Help me become a higher-output writer!
August 8, 2008 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Academic writing filter: I am a painfully slow writer. How might I go about developing a composition process that's higher-output, requires less concentration, and is more revision-friendly?

I've never been the kind of person for whom words just spill out onto the page. When I'm able to write anything at all, I usually manage it by pacing and thinking through things until sentences shape themselves spontaneously in my head, at which point I transcribe and move on. What emerges is (I'm told) fairly high-quality, but to get into "writing mode" at all requires hours of unbroken concentration-- and once I'm in the zone, I generally have to write the paper more or less continuously for the next few days, without doing anything else (including social interaction) that might break my focus. At my best, I can squeeze out an average of about four pages per 24 hours, assuming I do nothing but write.

Now that I'm staring down the barrel of some serious writing, I'm realizing I really need to overhaul my composition process. If I'm ever going to tackle book-length projects, I'll need (a) to be able to work in reasonable stretches-- say, five hours at a time instead of 96-- and (b) to find a way to write with only a reasonable investment of concentration and effort, as opposed to the torturous, childbirth-worthy levels of focus I currently require.

I suspect the answer might be to aim for lower-quality, higher-quantity prose, and to revise as necessary. Thing is, I have
no idea how to do this
. I'm not some crazy perfectionist saddled with debilitatingly high standards; at this point, I'd be perfectly happy to pour out dreck, given that I suspect my advisors won't read half of what I write anyway. It's just that my mind doesn't really allow me the option of producing high-volume, bad writing. In the throes of composition, it doesn't come down to a bad sentence in five minutes vs. a good one in 15; it's the good sentence, or else a blank page. If there IS some time-consuming process of mental revision at work, it's taking place way below the surface of my consciousness, at some level where I can't presently access it. (An additional guilty secret: I've never really revised an academic essay. All the sentences end up being so bound together by rhythm, logic, sound, shape, etc. that I can't really amend much without just taking everything apart and starting over from the beginning.)

Any advice, suggestions or inspirational stories would be very very welcome, particularly if there's anyone out there who's successfully turned this corner. Useless advice thus far: "Just relax, don't worry, and do it!" (I'm not worried, but I can't), and "Just sit down and type anything, without thinking!" (I've tried; nothing comes out, which is my problem in the first place). Any ideas?
posted by Bardolph to Education (13 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Stop typing, start writing. I usually write out drafts longhand and then type them up.

If that doesn't work, try talking. Get a voice recorder and record yourself lecturing on the topic, then type it up.
posted by grouse at 11:01 AM on August 8, 2008

My strategy for writing in an academic setting is to lay out the bare bones of my story - usually in an outline, sometimes in a powerpoint if I had images. My thesis advisor would constantly ask me "What's your Question?" and "How does that fit into your story?"

From there it's just a matter of taking each piece and writing about it coherently. Oftentimes I would jump around a bit - one piece of data would be more interesting than another and I'd take advantage of that to write about it. The final editing process was to tie it all together and start paring it down. I found that if I could break my thoughts into discrete chunks of information, they could then be moved around at will to see whether the story would be more compelling in a different order.

Once the order and the story are in place, an abstract, introduction and conclusion pretty much write themselves.
posted by oreonax at 11:13 AM on August 8, 2008

I second oreonax.

Also, this sounds like a perfectionism problem.

I wonder if you'd benefit from doing morning pages. It's meant to be a tool to get creative types more in touch with themselves, but it might help in your situation, too. Basically, every day, you write three longhand pages about whatever comes to mind -- even if all you do is repetitively write down, "Nothing's coming to my mind and I have no idea what to write about."

You might need to train yourself to produce volume as opposed to quality -- or at least to tilt your process a little bit more in that direction.

You also might want to embrace the concept of "shitty first drafts."

