Monday, April 23, 2012

Three Principles

Many scholars correctly identify writing as one of their main problems. Solving it, however, is another matter. If you think that your writing is what is holding you back, here are three principles that might help you gain control over your writing process. Understanding these principles will not magically solve the problem, but it might guide you back on track so that your prose gets progressively stronger.

1. Focus on submission, not publication

It is natural to think of our writing as being aimed at the publication of our results. But we don't have direct control over whether or not we get published. Making publication our focus, therefore, is likely to lead to frustration, because there is no dependable connection between the effort we expend and the results they bring us. But if we shift our focus to the submission of articles, we are able to direct our efforts towards a goal that we have final control over. The process that leads to submission is entirely in our hands as writers.

2. Think in paragraphs

It is also natural to think that our writing is about our "ideas". But as Mallarmé said of poems, journal articles are ultimately not made of ideas, they are made of words. Those words need to be arranged into paragraphs. The problem with thinking about your writing in terms of your ideas is that "writing an idea down" is a very vaguely defined task. Writing about six sentences that provide support for a specific claim in under 200 words, by comparison, is a much more precise task. It can be accomplished within 30 minutes and will make a specifiable contribution to your paper. Keep in mind that your paper will consist of about 40 claims. By approaching the problem not as one of putting your ideas down on paper but of writing paragraphs, you are able to see the paper as arrangement of parts, each of which you can straightforwardly produce.

3. Appreciate your finitude

You don't have all the time in the world. And you don't have to say it all. By thinking of your writing as a process that produces paragraphs to be submitted to journals, you can put it in a manageable perspective. You can keep things in proportion. How many hours do you want to spend writing how many paragraphs to submit before what date? How much time does that give you per paragraph? Even if you don't use my 30-minute paragraph approach, you will have to divide your time so that each section (consisting of a certain number of paragraphs) gets a fair share of the total time. Then you have to spend that time as planned.

To implement these principles, I recommend working in a mildly disciplined way over a period of weeks. To get a good sense of what you are getting into, start by planning 9 hours worth of work. Decide exactly what paragraphs you are going to write in those hours, and then write them. You now have a good sense of what you are capable of. This lets you make a plan for, say, 8 weeks of concerted effort. Ultimately, you'll want a writing process that dependably produces paragraphs over something like two 16-week periods per year, devoting a maximum of 480 hours.


Jonathan said...

I like the emphasis on submission, something you can control, vs. acceptance, which you cannot. Acceptance should only be a concern if you get nothing invited for even a revise and resubmit.

Thomas said...

I would go further. Acceptance should be an issue only if you get regular rejections. Many people worry about why they are not getting accepted ("Nobody understands me" or "I don't know enough" or "I'm a poor writer" or "I don't know the language" or "The system is a corrupt and I don't know the right people") and fail to notice that they aren't even getting rejected. First get rejected, then worry about why you aren't getting published.