Friday, November 16, 2012

The Tasks at Hand

I have been somewhat vague this week. The idea was to talk about what you can do outside your writing sessions to ensure that they go well. My general advice is to work on your research with the writing task clearly in mind, albeit well in the future. Over the long term, this means that you should be preparing yourself to support individual claims in prose. This preparatory work is precisely what some writers find difficult. I wish I had something more specific to say about how to do it but my experience says that, as with writing, you will become better at it simply by doing it every day. One thing that is often useful is to put a little more time (and sleep) between the process that generates your ideas and the process that writes them down.

Beyond that, the specifics of research can vary greatly from field to field. A historian will have tasks that differ greatly from those of an economist. The activities of an ethnographer are not those of a philosopher. In fact, the whole style or temper of disciplines can be so different that it is unwise to say what scholars should be doing when they are not writing. But, outside their scheduled sessions, they should certainly not be writing prose. And they should probably be taking notes of some kind that will allow them to write prose when they've planned to do so.

Perhaps I can say this as a general rule: all scholars should be writing for their peers on a regular basis and reading the work of their peers on a regular basis.

To make sure it happens regularly, both of these activities can be scheduled. And to make sure that they actually happen, they should not be confused with each other. When reading, read, when writing, write. Don't bring your reading materials to the writing session. Don't break off your reading of a text when an idea hits you that you think you need to write down. Follow through on the activity that you've planned for yourself for the period of time that you've planned it. Give the part of you that wanted to do that activity the time it needs. It's a long journey. Stick to the task at hand.


@spani3l said...

Cheers Thomas, thanks for sharing. Someone once said that you can tell a wise man from another man by their reading habits - the wise man, they say, will have a pencil in his hand. I get what you're aiming at when you say "stick to the task at hand", but isn't there a possibility a more integrative approach to reading and writing might make some writers more productive?

Thomas said...

In my experience, most writers need to disentangle their reading from their writing. Yes, there is some wisdom to reading with a pencil in hand and notepaper at your side. But it unwise to start writing prose; and it is unwise to stop writing prose and start reading when you have planned to write. Let your reading and your writing integrate in your dreams. It's the best place.