The Hard Way #2: the Challenges of Writing

Part of “writing stuff down and sending stuff out” (see Post #1 here) is developing good writing habits. I by no means think I have this down. Nonetheless, I thought this series offered a good time to share my experiences – most of which I learned the hard way. What follows, then, are the things I learned about how to be a productive writer.

1. Set aside time consistently to write. This sounds like “obvious” advice. Yet when life happens, I often find writing to be one of the first things that I neglect. The reason is clear: ignoring my writing has no immediate repercussions. If I fail to prepare a class, miss a committee meeting, close down office hours, ignore the pile of grading, do not register grades, or postpone responding to my email, there may be various angry constituents banging on my door. The same does not happen when I delay the writing of a paper. At most, another day passes without progress (although the tenure clock keeps ticking).

I probably don’t need to make the case for establishing consistent writing time, but I will nevertheless share two benefits of this strategy to me personally. First, it re-connects me with the topics I love to study. Writing therefore makes me more enthusiastic about my job. And being consistently enthusiastic has positive effects on how I handle my other, various job duties. Second, when I step away from writing for too long, it takes me a significant amount of time to get back “into the groove” when I return to it. At these return moments, I find myself re-reading what I wrote and wondering what I was trying to say; re-visiting “do files” and deciphering code to determine what models I ran and what remains to be done; and (if relevant) re-connecting with co-authors to ensure we’re both headed in the same direction again. This re-familiarization costs me hours of work time that might be used elsewhere. The better, more efficient solution is to do something – no matter how small – on my current project every day. (Note: I regularly fail at this, but I keep trying to do it anyway.)

I suppose the next logical question is: how does one do this? As with all writing advice, it’s personal. But I can share my process. As I get busier, I become more absent minded, so I rely more heavily on my calendar now than ever before. On my calendar, I block off 2-4 hour sections of time for a project on 4-6 days/week. This marks the time as “busy” for me, but it also prepares me psychologically for the writing task at hand. I know that from 1-5pm on Friday, for example, I will be working on Project A. When that time comes, there is no indecision about what to do. I know what to do.

2. Set goals and deadlines. Some writers (e.g., Stephen King) enforce a daily word quota and then work (however long) until meeting that quota. This strategy does not work well for me, as I find that I can either write well or a lot, but not usually both. Nonetheless, there are other ways to set goals. For example:

  • Review and prioritize existing projects. When I try to make progress on too many projects at once, I find myself more distracted than productive.  Choosing to focus on one project at a time makes the workload more manageable for me (even if the project queue line is still long).
  • Create a 6-12 month roadmap for finishing projects. I, for example, anticipate that I can work on 1-2 projects a month during the semester(s). My deadlines therefore usually look like this: “By the end of May, I want this project under review.” (I’m an article writer at the moment, but book people may adopt a similar orientation.)
  • Within a project, set smaller goals that can be accomplished in 1-2 days. When using this strategy, I give myself little goals like “focus on finishing the introduction to a paper on Tuesday” or “complete a subsection of a book chapter on Thursday and Friday.” Small goals like this give me chances to celebrate, clear break points at which I can go home for the day, and the feeling of accomplishment that motivates me to write more.
  • When all else fails, set time goals. I use these a lot because I get easily distracted. Thus, I might, for example, force myself to sit at my desk for 4 hours on Saturday. Sometimes these 4 hours yield a lot. Other times, it produces little. I do find, however, that forcing myself to “log hours” eventually encourages my distracted mind to wander into productive writing – even if it resists at first.

 

3. Share work regularly. As a graduate student, I was embarrassed to show my work to others – primarily because I thought it was not good enough. That sentiment has faded somewhat as I gained confidence through successfully completing and publishing manuscripts. Now, I face a different, but related problem: I often find myself so close to my work that I cannot edit it well. In both cases, constructive criticism can make the project better.

