On Following Rules

Over the course of my life, I have often found it difficult to follow rules or instructions that didn’t make sense to me.  This is distinct from finding it difficult to follow instructions because I don’t like being ordered around. Like many people, I dislike being ordered around. Sometimes I resist instructions or rules that actually make perfect sense just because I dislike being ordered around. But that’s not the kind of difficulty following rules that interests me here. This is about following instructions without understanding those instructions.

Throughout my schooling, I found it difficult to do things “just because.” If instructions didn’t make sense to me, then it was hard to follow them. When math classes told me to just learn the process, I struggled. As a writer, when writing was something I was forced to do, and the rules of grammar were just rules I had to follow, they made no sense and I struggled to follow them. Once I realized that writing was something I wanted to do (or at least that it was a way to communicate ideas I wanted to communicate), and I saw grammar and punctuation as helping me accomplish what I wanted, grammar and punctuation became much easier. Still, recognizing grammar and punctuation as tools to communicate does not make me sympathetic to small-minded grammarians who want to reduce grammar to simple rules. Rules can help, but they can also hinder.

My new book, Literature Review and Research Design, is very much an outgrowth of the spirit that following rules can be a problem.  In this blog post, I’m primarily in the personal side of this—the sense of motivation and purpose—and the difference between doing things because they make sense to you and doing them because someone says you have to (or should). 

Research and Rules

Research (and life more generally) doesn’t always follow rules.  Crucial to research, in particular, is a willingness to challenge accepted ideas and accepted methods.  But the willingness to challenge accepted ideas and methods has to be blended with the confidence to take action. And where does the confidence to act come from?

Rules can be a very good thing. One place to find confidence to act is by following rules: if you follow the instructions laid out by someone who came before you—someone with expertise (or at least who claimed expertise)—then rules can provide a structure that gives confidence: “If I follow the recipe precisely, I will get a good result.” This ability to follow instructions is extremely valuable in learning of any sort.

But rules need to be applied judiciously.  Rules applied in the wrong context can lead to poor results. Following the wrong rule at the wrong time can lead to error. For example, the common English spelling rule “i before e except after c” isn’t going to help you spell height or weight right. Knowing a rule, or having a set of instructions to follow is not a guarantee of success. Understanding how or when to apply a rule is crucial.

The problem I have in following rules is when I can’t see the sense of purpose.  That lack of insight makes it hard for me to understand how to apply the rules—without knowing how things worked, it’s very difficult to use the rules.  I suppose I mostly think about this in the area of grammar where I really struggled for a long time.  When writing was a task imposed by school teachers, the rules of grammar were just another structure that made an unpleasant exercise even more unpleasant. Now that I have ideas I want to communicate, those rules can help, and having that sense of purpose provides me guidance in applying the rules of grammar and knowing when to violate them.

Writers led astray

In my experience, many dissertation writers struggle because they don’t understand the place and purpose of literature and literature review in the research process. This is at least partly attributable to the fact that “literature review” can mean many different things, and following the rules to create the wrong kind of literature can be a counter-productive time sink. Having a better sense of how research proceeds can help writers avoid this problem.

At the large scale, there common conceptions of the scientific process that hold a mistaken view about what the scientist/research does and how science/research works in practice. This mistaken view plays into the problems that many researchers have with the literature review, particularly at the beginning of the research process. At a smaller scale, I think this comes from specific misconceptions about the purpose of the literature review itself.  These are not entirely unrelated, but I think it worth separating them. 

Common mistaken view of research

On the large scale, the concern that I see for the placement of the literature review in the research process is that it is common to think of research as starting with a definition of the problem.  But in research, as well as in research design, defining the question is a problem in its own right.  For research, in the large, defining a question is difficult because it is often difficult to define concepts (and there is the related difficulty of how to observe/measure those concepts—the problem of operationalization).  

Furthermore, this notion that research starts by defining a question tends to ignore some practical realities of research.  Firstly, there is the simple issue of time and growth: learning often involves discovering that the old questions we asked weren’t the right questions, and this means that over time the project definition/problem definition that seems best will change. 

Additionally, defining a project typically involves not only the theoretical concerns of the researcher, but also a negotiation with a research community—for a dissertation writer, their community starts with their professors. You don’t just come up with a project: you have to convince people to support it, and that often involves accepting their input.

