Category Archives: Drafting

Posts that discuss the drafting process

Writing as Thinking

Pretty much the first thing I ever wrote on this blog was that we should use writing to clarify our thinking. Since this precept is central to how I think about—and thus teach—writing, I try to remain open to opposing viewpoints. To best serve the graduate student audience that I’m aiming at, I believe that I have to create a space that is both opinionated (since nobody needs more anodyne advice about writing) and relativist (since nobody needs more advice that assumes everyone to be the same sort of writer). Creating that space requires taking stands while resisting dogmatism. So while I’m deeply committed to the benefits of exploratory writing, I’m also deeply interested in the claim that this approach is wrong and thus hazardous to good writing.

In a recent post, Thomas Basbøll articulated his view that thinking ought to precede writing; in fact, he argues that we are doing writing a disservice when we collapse it into thinking rather than viewing it as the act of “writing down what we know in coherent prose paragraphs.” He is committed to a strong version of this thesis and clearly sees it as essential to the development of effective writing skills: “My view is that the idea that writing is inextricable from thinking is an affectation that undermines the efforts of writing instructors like me to identify the specific problem of writing, the literary problem of representing thought in prose.” This focus on writing as representation of thought suggests three stages of composition: thinking; writing down those thoughts; and lastly evaluating the writing on the basis of its fidelity to the earlier thinking. (Here is a follow-up post from Thomas on this topic, allowing that neither position in this debate can be absolute but reiterating his belief that much of writing ought to be kept distinct from thinking.) 

My disagreement with this position is practical, philosophical, and pragmatic. At a practical level, I worry that novice academic writers will be hamstrung by the need to engage in sophisticated conceptual thought without the aid of concrete expression. It is certainly my experience that postponing writing until the underlying ideas become clear is a disastrous strategy for a lot of novice writers. At a philosophical level, I just don’t accept thought as capable of acting as the sort of referent for writing that Thomas suggests. Finally, at a pragmatic level, I’m not sure that anything is lost if we don’t evaluate our writing for its sound representation of earlier thought. For the reader, the beauty of a piece of academic writing comes from its internal coherence, not its ability to instantiate the writer’s intentions.

My stark disagreement with this approach to academic writing raises the obvious possibility that I’m doing it all wrong. Writing this, I was reminded of the very first line of Winnie-the-Pooh, where we’re introduced to him as he’s being dragged down the stairs on his head: “It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.” Maybe that’s me. Certainly my commitment to the coextensive nature of writing and thinking doesn’t mean that I sail through the writing process feeling as if I’m doing it all right. Instead, as I sort through the mess that I make with my exploratory writing, I often wish that writing was more like recording and less like thinking.

Given my own writing struggles, it seems wise to consider a view that is so contrary to my own that it would otherwise get little airtime in this space. Ultimately, I am convinced that I can’t engage in the sort of linear sophisticated thinking that I need to do except on paper. Indeed, I began writing this post precisely because I wanted to figure out what I thought about Thomas’s post. In this particular case, I delayed writing longer than usual as an experiment in trying to think without putting pen to paper. But I couldn’t manage it, so I resorted to writing a quick draft of this post. I generally find that initial writing exhilarating; my doubts come because there is so much revising to be done to corral these insights and make them reader friendly. But the frustrating nature of the revision process isn’t enough to convince me that I would be able to do things any other way. And I’m anecdotally convinced that many of the students I work with wouldn’t either. 

Our goal as academic writers must be to write as easily as possible; there is no inherent virtue in suffering more than is necessary to create the best possible text. I focus so much on the difficulties because I genuinely believe them to be inevitable and because I believe that those difficulties may be eased if we acknowledge them. Acknowledgement helps, not because misery loves company but because struggles are easier when we know that they have an objective basis. There’s nothing worse than struggling and believing that we are doing so only because of our own deficiencies. But that doesn’t mean we should fetishize those struggles or turn our back on effective ways out. I’d love to hear what others think. Am I doing a disservice to thought by focusing so much on writing? Does writing actually suffer for not having a coherent referent? Or can we actually only find coherence within the text itself through our revision process?

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Is It All Writing?

