Some Advice on Getting a lot of (hopefully good!) Academic Writing Done (and some advice on dissertations at the end) . . .
So, I read Graham Harman’s recent advice post on writing with keen interest. And what I find so interesting here is that his methods make so much sense, and yet, mine are totally different.Which I think is about right. Writing and productivity styles vary widely from person to person, and I think you’ve gotta find what works for you.
So I figured it may be worth sharing a completely different, yet potentially complementary point of view on how I’ve been able to get a lot of writing done lately. So far the track record is pretty good – 400pg dissertation in 2007, 100,000 word book in 2008, and another in 2009. Both of these books will go out looking for publishers by the end of this semester. And the next one is outlined, and with any luck, I’ll start writing in the spring semester. I certainly haven’t produced as much as Graham (I have no IDEA how he does it!), but I’m pretty happy with how much I’ve been able to get done.
But please keep in mind, this is rather minor compared to a lot of other folks (and neither of the two books have gone out to publishers yet, though those who’ve seen them so far are excited about the results), so take everything below with a grain of salt. Its just what’s worked for me over the last few years.
I think what’s really enabled this three year creative frenzy is that the two book manuscripts are the books I’ve always wanted to write. I told myself I would write them for me, giving myself a lot of creative freedom. This means I’m going to have to find a publisher willing to publish texts that are not necessarily 100% orthodox. But there’s really a lot of precedent for this (Mark Taylor and Avital Ronnell come to mind as examples), so as long as the texts are smart, I’m not too worried in the long run.
But I think what has made it so easy to write these is the sense of creation, of excitement. I’ve had this almost strange fear of forgetting what inspired me in the first place, a need to get it down on paper, to see it become concrete. I’ve been very lucky with my job to have a situation that supports this. But I think in the process I’ve picked up on the style of what works for me, and maybe these odd insights might help others as well, because they often help me even when I’m doing stuff I enjoy less.
(The dissertation, however, is its own genre, I left that to the end, so see there for more on that very complex issue . . .)
SOME QUIRKY WRITING TIPS THAT WORK FOR ME
Since the diss, I’ve pumped out these two manuscripts, at relatively breakneck speed. Here’s some things I’ve learned along the way that work for me, and maybe only for me.
1) DO REFERENCES AND CITATIONS LAST. I find if I leave my seat and get up to do the full footnote, either by getting the book off my shelf, or using google, I still lose the flow of what I was writing. Instead, I just put a footnote with just enough to remind me of what its there for, like, ADORNO REF, or ‘describe relation to x, y, z’. Once I lose the flow, my prose gets choppy, and no matter how much editing you do, if the original is choppy, its really hard to fix. Of course, this means some tedious time doing references after its all done, but that’s much better than having a choppy first draft.
2) FIGURE OUT YOUR OPTIMUM DISTRACTION LEVEL. Lots of recent scientific studies show that low levels of noise actually make cognitive networks more effective on multiple levels. I actually write with the TV on in the background, strange as it may sound! This started originally as a compromise between me and my boyfriend, who was feeling isolated from me while I was writing my diss and he was unemployed (and hence watching TV on the couch). I was never able to write with noise before, but I got used to working at the dining room table while he was on the couch nearby in the living room watching the TV. Now I can’t work any other way! Usually I put on cable news or comedy central, something I can ignore once I get ‘in the zone’. I find repeats of movies I’ve already seen and enjoy on HBO work well too (stuff like Lord of the Rings, the Matrix, nothing too cerebral or I’ll get sucked in). I’ve tried music, but music distracts me too much, I get absorbed in it and forget what I’m writing about. When in the zone, the whole world falls away, and I don’t even hear the chatter behind me. But I find when I work without TV, I start to feel isolated and lonely, and I actually wear down MUCH quicker. Granted, there are times I need to turn the TV off, especially if I’m editing a really difficult passage. But I can only do this for so long. To be really productive, I need a certain degree of distraction. I also take frequent breaks. Usually they don’t last more than 20 minutes or so, but I need them. I usually work at home, with my phone and dog and flatmates nearby, and I find this all helps.
