On (Academic) Writing

For several months now, I have regularly been posting on social media photos and screenshots of my efforts to write my dissertation. Some might call it self-aggrandizing, but I have found this habit—and the “likes” and comments it generates from my Facebook and Instagram friends—to be a powerful source of motivation that keeps me cranking out words daily. Due to posting these photos, I often receive requests to describe my writing process, and in particular what I am doing with the hundreds of little slips of paper with which I cover my desk and bedroom floor. So (and really this is just an excuse to procrastinate on cataloguing the endless varieties of misogyny expressed by interwar male undergraduates, which I find rather wearing) I thought I might write something describing how I write.

It’s necessary to begin with several caveats. First, there are not objectively better ways to write—or to do research, or any other academic or creative task. People find the systems that work well for them based on their learning styles, writing styles, and other life circumstances (for example, if you have children, your writing process may look very different to mine!). Second, while I am probably fairly good at being a fifth-year graduate student, I am not the right person to advise peers at the same career stage as me how to write a dissertation, because I haven’t written one yet. Furthermore, due to a combination of the structure of my program and receiving an extra year of funding through an additional internal fellowship, I have not had to teach for the last two years and thus have been able to engage in an intensive period of research and writing. While I do part-time work to supplement my income, it amounts to less than ten hours per week, and I mostly do it in the evenings and weekends. I say all this not to brag, but rather to observe that structural privilege accumulated over many years affects our ability to write in the way that we would most like. For example, the flexibility of my schedule allows me to block out a few hours every morning, at the time when my brain is sharpest, to devote only to my dissertation, a circumstance available to few graduate students. I am thus not the right person to advise the many peers whose path through graduate school has been considerably more difficult than mine.

In general, most of the brain-work I do is not very systematic. I have a free-associating mind rather than an analytic one, whose natural tendency is to dive very deeply into one topic rather than assessing patterns across different cases or bodies of material. I mostly do history by collecting very large quantities of archival material and then simply telling the reader, at some considerable length, what they contain, before embarking upon an editing process in which I compress that description to a more manageable size. When I get round to writing, therefore, I have spent many weeks or months in an archive or several, and have hopefully had the time to organize my findings, taking apart the Word document of hundreds of pages in which I have recorded my stream-of-consciousness impressions of the archive and creating an entry for each document in my Zotero database. I don’t do much in Zotero beyond recording the correct citation information and organizing all the documents by repository and by date. But I can then print off that database—the poor trees, but for me the most essential part of the process (enabled by the laser printer I bought out of the research account I am exceptionally fortunate to possess)—and get on with writing.

The writing, then, starts with several hundred pages of source material, and a space like a floor or a big table, large enough to lay it all out and get a visual sense of the shape of it. Even a large computer monitor doesn’t quite provide the scope for this, for me. Spreading it out makes it possible to see patterns—for example, if student politicians across many different institutions all became preoccupied by a particular topic in a particular year—and also to trial different ways of structuring the argument and exposition that I might follow over the course of the text. It’s actually possible to skip this step if the piece of writing is very short (such as a conference paper or a blog post), as in that case it might be possible to hold the whole structure in my head at once and/or to take a less comprehensive approach to incorporating all the source material. But for a dissertation chapter, it is absolutely essential—I shouldn’t be able to do any actual thinking without it. I used to nail down a structure on the floor and then paste all the slips into a notebook, but more recently as I have been working with larger and more complex quantities of material I have found that I want to revisit and revise the structure as I write. I keep the slips laid out on the floor, or file them in a more mutable way with paper clips and folders.

So that’s what the slips of paper are. They become the raw material out of which the story is written up, and I interpellate in my own words context and analysis that lead the reader from one slip of paper to the next and sum up what the whole picture is. To draft, I use a piece of software called Scrivener, which allows one to do various fancy split-screen things that make it possible to see, for example, an outline, multiple chapters, and the footnotes all at once, and to save notes and chaff in different folders as part of the same database as the main text. (Scrivener costs $38 with an educational discount; I am fortunate to have been able to afford to buy it.) I write at the rate of about 600–1,600 words per day, which will take between two and four hours of concentrated, intensive thinking that typically leaves me too exhausted to do brain-work the rest of the day. I do this about six days a week, every week (it has been many years since I took a vacation). I usually write between 10am and 1pm, and do other work, paid work, or housework in the afternoons, but occasionally this varies or I have enough energy to be able to write all day. I try to push myself if I can, but listen to my body and stop if I can’t. I never write in the evenings, and only rarely, under extreme time pressure, do other work at that time.

While on the face of it this quantity of word production in this amount of work time might seem productive, it is actually not efficient at all. With so many slips of paper, it can take weeks to progress through a given section of the text as it is laid out on the floor. Almost every aspect of writing the dissertation so far has taken much longer than I had imagined it would, and my goal of finishing a draft by September has slipped progressively further out of reach. Moreover, this word production is the first in a series of revision stages. The first drafts of the chapters that have so far got as far as a first-draft stage have been 35,000–40,000 words long: baggy objects that are not only of an inappropriate length for the genre of thing that they are, but would be much too onerous to ask anyone, even my long-suffering advisor, to wade through. It takes another series of weeks to sculpt this material into something that looks like a chapter. My goal is always to get it under 20,000 words before I show it to anyone, through a painful and painstaking process of winnowing. Then comes the slow round of workshops and seminars, getting feedback from expert and general audiences that will be the basis for further revisions. In previous writing tasks this process, potentially endless, has been put to a stop by a university-imposed deadline or by publication of one sort or another (in a journal, on a blog). But in this case I am several years away from the book going to press which will mark the formal end of writing.