Today I’d like to write about a topic that I find perplexing: What is the best way to define the term ‘writing’? Should we use writing as an omnibus term for every aspect of creating a text? Or should we use it more narrowly to refer to the initial act of getting words down on paper? Undoubtedly, we all do both, depending on context. Sometimes we think of writing as a soup-to-nuts term for everything from conception to publication, and other times we think of it simply as the moment of composition, distinct from both planning and revising. While I’m far from consistent in my usage, I know that my tendency is to use the term broadly. Is this just a lack of precision on my part or is there a benefit to being inclusive in the way we define writing?

When I hear myself offering a broad definition of writing, I’m often reminded of a mama-and-baby yoga class that I attended when my first child was born. This class was full of babies nursing, babies getting changed, babies learning to crawl, babies being irresistible, but it wasn’t full of anyone doing yoga. And the teacher used to say, as each class would finish without any actual yoga having been practiced, “It’s all yoga!”. Which of course it wasn’t. It was good and yoga is good, but that didn’t make it yoga. In using a broad category of writing, we may be engaging in a similar sort of self-serving inclusivity. Sorting my sock drawer? Well, I can’t write with cold feet and I can’t find my favourite socks and … it’s all writing! In a post last year on not-writing, I talked about ways that not-writing can overwhelm our attempts to write. Needless to say, allowing ourselves to define writing too broadly can hamper our productivity. But is there any benefit to including planning and revising—both obviously essential steps in the creation of a text—in our concept of writing?

To my mind, the benefit of thinking of writing broadly is that doing so may allow us to deepen our commitment to planning and revising. When we think of writing narrowly, we are naturally treating it as separate from planning and revising. And if that separation works well for you, that’s exactly what you should do. For some writers, however, treating writing as a category that includes a broader range of activities can be a helpful strategy for dealing with persistent writing difficulties. If we think of planning as a species of writing, we can then use writing as a way of clarifying our own thinking. When we hold off writing in order to plan what we need to say, some of us will flounder. Being stalled in the pre-writing stage is pretty common in the students that I see; I often see writers who have pages and pages of outlines and sketches, but who don’t feel ‘ready to write’. I’m not saying that writing is the only solution, but I know that writing generates writing. Starting early may confirm that you are in fact not ready, but it also may generate the text that you need or may lead you to a better understanding of your own topic.

Similarly, if we think of revising as species of writing, we can then use writing as a tool for extensive revision. When we think of revision as distinct from writing, we may be less likely to engage in the sort of vigorous revision necessary to move from first to final draft. That is, when writing is seen more narrowly, revision can be seen as conceptually different from writing, making it more likely to become a limited project of cleaning up mistakes. That limitation shuts off the possibility of using rewriting as a way of radically strengthening a text. Overall, if we use early writing as our way of figuring out what needs to be said and late writing as our tool for reshaping our text into the most suitable form, we are more likely to break out of the insularity of our own internal thought processes. The act of writing always anticipates the public. By framing all our writing activities as writing, we may give ourselves greater access to the power of writing to organize and reorganize our thoughts.

The Discomforts of Uncertainty

One of the overarching themes of this blog is my faith in the power of writing as a way of clarifying what we are thinking. Just write. Let yourself write. Make yourself write. Nothing is set in stone. Try things out. Decide later if you want it. Writing alone will tell you whether something needed to be written. While I remain entirely committed to this notion, I think it is important to articulate the ways that this practice can be hard. After the great reaction to my last post on the inherent difficulties of academic writing, I thought it might make sense to devote some time to difficulties we are likely to encounter when trying to put common writing advice into practice. In this post, I’m going to talk about two ways that exploratory writing can be a source of discomfort.