3) MORNING OR NIGHT? I’m a total night person. I’m really kinda dumb for the first few hours of my day. I find that if I do something physical, it makes my mind wake up faster, so any sort of exercise or teaching a class usually helps. But I also need to read first thing in the morning to get my brain going, usually various news websites. But my real creative time is always late at night, and I’ve learned not to fight this. Any time after 8pm is great to work, and from midnight to 4am is usually my peak.I’ve had my social activity for the day, maybe even taught a class or gone to lunch with a friend, but then the phone stops ringing and I can get down to real work. I do need pretty intense light to maintain that strange timelessness of the night-time creative world, though. Heck, I wrote this whole post in one flurry of activity, and now its 7:51 am, and the sun is coming up. Usually on my most productive nights, I see the sun come up, and as I go to sleep, I keep getting up to send myself emails with solutions for problems to fix the next day. Then wake up mid-afternoon, and repeat. Of course, you can only do that on the wknds, but for me it works nicely.
4) OBSESSIONAL STYLE, OR ON A SCHEDULE? I find I’m an obsessional worker. I can’t do the ‘write at least an hour a day’ thing, I don’t work well with little bits, or arbitrary structure. Very often I work all day, or not at all. And my writing comes in massive spurts. I’ve also learned not to fight this. Do what works for you, not for someone else. There’s lots of styles of productivity. You’ve got to find yours. I find that when I ‘hit the zone’, its like playing a musical instrument. Time and space sorta vanish, and then I look at the clock later and go, wow, and there’s a lot of text on the page. Usually it needs a good edit, but that’s the way I work, vomit then trim, but for others, there are very different methods.
5) KEEP RE-OUTLINING. Just cause you’ve outlined doesn’t mean you need to stick with it, but you always need to be reconnecting to the big picture. I actually continually send myself emails, with an easy to search for title (like book project), and that stream keeps my notes to self organized. This is usually where I’m in constant dialogue with myself as to how to reframe the project as it inevitably mutates as it goes.
6) SOLVING PROBLEMS WITH REVERIE. When I hit a logjam, and can’t figure out how to resolve it, the best thing for me to do is go into a state of distraction. Often for me this is right before bed, that quasi reverie state. If you stay focused on the problem, it won’t resolve by sheer effort. But when you let your mind drift to all sorts of silly things, it will inevitably circle around the problem, and then the answer will come about on its own. This is because the brain will decrease your dopamine levels, which means that your brain will increasingly use ‘spreading activiation’ in the way it retrieves information from its cortical columns. Essentially, this means your logic will be more associative, less linear. More creative, more outside the box. And usually to get out of logjam, that’s what you need. And I find that as I get older (ok, I’m only 36), I really love naps, and even non-sleeping rest periods. I’ll stop work for a bit, set an alarm on my computer, and just lay down on the couch for a half hour. Studies have shown that about 45 minutes of having your feet elevated to the height of your head or higher is often as refreshing as a real nap, because literally bathe your brain in extra quantities of oxygenated blood (or so the NY Times said!). But I often find these periods of reverie really productive. They recharge my energy, and often solve logjams, lead to new ideas, etc. And my dog likes them too, cause he often gets some extra attention.
7) CREATE ARTIFICIAL DEADLINES. When someone says to me, ‘oh, I’d like to see what you’re doing, but I’d need it before the semester starts’, for me, that often creates some sort of artificial deadline. I want to get it to them before their new semester starts! Even though part of me knows it is an artificial goal, it keeps me focused and productive. Once I send it to them, they usually don’t have any idea I’ve been slaving over it hard for months just to get it ready for them, but they don’t need to. I’ve fooled myself into getting it done.
8] FIND THE RIGHT LEVEL OF PROCRASTINATION. I love to procrastinate. In fact, I need it. Unless I’m stressed out enough, work that needs to be done on a deadline won’t get done. If I start too early, and force myself, I won’t be interested, get too easily distracted, waste tons of time. For me its more productive to do the things I want to do until I really HAVE to put them down, then do what I have to do, and the adrenaline keeps me focused. I’ve learned not to fight the need to procrastinate, but to keep my eye on it, and to ask myself, what is my MAXIMAL procrastination point? That way it doesn’t get the best of me, rather, I try to get the best of it.
9) LEARN YOUR RESEARCH STYLE. I find that I will research the hell out of a topic until my brain decides its hit some sort of saturation point. Usually this is the point at which I’m reading a source on the topic, and realize I’ve stopped learning. I don’t mind reading sources that are redundant, of others I’ve already read, sometimes I find I need that because I want a new topic to become part of my bones, not something I forget quickly. Either way, I continue until saturation happens. And when it does, I find it hard to read up on that topic anymore, and usually, I start playing with outlining, or sketching out some preparatory, what would a first sentence look like. And from fooling around, usually I find myself several hours later with the first draft of a section in front of me. But this requires some planning too. Now that I know I have this saturation point, I’ve learned to select which texts I want to make SURE I read on a topic go FIRST, and less important ones last on my list. Because its possible I won’t actually get to the last sources. So I know not to leave the best for last. Once you know your own research style, you can try to tweak its rules to work best for you, though I’m not sure if my research style has much in common with that of others. Likely it does with obsessional rather than slow-but-steady writers.
