A Writing Match

Whom does it benefit to say writing is hard? asks Dame Eleanor Hull. I am not sure but I can hazard that it mystifies writing and discourages people from trying. I, for my part, caught writing difficulty from Reeducation, according to which writing ease was a sign of poor health. Not wishing to suffer the consequences of poor health, I decided to rid myself of the symptom; I consciously chose to stunt my career and my intellectual growth because the only alternative appeared to be yet more destructive. This was an odd episode although it may be less eccentric than it sounds in the present mysterious shorthand — Reeducation was long the main topic of my weblog but is not the focus of this post, so I will only say that what I learned in it has been analyzed in part by Joanna Russ.

So I have problems around writing with disastrous consequences, but these all started too late in life for anyone to be able to claim these were native to me. I was, after all, the student who would always take an exam over write a paper, because it was more practical, but who enjoyed the papers more; the fast dissertation writer who never had a fellowship such that I had whole days to devote to writing, but was always also working some form of job; the professor on a 3-3 load who sent out at least two pieces a year, and so on.

I learned all the skills I needed freshman year and earlier, and I am more privileged than most because I did have advice from some professors and near professors who were not my professors but who knew what they were doing.

Freshman year there was my dorm, which I have talked about before — the dorm where people were working out physically in preparation for their Ph.D. orals. This building was populated by undergraduates who wanted to practice foreign languages with genuine foreigners, and foreigners who turned out to be advanced graduate students and visiting scholars. They knew exactly what they were doing and they had numerous tasks. They were charged with making good progress to degree but also with keeping up on the news and doing various forms of sightseeing so that people in their countries would be fully satisfied with them. They had enormous calendars on which they would block out their plans: when they would write each paper, when the new movies (banned in some countries) were opening, when they would cross the Golden Gate Bridge on foot, when they would see Point Reyes and Yosemite, when they would visit the wine country and Carmel, when they would ski at Tahoe.

They had to get it all in; that telegram home (there were telegrams then), “graduated first in class,” and the follow-up photograph from Mt. Tamalpais or in Sausalito or North Beach that would go by air mail were all important. And it was quite marvelous and it seems very antique now, but the point is that these people all had calendars where they would block their work plans out. “I must play an examination match against five crafty professors,” they would say, “and I am in training! With this work plan, I will win!

I was of course taking five classes in those days, so I was also playing an examination match against five professors at the end of the term. I was not yet sure I could win, so I decided I needed a calendar of my own. It served me well since I did win my examination match and even a small prize.

More fundamental than this calendar trick, good though it is, were some planning tricks I learned in the sixth grade by interviewing a professor. I had been assigned my first real research paper so I asked a professor how to do it. The professor broke it all down into questions of length and time.

Professor: How long do you have to do this?
Elementary Student Zero: Six weeks.
P: Is there a length specified, or a minimum number of sources?
Z: There is no specified length. There must be at least two and preferably more sources, of which none may be an encyclopedia.
P: How much time do you realistically expect to devote to this project each day?
Z: One hour during school and one hour after school.
P: That is ten hours a week for six weeks. Since you have no specified length, I think one ten hour week should be enough to write it. I think you should make that the fifth week. Then during the sixth week you can write it all out in nice, even writing, and draw any pictures you may want to put in — or do anything else like that that may have come to mind.
Z: Yes, that is a good plan.
P: It means you have four weeks for research, or 40 research hours. In that time I don’t think it is possible to handle more than 10 books. You won’t be able to read them all completely but you may find some that you want to use parts of. You will have to choose the 10 most useful or interesting books. If there are others of interest but that don’t make your cut, you can keep a list of them to use in the future.
P: First, do look your subject up in the forbidden encyclopedia, to get an overview of it. That will be your first research hour.
P: For your second  research hour, search in the card catalogue under subject, phrasing your concept in a few different ways so that you cast a wide enough net. You could try by title and that may yield a few items but it is less reliable, since titles vary so. If you find something you like, you could search later under the author’s name to see if they have written anything else of interest.
P: Perhaps you should plan to do your third and fourth research hours back to back. In the first hour, pull all the books on your list and put them on the table. In the next hour, look at them and choose 10 favorites. Check them out.
P: Now you will have 36 research hours left. You want to save some of this time to think and plan, and you may find you want to trade some of the books in for others, so perhaps you could think in terms of reading in 1 or 2 books a day at first. You will end up spending more time with some than with others. Take notes on the parts you like or find interesting.
P: After three weeks you will have a lot of information and notes. In the fourth week you could start blocking out your ideas and arranging your notes to fit them.  During this fourth week you will be thinking about what you want to say and looking up information to fill in gaps. By the end of the week you will have your writing plan.
P: Then in week 5 you write, and in week 6 you finish, revise, and decorate.

This paper was very successful and strangely, it did in fact turn out to be preliminary dissertation research. And this is how and why everything I needed to know about research and writing, I learned in sixth grade and the first week of freshman year. And that is why, although I may have sometimes had bad circumstances which prevented me from actually using these skills, they are second nature and having this second nature makes me quite impatient with much advice that is bandied about on research and writing.


5 thoughts on “A Writing Match

  1. Yes, it could only happen there! Entirely hilarious place although I thought of it as too geeky at the time!

  2. I like the plan as set out by your professor. It has the strength’s and weaknesses of the type of paper set forth. I found that the greatest problem I had and my spouse had, and some students of mine have had is to understand that the paper is to evaluate the ability to demonstrate understanding, not wisdom, not a search for truth (which leaves many unanswered questions), but simply a demonstration of adequate skills. If a teacher had ever said that to me, I could have given them what they wanted (read the teacher rather than the work, or author, which is usually what I did, read ALL of the author to start).

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