This week I’m taking a bit of a break from the news and paper-writing to recover from the past six weeks of work. I’ve been pondering the writing “process” and why/how it works (or doesn’t) for me and others.
A friend wrote a few days ago and asked if I had any advice about getting over the fear of writing that tends to alienate us from the process. At first I thought I didn’t have any advice to give, since I still struggle with writing so much myself. My ideas seem to require long periods of percolation and then writing often happens in short, intense bursts, which is inconvenient in the academic context. Like many others I also suffer from the fear that everything I write is somehow inept and ill-formed, unworthy of being paraded in front of an audience other than myself — and I constantly question every point I’m trying to make. But I’ve had to make writing “work” somehow, so what does that process involve?
I actually have little “rituals” that I use to get myself into gear for writing when I know I have a lot to do. I think those mundane, taken-for-granted habits are interesting to share, because they reflect our relationship with writing as a process and they tell us something about approaches to learning and thinking.
For example, the physical space in which I write has an effect on how much I can focus. I’ve been attributing this, perhaps erroneously, to the fact that I lean heavily towards “visual-spatial” modes of thinking and understanding — and I always feel as if physical disarray only exacerbates a kind of mental clutter from which I’m already suffering. I think this is why I often do housework before sitting down to write, and on writing breaks. For me, cleaning is a great way to take a break because it’s a bit mindless, it provides some physical activity, and there’s some immediate gratification from the results.
When I’m actually piecing together what I’m writing, I struggle the most with structuring my ideas. I’ve always had a problem translating what I’m thinking about into the relatively linear approach that seems to be demanded by words on a page. I end up using a lot of charts and mind-maps, and the process of (literally) drawing out ideas helps me to understand them more and to make connections and solidify points. In the past I’ve had charts all over the walls around my desk, reminding me of the “big picture” I’m trying to look at even as I work to refine some small element.
Most of us have experienced “writer’s block” at some point, so how do we generate the momentum to return to our writing over and over, re-articulating the same ideas in better ways, or trying to develop new ones? One way I like to do this is by going through mental exercises — like returning to the “big questions” that triggered my interest in what I’m working on. What question was it that grabbed my attention? What connection provoked a response? Another approach involves allowing myself to jot a lot of notes without having to connect them; then I can cut and paste them into groups that make sense later on. Often when I’ve written a draft, even if I’m not happy with it, I’m afraid to chop it up for re-editing in case I “lose” something; so I start another document instead, and allow myself to cut and paste as much as I want.
A lot of “blocks” — and procrastination — are caused by underlying fear that nothing we can write (or think) will be good enough. Perfectionism, which can be fuelled by that fear, is an oft-cited problem for graduate students and this manifests regularly in the act of writing.
I try to deal with my own perfectionist tendencies by finding ways to take the pressure off myself. I pretend that no one will read what I’m writing, other than me — not that this necessarily helps, since I’m my own worst critic. During a conversation on Twitter Andrea Zellner raised this issue, saying she “actively [ignores her] inner critic in a big way.” Since “no writing will ever be perfect” we need to know when it’s “good enough” so that we can move on, share it with others, then accept criticism if and when it comes (deadlines often help with this!).
Fear also begins to wear off when we receive supportive and constructive feedback over time. That’s what helps us to build up enough fortitude that we begin to overcome our fears about public exposure (for me, blogging has really helped). For graduate students, writing is often an anxious process because of the awareness of a new level of competence required, and new audiences to which one’s writing (and one’s self?) will be exposed — peers and colleagues, journal editors and readers, conference attendees. The art and craft of writing is highly personal and is approached in different ways according to temperament, experience, convenience, compulsion and emotion. What methods do you use — and do they work for others?