None of this stuff will teach you how to RE-write, but it can help get you producing volume.
posted by Tin Man at 11:18 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Forgot link: shitty first drafts.
posted by Tin Man at 11:20 AM on August 8, 2008

In addition to the suggestions above, if it's going to be a long paper, I try to just put out a page a day (or two pages or whatever). Having to do a page makes things a lot easier to do a shitty first draft (like eating just a bite of crappy meat rather than the whole crap-steak.) Then after your 15 pages/days/whatever are in a somewhat-completed state, you can go back and start editing the whole thing back together into something that you won't be embarrassed to publish.
posted by nushustu at 11:26 AM on August 8, 2008

I've found that one of the greatest boons to keeping the flow going is the journalistic convention of TK. It's a corrupted abbreviation for "to come," so when you're writing along with the flow, and come to a detail you can't quite remember, just drop in TK and keep writing. Go back later, fact check, and fill in all the TKs.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:30 AM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

You didn't say what subject, but there's probably a fair bit in this short book, recommended to me by my old supervisor, that would apply.

One of the first things they recommend is basically a brain dump on paper. Visualize what you're trying to write (an essay of several pages, a chapter, or a section of a chapter) and try to put everything you want to say on paper, but don't worry about the phrasing, word choice, order, or anything. If the first thing you think of to write is the transition from part 2 to part 3 and then the next is just a bullet-point summary of part 1, then do it like that. If there's a clever turn of phrase you want to use in part 3 (part 3 that you haven't even outlined yet) just write it on the page about where it would go. Quite often the introduction and/or conclusion get written (or outlined) last but they can naturally spring up. Print it out, draw arrows to where bits should be moved, cut it up, rearrange it, whatever.

This is useful for 2 reasons: 1 is that it gets the ball rolling if that's what you have trouble doing. The second is that if you write the way you normally do, you can easily find yourself using fussy grammar, akwardly long sentences and unnecessary jargon. This encourages you to write simply and more clearly, and you can add big words and complexity as needed afterwards.
posted by K.P. at 11:59 AM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Something I do that works for me, but probably not for most people (though I was overjoyed to discover the other day that a writer whose work I respect does the same, though I've forgotten who)... After I've written for a while, I print out what I've written, delete it or open a new file, and type it all back in again, making various tweaks and changes as I go. By the time I get to the end of what I've retyped I seem to have great momentum to keep going beyond that.

I've never been able to work out why this works. It's possible that it's because I'm a perfectionistic writer like you — I can't bear the idea of splurging out crap and then going back and revising — and yet this technique seems to lead inevitably to revision. This has the result of forcing me to see that all my sentences that are "so bound together by rhythm, logic, sound, shape, etc." actually aren't; the same thought can always be expressed in a variety of ways yet still be sonorous, logical, etc.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 12:07 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think I have tried all of the strategies mentioned in this thread, and they all have contributed to the development of my writing both in terms of output and quality. The only exception is the morning writing, which, now being aware of it, is something I'm probably going to try in the near future.

The greatest breakthrough I ever had came about a year ago, when I was working on writing a particularly onerous grant application. I wrote it up, felt it was "good enough," and then started showing it to a few of my professors and soliciting their feedback. They tore it apart (i.e., they did exactly what I needed them to do). I was frustrated at first, but put together another draft. They tore it apart again. Repeat repeat repeat, and fourteen drafts later (it was only a two page piece of writing) I had a piece about which a prof whom I really, really respect said "I can't think of any further criticism."

It was sort of a watershed moment for me, in that, I used to always be of the mindset that if I wrote something, that first draft was just the way I wrote it. It was what I was capable of. I couldn't improve it. However, this process of revising a little, bitty two page bit of writing taught me that I can become a better writer than I think I am just by revising and rewriting.

More recently, I used the technique game warden describes above while preparing an article I am working on, and it worked like a charm. I'd produce a draft, and get so far, and set it aside. Open up a new, blank document page. Start over again, with the edited draft beside me. I'd copy what was good, change what wasn't, and add in new things where I needed it. Each day, rather than setting me back, the re-writing ended up leaving me with more words on the page than I had before, and certainly more than I would have written had I kept slogging away at a first draft that I was probably never going to be crazy about.

