Writing is grim, says Paul D’Silva. It is hard because it involves thinking clearly. What tips should we give analysts who need to write better, and more quickly? these are my suggestions, and I’d love to hear what you think we can add,
Writing, and especially writing accessibly, is challenging. It produces a lot of anti-task behaviours, some of which can be justified like reading, responding to emails and reading source materials. However, this leads to long periods of not writing and short periods of high-pressure writing to deadlines. Those deadlines might produce adrenaline, but it’s tempting to focus instead on manageable tasks, rather than amorphous tasks like writing.
One way of breaking writing down into manageable bits is to separate out
- * pre-writing,
- * drafting and
- * the revision and editing process.
These might seem to be linear steps, but there are interactions and loops. It’s easy to get stuck in the process or to suffer from writer’s block. People can sometimes struggle to stop researching and start drafting. Sometimes we feel that we are not ready to write, despite having researched a lot, because there are foundations we don’t have in place. There are pre-writing exercises that can make it easier to start, and that make the climb less steep. This preparation centres on
- participating questions,
- writing practice,
- distilling and
- identifying key content.
When reviewing these steps, it might be worth thinking about some writing you would like to do. A typical goal might be to develop a one-page document, like a response to a call for papers for a conference in some mighty motivating location for which funding is in place. Ask yourself: what are the research questions that drive this work, like an engine, and then brainstorm ten related questions. It is questions that focus and give energy to research, and give it its context. Research-oriented writing often lacks energy but, because questions provide energy and direction, they help connect to the curiosity of the reader. Readers want to know what you are asking and how you found the answers. The questions cannot emerge only in the drafting, although preparation will certainly create more. However, if you research by hanging out in an open-minded way, then the process can become unmanageably large. Questions don’t set the research in stone, but they give a place to start.
Sometimes we delay writing until we feel the sources, grammar, style, and plan are all perfect. Such work needs to be spread out along the process. Before you start writing, you need a focus area and a slight degree of structure: not necessarily an outline, but an idea of the material and how points can be grouped together. It can be hard to make these choices after we start writing. That means establishing which questions you can, and cannot, ask as a scope. Then, consider whether there is a hierarchy of the questions. Finally, is there an order of progression: which come first? These questions are the interface with the reader. Use these questions to map out your research story.
Often it’s useful to discuss this research with peers. Sometimes the research culture is critical and confrontational, and that can inhibit people. Often the format of the individual facing a Word document is draining energy and preventing thinking freshly. Speaking to your peers, and sketch-noting ideas, can both help people to get out of a ‘linear’ rut and to think spatially and in a more thematic way of articulating and producing ideas. It also helps us to shift from consuming to producing.
When this mapping is done, it’s useful to start to write straight away on paper. Free-writing approaches allow us to think, and to start a process which can powerfully clarify our thinking, show weak links and suggest to us where our gaps are. Useful tactics include getting away from the computer and onto the paper page, and indeed forcing yourself to write solidly for at least five minutes and gradually to build up to writing longer despite the discomfort. When you’re writing on a computer, it’s very easy for your eye to drift back over what you have written. That can make writers uneasy: you see that what you have written is not awesome. That leads either to editing or to distraction, both of which take us away from the task of writing. Writing on a computer is dangers because they are huge entertainment parks, with many ways to avoid the discomfort of writing. For example, it sounds like a good thing to edit and a computer helps you to do that. However, slamming words onto the page is the way to build up greater engagement and moving towards unworried writing. Writing a “draft zero”, having lower expectations than one might have even of a first draft, can give us a chaotic capture of ideas. It’s important to not feel guilty about this sort of writing. As EM Forster once asked: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
Most people find it useful to write on the computer because it’s such an excellent editorial tool. However, it’s also a great distraction tool. Some people need to turn off face kook. KeepMeOut.com is a University of Edinburgh tool which specifies the URLs that are your downfall. There is other software which can help people to write more: WrittenKitten.net rewards you for producing words. WriteOrDie.com forces you to commit to a certain number of words or it deletes what you write, although this can be debilitatingly stressful. 750Words.com helps you focus on three pages a day, and to think more about what you are things about and working on. All these tools allow you to prevent sliding between editing and writing. In particular, learning to touch-type is an essential tool because it takes away one of the barriers that forces researchers prematurely away from writing and into editing.
Central to all of this is giving yourself prompts that show where you and where to go. Such prompts are effective ways of finding a way forward. Asking “so what”, and thus answering the question “what is stake” can be vital. These help us to build up our writing “muscle”, alongside being realistic about what we can do and getting into regular habits. First drafts are always imperfect, so the temptation to edit is always there. The work of drafting and redrafting is important, but the first draft is the key. That is the work that can be done quickly. Editing, with its critical hat, comes much later.
Of course, drafts need to be focussed and distilled. Readers understand better if there are key messages which are clear, and if the text can be clearly and easily navigated around. That means a process of distilling the core research ideas and outcomes, while discarding that is not needed. The more content can be distilled into three or four main points, that can be substantiated and given evidence from the research, the better. As Christopher Hitchens said, that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
After these main points are distilled, two tasks remain. First, the organise them into a linear order, and second to sketch the key evidence or substantiation for each point. For any piece of writing, it’s a good idea to start with a short draft and let that expand. Too many people try to write the whole work in one sitting. It’s better to start with a summary page, then expand that to a few pages, and then to attempt the whole chapter. Just getting the sentences out and connected can be hard. To resolve this concern, think about the paragraphs, then the core sentence for each paragraph, and then write out from there.
Taken together these methods will allow researchers to build up additional writing muscle, to allow us to meet the daunting task of writing more, better, more easily. With that muscle, the later work of deveopling coherence and structure is more rewarding.
So, those are my ideas. What would you add?