In the first place, exploratory writing can be nerve-racking. Even if we tell ourselves that nothing is set in stone, we may still feel the weight of the chisel in our hands as we write. What if this isn’t what I need to say and what if I’m unable to change it later? ‘Write now, edit later’ may in fact be good advice, but we can still feel as though we are digging our own graves with every new word. At some point in the drafting process, most of us will lose faith in our own abilities as an editor. This feeling of dread requires delicate handling. Good writing rarely feels like good writing. So giving up on a direction in our text because we’ve decided it’s awful is a risky proposition. In general, I try to keep faith with my early drafts, forestalling my own anxiety with the recollection of all those times that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a text that I thought was irredeemable. Of course, there are times when we need to cut our losses. I’ve talked about being willing to get rid of ‘perfectly good writing’ later through editing. But there may also be times when we need to pull the plug on the grounds that the incoherence feels unmanageable. A compromise option is to carry on while using a different font to signal to ourselves that we’re on thin ice. The simplest way of doing this is by using all caps, but a distinct colour or a fancy handwriting fonts (I like Segoe Script) can also work. The important thing is convince ourselves that we’re just spitballing. This lack of commitment can help us to overcome anxiety that might otherwise stop us from writing.

A second difficulty with exploratory writing can be the disorienting experience of returning to the text during editing. We may experience a kind of vertigo caused by a sudden uncertainty about what we actually want to say. Did we mean to say ‘A causes B’ or should it be ‘B causes A’? And how are such fundamental questions even possible? Shouldn’t we just know what we are trying to say? We naturally feel that the decision ought to be made on some bedrock of intention. Which is fine except that the unsaid is often still unknown, especially in the case of writing that is very abstract; the first draft is often the first opportunity to make a decision about meaning. We are rarely in the position of simply ‘writing down what we think’. Instead, we are putting words together in a way that then shapes meaning. Sometimes the editing process can show us—in a helpful way—what we’ve been trying to figure out in our heads. But other times it shows us puzzling statements that we may or may not be able to claim as our own. The demands of syntax or the limits of our ability to craft sentences can lead us to say things that we may not recognize. This experience can be alienating and can easily make ourselves doubt our own capacity as writers.

These two types of anxiety can both be traced back to a decision to use writing as a way of figuring out what needs to be said. To me, the other option—waiting to write until we know what we want to say—would be fine except that it doesn’t work for most people. Without the challenge of writing, most of us can’t articulate meaning. But if we are going to treat exploratory writing as an essential part of our process, we need to be aware of the anxiety it can produce, during both the writing and editing process. That anxiety, while unpleasant, isn’t a sign that things are going badly; on the contrary, the uncomfortable uncertainty of a first draft is often a sign that we are on our way to making the decisions necessary for a successful final draft.

Between Drafting and Editing

Over the weekend, I went poking around in my own archives to look for posts that might be helpful for other people embroiled in AcWriMo. What I found was a lot of writing advice that presupposed the existence of some sort of draft. Some posts were explicitly geared towards the editing phase: committing to extensive revision; reverse outlines; and remembering to edit. Many other posts concerned the sorts of things that I wouldn’t recommend attending to during the initial writing phase: making effective transitions; crafting strong paragraphs; creating clarity with clear subjects and strong verbs; working with problem sentences; letting go of passages we no longer need; reconciling our best laid plans with our actual drafts; and the perils of local cohesion.

I’m obviously not surprised that the bulk of my advice concerns working with drafts. I’m very hesitant to interfere with the beautiful mystery of getting words down on paper; I’ve got a healthy respect for the alchemy that allows us to turn thoughts into prose. Editing, on the other hand, is emphatically un-mysterious, requiring a hyper-rational attention to the principles of sound academic writing. So I began this blog with a recommendation to use writing to clarify thinking and then turned my attention to the more manageable process of revising our own work. The essentially ungovernable writing process has been left largely untouched. But in light of AcWriMo, I want to offer one piece of advice related to the early drafting process.

When we write as a way of clarifying our own thinking, we are often engaging in a somewhat chaotic process. We may not be writing to a specific plan, with a neat outline to guide us along the way. Instead, we may be trying things out and experimenting with different phrasings and switching course and just generally endeavouring—through trial and error—to find the best path. Later we can use various revision strategies to make sense of it all and turn it into something suitable for the reader. The value of separating writing and revising is clear: on the one hand, you get the full freedom of the writing process and, on the other, you get time to transform that text into something suited to its eventual audience. But this dichotomy between drafting and editing can be taken too far, so I want to talk about an intervening space: not quite editing, but beyond drafting.

