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Bratty - quill
Posted on Thursday 24 September 2015 at 11:35 am

Writing Advice Needed

This is specifically about academic writing for my dissertation, but any of you that write a ton of fiction or journalism or whatever might still be able to help as it is more focus, motivation, discipline kind of stuff than anything specifically academic...

Each draft of a chapter or section of a chapter for my dissertation seems to be getting done in three stages.

  • First there's the kind of meta organizing: pulling the sources, skimming back over notes, getting a feel for the big picture of what I need to do.

  • Second is the detailed organizing: multiple outlines, each more detailed than the last, of all the events, ideas, and arguments I need to make and all the sources I need to reference for each.

  • Third is the actual writing, which of course includes realizing that the outlines somehow don't work and having to change things around.

The first stage is boring but mostly OK to do as I can listen to BBC radio programs, audiobooks, interviews, etc. in the background. The second is difficult and intense but fun and exciting, too. This is where, for me, the real intellectual work happens and I get really enthusiastic about it all and probably spend far more time than I should. The third is just hard. It's mind-numbing and a slog. Most of the mental heavy-lifting was done in the second part and everything that happens here is fixing things when the actual text doesn't flow together as well as I thought it could on the outline, so I just get really frustrated.

I mostly finished chapter 1 last week and I've started pulling all the sources and doing the meta organizing for chapters 2 and 3 this week. I'll finish that stage either end of this week or, more likely, early next, and transition to the more detailed organizing sometime next week. I'll be at that for at least a couple weeks. I'm thinking I might give myself until mid October for it (say by the Cumberbatch Hamlet broadcast on 15 October, not that I'm ridiculously excited and looking forward to that or anything). Then it's the writing, again. I need to have both chapters done by 15 December.

Most of chapter 1 got done by me basically spending one afternoon writing incomplete sentences by hand on a notepad with a second notepad essentially as footnotes. Then the next morning, when my brain was fresher, I'd type the actual draft text version of what I'd done on paper the day before, getting the ideas out of informal bullet point format into something that might be clear to somebody else. It worked really well, and I'd get 2, sometimes 3, pages a day. Doing that 5 days a week for 8 weeks would be 80 to 120 pages, closer to the 80 most likely, which is perfect for 2 chapters. All totally doable, right?

My problem is that I can't make myself do it 5 days a week. It's so mind-numbing and draining. It requires too much concentration to have the good background listening like the organizing that I'm doing now and I just don't find it as intellectually exciting as the detailed outlining of stage 2 because I feel like I've already figured out all the ideas and had all the moments of insight or flashes of brilliance that I'm going to have about it. Explaining all those ideas and insights in my head to someone else is less interesting to me. I can do it for a couple days and then I just want to scream. I'll then either try to work and end up goofing off on the internet all day or not even bother and spend a couple of days at home watching movies or reading novels or going hiking or whatever. If I get 3 good work days in a week sometimes, it feels like a miracle, and even after the days when I don't work, I don't really come back refreshed as I just feel guilty for the wasted time and don't really enjoy the procrastinating.

So I need a solution before 15 October. I've pondered trying to break up stages 2 and 3 more so that I outline for a week then write for a week or whatever. Facing one week of writing at a time rather than 8 weeks of it might be mentally easier to take, but I really don't think I can do that. I have to have the full roadmap in my head and know where I'm going every step of the way. I've also pondered accepting a 4 day work week rather than 5, working Monday and Tuesday, taking Wednesday off guilt free, then working Thursday and Friday before taking the weekend off. Problems there are that I'm losing most Monday mornings starting this past week for a dissertation writing class from 10 to noon that I have to take as a condition of my funding this year and I'm not sure I can get both chapters done in 4 days a week between 15 October and 15 December. It would just be too much of a time crunch. I think I need the 5 days. So, anyone got any suggestions other than just make myself do it? Or, if "Suck it up, Buttercup!" is my only option, any advice on making that happen as a practical thing every day?


Unsentimental Fool
unsentimentalf at 7:57 pm on 24 September 2015 (UTC) (Link)
I can see your problem, yes. I'm not sure that it's any help, but with essays I tend to stop the outline stage and start the write stage earlier so that although I've got an outline for each para with details of the material I need and the rough argument I'm making I'm still working on the final arguments as I write them. On the few occasions when I've tried outlining more I've also found the actual writing too dull to get on with. Normally I like the writing stage; I'm always impatient to get there.
A work in progress
ancarett at 12:10 am on 25 September 2015 (UTC) (Link)
Okay, I hear you. This isn't easy, I know. But let's shake up some stuff.

First, are you married to seeing your writing life in seven day stretches? Maybe a three or four day cycle is what you need with two days on and one off. Yes, this messes up weekends, but highlight days you really need to devote to other things and work around those.

Embrace your productive rhythms. It sounds as if afternoons are good for sprawling out words and notes, with mornings better suited to nailing them down. Is that right? Then maybe a work day for you is one afternoon and a following morning?

Put a priority on what work habits keep you energized and engaged. And what leisure habits re-energize you. Weave them both into a shorter term cycle.

And do NOT waste prime productive time tweaking and revising. Push on after making a note of what will need to change. Tweaking the in-progress draft is seductive but unhelpful because you end up doing it all over again in round three and four.

Good luck and have fun!

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