Recently on an academic forum I frequent on the internet someone posted the question “How do you write?” That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, since I’ve had the opportunity to focus intently on writing for most of my postdoctoral fellowship. I thought it might be worthwhile to post a slightly edited version of my forum post here.
So, how do I write?
First off, over the past three or four years I have written a lot. I mean really a lot. So I’m deep into an extended, intense writing phase, where a lot of things I used to struggle with have become routine, almost unconscious. Having an established writing routine is enormously helpful.
So, assuming that I have a basic idea (in my case, an analysis of a literary or cinematic work) that I want to turn into scholarly writing this is what I do:
I think my process starts at the macro level and filters down to the micro. I start out with a very specific idea of what I want the end product to be: an article to be submitted to a particular journal, a chapter in a larger book project, a contribution to an edited volume, a conference paper, etc. I pretty much always write with the specific formatting requirements and approximate word count in mind. These genre requirements influence the content and structure of the argument so much that I want to have them clearly in mind before I start writing.
I always compose everything on the computer. For me, writing is all about clarity, and what I’m writing has to actually look like a manuscript in order for me to be able to believe in it as an article.
I know there’s going to be a theory section that helps explain whatever phenomenon I want to write about. There will be some kind of engagement with existing scholarship on the text (or a discussion of why there isn’t existing scholarship). There will be an introduction and a conclusion. There will be a series of interconnected analysis sections. Often there will be a section contextualizing the text historically or culturally. The logic of how these parts fit together changes very little from article to article. Because I “cracked the code” for the scholarly article genre a few years ago, I spend very little time fretting over the structure.
So, once I know what venue I’m writing for, basically, I just jump right in and start writing whatever section of the article interests me most, or that is easy to get squared away, or that I happen to have the material handy for. I nearly always have subheadings in my articles, which makes it easy to start plugging in text at the relevant place in the article.
If I get stuck, or run out of steam, I do a couple of things. I work on mechanics (setting up the bibliography, proofread the draft, translate citations, etc.). I go back to the work I’m analyzing and re-read sections. I re-read secondary literature or theory, or find new sources. I go do something else for 10 minutes or an hour and come back to it. Sometimes I need to put an article into time out for a day or a week, but I always come back to it. Right now I have an article that I’ve put on a month’s time out because what I wanted to say in it has become garbled and at cross purposes. I need the critical distance to be able to reformulate the article and cut the extraneous stuff out.
I think the most important practical thing I do is to save each writing session’s work under a new file name. That means I can change things and still go back and find what got deleted. I can also track my progress in terms of words written by comparing the word count of the previous iteration to the day’s work. I use the same file name with _01, _02, _03, etc. For some reason, I find tracking word counts very motivating. I like to see quantifiable progress!
As the article starts to reach a reasonable word limit, I print out a copy and proofread it with a pencil in hand. At this point, I make tons of small changes, everything from word choices, moving paragraphs or sentences, inserting transitions, to noting where I need to provide references or back up a point with citations. Here my main focus is on logic the rhetorical structure of my argument. I keep doing this until there aren’t any more things I want to change.
I have a bunch of self-imposed stylistic rules, like that I can only cite a long passage if I actually go in and do a close reading of the whole passage, or that I can’t end a paragraph with a quote from someone else, but need to round it off with my own words. I read for tone and style too, making sure the language I’m using is appropriate, and really saying what I think it does. This is the most interesting part of the process for me. I feel like I don’t really know what I think about something until I’ve written it down as clearly as possible. Often times I find my interpretation of a passage changes as I engage more closely, both with my own language and with the work I’m analyzing.
When I reach that magical point where there really aren’t any more things I want to change when I read it through (usually around file _16 or so for an article), I know the article is ready to send out into the world. Sometimes I have a trusted colleague read and comment on a draft, and that is nearly always incredibly helpful. Sometimes that’s not practicable, so I just send it straight to whatever venue I have targeted. A lot of times it gets accepted. Sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I’ll usually pout a bit and then send it off to the second venue on my list (I nearly always have an idea of three or four places I could submit the work). If the feedback was very negative, or if there were very specific suggestions for improvement, I’ll rework the article before I send it somewhere else. By this point in my career I’m pretty sanguine about receiving criticism (though I’ve shed many a tear along the way!), since the goal is to produce the best possible work.
One of the things that came up in the rest of the discussion board was the creative aspects of the process, which I completely ignored in this post. I was focusing on the logistics and practical questions of how to get something written, and completely ignored the complex and creative process of coming up with ideas and making choices about how to frame the analysis. That’s really the most important part, but for me at least it is so intuitive that it’s almost impossible to outline a method.