Practice

One of my favourite bits of revision advice is that writers should learn about their own writing habits. To revise your writing effectively, you should know what words or phrases you overuse or what rules you tend to misunderstand. Bringing to bear your accumulated understanding of your own writing habits will definitely improve your revision process. While working on my book manuscript this summer, I encountered a situation that deepened my appreciation for the efficacy of this type of self-knowledge.

As I was struggling through the middle section of the book, I realized that the structure really wasn’t working. I had tried out many different things and had ended up equally unhappy with all my attempts. With the help of many reverse outlines (and the incisive advice of a good friend), I realized that I was indecisively flip-flopping between two different structural arrangements:

  1. Having three separate chapters of writing principles, followed by a single chapter of revision strategies
  2. Dividing up the revision strategies and interspersing them throughout the three chapters of writing principles

This type of structural choice probably seems pretty familiar; most of us have had the experience of confronting such a choice in our academic writing. To take a simple example, let’s say you’ve got eighteen participants, each of whom was asked six interview questions. Should you give each participant’s answers to all six questions before going on to the next participant? Or should you give all eighteen participants’ answers to question one before going on to give all the answers to question two, and so on. The best answer to such structural questions will always be determined by context. Do you want to reflect on the implications of the totality of each participant’s responses? Or do you want to draw connections between the varied responses of different participants to each question? Given whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish with your writing, one of these options is surely preferable for your eventual reader. The problem can be, however, that you might genuinely not know what your reader needs in this instance. I was definitely trying to meet the needs of my future reader, but that commitment alone didn’t solve my problem: I was still able to make a sound case for either approach.

I eventually came to a resolution by reflecting more deeply on my own tendencies as an academic writer. I often—without even knowing that I’m doing so—shy away from being concrete. My readers have long told me that my academic writing would benefit from more detail, more elaborations, more examples. Recognizing that I generally err on the side of offering concepts without concrete application, I decided that the right solution was probably the one where I pushed myself to be more concrete. Rather than asking my reader to work through three chapters of writing principles before giving them a strategies chapter, I would make each chapter a blend of principles and strategies. Carving up a chapter and integrating its parts into three other existing chapters wasn’t easy, but I’m provisionally happy with the results. 

What makes my experience potentially relevant for others is the general notion that self-knowledge can help with decision making in academic writing. When you are confronting a structural dilemma, try thinking about the needs of the reader. If that intervention doesn’t magically clear everything up, try reflecting on the ways in which you may typically struggle to meet the needs of the reader. This strategy is helpful because it forces you to think about how your inclinations may not reliably serve the needs of your reader. Different writers will obviously have different writerly inclinations. I revel in creating systematic principles without sufficient attention to concrete applications; others may excel at detailed explication but may be stingy when to it comes to the higher order unification of their ideas. General revision principles—like understanding the needs of your reader—are great, but your revision practices also need to be grounded in a deepening grasp of your persistent habits. Overcoming the gap between how we tend to express ourselves and how the reader wants the material to be expressed is the goal of all revision. We can each give that process a boost by personalizing our revision practices with a growing awareness of what we do well when we write and where we consistently fall short. 

This post is the fifth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’m pausing to talk about my progress and 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 five months has made writing extra challenging. I have now finished my provisional revision of Parts One and Two, which puts me on schedule, at least according to the revised schedule I created in June. That means that I’ll try to write Chapter Seven in August (somewhat realistic) and Chapter Eight in September–October (less realistic) and Chapter Nine in November (who knows what will be going on by then!). But by the end of year, I should have a full draft ready for extensive revision.

The Lure of Planning

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.

