My writing routine

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.

7 thoughts on “My writing routine

  1. I am learning the hard lesson of saving everything I delete. Sometimes there may be one good line in there…unfortunately I have deleted too many of them.

    I have to find a better way, though, of organizing saved bits and documents so its not a jumbled mess.

  2. Thanks for this – I tend to approach my writing in a similar way. The thing I find tricky with academic writing is to go from reading mode to writing mode – I tend to get stuck in one or the other, postponing when I’ll get around to “working” as far as possible. That is, I tend to read a lot of stuff that I never get around to use AND my texts tend to include – at draft stage – pragraphs of “need to check this” “Should look into this deeper” – that I tend to cut when I need to finish it.

    Any thoughts on this problem? Or is it just me that’s lazy?

  3. Reading mode vs. writing mode is definitely a common problem, and one I suffer from as well. I reached a point in grad school, though, where I realized that in part, psyching oneself out about the hundreds of pages you need to read for your 20-page paper is actually an unconscious means of procrastination — so whenever I get really overwhelmed by the amount that I feel I need to read for some piece of writing, I’ll actually go the opposite direction and figure I can probably start writing immediately.

  4. I have found that a program called Scrivener has helped with all three of your suggestions- it sort of allows you to keep multiple documents all tied together, and thus organized, but also easily manipulable at all times. The split-screen function helps to keep the outline/notes/quotes stuff right next to the draft. You have to export it at some point to a word processor, but it has helped me save everything while keeping a clearly separate final draft.

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I would only reiterate what you say here, “…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.” For me, that’s what writing has to be. It’s when the bizarre crosses the presumed path that I know something is beckoning to be said. Uncomfortable as it can be to diverge, it seems to me to be the evidence of a thinking that is thinking beyond itself, a writing that harbors the possibility of being more than that… a writing that exposes the writer more so than the medium upon which ideas are imposed (I’m thinking of Celan: “La poesie, elle n’impose pas, elle s’expose”). While there are many kinds of writing (projects) which call for many different things, I think the moment when the project almost begins to undo itself is at least one kind of “true” moment.

  6. RE: The Love of Sociopaths

    Maybe everyone and their dog is sending this link to you. If not, let me be the one to point you to this article about Ayn Rand’s idolizing a sociopathic killer. A short snippet:

    “What did Rand admire so much about Hickman? His sociopathic qualities: ‘Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should,’ she wrote, gushing that Hickman had ‘no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel “other people.”‘”

    The link to the rest of the article is here:,_hugely_popular_author_and_inspiration_to_right-wing_leaders,_was_a_big_admirer_of_serial_killers?page=1

    Of course I have no clue what you mean by “The Love of Sociopaths” so maybe this isn’t as relevant as it seems.

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