Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Draft First, Edit Later: A Three Step Approach To Writing

Many people imagine elegant prose flowing from their fingertips onto the computer screen, perfectly ordered and composed. When they sit down to write and find that the perfect sentences they had imagined are not materializing, they get frustrated and give up.

hardworking girlI have never met anyone who has told me that they succeed at writing like this. Instead, most successful writers first write what is often called a “shitty first draft,” and then get to the work of revising and revising again. I think that drafting and then revising works best because we access different parts of our brain for drafting, restructuring, and then revising. For this reason, I suggest writing in three separate steps.

Step 1: The Shitty First Draft

In her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott explains that the best way to figure out what you want to say is by sitting down and writing your shitty first draft. This initial draft is where you get that brilliant idea you have in your mind onto paper, or onto the computer screen. Do not worry about organization, sentence composition, spelling, grammar, or even how silly or simple you might sound. Just get the ideas down. Remember, we are no longer in the Stone Age, so revising will be easy. Your writing will not be carved in stone, but will flicker on a computer screen, and you will have access to backspace, cut and paste, delete, and erase before anyone but you and your inner critic have to see your writing. So, sit down and write and forget everything you know about style and grammar. You can get to that later. For now, you just want to get the ideas onto paper.

Step 2: Restructuring

Now that you have your brilliant ideas onto paper, it is time to reorganize them into a coherent second draft. Take out a blank piece of paper and make an outline that organizes your ideas in the best way possible. Type your outline into a new Word document, and then cut and paste from your shitty first draft into your outline. Once you have done that, go through and reorganize your paragraphs and sections in the way that makes the most sense.

Step 3: Editing

With a full draft of your paper, it is now time to edit for style and grammar. Here is your chance to pull out your perfectionist and search for those dangling modifiers, misused words, split infinitives, run-on sentences, and fragments. I keep a style sheet that lets me know what my most common errors are and I look through my finished drafts for those mistakes in particular. I have learned what my most common errors are by getting my work edited both by friends and professional editors.

Saving the editing for last is a great strategy for two main reasons: First of all, it frees you up to be creative without being stifled by your worries over whether “loose” or “lose” is the correct word or thinking of another way to say “purgatory.” You can mark those places in the text with italics or using the highlighter, and then go back to them when you are editing. When you edit, it will become apparent that you have used “ameliorate” six times in three paragraphs, and you can go back and change it. Secondly, editing last is much more efficient than editing while writing because the revision process often involves deleting paragraphs or even pages of writing. It will be much easier to delete from a shitty first draft than it will from pages of painstaking prose.

If you are a person who tries to write the perfect first draft and your strategy is getting in the way of your writing productivity, I encourage you to try this method and see if it works for you.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Writing While Researching: The Interview Summary

Write every day! Have I said that lately?

Oftentimes when I repeat my mantra “Write every day,” people tell me that they are not yet at the writing stage of their project, and thus cannot write every day. However, I am convinced that a little creativity will make it clear that every stage of a project can be a writing stage. I know because I have tried to write every day at every stage and am invariably successful.

This week, I will focus on one example of writing while researching: the interview summary.

Writing while researching

Most of my research is interview-based. I interview people about a certain subject, record, transcribe, and code the interviews and then write up my findings. You might think that I could not actually begin to write every day until I had completed all of those initial steps. However, I begin writing before I begin collecting my interviews, while collecting them, while analyzing them, and after they are all analyzed. Here, I will focus on the interview summary, which I usually do while collecting my data.

The Interview Summary

When I interview a person for my project, I write up a brief summary of the interview within 24 hours of having completed the interview. In the interview summary, I describe the context of the interview and provide a brief summary of the most important points. In my current project, which involves life histories of deportees, I write up a summary of their life history. This way, each day that I do an interview, I write an interview summary.

I usually have my interviews transcribed by a professional transcriber to save time and because I hate transcribing. But, I do check each transcription by listening to each recording while looking at the transcription. When I do this, I pull up the interview summary and check it for accuracy. The summary also helps to jog my memory about the interview and keep the data fresh in my mind. If I did not write a summary after the interview, I write it up when I am checking the transcription.

These summaries are useful as I code the data, as they help me to think of themes I could code for. Instead of having hundreds of pages of transcriptions to sort through, I have about one page for each interviewee. My current project involves 157 interviews, and this method makes dealing with all of this information a bit more manageable.

The summaries are particularly useful when I begin to formulate the actual article or book chapter, as I can insert them into the piece I am working on whenever I mention an interviewee. For example, when I write up my data and include a quote from “John,” I can just insert the interview summary before the quote so that I have a ready-made description of who “John” is. I usually have to cut down the summary quite a bit, but that is easier than writing up a description from scratch.

Writing interview summaries is a great way to get started with writing early on in a data collection project, and can make the final writing process go by much more smoothly.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Slow and Steady Wins the Race: Five Steps to Meeting Your Deadline without Losing Your Sanity

tortoisePicture this: You have a deadline you absolutely must meet or else… So, you drop everything and work every waking moment on your project. Right?

Wrong, unless your deadline is this evening at 5pm. If your deadline is a month, two weeks or even a week away, it will be much more productive and healthy to work slowly towards your goal instead of sprinting at the last minute. Here are five steps you can take to ensure you move forward without over-exerting yourself.

