overly-honest academia: #nofilter writing

After a lull mid-2014, I’ve been writing a lot over the last few months; first articles and conference submissions, shorter pieces to get me back into the habit and build up momentum, and now the concerted effort for the book. I set myself an impractical aim for a full draft, which I’m fine with missing because doing what I could to make it has meant that I am still ahead of schedule overall.

It’s taken a lot of work to get to this point, though, since, as with many people, writing has not always been something that comes easily – to be honest, I think a big trick was realizing that it was perfectly okay to accept that some days words just won’t come, and to take advantage of the ones where they do rather than trying to force it. (Of course, this only really works if you’re not trying to write a paper at the last minute).

In the interests of overly-honest academia, then, here are three approaches I have found to be somewhat successful in terms of either getting words to appear on the page/screen (and this is no measure of quality of words), and actually getting motivation for work. There are of course additional factors that can help/hinder; I’m doing a lot of work in cafés at the moment, where usually I have no internet access and I can sit outside/in air-con and go into a bubble while the world goes by. And drink lots of coffee… Last summer I got a lot of work done at home, though, so location is a variable factor (and another point to underline is that what works now might not work in the future). The three confessions that follow, though, have stuck with me for longer than most:

1. writing with no filter

This has been the big one these last few months. Sometimes, there are silly things I want to write, puns to work around, dumb references to make; when I was in high school, those would be dominant features of my work, and then I realized maybe that wasn’t what I should be focusing on in terms of making an actual argument and having some analysis rather than showing how clever I thought I was. While my writing has improved since then, the tendency to be a bit irreverent remains, and over the last while I’ve embraced that again – not for putting in the finished product of my work, but more as a mechanism to get the writing started and to keep it flowing. Just writing what comes into my head about a topic, having strange turns of phrase, and including (and justifying) references to pretty much anything pop culture-related, have all helped to keep me writing on consecutive days – I’m usually someone who writes in a frenzied flurry at the last minute, rather than patiently building up a piece day-by-day, so aiming for 1000+ words per day without necessarily finishing anything, and hitting that target, is quite different, and, funnily enough, satisfying (I don’t write in a linear fashion, but bits and pieces all over the place that eventually get joined up).

Of course, there will be plenty of editing to come later, since I probably won’t (or shouldn’t) get away with much of the silliness; but it does mean the foundations are there for edits, so that they can be improved and made far stronger and on topic later on. (Another advantage of not doing things at the last minute: actual editing time beyond trying to ruthlessly cut too many words to get under the maximum word limit).

2. becoming more like Dennis Denuto

The #nofilter approach is an extension of an earlier trick I learned when writing my thesis became a bit of a hassle. Then, the blank page, and especially the fear of not knowing enough about a topic to write about it (for other people to read and critique) was a major hurdle to writing. Even when breaking it into sections and sub-sections, working in chunks, there were plenty of points with a general lack of confidence in what was going to come next (regardless of how much reading/analysis has been done previously). Mixed with other academic anxieties, for instance the imposter/fraud unease, then the pressure on the writing to be a clear, considered, and amazing demonstration of ideas and knowledge becomes even more pronounced.

So, when I was doing my PhD, one of the best pieces of advice from my supervisors when my struggles started to become a concern, particularly when writing up my results, was not to worry about the wider implications yet – don’t try to make a well-rounded connection between the findings and the theory straight away – and instead to just write up what I thought were the general impressions and ideas from the findings; in essence, to be like Dennis Denuto in The Castle and focus on ‘the vibe’ (albeit with a little more detail than Dennis):

Writing about the vibe of a study, like writing with no filter, provides the opportunity to get the foundations ready, to get some words on the page; it doesn’t matter if they get edited or cut later, because they’re also a warm-up for continued writing, building up momentum so that, after a few hundred words, some kind of rhythm has been established and it’s easier to keep going (ideally, at least). It is also a good bridging step between an initial stenographic examination of the subject and a final, cohesive, insightful paper.

3. the Mrs Landingham reminder

Sometimes, though, trying to get going – even with the vibe – can still seem too hard. There are a few ways to trick the brain into easing the pressure – if a piece has to go to peer review, then there will be opportunities (and most likely necessities) to revise later, or remembering that perfect ≠ done, for example – and when working with others there is far more guilt in potentially letting people down than if writing by myself. In that case, it’s worth remembering what the long-term benefits would be from doing the work (having a paper written, even if gets rejected) vs. the short-term cost, and being realistic about how much work is required to get to a submittable version.

On days where I feel like I’m avoiding work not because I don’t want to do it – that I’ve decided not to do it, because it’s not useful, or I’ve actively said no (apparently saying “no” is a valid strategy!) – but because I feel it’s all too hard (even though I’ve done it before and I just need to get going on it for it all to get better), my popular culture reference moves from Dennis Denuto to Mrs. Landingham from the West Wing:

It’s not the “then God, Jed, I don’t want to know you” sentiment that’s motivating here; it’s more just someone else spelling out exactly the thing that is stopping the work (that it just seems too hard), and how selfish or self-defeating that reason can be. It’s not too hard, and the worst that happens – if the paper gets written – is it doesn’t get accepted for the first thing for which it is submitted, in which case it gets revised and improved and gets repurposed for something or somewhere else. Granted, it can be a lot harder to do this than think it, but the reality is that the short-term anguish is just that, and soon it’s over.

After all, once a paper is sent out, it stops being your problem for a while – and the relief of there being nothing you can do about it for a while is, honestly, such a great feeling.

I guess I should stop procrastinating now…