These issues in defining problems are resolved with practice that develops the judgement to know which questions are worth asking, a confidence in the choice of theories and methods, and a way of convincing other members of the research community to support the work.  But these issues of defining a research problem/question complicate the use of literature review—or at least certain kinds of literature reviews.

Common confusion about “literature review”

And on the more specific scale, there is the question of what a literature review is and what it is used for. The phrase “literature review” can refer to a wide range of different activities. On the one hand, “literature review” can be a process of gathering and reading literature and learning from it. On the other, it can be a presentation of material to an audience. Different types of literature review suit different contexts. In some contexts, working on the wrong type of literature review can be wasted effort or even a positive barrier to progress.

A lot of people approach the literature review as partly a task of reading everything of potential relevance and partly a display of that wide range of sources and ideas. This is, I think, a fairly common view of what a literature review should be. It is a view that probably causes a fair amount of grief.  If your purpose is to design your own research project—something that requires focus and commitment despite uncertainty–then tasks that spread your attention across many competing ideas will be a terrible distraction, and possibly a source of growing doubt.

Choosing when to follow the rules

The way I see it, the dissertation project is primarily about learning to make your own choices about how to manage your work and your efforts. You choose the project; you choose how to study it; you choose who to present the work. (Admittedly, all this occurs in the context of a community that may exert a lot of influence over what you can do, but still, the goal is to work independently.)  Among the choices are those of which rules to follow and when.

Sometimes I think that the most crucial personal factor that determines success as a researcher is a degree of blind self-confidence—a strong belief in the self, so that the questions and uncertainties that deter those who are less certain do not slow or stop the researcher.  Every researcher faces uncertainties. Some researchers carefully survey each uncertainty as a serious obstacle. Others roll right over those doubts with blind self-confidence. While a researcher needs to be able to learn from criticism, and to learn their own problems and problems with their research, a researcher also needs to be able to put aside doubt in favor of action. But I don’t want to make this about self-confidence, but rather about having a sense of purpose.

The clearer you own sense of purpose, the easier it is to make the choice to follow rules or not. Or which rules to follow.

In the case of dissertations and literature reviews for dissertations, there are a lot of people out there propounding rules for behavior that will allegedly lead to success (in the literature review specifically and the dissertation more generally)—including me—so maybe the question is: which rules will you choose, and why?

My recommendation for a place to start a literature review: look at the American Psychological Association Publication Manual’s discussion of the introduction to a scholarly article, and especially the “background” section of that. (This is based on the 6th edition. The 7th edition was recently released, but I do not yet have a copy.) 

An Irony of Finishing My Book

Back in January, I was talking with the author of a book that was about to come out. I had been thinking in terms of celebrating his job well done, and was wondering what his next project was gong to be. He surprised me, then, by talking about how he planned to spend the year promoting the book he had just finished. It seemed to me both a good decision on his part, and a somewhat depressing reality.  He had been working on that book for more than a decade, so it seems like being able to finish the project would be welcome.

The reality is, however, that books want promotion, and generally the people who have to promote them are their authors. Authors give talks. Authors write to people about their book, asking them to read it, to review it. They work to get the word out.

When I was trying to put the final pieces in place—reading the page proofs, doing the index—I started thinking about working on my next project. But, not really. Immediately after finishing the page proofs, I started working on blog posts, videos, and letters to people.

I think that I have “finished” my book a number of times over the years.  There was the time that I finished the first complete draft and gave it to someone else to read. There was the time that I finished a completely revised draft and gave it to someone else to read. There was the time that I finished a draft and began writing proposals for agents/publishers. And then there was the time I finished revising the draft to use what I learned writing the proposals.  Then, once I finished that draft, I had the proposals to write. And once I had a proposal accepted, I needed to work on the contract. Then I revised the draft in response to the reviews, finishing the project yet again.  Not long after than, I had to read the copy-edited files to check the work of the copy editor and get an almost last chance at changes.  (At the copy-editing stage, the publishers were emphatic about not making significant changes—they even gave me locked files—not that I wanted to make big changes. I wanted to be finished.)  And only a little while after that, I had to read the page proofs and do the index.  And then, I was finished! The publisher took the files, and began production of the book.

