This week at BU I gave a proseminar for our PhD students, “How to Write.” Here’s what I told them:
How to Write. 1) Establish a practice. 2) Contextualize your work. 3) Create writing community. 4) Use good tools. 5) Read about writing. 6) Stop thinking.
1) Establish a practice. Haruki Murakami is a writer and an ultra marathoner. In his memoir, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running (2008), Murakami makes an alignment between writing and running — in that each is a practice:
“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different.”
When you run, or do any kind of physical activity, it’s about putting your body in the position to do the practice. You don’t say to your muscles, “get stronger!” But rather, you run, you put yourself in the right environment every day, and over time your muscles do get stronger. It’s the same way with writing. As with running, when you sit down to write you don’t know how well it will go (and, indeed, how well it will go is governed by somewhat mysterious forces). But you put yourself in that position nonetheless; and some days you do well, other days you don’t. But you do it consistently, and, by trial and error, you figure out what kind of practice works best for you. I’ve known scholars who like to write for an hour every day first thing in the morning, and that’s it. I prefer to set aside an entire day so that I can devote several hours in a row to write. We all have slightly different ways of doing it and that’s fine — but whatever you do, do it consistently.
1a) Focus on time writing rather than words written. Given the fact that you don’t know how many words you’ll be able to write in any given session, using words written as a measure of progress will ultimately become frustrating. Instead, focus on time spent writing. Doing so will allow you to have space to think (and thinking is of course part of writing!) and to develop your ideas. When I was writing my dissertation, I spent 3 to 5 hours a day working on it.
1b) Do it a little every day. Establishing a practice means writing consistently. You may be a morning person, you may be a night owl, but whatever you do — do it every day. (Every day that you’re working, that is. It’s important to take days off, to rest. To extend the running metaphor, you have to rest your muscles for them to grow. And in addition to that, having a robust and dependable writing practice means that you can have a life. Which is important!)
1c) Keep a record of your hours. Keep a journal to note down the hours you write every day. I show an example of mine from summer 2019 below. On Wednesday 5th June, I wrote for 6 hours “with a lot of faffing” (=British slang for “screwing around”), i.e. I put in the hours but there were many distractions. I also noted what I was working on, so that I could pick up from there the next time I wrote. On Wednesday 10th [July??], I struggled. I wrote from 10.49am to 2pm, and then noted: “I need a break!” When I returned, I annotated this with “didn’t **really** take a break but worried from 2-3.15 :).” A nice example of how writing can go well or it can go badly. Nonetheless, you continue your practice!
I take inspiration here from another writer, Ursula K. Le Guin. In a 1988 interview, she described her written practice. Worth noting what happened in the evenings: “After 8.00pm — I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this.” No one can write all day. There is always a point of fatigue, and once you reach this, you shouldn’t work against yourself. Go and rest.
2) Contextualize your work. When you begin your research project as a PhD student, you feel an enormous pressure to be original. Indeed, that’s one of the metrics by which we judge successful research — whether it is a new and original contribution to the field. And it’s easy to think that originality means removing yourself from what has been said before. “No one has ever looked at this issue the way I am.” Yet, truly, your writing will be at its best if you go into it acknowledging the fact that you are not alone. In the slides below I show two different perspectives on this. Is your work a lone tree? Or is it a tree that is in a contextual forest, standing alongside other work in an intellectual ecosystem? Create a dialogue between yourself, the ancient evidence, and prior scholarship. Interweave, entangle. Be synthetic.
In a talk from 2004, “Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love” (reprinted in Words are My Matter), Ursula K. Le Guin describes what it’s like when a writer does not acknowledge the tradition in which they are working:
“A genre is a genre by having a field and focus of its own, its appropriate and particular tools and rules and techniques for handling the material, its traditions, and its experienced, appreciative readers. Ignorant of all this, our novice is about to reinvent the wheel, the space ship, the space alien, and the mad scientist, with cries of innocent wonder. The cries will not be echoed by the readers. Readers familiar with the genre have met the space ship, the alien, and the mad scientist before. They know much more about them than the writer does.”