Have you ever come back to a rough—emphasis on rough—draft and been unable to figure out what is going on? It’s great to free the writing process from the burdens of editing, but not if you are going to end up with a text that is ambiguous or opaque. Depending on your own writing processes and the demands of the particular project, the revision stage can be far removed from the writing stage. No matter how much we imagine that we’ll always remember what we know now,  we simply won’t. We all need to take steps to ensure that our future selves will understand what they are looking at. To this end, I suggest leaving a short block of time at the close of each writing session for rough editing.

This short block of time will allow you to do three things. First, you can clean up obvious errors so the text will make sense to you later. For example, during a recent round of rough editing, I found an errant ‘not’ in a sentence; it was obviously there because I had been experimenting with expressing the thought in a positive or negative way. I had chosen the positive expression but had failed to remove the ‘not’. Figuring this out took me very little time because I still remembered having struggled with this sentence. In a week or two, I might not remember and would have had to engage in a more complicated process to figure out what was going on. A quick read through—scrupulously resisting the urge to do any fine editing—can save you from great bafflement later. Second, you can take this limited time to record your quick reactions to the text so far. Switch to all-caps (or to a different font or colour) and comment on what you see. Have I done enough with this idea? Should this be here? Is the work of so-and-so relevant here? You may not have time to answer these questions right then, but you should have a system for capturing them. Third, the rough edit can be a great time to set yourself up to start your next session of writing. Whenever possible, leave yourself some sort of instructions that will greet you the next time you open the document. A concrete suggestion about the first thing you should do when you sit down to write will help you get underway and will make the prospect of returning to your text much more appealing.

I realize that this post is based on a particular assumption about AcWriMo. Judging from my Twitter feed (one Pomodoro, two Pomodoros, …), it sounds like lots of people are doing more drafting than editing this month. But that may or may not be true. I think the beauty—as I discussed last week—of the way AcWriMo has been framed this time is that anyone can use it as a way to spur productivity in whatever way they need. AcWriMo could be a month dedicated to intensive editing rather than drafting. However, since I do get the sense that lots of people are taking this month as a chance to embark on the initial writing of the texts they need to produce, I thought I would talk about the steps we can take to make sure that our eventual return to those texts isn’t too much of a shock. Happy writing, everyone!

A Cut-and-Paste Job

I recently met with a colleague to talk about his dissertation. As we read through his theoretical framework, I questioned the way that framework was being articulated. In response, he said that he had actually written it for a different context and then later imported it into its current location. It struck me how often I have a variant of this conversation: I say to a student that something in the flow or the perspective or the tone seems a bit off, and the student tells me that the material was ‘cut and paste’ from somewhere else. In some cases, this is said apologetically while, in others, this practice is treated as routine. Either way, the practice of cutting—or, more accurately, copying—and pasting is an interesting writing dilemma. And whether or not it is a good idea, we all do it all the time.

On the one hand, putting old text into a new document means that—Presto!—the new text has grown with very little effort. However, it isn’t coincidental that ‘a cut-and-paste job’ is used colloquially to indicate something that isn’t particularly well done; we naturally expect that something designed for one context won’t be as good in another. Text will almost always carry with it traces of its provenance. More importantly, using old text denies ourselves a chance to write that same material again from our current perspective. When I augment a document in this particular fashion, I always do so over a muffled objection in the back of my mind. I can always feel the way the imported text doesn’t fit in its new home and the way that I may have missed a chance to say it anew, to say it better.

Despite all these reservations, I am not actually suggesting that importing text is always a bad idea. Why not? Because early drafts are allowed to be weak, and getting to a complete first draft can be a huge step forward. Yes, there is still lots of work to be done, but having all the pieces can be significant. Once the basics are in place—including the imported text—we can turn our attention to the difficult business of making the full text work. I will sound one obvious note of caution: importing existing text into a new document can be a mistake if you’re not already committed to extensive revision. But if you are willing to engage in full-scale revision, you may benefit from experimenting with different bits of writing from other places. Even if this type of first draft will have even less cohesion than a conventional first draft, we can still use it a springboard for getting to a better understanding of our overall communicative intentions.

When my colleague went off to alter the way he presented his theoretical framework, he was doing so on the basis of a full draft of his chapter. He could have been stuck at his computer trying to sort out the one perfect way to present his theoretical framework; instead, he had put together a full draft that allowed him to show it to an outside observer. And talking to me about the draft allowed him to see things that still weren’t quite working. So while the cut and paste didn’t exactly ‘work’, it did do its job well enough to get him to the next editing stage. Sometimes that is what we need.