 

Living Without Links

One of the things that I’m confronting as I write this book is my overwhelming desire to use hyperlinks. The link is truly one of the great affordances of blogging: each time I set out to say something new, I can easily point to things that I’ve already said. As I’ve been thinking more about this issue, I realize that links play two slightly different roles in my posts. The first is a straightforward offer of more information. Any time I type the word ‘paragraph’, for instance, I can render it a link. My reader doesn’t necessarily need to know what I think about paragraphs to continue reading; I’m just putting it out there, in case they want more. In the second case, however, I’m using a link precisely because the reader does need to know what I mean by the term, and I don’t presently want to tell them. I often do this with ‘metadiscourse’, a term that I use frequently and that I know to be unfamiliar to many readers. Broadly speaking then, some links offer the reader supplementary information; others offer the reader something that may be essential now. In both cases, the reader is able to choose their own adventure: they can take a byway or, if they wish, just stick with the main path. Links allow me to construct each post to stand alone, but where I think my point will be enhanced by a familiarity with earlier posts, I can indicate that without breaking my stride. Every time I create a link, I take pleasure in the efficacy of these potential digressions: offered but not mandated.

In the process of composing the linear narrative of a physical book manuscript, however, I’m struggling to manage these types of internal references. Like all writers (of non-digital texts), I’m trying to make an accurate estimation about what type of orienting information my readers might need. In the earliest drafts, I found myself writing versions of ‘see above’ and ‘see below’ way too much. No reader wants to be constantly dispatched to a different precinct of a book. We expect the writer to dole out information in the exact right way: enough repetition that we know where we are, enough anticipation that we know where we are going, and never a suspicion that we’ve missed something. As a writer, I’m learning to be more judicious, both in providing reiterations of key points and in trusting the reader’s ability to manage without such reminders. If they’ve been paying attention—and I’ve done a good enough job—they’ll understand abbreviated references to earlier material and they’ll have faith that they’re being given what they need now.

This issue doesn’t just affect someone like me who is making this particular blog-to-book transition. Any academic writer is going to have to puzzle through how to give the reader enough guidance to orient them on their journey through a text. In general, we accomplish this task through the prudent use of signposting and strategic repetition. As we’ve discussed often here, signposting is a particularly crucial type of metadiscourse. A simple ‘as will be discussed below’, to take a common example, lets the reader know that they’re not expected to fully grasp that topic yet. This placeholder allows the writer to raise an idea without explaining it or needing the reader to understand it. If the writer lacked this option, they would have to try to explain everything at once or would have to hope that the perplexed reader sticks around long enough for full edification. We all know that neither of those options is ideal. Prioritization—a determination that a reader needs this now and can wait till later for that—is part of our job as writer. A promise of an elaboration to come is a crucial tool for managing that dynamic.

Similarly, using a device like ‘as discussed above’ prevents the reader from mistaking strategic repetition for inadvertent repetition or for a new idea. If a writer repeats themself and gives no indication that the repetition is strategic, the reader may be annoyed or, worse, may question the acuity of their own reading. That is, they may suspect that they’ve misread something because they thought this idea had already been introduced. Being puzzled about repetition isn’t as deleterious as being puzzled about new information, but both have the capacity to interrupt our forward momentum as readers.

As writers, we all understand the need to deploy appropriate markers of anticipation and summation, of alluding to what is to come and recapping what has already happened. The tricky part comes in the negotiation of what is, in each context, appropriate. As I continue working on this manuscript, my ability to negotiate the appropriate markers—and thus to live without links—is slowly improving. You’ll have to read the eventual book to see if I end up with a well managed flow of information!

This post is the third in a series of book reflections posts. At least once a month, I’ll come here to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process. 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 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 these book reflections posts with a status update. I am currently even less on schedule than I was in my last update. I still haven’t finished my provisional revision of Part One, and I didn’t get Chapter Four completely drafted by March 1st. I hope to be able to complete these two tasks in the next week and move on to Chapter Five on March 11th. I think my next book reflections post will be on the dynamics of managing an artificial and aspirational writing schedule!

Writing Old Words Into New

As I was working on Chapter Two of my book project in January, I realized that I needed to return to a post that I wrote early in the life of the blog: a treatment of the benefits and hazards of reusing our own writing. These ideas are relevant to me right now, as I am taking the central concerns of this blog and turning them into a book. I’m struggling with exactly the issue that I discussed in that earlier post: what I should reuse and what I should write from scratch. The table of contents for this book was constructed on the basis of the blog; I used the annotated table of contents page to make my original plans. Having done so means that there are posts that roughly correspond with each chapter of the book. That doesn’t mean, however, that the words I need for each chapter are already written; on the contrary, I fully expect to write most of the material anew. My operating assumption is that the posts have given me an articulation of the topics that I want to cover and a rough shape for the manuscript but not the actual words. I’m content with that vision of the manuscript, but I’ve been encountering a consistent hurdle nonetheless.