10) SCHEDULE REGULAR SOCIAL EVENTS. Every thursday night, I meet a group of friends for ‘Regular Beer Night’. We choose a bar in the local area, and a whole bunch of us usually show up. That makes thursday night pretty sacrosant, I don’t mess with it. Its crucially reserved social time. But it keeps me working all weekend. Anytime I think, gee, I have a boring life, I can point in my head to thursday nite. Studies have shown that regularity in social activities like this really help particularly well with the alienation of city life. I’m a full believer in that. Even if you say to one friend, let’s meet every tuesday night for dinner, that does it to start. For me, thursday nights recharge my batteries. They make me more, not less productive. I also find that having at least one really cool vacation of the year helps. It doesn’t have to be long, but it should be intense. All winter long I work like a fiend, but anytime I think, damn, I lead a boring life, I think back to my vacation during the summer, and remind myself another one is coming. I find actually that reaaaaaally hot yet dry climates help this for me, because I remember the intensity of it – ‘now that is living’, my brain often says afterwards. And the nostalgia of how good just about every cold drink, every siesta, feels in that climate makes me feel alive. So when I’m spending a lot of time writing inside, the memory and anticipation keep me motivated. Either way, I find it useful to ‘clear the palette’ when I feel too saturated with writing. A good night of drinking with friends does that for me. It wonderful to be able to say that I’ve got the WHOLE night, many, many hours, in which socializing is my only goal. That keeps me productive for days. But going for a movie with a friend can also be helpful. The fantasy takes you to another place, and you come back fresh, so long as you really do immerse yourself in that other world. Sometimes I find videogames can do that too, but I usually only resort to that if the work itself is at a particularly boring or annoying part. Either way, my quasi-sacrosanct ‘nothing academic’ time keeps me sane. Sometimes I give myself a guilty pleasure TV show at night as a reward after a hard day’s work, but its not the same as knowing that thursday nite is coming.
11) ALLOW QUASI-PLEASURE READING. I think the tendency is to only read stuff related to your current research, and generally that’s what I do. But then there are quasi-fun things that seem quasi-related to my research/writing of the moment. Often these provide me with my best ideas. Stuff that seems really tangental will often lead to outside the box insights, just like reverie.
12) DON’T AGONIZE ON BEING WHAT YOU’RE NOT, RATHER, AMPLIFY YOUR STRENGTHS. Some people struggle to get just one page done. Others write ten pages in the same amount of time, but then need to go back and trim, edit, remove, rearrange, etc. I find I’m in the second camp. But I’d have so much difficulty writing so exactly that I’d never have to go back and revise. I’d be silly. And its much easier to amplify your strengths than fundamentally change your character. And I really think a lot of guilt issues get tied up with writing and productivity, I SHOULD write more this way, why don’t I? Fuck that, do what works for you, not others! Experiment. There’s no one right way. I know I write in obsessive burst, but then I give myself scheduled breaks.
13) KEEP AN EYE ON FOOD INTAKE. I’m a bit sensitive to these sorts of things, but I find if I forget to eat, then eat a big meal, I’m done, I get REALLY tired after that meal, and coffee won’t fix it. Rather, I find lots of small meals works best. Being slightly hungry I think is when I’m sharpest, but if each meal is really small, almost a snack, it keeps me on the edge of that most of the time.
14) TRY TO SEPARATE WHAT YOU WRITE FOR YOURSELF AND WHAT YOU WRITE BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO. The books I’m working on right now are for me. Hopefully they’ll get published, but ultimately, my goal is to make me happy with them. The diss was for others. And I wish I knew at the time to keep this stuff separate. But if you need to write stuff in a way you don’t really want to (ie: you need a publication in a certain very stodgy journal for your CV), ok, but as the bible says (I can’t believe I’m quoting the bible!), give caesar what belongs to caesar. But reserve your own stuff for yourself. Even if you know it won’t get published in as prestigious a venue, its like a great vacation – the anticipation of getting to do that will keep you moving through the annoying stuff. I’m an odd one, when I’m doing annoying stuff (like grading papers), I obsessionally work on them too, because I feel that the longer I drag it out, the more pain, but the sooner its done, the closer I am to freedom. But that freedom motivates me to get through the annoying stuff.
