Category Archives: Book Reflections

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!