When I try to write about these familiar topics, my mind keeps going strangely blank. This is weird, obviously. I should have lots to say about things I’ve written about frequently in the past. In Chapter Two, for instance, I’m talking about topics that have been the central recurring themes of this blog. Rather than gaining added fluency from that familiarity, I seem to be gaining added inhibition. Instead of writing freely about topics with which I’m so comfortable, I find myself thinking, ‘surely I’ve said this somewhere already’. This reaction seems to be more than mere laziness: it feels like my brain being unable to move on without having retrieved its previous thoughts. Since fighting against one’s brain is often futile, I decided to find a way to work with my own instincts.

I started by constructing the architecture of the chapter with writing from the blog. This initial construction allowed me to respect my own deep discomfort with starting over and, more practically, allowed me to be sure I hadn’t left anything out. First I put old things together and then I rewrote everything on that basis. It was as though I needed to do the new writing in the literal presence of the old writing. Throughout, I was aware that my attitude to the old writing had to be highly instrumental: my goal wasn’t to use the old material by massaging it into a new form. Instead, my goal was to let the old writing help me do a better job with the new writing. In the end, for me, the debate between using old stuff and simply writing new stuff was mooted by my inability to choose the second option. It ended up as less of an either-or and more of a first-one-then-the-other. That is, I couldn’t start over, but I also knew I couldn’t create a chapter out of previously written words. Neither approach worked for me, and thus I needed to make both work for me.

What does all this mean for someone else, for someone who is not writing a book inspired by a blog? I do think there’s relevance here for the thesis writing process. Think about the role of the proposal in the first draft. Many of the things that will need to be said in the thesis were already said in the proposal. Despite this overlap, the proposal is always a text with manifestly different aims. As a result, sentences borrowed from the proposal often stand out as an awkward fit in a draft thesis chapter. But while this may be true, my experience suggests that it may still make sense to want to use the earlier formulations. Given this inclination, it can be helpful to have a strategy for making that work. I tried to manage this tension by using different fonts. The copy-and-paste stuff was there in a less-pleasing font (Courier, which looks to me like a draft should); the new stuff was written in my preferred font (currently, Calibri). By the time I was done, the text was all Calibri, no Courier. I greatly enjoyed this visual manifestation of the process of building on existing text while crafting new text. I ultimately felt confident that I’d taken all I could from the old text while still deriving the benefits of composing the new words that I need now.

This post is the second in a series of book reflections posts. At least once a month, I’ll come here to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process. 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 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 these book reflections posts with a status update. My goal is to write approximately one chapter per month. To that end, I’ve created the following schedule:

  • December 2019: Chapter One
  • January 2020: Chapters Two and Three (plus Part One revision)
  • February 2020: Chapter Four
  • March 2020: Chapter Five
  • April 2020: Chapter Six
  • May–June 2020: Chapter Seven (plus Part Two revision)
  • July 2020: Vacation (a viable schedule always includes time off)
  • August 2020: Chapter Eight
  • September–October 2020: Chapter Nine (plus Part Three revision)
  • November 2020: Chapter Ten
  • December 2020–March 2021: Revision

I’ve frontloaded this schedule somewhat, as I have a short break from teaching at the moment. I’ve also given myself a bit more time to complete chapter drafts that coincide with my busiest times. I’m going to do a provisional round of revisions of each part of the book as I complete it. The real work of revision will take place once a full draft is complete, but it will still be beneficial to make each part marginally coherent before moving on to the next. I am currently not quite on schedule: I’ve drafted Chapters One (Introduction), Two (Key Principles), and Three (Identity and Contribution), but I still want to do more revision of Part One before moving ahead. By the end of the week, I should be on to Chapter Four (Structure).

Writing Introductions: First or Last?

