Writing is agony. I sometimes have the surges of energy and excitement that come along when you write something you are passionate about, but mostly writing is excruciating and exhausting. As I tell my students, writing is like football. Watching every game of the season does not make you Peyton Manning–it doesn’t even make you remotely good at throwing a ball. In order to be good you must do, not just observe. Like in football, writing cannot be taught or self-taught. No matter how many books you read on the topic, no matter how many writing courses you take, to be a good writer, you must write. And like football, writing is hard: it takes effort, time, energy, and sacrifices. However, just like football players must also be coached, it’s a good idea to read a lot and read about writing in order to adopt good techniques and habits.
In this spirit, I’ve been reading Wendy Laura Belcher’s book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks (2009) and really loving it so far. Belcher’s central argument is in favor of a daily writing schedule and she strongly advocates against writing in huge chunks of time, and against procrastinating in general. Many writers agree that the only way to write is…to write. And then write some more.
“Often it’s been observed: Writing is largely habit. Paradoxically, not writing can also be a habit. The writer who, again and again, must defer or delay getting to pen, paper, or processor finally develops mental habits of deferment and delay. A good percent of what passes for “writer’s block” is simply the habit of not writing, gotten out of hand and reaching the level of addiction—possibly because of pleasurable feedback, such as concern and attention from others over the problem or even through good feelings about the things accomplished instead. Thomas Disch’s cure for writer’s block at the Clarion Workshop was simply to insist that no other student communicate with the “blocked” student in any way, or even acknowledge his/her existence, until she or he had written a story. As a technique, it was devastatingly effective—usually succeeding within twenty-four hours.” –Samuel R. Delany
Most of us can relate to Delany’s argument. “Writer’s block” is a kind of hip predicament: it makes you sound all intellectual and cool. There’s also a certain glamor to procrastination. I often hear other grad students boast about their capacity to write 20+ pages the day before a paper is due. They seem to be happy about the fact that they haven’t started on a project yet or that they’re just being lazy. I’ve written before that I think this is a strategy within impostor syndrome—if you’re heavily criticized on a project, you can always justify your perceived failure by arguing that you didn’t really give it any time or effort. I also think that it’s a way to fight off the nerd image stuck to good students (and all grad students are good students, and all of us are nerds!). It’s a way to say–I’m in grad school because I’m inherently brilliant, and if I bothered to actually work hard, I’d reach the top.
If you do do your very best on a project, you expose yourself to criticism that can be uncomfortable and challenging to your ego. You can always leave your writing at that and never touch it again, but if you’re hoping, like me, to get published, you need to work doubly hard to transcend the first draft stage. That’s why I’ve been making efforts to improve my writing, and that’s why, after many recommendations, I am reading Belcher’s book.
On pages 26-38, Belcher lists and responds to the major obstacles to writing that her students say they encounter. Some of the most common include “I’m not in the mood,” “I’m too busy,” and “my ideas are not good enough,” to which Belcher gives excellent advice. She gives particular solutions to each of these complaints, but mostly the answer is: write, even if badly, even while in line at Walmart, even if you feel shitty. And mostly, I think she’s right–there is literally nothing that can prevent you from laying down words on the screen or on paper at any time of the day.
But one of my personal obstacle is missing from this list, and it’s about the difficulties of the editing process. Like most, I find that editing my work is by far the most challenging aspect, because the excitement of the early stages and the inspiration are mostly gone by the time you must revise your work. The first thing I do at the editing stage is to make a list of my editor’s (a professor or a very generous peer, but mostly my husband) comments, which allows me to better understand their criticisms by rephrasing them. The second thing I do is to make a reverse outline of my essay. Sometimes the progress of your argument seems logical, but time and insight may reveal gaps or forced transitions. Because I am revising seminar papers, I find a lot of superfluous paragraphs (often “lit review” type passages that serve to prove myself as an expert on the topic and do not really advance my argument). I also often feel like the actual research that I have made during the semester is superficial or even lacking.
During any given semester, grad students have to write three different projects from three different seminars, on top of the regular weekly workload. Even if you are savvy enough to do coherent projects with a common research base, it is very hard to make significant and profound research in such a limited time. So when I try to revise my work during breaks, I’m often frustrated because I feel like I have to re-read the same books because I don’t remember their arguments clearly enough, or that I have to read more books.
This is where I am right now. And of course reading new material will inevitably spark my creativity and passion for the project again. The problem is that it also provokes a real fatigue in me that is not uncommon to the post-semester depression I’ve written about here. Having to read new material also make me very nervous, because I am afraid it will change my argument tremendously and force me to transform my entire essay. Writing this now I realize that that’s a good thing–transforming my essay is the entire point of revising it. Anne Lamott says that it can take her up to five pages of bad writing to reach one good paragraph (“Shitty First Drafts”). I often feel like it takes me half of my actual final paper to reach that good paragraph. In fact, the professors who have read my work this semester all at one point pointed out one passage and wrote “this should come earlier”. The reason they wrote this comment, I realized, is that the passage in question is my actual argument, an argument it took me several pages to find. My adviser told me recently that it happens to everyone, because of course, as Belcher and others argue, writing is an integral part of the thinking process. In other words, you cannot come up with complex, challenging, original ideas without having written extensively–you cannot just “think them up”.
But editing is an exhausting and painful process. It highlights the issues with your arguments and writing, and it makes you come to terms with all the things you must do to improve just at the moment you thought you were done. So at the moment, I’m taking things slowly by trying to read a lot and doing a little every day. I am currently editing an essay I am still very happy and excited about, and reading Belcher’s book step by step in the hopes of being able to send it to an academic journal in my field by the end of the summer.
What are some of your editing techniques? Please share in the comments!