Step # 1: Make a timeline for completion.
Make a timeline that takes into account how much time you have left before your deadline and how much work you have to do. How you do this will depend on your task, but let’s use a conference paper for an example. Suppose you have a conference paper due in two weeks – ten working days. You could either decide to a) write one page each day for ten days or b) break the project down into smaller parts. If you do b) (which I recommend), you could decide to write the Intro on Day 1, the Literature Review on Days 2 and 3, the Methods Section on Day 4, etc…

This timeline is very important both for keeping you on track and for pacing yourself so that you are not sprinting at the last minute because you spent Days 1 to 7 on the literature review.

Step # 2: Set a daily routine.

Every day has 24 hours in it. We cannot change that, but we can make conscious choices about what we do with our time. It is not feasible or productive to try to work on your project for 24 hours a day. It is feasible, however, to work on it in several spurts during the day. It is up to you to figure out when you can work on your project and when you can get all of the other things you need done. Daily routines will vary tremendously, but let’s suppose that you have ten days to write your conference paper, and you are still on winter break. Your daily schedule could look something like this:

9am-11am: Write
11am-12 noon: Check email and respond to anything urgent
12 noon-1pm: Lunch
1pm-3pm: Write
3pm-4pm: Check email, pay bills, make phone calls
4pm-5pm: Make a plan for next day, gather reading materials for the evening.
5pm-6:30: Go to gym
6:30-7:30: Have dinner
7:30-9pm: Catch up on any reading relevant to project.
9pm: Relax, go to sleep.

Step # 3: Break down your project into manageable tasks.

Having a daily routine is great because you know when you are supposed to be writing. However, it is also important to figure out in advance what part of your project you will be working on. Any project can be broken down into specific tasks. Having the project broken down will make it easier to move forward when it is time to write.

Let’s use that conference paper as an example again. One of the parts of the paper will be the literature review that you would be doing on Days 2 and 3, according to the plan above. This needs to be more specific. For example, the literature review could include a section on Foucault. For that section, you might need to a) gather your notes on Foucault, b) read two pieces that use Foucault, c) draft the section, and c) revise the section. Breaking down your conference paper into small, manageable pieces will make the task seem less daunting and easier to approach.

Step # 4: Set a time to do each task in your calendar.

After you have broken down your project into small tasks, the next step is to put those tasks directly into your calendar. From Step 2, you already have designated particular writing and reading times. So, you could put “Gather and summarize notes” in one writing session and “Read two articles” in a reading session.

Step # 5: Execute.

Of course, your fool-proof plan is not very useful if you don’t put it to use. The final step, then, is to execute your plan. This may seem obvious, but I point it out for two reasons. 1) It is crucial to plan first, and act second. 2) Most of us have made plans and not carried them through. There are many reasons for this, but better planning will make it more likely that you do carry out your tasks.

Best of luck meeting your goals!

If you'd like to receive weekly updates when new posts are posted, please subscribe using the link in the upper right hand corner of this blog. Thanks!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How to Find Your Writing Groove… when you’ve lost it.

Far-Out Style Setters Groove to Music of Fountain Square Band 06/1973
We are coming to the end of the holiday season, which means the end of over-indulgence on food and drink and a return to work and all that accompanies it. Some of you might have worked steadily throughout the holiday season, but most of us took an intentional or unintentional pause and find ourselves looking for ways to get our writing groove back. This post is directed to those people who have taken a break and are ready to get back on the writing wagon.

Rule # 1: Plan First, Write Second

There are two kinds of writing-related thinking, and they are hard to do at the same time. The first kind revolves around planning what to work on and the second kind is actual execution. Planning ahead makes execution easier. If I sit down at the computer without a plan, I end up spending the better part of my precious writing time figuring out what I am supposed to work on. This inevitably leads to procrastination, and little productive writing. Instead, when I sit down and my planner tells me I am supposed to be enhancing the data section with additional quotes for my article on transnational networks, then I know exactly what to do.

To get back on the writing track, spend some time before your designated writing time planning out exactly which tasks you need to accomplish. Planning your writing tasks ahead of time facilitates the execution of them.

Rule # 2: Designate a specific time as your starting point

Saying that you will write on Monday morning is a good thing. Deciding you will write on Monday morning from 8am to 10am and putting it in your calendar is even better. When you treat your writing time as an important appointment with yourself, you are much more likely to stick to it. Take a good look at your calendar and decide exactly when and where you will begin your writing.

Rule # 3: Make writing a habit by doing it every day at the same time

When you sit down and plan out your week, try and find a time that you can dedicate each day of the week to writing. If you get into the groove of writing every day from 7am to 8am, it eventually will become a habit and it will be easier to stick to your writing schedule. If you develop a routine of having coffee every morning and sitting in front of your laptop, eventually, your brain will know that after coffee comes writing. By the same token, if you make your way to a coffeeshop to write after dropping the kids off at school each morning, your brain will begin to recognize this routine.

Rule # 4: Make planning for your week a habit by doing it every week

A weekly plan serves as a roadmap for the week, and it will help you move forward on your writing tasks when you have a better idea as to where you are going and what you have to do to get there. Start this semester off right by making a weekly plan for your first week back at work.

Some people sit down and do their weekly planning meetings on Friday evenings, others on Sunday mornings. It does not matter when you do it, but it does matter that you do it and it helps if you do it at the same time each week.

Taking breaks from writing for holidays, rest, celebration, or any other reason is important and provides much-needed relaxation and renovation. If your break was intentional, congratulate yourself for taking care of your mind and body and preparing yourself for the new year. If your break was unintentional, it likely is the case that your mind and body needed a break and took one for themselves, even as you tried to get them to work. Either way, release yourself from any guilt about what you have not yet accomplished and focus on setting reasonable, achievable writing goals for yourself.

I wish you a productive, happy new year.