I am currently in a state of limbo waiting to hear my fate on the job market, but thankfully I planned ahead: I have been working on a writing project, indeed a “fun” one, namely The Love of Sociopaths, the sequel to Awkwardness. It is going pretty smoothly, as befits an idea that I’ve been pondering for over a year — and I’m also taking the reviews of Awkwardness seriously, scaling back the explicit philosophical exposition and doing more with gender, class, and race in my analyses of the various pop culture phenomena I discuss.
My writing routine has become pretty established over the past few years, and I think I’ve reached a good place where I’m able to take advantage of small blocks of time (rather than waiting for an open day to materialize, as many academics tend to do). Here are some of my main techniques:
- Break your argument into manageable chunks — while I don’t usually write out an explicit outline, I do go over it in my head, trying to break down my argument into a few key points and come up with a plausible order for them. I then set myself the task during each writing period of discussing the next point in line, in such a way as to set myself up to discuss the next point in turn — and in my experience, this technique leads to better “flow” (a major, indeed even obsessive goal for my writing) and clarity of organization at the same time that it makes the work process more manageable, so that it benefits both the reader and the writer. I’ve found over time that it’s best to let this process be somewhat intuitive, because if my ordering feels artificial to me, I’ll inevitably find myself writing paragraph after paragraph justifying the ordering (basically to myself). Another benefit of letting it be more intuitive is found in my next technique:
- Allow it to be exploratory — nothing impedes the writing process like knowing exactly what you want to write. If you plan in too much detail, it will seem to be “done” to you already, such that actually writing it out will feel like a pointless hoop to jump through. My organization technique feeds into this need for freshness and exploration, because each day I know that I need to get from point A to point B, yet I almost never decide in advance exactly how to do that. The result is that the writing itself feels like a learning experience, and I inevitably come up with ideas along the way that I likely never would have thought of if I’d used a more lock-step organizational approach. Yet I also can sometimes wind off getting off on tangents, which leads me to my next technique:
- Save everything you delete — one of my biggest liabilities as a writer early in grad school was my desire to write the final draft on the first try. This can be manageable for undergrad papers and even sometimes for grad seminar papers, particularly because I do so much mental planning work before I start writing — yet for a book-length project, it’s just impossible. I knew I would need to rewrite, yet the rewriting process intimidated me, as I could only conceive of it as tearing out the whole thing and writing a new attempt at a final draft from scratch. To be past this mental block, I started to keep a “remnants” file where I could cut and paste anything I felt I needed to tear out but could also trick myself into believing that my work on that passage hadn’t been wasted because I could reincorporate it later. My experience is that if I don’t reuse a cut passage quickly, I normally won’t use it at all — so that the remnants file becomes either an island of misfit paragraphs or else a kind of holding tank allowing me to reorganize by pasting sections in a different order onto a blank page. (Yesterday, though, I did manage to reuse a long-orphaned paragraph that I’d cut from my introduction months ago.)
My other main strategies for writing are to have been writing and reflecting on my writing nearly every day of my life since I was in middle school — in particular, to have kept a journal all through high school with the explicit goal of improving my writing — and to have majored in English literature (so that my primary models for writing are the best examples of my own native language, instead of the tortured prose of translations from the French, for instance). I think the three techniques listed above are easier for others to duplicate, however.