I think the ultimate lesson is this: revision is not a tedious, frustrating process that comes after you are done. On the contrary, the rewriting and editing and tearing apart is part of the writing process itself. Let yourself write, as Tin Man suggests, shitty first (and second, possibly) drafts.
posted by synecdoche at 12:47 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, you sound exactly like me. I have to admit, I don't think I've turned the corner very much, because I think it's really just how my brain works, but I have gotten a *little* bit better by doing a couple of things:
-Writing in longhand, like others have said. I always start whatever project I have by writing on legal pads--for some reason it's easier to think this way. I can't start anything on a computer. I've also found that starting in longhand helps because later, when I go to type stuff up, I am able to stay in the groove more easily.

-Outline, outline, outline. I find it's especially hard to get started on something new because I don't know where I'm going. Outlining (also longhand, never on the computer) is easier, because I don't feel the need to write sentences, or even have major thoughts. I can start by writing down "introduction, lit. review, data, etc.", because these are always going to be parts I have to write. Then I can use the outline as a way of fleshing out even more, like going to the lit review and thinking about which topics I have to address, which might lead me to thinking about specific articles, and even then points I need to make. I also find the outlines helpful because I can physically check things off as I write them, and it gives me a sense of accomplishment.

I have to say, I still tend to write in very long stretches like you do, but these things have helped me a bit. For the rest I've just accepted that that's how I have to work, and plan accordingly.

Good luck!
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:53 PM on August 8, 2008

It's possible that what's going on silently in your head, before the sentences come, is not really sentence formation, but organizing. Was for me. I learned to write faster when I started making a little marker (a card or slip of paper) for everything I wanted to say: Idea on the front, briefly—or not briefly, but only if I know I've got the perfect exposition of it—and citation if any on the back. I build up a stack of those, knowing that I will throw out 5-10% of it, and then I start playing with them:

Sort them into piles by common topic or by the way you imagine using them in your argument. Put a label on each pile and put them in order for your paper. Go through each pile and order the stuff in it. I've used those little flash-cards-on-a-ring things to store and carry ordered and unordered collections of "talking points" like this, and they work great.

Once you've done that, then like the programmer who writes "pseudocode" before real code, you now have detailed directions for your further work. And you can do that work in chunks of a couple hours, because there's no need to build up all the rhetorical structure in your head again. (I still find it advisable/necessary to do the selection, sorting, and ordering in one session, though.) The tradeoff is that the segmentation might make your writing less of an integrated whole, but then again, that is an accepted defect in English-language academic and technical writing.
posted by eritain at 1:32 PM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Tricks that can help to generate material for revision:

Write emails or letters to friends or advisors about the project you're working on, describing the topic, the organization, or the point you're currently struggling with. Then don't send them (or do, optionally) but use the material.

Write memos or notes to yourself about the topics or ideas you're stuck on. For me one useful formula to lead into free-writing is What I'm trying to say here is... – this sometimes allows you to proceed with the writing, then just come back and delete the lead-in later.
posted by RogerB at 3:38 PM on August 8, 2008

I feel your pain. This is actually my exact problem right now and it's really incredibly frustrating. I'm a big fan of Joan Bolker's book How to Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day -- great tips for writing, mostly centred around the idea of free-writing (sounds very much like K.P.'s "brain dump" above). I have found the free-writing helpful. I think she also recommends writing every day even if you have nothing on-topic in your head and says something like just write anything even if it's "I can't think of anything to write" over and over again. She also recommends Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers, which is half writing tips and half recommendation on how to set up teacherless writing classes. Elbow has a great conversational style of writing and you feel like he's talking to you -- he explains his own problems with writing and you do feel a connection with him (someone else is going through the exact same thing!). I'm reading an older edition (1972) which shows its age, but I believe there's an updated edition from the 90s. I recommend both Bolker and Elbow -- I sometimes find that reading books about writing really inspires me to write. Good luck.
posted by pised at 10:28 PM on August 8, 2008

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