It’s weirdly easier to do this in a research area that you don’t feel as personally invested in. You can practice this deliberately, scholarly interweaving by going through the following steps:
2a) Pick an ancient piece of evidence. It could be anything.
2b) Analyze it. Spend some time just you and it. Tease out points of significance. Take notes. Think about it in the context of other things you know about its period/genre/whatever.
2c) See what other scholars have said; read 3-5 pieces of scholarship. You’ll see that some of the things you noticed have already been published. But, by reading multiple scholars on the same object/text/problem, you’ll ALSO see that the issue is not a closed one — there are multiple interpretations, and they get more interesting if they take into account what has previously been discussed.
2d) Combine b) and c). Synthesize what you have read from various scholars and then add your own analysis in light of what they have said. Now you have written an interesting and rich piece of research!
DON’T BE AFRAID of finding that your ideas have already been published by someone else. A new observer of a problem will always shed new light on the issue. It is ignorance of prior scholarship that will lead you to make unoriginal work.
3) Create writing community. Writing is lonely. You have to spend a lot of time on your own, and because you feel vulnerable about the quality of what you’re producing (especially in the beginning), you can feel wary of those around you. But a community of writing is what you need, and it can be very rewarding. There are a number of ways to do this.
3a) Ask a trusted friend or classmate to read your work. The “trusted” part is quite important. Not everyone around you in the intellectual environments which you find yourself in will be a good interlocutor for you. I have a close friend from grad school with whom I still share work, but it had to be this person and not anyone else. It’s personal! Creating relationships where constructive critique can happen takes a lot of work, but it is extremely rewarding.
3b) Agree to swap and critique. Talk to a friend who is perhaps in a similar stage of writing as you (for example, you’re both working on the second chapter of your dissertation), and agree to swap work and meet to discuss it. This can be helpful for a number of reasons. It can help you feel like your work has an audience. And reading what someone at the same or a similar stage as you is writing can help you see your own growth.
3c) Arrange or attend writing meet-ups. It’s a well known thing that dissertation writing is hard. With that in mind, a number of institutions have regular meet ups for PhD students where you turn up, write for a number of hours in a room full of other people who are writing, and then have coffee, socialize, etc. This is a great thing for keeping motivated, creating community, and meeting other grad students outside of your field. BU has a Dissertation Writing Group. You may be like me, however, and need to be at home to write in peace. However, if this is something that you think would be useful, it’s a great thing to try.
4. Use good tools. Part of your writing practice will entail finding the right writing tools for you. I suggest the following:
4a) Scrivener. One of the best word processors out there; one which allows for flexibility and non-linear writing. You can watch their videos and see some egs. It isn’t free — although there is a discount for students. However, it may well be a good investment for you. I bought my copy when I started my dissertation and I’m still using it.
4b) Evernote. I don’t recommend this for writing large projects, but it is good for keeping track of various notes, or pdfs. It’s another place to store your ideas which is not on your computer. There is a free version. No matter what system you use, make sure you a REGULARLY BACKING UP YOUR WORK. Back up your files regularly, and in more than one place!
4c) Forest app. Set a timer and Forest will block website of your choice for that time. I am addicted to twitter (no surprise there), so I use the chrome extension version. This is a great way to a) keep track of your writing hours; b) be strict about minimizing distractions. I often set the timer for a short amount of time (c. 20 mins), but go well beyond it. It helps to get into the mindset you need for writing.
5) Read about writing. In addition to readings books by writers on writing (e.g. by Murakami or Le Guin), there are a number of useful resources out there which specifically give advice about academic writing:
- Joan Bolker, Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day.
- Wendy Laura Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.
- Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space. How Successful Academics Write.
- Paul J. Silvia, How to Write a Lot. A practical guide to productive academic writing.
6) Stop thinking. Writing and research requires a lot of thinking (naturally). But it also requires a lot of time not thinking. In addition to the fact that you should have a life (i.e. don’t let writing eat up everything), your writing will be better if you spend time not thinking. I end with the immortal words of Don Draper: