Lisa’s Writing Meme

The Paper Chaser says, “Confessing Author has this done on her website, and I think it can be altered nicely for academic writers (why should fiction writers have all the fun?). So … substitute ‘article’ if you need to for ‘book.'”

I am a less dedicated academic writer than the Paper Chaser, but I am trying to recapture her level of enthusiasm and I discern that our tastes and habits are similar in some ways. So my version of this post follows hers, and refers to hers quite a lot.

Doing this meme has reminded me of two points, namely, the articulation of the two misconceptions which prevent me from taking academic writing with the precise degree of both seriousness and non-seriousness it deserves. One is that it should be, or should feel like, non-alienated labor in the Marxian sense. The other is that it is nothing but alienated labor in the Marxian sense. That is very interesting. Now, here comes the meme.

1. Do you outline? No. I write an abstract. Then I cast about for a good first sentence, after which I make a list of the points I want to cover, arranged in a logical order from the starting point of that first sentence. As I write, I let the abstract and these notes carry me.

This sometimes means, though, that I have too much material to fit into the article or chapter I am working on, which stymies me. I should perhaps “storyboard” like the Paper Chaser, who writes out the topic sentence for every paragraph in paper, and makes sure the order and structure of those topic sentences add up to an argument.

2. Do you write straight through a book, or do you sometimes tackle the chapters out of order? I write straight through, but this sometimes causes me the problems already described above. I am going to follow Chaser’s advice now: “[H]ave an outline for the entire book, chapter by chapter, and then each of the chapters gets a detailed storyboard. So I have the major book trajectory and the storyboard done before I start. So it doesn’t matter which chapter I write. However, I always write the conclusions last.”

3. Do you know how a book is going to end when you start it? Yes. That is why I start it.

4. Where do you write? At my dining table, on my porch, or on my couch. My desk is just for show. I like to read, take notes, muse, and engage in other pre-writing activity in cafés.

5. What do you do when you get writer’s block? I get blocked when there is in fact something wrong with the project and I, under the gun of required “productivity,” do not want to reevaluate because it does not appear to be expedient.

I am not slow, but I have always been pushed to get faster, for some reason. The desire to consider content, quality, and my own interests was pooh-poohed as a lack of confidence and a delaying tactic. I think the opposite is true: the poor advice to which I submitted in graduate school and later was in fact a set of exhortations (a) to renounce confidence in my own judgment, and (b) to put off (defer, procrastinate, avoid) thinking about what I really wanted to write.

5′. Excursus on “productivity,” deadlines, “procrastination,” and block. The attempt to follow the advice outlined just above led me at several points to force myself to finish and publish some pieces I did not enjoy writing, did not agree with, and am not entirely pleased to have in print. Then it led me to a space of total block, in which I could not write academically at all.

I have learned from this that if I start to feel blocked, I really should allow myself to think about addressing whatever aspect of the project I do not like, and rework/rejig according to my own lights. But when I was a child I used to hear people exhort in vehement tones: “Never write what you think, if you do you will never get a job, never make tenure.” It was terrifying.

The Paper Chaser says, “The more frightened you get, the less you write. I can’t work scared.” I agree. She goes on to say, “So … to get out, I set a timer. I promise myself I’ll work for 10 minutes. Then … usually, I get warmed up, and I am happy and writing. But if not, I get to stop for the day and do something else. I keep up the 10 minute days until I get happy about the work again.”

I think I will try this. It is a very kind and generous, yet practical way to deal with the situation.

6. What size increments do you write in (either in terms of wordcount, or as a percentage of the book as a whole)? 250-300 words a day on average, or 1500-1800 words a week. Those are revised, polished, perfect words, with all citations, translations, and footnotes in order (these are not included in the 250-300 words).

7. How many different drafts did you write for your last project? I revise obsessively as I go. As a result, the first real draft is the one I submit for publication. There are minor changes after that, but I have learned not to say yes to major revisions. By that point I like the piece as it is, and it can be published somewhere. To incorporate big new ideas, it is easier just to write another piece. My last piece had two drafts: the one I submitted, and the one with the minor revisions asked for by the journal.

8. Do you let anyone read your book while you’re working on it, or do you wait until you’ve completed a draft before letting someone else see it? I let anyone who shows an interest read anything they want!

9. What do you do to celebrate when you finish a draft? I skip all the way around the block, and fantasize about learning to fly.

10. One project at a time, or multiple projects at once? One main project at a time. There are always others in the wings, but I work better with only one project in the foreground.

11. Do your books grow or shrink in revision? Both. I am like the Paper Chaser: “add and cut, add and cut, add and cut.”

12. Do you have any writing or critique partners? Oh, I wish I had both. I am looking for them. When I have had them, it has been great.

13. Do you prefer drafting or revising? Until recently I would have said revising, which I like quite a lot, but this blog is teaching me to like drafting better than I once did. For nonacademic writing, I prefer drafting. (In ceramics, I like throwing best, then trimming, and only then glazing. It is in the throwing that you meet the piece, which is the most exciting moment in its creation.)

13. What are your favorite writing books? Obscure and cryptic notes on writing by slightly mad poets like Dickinson or Vallejo.

14. Morning writer, evening writer, or doesn’t matter? Morning is best. Evening works. Afternoons, don’t even try.

15. How do you handle reviews? Open ’em up and brave ’em, or wait? Open them up and brave them. Even if they are negative, they have at least arrived, and they are generally more polite, professional, and interesting than the rest of my mail. And they are a grownup kind of mail to receive, so just reading them makes me feel like a grownup in a way that my job does not.

16. How do you handle rejection? Fairly well. The only really negative aspects of it are that it slows one’s progress to promotion, and it means that that text is still with me – it has not found a home and I still need to find it one. But everything eventually gets published somewhere, and I like what I write, so rejection does not bother me in a deep way.