After completing this post, I read a great post by Pat Thomson responding to the Why Writing from Day One is Nuts post in The Thesis Whisperer. Her title (Writing the Thesis from Day One is Risky) and her discussion are both very helpful. Thomson does a great job of explaining how a deep understanding of the intellectual-identity-formation tasks of thesis writing make it difficult to advocate a strategy of collecting bits and pieces composed along the way. Thomson’s insights helped me to understand that the tolerance for cutting and pasting evinced above and the enthusiasm for writing early evinced in last week’s post come from the same place: a belief in the stimulating effect of seeing our own drafts (however rough they may be) and a faith in the efficacy of rewriting through editing. But she also gave me reason to question the depth of my attachment to those assumptions—and I greatly appreciate that. I will take these ongoing questions with me into a new section of my thesis writing course (which begins later today!) and look forward to returning to them in the coming months.

Can You Write Too Early?

The Thesis Whisperer had a guest post this week with the headline Why writing from day one is nuts.* The suggestion that writing early isn’t a good idea runs directly counter to a great deal of thesis writing advice (including that given in this blog). The post, written by James Hayton (who blogs at The Three Month Thesis), posits that writing from the get-go is unproductive. Hayton argues that writing done early isn’t useful because the writer will struggle to know what to say, will produce weak writing, and will end up with a morass of text that will be hard to transform into something usable. He also claims that early writing can be an ill-advised attempt to impress, but I think this is more a personal experience than a general problem. Finally, he talks about the danger of too much writing—and, yes, I did find that a difficult phrase to type!—because writing without an immediate goal may get us in the habit of not finishing our projects. I will return to this point below, after looking at his main point: that early writing will be poorly informed, weak, and hard to work with. I agree that this might happen (who hasn’t found themselves with exactly that sort of writing?), but I think that the value of the act of writing outweighs those weaknesses.

Hayton’s estimation that early writing is likely to be flawed is based on a notion of writing as product: according to this view, we write simply in order to get a text for some purpose or other. Needless to say, writing to get a product is a very common experience, and I agree that the most efficient way to get the right product is to work from the clearest possible understanding of the task. For instance, if you need to write an article response, starting to write before reading the article or grasping the goals of the assignment would be a terrible idea. But waiting to write a thesis until you have a clear understanding of the task will mean that you won’t use writing as a way of figuring out that task and that you won’t be practicing crucial writing skills. This is where Hayton loses me. Most thesis writers that I see—from across all disciplines—need to write more, not less. Bad writing, of a sort, will come from early writing, but so will a growing understanding of the underlying issues. The key is accepting that early writing will take work or may even be unusable.

What about Hayton’s claim that early writing gets us into the bad habit of writing without finishing? I’m afraid I can’t see any way that makes sense. So much of academic writing is part of a process that will lack an immediate connection to finishing. (Blogging, it must be said, is awesome for the amount of finishing there is.) Writing is common; finishing is rare. And the one thing that would improve the lives of most of the academic writers I know is the habit of writing. Comfort with the writing process gives us confidence and creativity. We can experiment and push ourselves and avoid writer’s block. In my view, cultivating the habit of writing tops the list of reasons to write early.

I’m also a little uneasy with Hayton’s tone. While he began his post with a genial statement about his own willingness to be corrected, he also expressed a clear commitment to an approach to writing and research that transcends disciplinary difference. I am always concerned when advice to graduate students is both highly contentious and narrowly informed. To put it simply, I have no problem with Hayton relating an anecdote about writing too early in an attempt to impress, an anecdote that I am sure will resonate with lots of people; I do object to his suggestion that this possibility is a reason why others—who might have very different motivations—should not be writing early. Overall, I think it is important to give doctoral writing advice that is limited and that helps novice academic writers to understand their disciplinary conventions and their own temperament as writers. I think Hayton does his own argument a disservice by overextending it; taking his experience with scientific writing and suggesting that he has a cure for what ails the humanities is an over-reach that threatens to undermines the value of his insights.

