I talk to people about their writing a lot. Every so often I meet someone who has been on a roll with writing, but finds themselves stuck in a rut where they can no longer move forward. After talking about their project, it often becomes clear that they are having trouble moving forward because they are at a new stage of writing.
For example, “Karla” recently told me that she was having trouble finding the time for writing over the past week. I found this unusual because the last time we talked, she was excited about her project and its long-term possibilities. After talking for a bit, it became clear that Karla was no longer at the stage of brainstorming and creating new ideas, but that she was now at the stage where she had to pull everything together and massage her outstanding work into a coherent, scholarly, whole. It turned out that not only did Karla find this kind of work less exciting, but also that getting near to the end of the project made her nervous about going public with her ideas.
There are different stages to the writing process, and we draw from different sorts of energies to complete each stage. Most of us excel at one stage, but do less well at others. It can be helpful to reflect on the various stages of writing and to become aware of which stages you like best. Here are the stages, as I see them:
Stage 1: Conception – This is when you are coming up with ideas and writing the first rough draft. The best way to get through this stage is to not be inhibited by perfectionism and not worry about grammar, coherency, or format, but to just get your ideas onto paper. When you are at this stage, it is best to do this first thing in the morning when your ideas are fresh and you are ready to forge ahead. Although this is the most exciting stage for many, it also is the stage when we are most unsure of where we are going, and thus can be subject to feelings of self-doubt about the worth of our work. If you are stuck at this stage, one strategy is to put a pillow-case over your computer screen and just type away for fifteen to thirty minutes. Not being able to see your writing will help you to feel less threatened by the blank screen and less inclined to go back and correct errors.
Stage 2: Pulling together – This is when you re-organize your free-writes, brainstorms, previous work, and literature summaries into a coherent first draft. Some people do this on the screen; others cut and paste using real scissors and paper. Whatever you do, it is important to think about how you think and organize best and develop a system that allows you to create a coherent first draft. At this stage, you might find yourself staring at documents on and off-screen and struggling to decide on the best format. Despair not: If you are working on this every day, those ideas are percolating in your head, and you soon will come up with a workable format. If you are feeling stuck, try printing out your documents and using a creative, visual format of re-organizing your ideas such as cutting and pasting pieces of colored paper onto a corkboard.
Stage 3: Revision – This is when you have a complete first draft and are ready to make it better. It can be very helpful to give this first draft to a trusted colleague, telling them that this is your first shot at the paper, and that you are looking for constructive feedback on organization and suggestions for expanding the background and theoretical literature. Some people do revisions by hand by printing out each version. Others are comfortable doing edits on screen. When I am in the revision stage, I like to carry a copy around with me, so that I can squeeze in edits whenever I have time. If you are stuck at this stage, the best solution can be to find someone to read and give you positive feedback to help you move forward.
Stage 4: Copy-editing and References – At this stage, you have a complete, revised draft with your conceptual framework, literature review data, analysis, introduction, and conclusion, all in order. You just need to dot the i’s, cross the t’s, check your citations and run your spell-check. If you are stuck at this stage, hiring a professional editor can be a fabulous investment.
Stage 5: Submit – You are finished, and just need to figure out the online or mail-in process to submit your work! If you are stuck at this stage, it could be helpful to talk to friends who have read your work, know how fabulous it is, and can encourage you to press the “submit” button sooner rather than later!
It helps my productivity to be aware that there are different kinds of writing, and that my energy and concentration levels determine which kind of writing I can do most effectively. Creating new prose takes the most concentration for me, and I usually like to do this when I have a bit more time to reflect and process information. Line-editing, on the other hand, I can do even if I have just five minutes to look at a paragraph.
When you plan for your writing for the coming week, it might be helpful to look at your calendar and figure out what sorts of tasks you are best able to do each day. If you don’t teach on Monday, that might be the best day to draft a new section or to re-organize Chapter Two. On Tuesday morning, you might have fifteen minutes before preparing for class to check the bibliography for that almost-completed article.