Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Long Process

Your writing process should be recording truths you've been aware of for some time. You should be writing down things you've known for weeks and even months. You should not be writing down something you only discovered yesterday and barely understand today. Get your mind all the way around a subject and then write down the stuff that sits comfortably at the center of your attention.

Many of the writers I work with object at this point. They tell me their work is structured by "projects". They can't write down things they learned eight weeks ago because that was another project back—an eternity ago. We have to think about this.

First, the push to be "current" is really a red herring. Even if you did write only your freshest ideas down today, they wouldn't be published for months, or even years, anyway. So to write them down a few months later won't make a big difference in that regard.

Some people, then, say that their project is paying them to work on this thing, not on the last project and so there is no time, on any given project, to write about the last one. My response to this is two-fold. First, if project-driven research really means that researchers are only allowed to think about things for, say, six months at a time, and must then think something else for the next six months, then it is an evil we must fight. I don't think any project coordinator or program evaluator would push this line. It's absurd.

Second, it's really just a planning issue. A research project may give you six months of concentrated research time, where you're doing field work and analysis. But then there's that long wait before the results are published. Part of that time, after the funding period runs out, should be spent writing. All you have to do is borrow the writing time for your last project from your current project. You then wait to write your current project while doing your research for your next.

Once you get this process up and running, you're always paying back what you borrowed. And your writing is much more interesting to your peers because you've actually had time to think about it after your research was completed and your results were ready to be presented in prose.

You want your writing to have some permanence. You don't want to have changed your mind about your results in the time between submitting your paper and having it accepted, or between having it accepted and being published, or even between the time it's published and someone finally reads it. You want to recognize yourself in the writing even years afterwards. The best way to ensure this is to put your research process well out ahead of your writing process. The latter collects your most durable ideas. The rest can wait until your research confirms them better.


Andrew Shields said...

How can this be spun for undergraduates? Writing papers for seminars.

Thomas said...

That's a very interesting question. It's suggests one of the ways modern, formal education undermines real learning.

It's one of the reasons final comprehensive exams (after four years of study, for example) would be much better than the modular programs that I guess all universities run these days. This would require students to spend four years learning and retaining knowledge, i.e., getting themselves into shape and staying in shape so they can perform everything the know (not every step they took towards learning it) under examination. The way we do it today, we are basically training them to work in "projects" in the worst sense of that word.

(The obvious impossibility of "cramming" to pass a comprehensive exam for a whole degree program should make continuous training the obvious procedure...but I guess history will be invoked to refute me here.)

One compromise would be to have a teaching semester and then a writing/exam semester for each course. These could then be leap-frogged, so that students are constantly learning something and being examined on something else. The examination modules could then proceed as writing workshops.

Within any 16-week semester, however, one could focus the first 8 weeks on learning "content", i.e., reading an discussing ideas, and then the last 8 weeks solely on writing what they learned (in the first 8 weeks) down. That is, no new material would introduced in the last 8 weeks. The only question would be how to represent the first 8 weeks' material.