All that said, I do think Hayton sounds a useful note of caution about the call to write early. If you write early, you need to be aware of two things. First, you need to understand that your fundamental task will be to make your thinking concrete in order to allow you to advance that thinking; if you make the mistake of trying to create the final product too soon, you will probably be frustrated. Some students do write ‘too early’ in the sense that they try to create a finished product too soon; early writing, in my view, must be characterized by a certain openness, a willingness to change, discard, and move into new and more productive directions. Second, when you are writing as a process, you need to be able to work with the product. Hayton is right that there is always an artifact of the act of writing, and we all need strategies for doing something with that artifact. If we lack those strategies, we may end up in the situation he describes: with a messy provisional document that is—in its current form—unusable. But rather than concluding that we should put off writing, I would argue that we should deepen our understanding of the writing task. We should be writing early and writing often because doing so can deepen our intellectual insights and strengthen our writing skills.

*James Hayton has removed his original post from The Thesis Whisperer site; he explains his reasons for doing so in a comment below. You can find a helpful list of all his posts on his own site here.

 

The Faintest Ink

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Most of my links posts come from the range of links that I archive during my daily reading. But this one instead comes from something that came up in class and that was then reinforced by some comments in my Twitter feed. In my thesis writing course, we were recently talking about the perils of not writing ideas down when first they strike. In fact, I was stressing the importance of doing more than just jotting down an idea. In most cases, we need to elaborate on the idea so that it may be useful to us later; that is, we need to explain how that idea might play out or why it might ultimately matter or how it relates to our own work. It can be a pain to stop whatever else we are doing when inspiration strikes, but I have learned that finding an old idea without any elaboration is usually a baffling experience. It seems to be human nature to imagine that our future selves will have tremendous recall especially concerning matters that are clear to our current selves. Do you ever find these sort of cryptic notes in your files? ‘This connects to an earlier idea expressed by the second speaker in the fourth panel: it’s a dichotomy’. I made that up, obviously, but have a look at your own conference notes. Chances are, they are full of obscurity (this?), references requiring context (second speaker? fourth panel?) and words that fail to convey any enduring meaning (dichotomy?). It can be a painful experience to find one of these inexplicable notes. Imagine yourself triumphantly concluding ‘it’s a dichotomy!’ and obviously thinking that this was a valuable insight. And maybe it was, but now you’ll never know.

While I was reflecting on this issue, I saw a tweet from @RohanMaitzen that summed this phenomenon up nicely: “Now, if I could only remember why the word ‘superfluity’ seemed so important to my Eugenides review that I got out of bed to write it down.” She later tweeted that she had remembered the significance of superfluity, so her story has a happy ending. Shortly thereafter, I saw the following tweet from @thesiswhisperer: “I had 3 great ideas for my new workshop ‘If the CV is dead, what should I do?’ but was at gym and didn’t write it down. damn.” (I’m not sure how her story turned out, although I have every confidence that her CV workshop was great.) I even encountered a discussion of this phenomenon on Mad Men. In Season Three, there was an episode called ‘The Color Blue’ in which Paul woke up—hungover and still at the office—remembering that he had had a great idea for a campaign but with no memory of what it had been and, more significantly, with no written notes. Peggy encouraged him to tell Don the truth, and he reluctantly agreed, expecting a full measure of Draper scorn. But Don surprised him: he wasn’t scornful, he was sympathetic. The only explanation for this unexpected burst of human kindness is that even Don Draper understands that ideas get forgotten if they aren’t written down. The Chinese proverb that Paul quotes in despair is the perfect expression of this idea: ‘The faintest ink is better than the best memory.’

So, unless you have been granted a freakishly good memory, make it your basic assumption that you won’t remember later what seems obvious to you now. Write it all down with an eye to your future self: make sure that you note whatever you will need in order to work with this idea in a week or a month or however long it is likely to be before you’ll have a chance to return to this idea.

Finally, some related links. Here is a helpful blog post from The Thesis Whisperer with some guidance on how to use a notebook effectively during your graduate study. The ProfHacker blog recently addressed how to make notes on the go. If you are more likely to take notes on a computer or mobile device, here is an overview of Evernote, also from the ProfHacker blog. And if all else fails, maybe the post-it watch will help you when sudden inspiration strikes.