Except that I’m not finished. I may be finished writing the book itself, but the book project continues.  This blog post—a short one for me—is part of that process. Three videos are in production.  Sending out promotional copies is on my to-do list, though I think I’ll wait until after Christmas before I brave the post office to send stuff to people.

There is a famous saying that a work of art is never completed, only abandoned (from Paul Valéry).  I have always thought about that saying in terms of being willing to let the work go in the sense of not messing around with the work itself once it reaches a certain point.  But as I write this post, I see a different view of it: not only can you abandon the work itself, you can abandon the larger project as a whole.  One possible option I face is to simply let the book go.  Not make any promotional effort.  But that just doesn’t seem like a good idea in terms of my larger career as a writer, writing coach, and editor.  Having invested a lot of effort into my book, and having gotten support for it from my publisher, it seems to be worth the continued effort to see if I can help it along its way.

I was recently pondering what it means to be a writer.  Without wanting to get into a semantic debate, it seems to me that part of being a writer is this indeterminate nature of projects.  They don’t just grow and finish.  They jump along in fits and starts with multiple drafts reviewed by multiple people, and include all sorts of related effort to promote the book—first to agents or publishers, then to potential readers.

At this point, my feelings about being done are mixed.  As, indeed, my feelings about projects generally are.  On the one hand, I have my conviction that my book and my ideas provide dissertation writers with valuable insights.  My book can help negotiate some of the problems with the early stages of writing a dissertation, in particular, problems in dealing with the literature and in designing/defining and developing a research project. And it’s done!  On the other hand, I made a lot of choices—what to include and what to exclude; how to present ideas, etc—that maybe weren’t the best choices. I must admit anxiety over potentially bad reviews (and I expect there are a lot of people who would reject my ideas out of hand if they read them).  And I have even greater anxiety over the book not being noticed at all!  Into this mixed-bag of emotions is thrown the choice of whether to keep working on this project—at this point to produce promotional materials and to reach out to people—or not.

On a final note, I want to say that even though the project is still ongoing, there is still reason to celebrate an important accomplishment within that larger process.  Yes, I may not be done working on my book, but I got my book published!

Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice

Maintaining practice after completing a project

It has been over a month since I last posted to my blog (and much to my pleasant surprise, that gap was even noticed by someone).  Despite the hiatus, it was a reasonably productive time, as my efforts were simply directed to other efforts.

The two main endeavors that have been taking my time are 1. finishing my book, and 2. making some videos.

My book is about to come out. 

It will be available on December 16th.  Over the last month+, I have checked the copy-edited files, read and corrected the page proofs twice, and also done the index.  That all was mostly done by mid-November, and the book has been out of my hands for some time now.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have worked on making some videos to help promote my book and my business.  I’m not good at visual stuff; I don’t really think in visual terms, so it’s hard for me to translate the ideas that I want to discuss in a visual presentation.  I am used to talking with people about these ideas (and writing about these ideas), so the upshot is that these most recent videos are basically just me giving powerpoint presentations, and all the slides are text (and sometimes even a fair amount of text). Moving to a more sophisticated visual language is something that will only evolve over time and practice. The videographer actually brought up his concern for visual consistency between this series of videos and any future videos (which I intend to do). I think/hope/expect that these will be superior to previous videos I made, which were also basically powerpoint presentations, but which were produced using the tools I had on hand (i.e., my laptop’s built-in camera and microphone and free video software). 

As of now, the videos are in the process of being made, and my tasks are, at the least, changing. This is all to say that I have been working recently, but that due to the progress I have been making, I no longer have the same set of tasks to work on. 

Currently, I need to find new rhythms to replace the rhythms that were shaped by the needs of finishing the previous projects, and now that those projects are essentially done, I’m a little bit at loose ends as I try to figure out where I will be focusing my energy next.  This post is very much an exercise in trying to wrap loose ends into something that I can post on my blog. and to generate some new momentum on writing blog posts, when I haven’t given them much thought in a while.

Partly the issue is in choosing where to focus my efforts. It’s not that I don’t have things that I could work on, it’s just a question of deciding which. Blogging is something of a sidebar—it’s something I do while I’m also working on something else—so it’s a relatively good task for a short term, transitional moments in a writing practice.  

