Academic writing: inclining your mind

In a previous entry we discussed some great Mac software for writing. However, software can only support (or inhibit) your writing. Punching the keys to move the cursor from the left to the right of your screen is still left to you and you alone. And it remains as difficult as it has ever been, whatever the software. In this post I summarize what I have learned about getting my writing unstuck.

Writing my Masters thesis was torture. No one gave me any advice on how to overcome agonizing procrastination so I just assumed that I was lazy and had to try harder. After hours, days and nights of ‘trying harder’ I developed considerable fear of writing. Although I subsequently wrote many consultancy reports and some academic papers, writing did not become much easier. It was when I was writing my PhD thesis that I came up with my first conscious writing workaround: measuring the time I spent on writing and trying to keep it to at least 4 hours a day. (This also prompted my interest in timing your activities).

At approximately the same time I read ‘Writing for Social Scientists:How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article’ by Howard S. Becker. Several ideas from this book indfuenced me for many years. The first idea was that thinking and writing are not two separate activities. Many beginner writers assume that they should come up with ideas and then express them on paper. This is not how writing works. Writing is thinking and a lot of our systematic thinking can only occur when we are writing. Thus, waiting for the ideas to come is one of the biggest mistakes young writers make. Instead, the only way to create your ideas is to actually start writing.

The second concept is that it is virtually impossible to get the first draft right. Good writing always goes through many revisions. This idea is actually quite liberating. For many people (myself including), the most difficult thing is to start writing. But it shouldn’t be: your first draft does not matter, it will be revised anyway! In Merlin Mann’s words, you should “turn your procrastination into shitty first drafts”. (The concept of shitty first drafts (sfds) comes from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird book of 1994).

Becker’s book also redefined the relationship between the text and its outline. If writing is thinking then an outline should not necessarily precede the text. Indeed, Becker’s formula was ‘write-organize-revise’ instead of ‘outline-write-revise’. Produce sfds, see what thoughts you have, then organize them and re-arrange your writing into a structured text.

The third idea from Becker’s book was that the writing process is not only messy – going between endless drafts, outlines, and revisions – but also unique for every person. Since writing is thinking, writing processes are as different as the minds of creative people. It is extremely tricky to get your brain into the “writing” mode so good writers come with their own workarounds ranging from nice pens, to blocking special time of the day or arranging special writing places. I started to schedule special writing time as well as disruption-free writing environment. Such writing software as Scrivener mentioned in the other post is designed to provide such an environment. I am writing this post in MacJournal’s full screen mode so that nothing else on my computer screen distracts me. Moreover, my Pomodoro is ticking to focus me on writing and writing alone.

About five years ago I bought my second writing book ‘The Tao of Writing’ by Ralph Wahlstrom. It was a great pleasure to read and it did help me improve my writing. The book stresses that writing cannot be ‘done’, it has to flow naturally, much like everything of any significance in taoism. The writer does not force writing, it creates conditions for writing to flow. Some of the 12 principles of the tao of writing (writing is nature; writing is flow; writing is creation; writing is detachment; writing is discovery; writing is change; writing is unity and multiplicity; writing is clarity; writing is simplicity; writing is individuality; writing is universality; writing is eternity) are obvious, whereas some are a bit esoteric for me. I most fondly remember a few good points about creating a writing environment that works for you. The author extensively discusses feng chui and its application to writing and I think he is right. I already mentioned Mac software, but for me it is also important to have a private space, an uncluttered desk, the right music (sometimes), and a great pen. When my writing energy is low on cold and dark winter mornings, a cup of tea, a candle and a crackling fireplace can do wonders.

Finally, last year I read ‘Professors as writers: a Self-help Guide to Productive Writing’ by Robert Boice. This book contained one idea that I did not find in the other two. Though Boice agreed that writing can only be ‘natural’ and ‘spontaneous’ he recognized that in most situations we cannot wait for the inspiration to come. In fact, this is a common mistake that writers do: they wait for that perfect moment when writing will start to ‘flow’. Boice thinks that successful writers should actually force themselves to sit down and write. Boice, who is a behavioral psychologist, quotes an experiment where two groups of people were asked to produce a piece of writing. One group was not given any instructions except some warming up ‘spontaneous writing’. The other group, in addition, was required to write at least a certain number of words ever day. Every participant was asked how many creative ideas s/he had during writing. People who were forced to write had, on average 4 or 5 creative ideas every day. People who followed their inspiration had 1 such idea.

Since I read the Boice book I force myself to write regularly: independently of my mood, energy, inspiration, creativity or external conditions. Writing has become a routine similar to physical exercise (yes, I do it mostly in the morning – the day has too many distractions).  It is often difficult, I often get tired or distracted and I need to to gently incline my mind back to my text. But after several months of following this routine I have noticed that it has become much easier to write and both my productivity and the quality of my writing have improved. The ideas from the other two books about constant ruthless rewriting and the right environment still help me a lot.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He also coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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2 Responses to Academic writing: inclining your mind

  1. Pingback: Last minute panic: the best time to write? | Academic workflows on Mac

  2. Ed says:

    Hi Aleh.

    I have ordered the “Professors as Writers” book and look forward to growing in my writing. Another book that is making a difference in my writing was recommended by Keith Blount of Scrivener fame called “Writing the Natural Way” by Gabriele Rico. She focuses on using Clustering, among other tools, that fits nicely with the new Scapple tool that Keith is developing.



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