Monday, November 12, 2012


"The readiness is all."

My advice is to always decide the night before what you will be writing on any given day. Further, I propose not to bring any source materials, whether that be books or articles you've read or primary sources you're writing about, with you to the writing session. (I've noticed that this is an important difference between my approach and, say, Jonathan Mayhew's.) You should only bring the notes you've made in preparation for the writing you are about to do. When you write, you should be writing down something you know, indeed, something you already knew quite comfortably at least last night. You should not be discovering what you want to say in the act of writing. This requires a clear separation of the research process and the writing process, i.e., the process that generates ideas and the process that commits them to the page. Many scholars find this to be quite a radical idea.

Authors I work with sometimes say that my approach very quickly draws attention to what happens in preparation for writing. To plan their writing also means to plan the work that happens the day (or days) before any particular paragraph is to be written. And I am sometimes asked whether I have any advice about how to organize that time as well. I am always hesitant to say something about this, however, because in the end nothing should depend on advance preparation. You've decided to write something you know down, that is all. How you came to know it is none of my business. At the end of the day, no matter how you conduct your research, there are things you know, and all I am saying is that you should devote between one and six half hours to writing them down in coherent prose paragraphs.

If one of those sessions does not go well, some writers tell me that this reveals their lack of preparation. They thought they knew but had not worked hard enough, or effectively enough, the day before to make sure. They articulated a claim, but they discovered in the act of writing it that they were unable to support it adequately. This week, I will offer some suggestions for how to structure the non-writing research time (ideally, work done in the afternoon). But I want to emphasize that I do not, in fact, believe that such organization is necessary. If you choose something you think you know well enough to write a paragraph about every evening, and then write that paragraph every morning, you will become better and better, not just at writing such a paragraph, but at choosing which paragraph to write.

My aim is Socratic. I don't want to help you become more knowledgeable. I want to help you better distinguish what you know from what you don't know.


Jonathan said...

I've done writing like that too. In fact, I usually don't have everything I need on hand. The problem is that I have to leave a lot of blank spaces like "[check reference]" in my draft. I'd rather transcribe a quote right from the book to the document rather than from my scrawled notes.

Thomas said...

But that also takes a lot of discipline. The temptation to stop writing and begin reading can be too strong for some to resist, especially if the writing is not going too well that day.

Jonathan said...

It's interesting that I take your approach (more often) in my own writing but advocate a better mise en place for other people. I guess I want other people to be more organized and disciplined than I am myself. But my way works for me.

Thomas said...

I'm going to try to make a positive argument for y/our way this week, actually. I think it has some overlooked side benefits.

Olaf B said...

As I do some tutoring myself, I found your blog very inspiring. The main problem in inexperienced writers is that they can subvert pretty much any advice. Experienced writers I've met are often very idiosyncratic: some write polished prose with very elaborate notes; others only skim their material and engage only in the act of writing.

Inexperienced writers, i.e. my clients, are an other matter. If I allow them to bring their sources, they start reading or produce incoherent fragments. If I don't allow sources while writing, they lack the discipline Thomas mentioned and make claims that are imprecise or just wrong (or they don't write anything at all).

Success, I found, is most likely if the author finds something she wants to say as long as it is combined with close reading. The prose might still be weak, the text poorly organised – but usually it is something we can successfully revise. If I get a collection of random observations and assorted summaries, there is not much I can do.

I'm afraid Thomas will disagree, so let me clarify: feeling strongly about something doesn't cut it. The author has to be thoroughly familiar with her materials, so she can say: "Let me explain this to you"; and she has to be confident to know more than her audience. If this is the case, I think it doesn't much matter how one writes, or rather: the process of producing better prose will be quite straightforward.

Anonymous said...

I typically don't like to think of the research and writing components of a given project as so clearly distinct. However, I completely agree with this strong distinction when it comes to writing the actual finished project that you will turn in, submit, present, etc.

I would just want to say that the kind of writing you do during the research process is different from the composition, revision, and polishing that takes place in a final product.

Anonymous said...

OK, here is what I think: you only need to have all those documents in front of you while you are figuring out your argument. If you separate research and writing as you do, which I also believe in (it is said reading, i.e. research, is "procrastination on writing" but I do not believe this), then you can write from just notes.

Z said...

P.S. When I am doing it right I also:

Research phase -- write a page each day documenting what was done. I get ideas while writing these. (Maybe it is because I do this that I do not understand the exercise of "prewriting" that people do.)

Writing phase -- use those notes or not, have books next to one or not, but it is good to have all the books in one place, not because you have to write next to them but you want your resources.

Thomas said...

In my post this morning, I distinguished between research and writing "moments", not phases. While there are certainly periods where the first kind of moment is more common than the second, I don't advise actually 'going through a phase' when you are not engaged in some of what Matt describes as the "composition, revision, and polishing that takes place in a final product". I'll develop this idea a bit further tomorrow.