My way of thinking about and doing writing has been influenced—I am still realizing how much—by the semester I spent in John McPhee’s writing workshop in spring 2009. McPhee, a longtime New Yorker correspondent and the author of many works of long-form journalism, has taught a creative writing seminar at Princeton for decades. Most of the students are aspiring journalists, as I was then—though most were much better writers than I was, and I think McPhee was rather tired of my tendency to insert myself into every piece of writing I created for the class. The main lesson McPhee impressed upon us was about structure. Clarity, he said, comes from the structure the writer creates, which leads the reader through the events or concepts discussed in the text and slowly opens out its central meaning to the reader’s understanding. In class, we scrutinized the diagrams McPhee had drawn to visualize the structure of his own essays, often metaphors taken from the natural environment which has been the subject of so much of his writing: a snail shell, a wave. This class was my first realization of how important it is to be deliberate and disciplined about writing, rather than just expressing one’s feelings. I took to heart the structure lesson. It fell to the back of my consciousness when I became disillusioned with journalism and began to study history, however, and I was surprised recently when reading a New York Times review of McPhee’s new book to be reminded that his office, like my bedroom, is filled with little slips of paper that he obsessively arranges and rearranges in an effort to make meaning. Evidently, I had taken away more than I had imagined; evidently, too, there is more than one way to be a writer. But now I, too, tell my students about structure.

I have always had a natural aptitude for writing, though it has improved considerably as I received more formal instruction in the subject and have been prompted as a professional academic to think more consciously about suiting one’s writing to a specific task. As an adolescent, I had perceived writing primarily to be a means of self-expression, and rebelled at restrictive formats. But now I see it primarily as a means of communication, and am happy to embrace formats as constructs that convey meaning and aid the reader. A dissertation chapter, a grant application, an online essay for a general audience, an email all have different audiences and purposes, and the format and style one selects must vary accordingly to be effective at getting one’s message across. I believe it is possible to (strive to) marry beauty and eloquence with clarity and analytic rigor. I admire in others, and try to achieve, a style which is engaging but also articulates a clear argument and makes it possible for the reader to follow it without working too hard. I have had interesting conversations with colleagues who opt for what I might call a more subtle or literary style, to tell a story more than to deliver an argument. It is clear that this is a matter of personal preference that might vary, and that when workshopping others’ writing it is important to respect what their aspirations for their own writing might be.

It is difficult, however, to remain true to personal preference in the context of an academic environment, where one has the sense that one is constantly being evaluated, that extenuating circumstances affect one’s ability to follow one’s instincts. Almost daily, my feeling of pride at having created 1,000 usable, relatively intelligent words in a morning is subsumed in my feelings of guilt, anxiety, and exhaustion: are those words good enough? why am I so tired now? how might I summon up the energy to do an afternoon shift? how will my advisor, or a conference audience, react to them? am I making enough progress to finish on time? will anyone else find this interesting, or just me? If I had to live solely by selling my words instead of by the strange cocktail of things that might see one lucky enough as to win the academic jobs lottery, I might be asking different anxious questions. But I have often felt that if I somehow had income coming in regardless and could still be writing for my own gratification, I would be much more confident in my ability to do good work, and to stop when I am tired and it isn’t possible to do more. It does not help that many in permanent jobs seem often to advise advanced graduate students about writing in precisely the same tone they would take with undergraduates ten or fifteen years younger, forgetting that grad students might have extensive professional training and experience in writing and editing—or, as I indicated above, that writers’ own personal processes and styles may differ and that what works for one person may not work for another.

We all, whatever our level of seniority, I think, often forget that work does not always look like work, and that there are all kinds of non-obvious pursuits—baking, going for a walk, sitting in the pub with friends, playing video games, childcare—that for many are actually an integral part of the writing process. For those who do their best thinking while doing something else, it is necessary to set time aside in the day not only for office/desk time but also for these activities. It is necessary also, whether an individual graduate student’s routine includes caring responsibilities or not, to respect that a 9–5 office schedule is not everyone’s best way of achieving work–life balance. To me, the greatest benefit of academic work has always seemed to be the flexibility of its hours. While for some the babysitter’s schedule is the most important constraining factor, or the 9–5 really is an ideal setup, for others the time that has to be set aside is late at night, or as in my case the hours of 10am to 1pm and those alone. For others still, the luxury of being able to do the grocery shopping in the middle of the day on a weekday may be the one thing that allows them to get the housework done alongside their more-than-full-time job. Much as the writing process takes many forms, and not everyone may be best served by drowning themselves in little slips of paper, so too is it the case that different people work best at different paces or at different times or in different ways. We do not guard work–life balance in the way best-suited to making academia accessible to everyone if we insist that everyone conform to a 9–5.

And with that, I am off to play video games. A happy 2019 to all!


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