Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Writing Schedule

I am reading Paul J. Silvia's How to Write a Lot (APA, 2007) and once again find myself in like-minded company. Like Anne Huff's Writing for Scholarly Publication, it is a shamelessly practical book. Its basic argument is that if you write on a schedule, rather than according to whim, you will be more productive and happier as an academic writer. My experience (both with myself and with the authors whose work I edit) suggests the same conclusion.

Writing projects (even whole writing careers) too often go off the rails when writers abandon their schedule and start waiting for inspiration. Or they never get started because they never consider the question of exactly when they will put all their great ideas into writing. You can't start talking about writing processes, editing practices, stylistic decisions, or even improving your grammar until you know that the author has time to try things. If you know that someone will ultimately write "what I feel like when I feel like it" (which too often means in the dead of the night before the deadline) then no amount of grammatical rules or stylistic tips will help them.

Silvia takes great pains to make academic writing seem like an ordinary, non-existential activity. "Academic writers," for example, "cannot get writer's block" (45). Writing a journal article, he says, is nothing like writing a poem or a novel. I think he is right about this in principle. But, like Huff, I know some writers who do perfectly well on different assumptions. Such writers are beyond the reach of writing teachers and editors, I'm afraid.

And all other writers should try to stick to a schedule. They should write at least as regularly as they teach classes, ideally as regularly as they (ideally) prepare for them. This is the only way to make sure that all the needed writing, reading and revising actually gets done. More on this later.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

An Amusing Anecdote about a Drug Deal

"What is this?"
"It's an amusing anecdote about a drug deal."
"Something funny that happened to you while you were doing a job."
"I gotta memorize all this shit?"
"It's like a joke. You remember what's important, and the rest you make your own. The only way to make it your own is to keep sayin it, and sayin it, and sayin it, and sayin it, and sayin it."
"I can do that."
"The things you gotta remember are the details. It's the details that sell your story."

This exchange occurs in a famous scene of Quentin Tarantino's first movie, Reservoir Dogs. I always associate it with an interview with a famous screen writer that I read in a Danish newspaper. For obvious reasons, I think that writer is Tarantino himself, but I haven't been able to find it to make sure. It could be David Mamet. If anyone knows, drop me a line in the comments...

Anyway, he explains that if you want to write a screen play you have to be able to sit a good friend down over a cup of coffee and tell the story. Not, "I'm thinking of making a movie about this guy who... no, no, wait, did I mention that he ... anyway, he goes into a store, or a restaurant, or ..." etc., but "There was this guy who...and then he went over to he opened the door...and..." etc. You just tell the story. If you can hold your friend's attention for half an hour until you get to the end then you may have the elements of a good movie. If you can't, you don't.

I'd like to suggest the same thing to writers of academic papers. A paper should always have some interesting intellectual content. Sit a colleague down with a cup of coffee and say, "Do you know what happens when companies try to brand themselves on their gender politics? Well, let me tell you..." And if you can hold their attention with the facts, just the facts, for (let's be generous) about fifteen minutes, then you might have the basic content you need for a good paper. Don't say, "I want to write this paper about ... well, it's complex, it's going to draw on systems theory and combine it with deconstruction ..." etc. I'm not saying you can't combine systems theory with deconstruction. But then start the story right. "Do you know what happens when you combine systems theory and deconstruction? No? Well, let me tell you..." And then keep that story interesting.

The scene we started with continues as follows:

Now this story takes place in this men's room. So you gotta know the details about this men's room. You gotta know they got a blower instead of a towel to dry your hands. You gotta know the stalls ain't got no doors. You gotta know whether they got liquid or powdered soap, whether they got hot water or not, 'cause if you do your job when you tell your story, everybody should believe it. And if you tell your story to somebody who's actually taken a piss in this men's room, and you get one detail they remember right, they'll swear by you.

That's it. Make your colleagues believe you know what you're talking about. That's the trick. Make them swear by you.