17. Do you prefer to work on writing by yourself? Or do you prefer collaborating? In my field collaboration is not the norm. I am a good collaborator and I enjoy working with others. But I often dislike collaboration for the same reason good students do not like group projects – I tend to get the lion’s share of the work.

18. Able to work on airplanes? No. But – once again like the Paper Chaser – I love working in hotel rooms. Get up, sneak out for solo breakfast, work until noon, go out and explore the city. It is great. Note: I discovered Lisa’s meme when I was in New Orleans the other day, where I had gone precisely so I could write in a hotel room! Now I want to go to Mexico City so I can write in a hotel room!

19. Have you ever abandoned a book or an article that you had finished? When? Why? I have abandoned two books and one article for which I had complete drafts. The first book I was not ready to work on at the time; I am about ready to go back to it now. The second was an edited book, with a co-editor whose negative work on the project made rather a mess of things. I should have dropped it or taken over solo much sooner.

The article is one I like, but which turned out to be very controversial and hard to place for that reason. I did not try hard enough to get it published at the time (although I sent it out four times, I do not think I chose the most appropriate venues). Now the manuscript is a bit out of date and I have not figured out what to do with it.

I have also written some brilliant conference papers and job talks that really should have been published, and that I have not found the time to polish, and I have on at least two occasions committed to writing articles in which I was interested, but which I did not realistically have the time to write by the deadline.

Being realistic about deadlines is, by the way, another thing I am trying to reclaim. My dissertation director always thought my self-imposed deadlines were too generous: six months for a publishable article if I were also taking a full load of courses and teaching; a chapter a month for a dissertation.

I never understood why she was surprised to discover that an article written in six months could be accepted in the first journal it was sent to, and that this was more relaxing than writing it in three months and then spending another frantic three, later, rewriting and resubmitting; or that composing a good dissertation chapter in a month, rather than a bad one in a week or two, meant producing, in one academic year, a complete draft which would not hurt the committee’s eyes to read. Now I see that I am the realistic planner.

20. What writing advice do you really believe in? I like to write at least a little every day, and I think it really helps to move things along. I like to begin each session by revising what I wrote last time. I like to end when I hit an easy patch, or when I have just come up with a great new idea, so that starting again will be easy.

I keep next to me a pile of index cards, on which I jot down a) the ideas and phrases this that come to me, do not fit in with my writing that day, but do fit elsewhere in the project, and b) the ideas and phrases that come to me and do not fit in with this project, but may be useful for something else.

I put the cards with the first group of ideas and phrases in the set of file folders I have set up, of notes towards other portions of this project.

I put the second group of cards in a box. When I get stuck, I draw a card out of the box at random, for inspiration. When the project is finished, I use this box as seed material for other projects.


7 thoughts on “Lisa’s Writing Meme

  1. Interesting! I really have to thank you: your way of talking about reviews as “adult mail” is just awesome. I really needed that way of reframing. And I really like how confident you are about rejection. Good for you!

  2. I sometimes think that some people have little engines of creativity with proper compasses, and that those people are very different (ie more suitable to academia) from me. Although I may turn out to be such a person yet. I like the way you term “finding a home” for your writing. Can you say more about the misconceptions about scholarly writing? I wonder myself about the link between my publishing procrastination and my expectation that academic writing be somewhat free of capitalist production.

  3. Free of capitalist production: I think right now that the best idea is to figure that academic writing just is part of capitalist production, and figure out how to negotiate with that. Perhaps it is like being an artist: they are creating their original, expressive work, and all, and yet they are also selling it. The problems I have had with this have had to do with not realizing I could take power and negotiate.

    Misconceptions about scholarly writing: one big one, I think, is that it is hard, and that publishing is hard. They aren’t really, at least for me – which is not to say they do not take a lot of work, planning, and luck; they do. But I find all the talk about how hard it is to be not only intimidating but also just uncomfortable because I cannot actually find the difficulty. Hard writing, to me, is creative writing. Hard work would be something like engineering, in which I am not talented.

    Another big misconception I have had has to do with believing too much in the authority of other writers, editors, reviewers – I actually have as much authority as they. But the worst one has had to do with the idea that one can and should sustain interest in the uninteresting. “I’m not strongly interested in this, but it’s fairly easy, and technically in field, and so and so has asked me to participate in this collection, so I’ll do it, or such and such press wants an expansion of this manuscript, and they are a good press, so I should accept” are kiss-of-death sentences for me.

  4. “When I get stuck, I draw a card out of the box at random, for inspiration.”

    One of the cards within reach on my desk: “One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

  5. Great advice.

    For years, I have been bopping between my creative work, journalist stuff and academic interest as fas as writing is concerned. And of them all, the academic game has been the hardest to figure out.

    Your approach really clarifies and reinterates a whole bunch of hard to finger truths for me.

    Thanks for articulating.

  6. Thanks, all! Unbeached, I actually have more trouble, depending on what personal and work circumstances, putting these things into practice than it sounds lie. Chaser – the reason I do not fear reviews and rejections is that no matter what, they are never as mean sounding as what I can say to my very own self!

  7. Modification to #5, I have discovered a new technique against block! I say:

    Look: you are no longer in any form of Reeducation, and you have left Women’s Studies. This means there is nobody to tell you that you should be unsure or indecisive, or more “like a woman.” There is no one to tell you that just writing your view on things is “oppressive,” “impulsive,” or that it “shows inappropriate levels of security and confidence which must be forms of denial.” Therefore, fear not to write and speak directly “like a man,” and respect yourself “like a man.” REPEAT: there is nobody here any more to tell you that direct speech, confidence and self-respect are inappropriate!

    HAH! Take that, writing demons!

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