15) WRITE MORE LIKE YOU’D SPEAK. As soon as I write what I think of as ‘academic prose’, it usually comes out terrible. I think that’s because there’s paranoia at that stage, I’m guarding every word against possible objections. In my current job, I’m required to teach one section of Eng 101, 1st year college writing, each semester, along with my other courses. And so often when working with students, I see convoluted prose. And I ask them, ‘well, ok, but just tell me, in your own words, what you’re trying to say’. And then they say it nicely and clearly, and I tell them, ‘well, why don’t you just write that down!’. And when I’ve worked with friends editing things like applications to grad school, dissertation statements, revising diss chapters or essays to send out for job applications, I find the same thing works. And knowing this has totally changed my own writing style. I just imagine myself speaking, and write it down. Often I use my ‘teaching voice’ in my head. And this keeps me focused. I don’t need to say the most final, perfect thing about this topic in a way that can’t be assaulted. I don’t need to back up every assertion. I want to just explain something simply, as I would in a conversation. Which isn’t to say you oversimplify. But I think the ‘ideal of academic prose’ produces some terrible writing. When in doubt, imagine how you’d make the point to a smart friend from out of your field. You’ll use examples when relevant, but not feel that paranoid need to throw in the kitchen sink, to show everything you know. I actually find that when I write ‘in my teaching voice’ for smart non-specialists, I look back at the prose and I’m very happy with how it reads. But when I write for other academics, its often turgid, paranoid and disjointed. Not on blogs however, and I think this is because I know blog posts are ‘just for a purpose’. And as soon as I do that, I put on a ‘writing voice’, rather than speak in that odd ‘voice of god’ that makes for terrible academic writing. But as academics, we don’t have to craft one authorial voice, we need many for different occasions and types of texts we want to write. Always write with the right authorial voice for the audience in mind, and so long as that’s not other academics, or has other academics as a secondary audience, the writing will usually be smooth. Often I write so that academics will understand what I’m doing at a higher level of resonance, but a non-specialist will still get the basic moves. This keeps it relatively jargon free. Granted, you can’t do this for books and articles aimed at very specific audiences, but I think minimizing the attempt to have the ‘voice of god’ will help no matter what. And I think blogging really helps. As Levi Bryant has said, ‘the more you write, the more you’ll write’. I couldn’t agree more.
16) GET RID OF THE KITCHEN SINK. With my dissertation, I felt the purpose was to ‘show everything I know’ in a nutshell. What a burden! I wish I’d know then that the point of the dissertation isn’t this, but to actually write on the thing you say you are. All that other stuff simply isn’t relevant. Each of these book manuscripts has had a very simple goal, and I put every other goal on hold. And so much of the other knowledges I had crept it, incidentally and gracefully, rather than in a paranoid way. Nothing your write should ever be simply to show how smart you are, because then it will get overloaded. But people read texts generally to learn about a specific thing. If you keep the goal of the text focused, and pare away anything that’s not relevant, you’ll generally end up with great tangents that show what you know IN SUPPORT of the project, not undermining it. But if you’re anxious about showing everything you know, I find for me at least that I end up with bric-a-brac.
17) WRITE IN SMALL, TITLED, BITE SIZED CHUNKS. For these two book manuscripts, each section has a title, and is separated from what comes after and before. I try to keep each section relatively self-contained, so that I can move them around later if I want. I can delete whole sections later if necessary (and that’s sometimes important, sometimes you need to write whole chapters to only later realize that you had to write them to get to be where YOU needed to be to write the rest of the text, but these chapters are not really relevant, in hindsight, to the shape of the work itself). By titling and trying to keep them relatively self-contained, I keep it bite-sized, and this forces me to make sure I don’t stray too much off topic and get lost in side points. When you finish such a section, you can ask yourself, does it really do what its title says, and if not, maybe change the title? This dialectic I find really useful. And the nice thing is you can always take out the title headings later, but they help as you go. I still usually keep them. In fact, I usually start writing in one stream, then divide it up, name the sections, then continue by adding sections. And after each section is done, you deserve a break, time to recharge.
18) REWRITING IS SOMETIMES BETTER THAN EDITING. If a section needs to be totally reworked, or edited beyond belief, usually because your ideas have shifted, I find often than rather than trying to fix an already existing text, which is usually a very painful process if you need to do a lot of work, its often easier to just wipe the slate clean and start over from your new vantage point. The results will be much more natural and will flow, but any text that has too much reworking is likely to read terribly. If you have to do tons of surgery on any passage, its often better to put it aside and redo. That way, editing will be reduced to a once or twice over, anything more than that may start to make the prose turn into disjointed sentences, tangents that don’t return to the main argument, etc.