There are some questions that I can always count on during a session on graduate writing. Whether or not I had planned to deal with them, these are the topics that invariably come up. The top three perennial questions involve the desirability of the serial comma, the role of the first person in academic writing, and the ideal timing for writing an introduction. I talk about introductions a lot, and it sometimes feels as though the very word will cause someone’s hand to go up. The question will start—as so many do—with ‘I’ve heard that …’ or ‘My supervisor says that …’. Usually they’ve heard along the way that introductions are better written at the end of the writing process; that is, they’ve been led to believe that it is inefficient to write an introduction before knowing what the whole paper is going to say. This sentiment seems so wrongheaded to me that I’m always willing to stop whatever I’m doing to talk about it. Leaving aside whether efficiency is necessarily a good metric for efficacy in writing, I’m pretty sure that delaying introduction writing is actually a false efficiency.

My usual approach to this query is to say, ‘yes, you should write the intro first and, yes, you should write the intro last’. The second part of that formulation is obvious: no introduction is ever going to be adequate until it has been revised to reflect the work it is introducing. The first part is what I want to argue for here. The act of writing the introduction is so valuable that it ought to happen first. Why deny yourself the opportunity to encapsulate what the rest of the paper is going to be about? This early version of the introduction may be provisional, but not so provisional that it should exist only in your mind. Most of us can’t hold an entire introduction in our minds: we have to write it down. Imagining that we could leapfrog that conceptualization and move straight to the body of the paper seems to overlook something crucial about the writing process. When we use writing to clarify our thinking about the introduction, we are giving ourselves a much better chance to write the rest of the paper more effectively. It’s not about writing a good introduction at this stage: that will have to happen later. It’s about writing an introduction that will allow you to write a better paper (before looping back to fix the introduction). Ultimately, if writing the paper is harder without an early stab at the introduction, doing so may not be efficient. Writing the introduction first and last may sound inefficient but is actually a way of improving the overall writing process.

As I’ve been working on the introductory chapter to my book, I’ve been finding that writing an introduction at the outset may be a sound writing practice, but it is also both hard and somewhat terrifying. It’s hard because we are trying to introduce something that doesn’t exist; there’s a lot of guesswork, which is generally unsettling for a writer. It’s terrifying because it can feel deeply presumptuous to promise that you are going to do all the things you raise in an introduction. Even the simple phrase, ‘this book will have three sections’ was unsettling for me to write. How am I going to write a book with three whole sections? And are these even the right sections? The reviewers weren’t sure that they were, and, needless to say, the reviewers have set up camp in my brain where they can comfortably poke holes in all my ideas. I have to keep reminding myself that my plan for these three sections may or may not be exactly right. I can only find that out by giving them life on the page. And I’m only going to be able to give them that life if I formulate a plan. That is what the introduction does: it allows me to plan enough that I can dive in and find out if my conception makes sense.

So while I haven’t changed my answer to this question, I am happy to have been reminded of how psychologically gruelling it is to commit yourself to writing something when you still have no proof that you can in fact write the thing. That, of course, is so often the state of mind of a thesis writer who is writing something unprecedented in their own life. Since I can’t really remember how I felt when writing my own doctoral thesis introduction, I’m glad to be reintroduced to the vertiginous feeling of taking the leap of faith into a new writing project.

This post is the first in a series of book reflections posts. At least once a month, I’ll come here to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process. 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 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 these book reflections posts with a status update. At some point, that update will include an assessment of whether I’m on track; at this point, however, it’s still too soon to make that estimation accurately. Until I have a more informed sense of how I’m going to write this book, I’m not creating a week-by-week schedule. That sort of honest accounting is crucial, but it’s too early in the process for me to do so. For now, I’m just reporting that I’ve written an eight-page introduction. As I hope this post has made clear, I’m unsure whether this introduction represents the book I’m actually going to write. What I am sure of are two things. One, this introduction represents the book that I’m now going to begin to write. Two, this introduction lays out a slightly different plan than the one I started with; in writing the introduction, I’ve seen new problems and possibilities, both of which have led to an updated chapter plan. I’ll let you know how it works out!