Friday, August 3, 2012

Fighting the writing

A recent post by undine on finding your writing mojo (I paraphrase) has got me thinking, not for the first time, about my own writing process. I have read plenty of advice on getting through a PhD thesis that basically says you need to set up a regular time to write every day and then just sit down and write, whether you feel like it or not. So far, this has been working pretty well for me overall. I've been managing to write something related to the thesis every day, even if some of it is chain of association crap or circular arguments with myself over what my central research question really is.

I'm having more trouble applying this approach to an article I'm working on. It's based on the paper I gave at IMC Leeds, which was in turn based on a chapter from my MA thesis, so the overall argument and the supporting evidence is all pretty much there but it needs refining and polishing. I have several friendly readers (including my supervisor) lined up to review the draft and I really don't have all that much to do to finish it off. But several times in the past week, I've sat down at my desk for my designated writing time and - nothing happens! Sure, I tinker with a sentence here and there and maybe do some trimming and re-arranging of the odd paragraph, but I don't feel like I'm really breaking through, if you know what I mean.* I'm not getting that sense of flow when the ideas and arguments seem to appear on the paper fully formed.

I don't know, it seems like you can force yourself to keep a writing routine but you can't force the actual writing (or at least, you can't force the really good stuff). Sometimes, as for undine, it just happens and all you have to do is go with it. I guess the trick is to figure out, as you do in competitive sports, exactly what triggers and routines you need to go through in order to get into that zone. I think I'll go for a run in the bush and have a cup of tea, and see if that helps. While I'm out, if you have any tips to get the writing flowing (as opposed to just getting yourself to sit down in front of the screen or putting words on paper) please share!

* It has occurred to me that this could mean the damned thing is done and I should just send it off already. Is my reluctance to call it good simply a species of performance anxiety? Maybe I need to join Stu's Insecure Writers' Support Group.

(Or, maybe I need to take a tip from Ms Huncamunca Butterball Jones and not take the work so seriously...)


Gavin Robinson said...

I usually find that the first draft is the hardest and that editing comes easily after that. If nothing's happening it might be better to leave it while you do something else. Or just submit it. Journal articles don't have to be perfect at the first submission as peer review always changes them.

dr ngo said...

Leeds was only a month ago, so it's no wonder you can't revise. In my personal experience, when I tried to "perfect" something recently written, all I wound up doing was saying "Ooh, isn't that nice! How clever I am! What a neat turn of phrase!" In the fullness of time - months for an article, years for my dissertation - I could actually see where I was wrong, or there were gaps in the argument, or some bits could be cut (interesting, but not really germane).

If you work like this, you have three options: (1) set it aside and await the fullness of time; (2) send it in to the journal anyway, hoping its promise will outweigh its shortcomings; (3) give it to a *trusted* friend to critique as it is. Such friends are rare - they must have both critical judgment and enough consideration for you to spend time ion this - so cultivate well any you may have.

I don't know which of these is best for you, but I'm convinced all are better than just staring at the screen right now.

Bavardess said...

I do need to learn that leaving something aside to stew for a while is NOT the same thing as either slacking off or giving up on it. The guilt still tends to kick in a bit too easily when I think I *should* be getting something finished. I'm very fortunate to have a couple of 'friendly' readers with the right academic background and knowledge of my topic area to be effective critics. I bribe them regularly with wine to keep them sweet!

tenthmedieval said...

Coming to this late, I would say that if you can't see a way to make it much better it's probably time to let someone else have a go! And then bear in mind that the article they may wish you would write is not necessarily the one that you mean to...

Bavardess said...

Tenth, your last point there is a very timely reminder. I'm sending the piece out for some informal critiquing this week, so I expect there may be a bit of this in the feedback!