I therefore believe that it is a good idea to share written work with others that you trust will give you helpful, critical feedback and that you believe want you to succeed. I think this last point is especially critical. Writers can get defensive when others criticize their work. In some cases, writers interpret the criticism is being about their person, rather than their work. In other cases, writers invest so much time in what they do that critique triggers panic and frustration that time may have been “wasted.” Criticism, however, has clear value in telling us how to improve. We therefore need to find those that can be honest, critical, and want us to succeed – i.e., those people whose criticism can not be perceived as coming from a place of “being mean” or “impeding” our success. I am lucky enough to have found 5-7 of these people in my life, and I rely on them repeatedly. (Note: being a good colleague also means that you should be this source of constructive criticism for a few other scholars as well.)

 

4. Learn about writing. I regularly hear faculty lament that they never had formal pedagogical training. That’s a fair point, and many of us learn to teach on the job – for better or for worse. Yet I never had formal training in writing skills either. If I improved, it’s because I practiced. I wrote lots of bad things, people told me they were bad, and I tried to fix what these people pointed out. I suspect we all learn that way, and it’s terribly inefficient.

As a result of reflecting on my experience, I realize that I have slowly adopted the position that learning about writing is “professional development.” I now read books on writing at frequent intervals. Some of the best books for me were Elements of Style (a classic for basic structure), On Writing Well (a book that first showed me how to carry thoughts forward through sentences and paragraphs), Writing to Learn, and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. These books address the mechanics of writing and give me insight into how to improve what I write. I also, however, read works by people that are lauded as great writers. E.B. White’s essays, for example, are excellent illustrations of clear and succinct, non-fictional writing (see also Archie Carr’s So Excellent a Fishe, recommended by Zinsser’s Writing to Learn). Gabriel Garcia Marquez, on the other hand, writes fiction that inspires me to learn more about how to master language and conveying thoughts and experiences to readers. In short, any book, although seemingly tangential, can demonstrate “good writing.” By reading them, I therefore hope to gain insight into characteristics of good writing that might transfer to my own work. I guess I’m advising us all to read more, watch for good writing, reflect on what we perceive to be characteristics of good writing, and work to incorporate good writing elements into our work.

 

5. Co-author with appropriate expectations. I am fortunate enough to have all positive experiences with my co-authors, and I cannot say enough good things about them. I choose to work with them (or did they choose to work with me?), because I think they will make me and my work better in some way. And in every case, they have.

There are, however, unique challenges that writers face when co-authoring, and these are worth mentioning. First, it takes time to agree on division of labor – initially and at each stage along the way. Who works on which part of the manuscript and in what order? How is the manuscript pulled together later to create consistency (in style or message) across sub-parts? Second, co-authors may disagree about the direction a paper should take. Common questions might include: in what research tradition should the manuscript be grounded? How should the manuscript be framed? What is the theoretical argument we want to make? What details should be included or omitted? I often find these conversations helpful, as the end product becomes much better for having gone through a “vetting” process (i.e., debate or discussion among co-authors). Nonetheless, this requires greater coordination, discussion, and debate that takes time; because this does not always happen with solo-authored projects, co-authored projects will seem to take longer. Finally, co-author schedules often do not line-up, which can lengthen the time that a manuscript remains in the writing process. My co-authors, for example, often must wait for me when I face a mountain of grading, the end of the semester, administrative tasks, or personal/family issues. This is normal, and it means that co-authored projects should sit on a longer time frame than you initially anticipate.

To be clear, none of these challenges should stop writers from co-authoring. Rather, it is a different kind of writing process, complete with its own characteristics. Since these characteristics affect the writing process, it is worth thinking about them in advance.

 

In the end, it is worth re-iterating that I do not have all the answers. I occasionally fail to follow some of the above advice, and when I do, I learn the hard way to return to it once more. Nonetheless, I hope the above points – about what works for me – offer readers a chance to reflect about what (might) work(s) for them too.

  • Bill Ayres

    One benefit of co-authoring – it makes it easier to maintain a timetable. It’s very easy to procrastinate on yourself, much harder to do so when you’re letting somebody else down. I encourage people to explore shared projects – in my experience (taken for what it’s worth), it’s made me more productive.

    • Andy Owsiak

      Bill, That’s a great point, and one that I didn’t address. I completely agree.