Nothing was more different for me than the process of writing these books and the process of writing the dissertation.
I really ended up kinda hating the diss process. And it too was written very quickly. I was hired at my job, before the current economic crisis and its devastating effects on the job market (which was already miserable), with about a 90 page segment of the dissertation written. Of course, the proviso was that I had to finish it before starting work, and I was nicely given the full fall semester to do this. While the first draft of the final product did go in at that time, revisions requested by my committee extended this till the next september.
Writing the manuscript wasn’t that hard, though stressful. I had a big prize and the fear of not getting it hanging over my head. The process ruined my romantic relationship at the time, despite the fact that I warned my boyfriend at the time that the next few months were going to be terrible (but he didn’t know many other academics, so it still took him a bit by surprise).
But I don’t think the dissertation process should’ve taken this long. In hindsight, here is what I WISH I’d known then. People had told me this a little, but hadn’t emphasized it, explained it to me.
THE DISSERTATION IS JUST AN EXERCISE – IT SHOULDN’T CONTAIN YOUR SOUL. Repeat like a mantra. Its impossible I think to fully ever accept it, but I wish I would’ve pasted this on the wall near where I worked while working on my diss.
Why? Because the way dissertations are structured makes it impossible for you to ever be happy with the final product. You are writing for a committee. And everyone on that committee will give you advice, and it will contradict what the others have given as advice, but very often others on the committee won’t tell you to ignore the advice of a colleague, so you are left with a set of contradictory desires. How do you satisfy them, AND yourself?
You don’t, can’t, and won’t. Ultimately, you have to give them the dissertation they want, not that you want. And that means that you will likely find the process soul crushing in one way or another, as you try to salvage some part of the soul you planned on putting in the culmination of your years of hard work, emotional trauma, etc. And I don’t say this ironically – graduate school is psychologically grueling, often much more than academically. 5-10 years of complete indeterminacy in your life, at a crucial period in which your peers are setting themselves up, and you aren’t even sure if employment is coming, can really wreck you emotionally. I’m still quasi-recovering a few years later, it really took a hard toll on me! Like Lacan’s famous example of the praying mantis, its the not knowing if you’re doing the right thing long term for your life that makes it so difficult.
Midway through, I started to train as a psychoanalytic therapist as a ‘backup career’. I figured that if the right academic jobs didn’t come along, I could support myself as a therapist and write my philosophy/theory books on the side while teaching adjunct. I got lucky, and got a wonderful job. But once I separated from the career, I started to enjoy it again. I started planning and researching for eventual books that had nothing to do with my dissertation. Books for me. It was liberating. That helped keep me sane as I went through my dissertation.
Don’t get me wrong, I had some great advisors, and they really went to bat for me. I just don’t think its possible to really express yourself within the discursive parameters of the dissertation within its institutional contexts unless you get a fortuitous set of circumstances (ie: a mostly hands off but very powerful advisor). In reality, there are likely to be five egos competing over your dissertation, because everyone wants to show off vicariously through you, but is afraid at the same time that they could look silly to their peers via how they handle you.
Which is why I think the best bet is to DETACH your ‘soul’ from the diss. You will have more freedom in other contexts later, in your first job. It may not be ideal or pure freedom, but as I read in one ‘how to’ book on dissertation writing (which really was helpful, contrary to what I expected, and which I only read, silly me, after I’d finished writing the diss!), never again will you have to satisfy five people at once, ever again, in your whole academic career. At most, 2 outside reviewers are likely to look at any academic work you send out in other circumstances, and even then, if they reject it, you just send it to another group.
The dissertation is an artificial situation, completely. But I learned so much from having to write it. I learned how to write a book, how to really research fully on my own. The topic could’ve been on bovine flatulence – even if it had been, going through the process was the whole point all along. And in fact, so it was with revising. Even had my diss been perfect, my committee would likely have invented things to make me revise, and it would’ve been smart of them to do so. Because afterwards, I realized that THE WHOLE PURPOSE OF THE DISS IS NOT ITS CONTENT, BUT ITS FORM. It taught me how to write a book.
I just wish I’d known going into it to not put my soul into it. And even if you know, its hard not to do. But knowing beforehand would’ve made it SOOO much easier. You just have to satisfy five people. Later on, you can salvage what you want from what is really a strange rite of passage and a formal exercise.
Had I know that beforehand, the process would’ve been MUCH quicker and MUCH less painful. Of course, I’m idealizing a bit in hindsight, but still.