Prioritizing different tasks is always difficult because the necessary choices are fraught with uncertainty.  This is one reason that it can be difficult to get moving on a new task immediately after completing a previous one.  But choices of what to work on are good ones to decide relatively quickly: better to get writing, than to sit wondering what to write about.

That’s my main message for this post, and for myself at this moment: get writing, don’t sit around wondering what to write about.  I’m going to wrap this up here just so that I can post it, and then I’ll get on to a next project. Or at least get on to choosing a new project to work on.

Taking a long view

My current plan for blogging is aimed at posting a new essay each week on Mondays.  This doesn’t always happen. Indeed, with respect to actually posting on Mondays, it’s been happening infrequently.  This is not ideal.  Of course, life isn’t always ideal, and learning to deal with the difficulties of the moment is valuable. This post is about taking a long view toward writing and writing projects, so that the difficulties of the moment don’t stop you in the long run.

I am thinking, in part, about a client who hasn’t gotten work done recently due to the death of a loved one. He wrote to me a few days ago to apologize that he has not been able to get moving on his project.  He is on a schedule—the project really needs to be done in about 9 months—so it’s not as if there is no concern for productivity.  But this is definitely enough time that taking the long view is meaningful.  The big question for this writer is not what he does in the next week or two; the question is what he does in the next nine months.  Sure, we can say that losing two weeks is losing almost 10% of the total time he has available, but that doesn’t take into account differences in his relationship to his work.  Basically the question is whether losing two weeks is worth it, if it helps the writer work more effectively over the remaining 90% of his available time.

Small changes in productivity make a big difference over long time periods

Suppose writing a project requires 100 units of work. (Yes, it’s a little silly to try to quantize work so simplistically, but it helps illustrate the issue.)  If a writer does 1 unit each week, then the writer will finish the project in 100 weeks.  But, especially with a lengthy project, a slight increase in productivity can result in a reasonably significant reduction in time: If a writer does 1.1 units of work a week, that 100-unit writing project will take about 91 weeks.

Let’s say the writer who lost his loved one has to do 100 units of work in 40 weeks time—that’s 2.5 units of work per week.  If he loses two weeks, then he has to do 100 units of work in 38 weeks, or 2.63 units a week.  Moving from 2.5 units/week to 2.63 units/week requires increasing productivity by about 5.2%, which doesn’t seem like a great increase productivity.  If we assume that each unit of work takes about 10 hours, then doing 2.5 units/week requires 25 hours of effort. So to increase productivity by the necessary 5.2% would mean spending about an extra hour and 20 minutes per week (assuming that productivity per hour does not decrease).

So, if we take the long view with respect to a writing project or writing practice, it becomes easier to take short periods of time off, especially if taking that time off can help improve productivity.

Can taking time off improve productivity?

The question actually has two parts because we can measure productivity in two different ways: in terms of absolute product, and in terms of productivity per unit of time.  With respect to completing a project like a dissertation or book, it is the absolute productivity that is of immediate importance: the manuscript must be written and submitted, and that’s all there is to it.  But in terms of a writing practice, the question of productivity per unit of time is more interesting: it’s not so much a question of completing a single work, so much as of what you get for your efforts.

When talking about taking time off increasing productivity, this split in measures of productivity leads to a split in the question. One question is: can taking time off increase overall productivity? The other question is: can taking time off increase productivity per unit of time?  For a writer facing a deadline, the first question is the one that is most obviously important: will I get the whole work done?  But for that writer, the question of productivity per unit of time has a crucial impact on the question of overall productivity, as illustrated in the simple example above.

I want to argue for the value of time off in increasing productivity per unit of time. It should be obvious that in the right contexts, time off can improve productivity.  This is pretty obvious in extreme cases: someone working 120 hours a week will probably be more productive per hour if they start working “only” 60 hours per week.  Meanwhile, it seems entirely questionable that someone struggling with writer’s block might not similarly benefit: if productivity is low and time spent is also low, can taking time off help improve productivity? This is more questionable.  But if productivity is already low, then it seems like a reasonable effort to try to improve productivity, and worry about losing time (in which, due to low productivity, little would be accomplished) doesn’t help.

One way to increase productivity is to improve your relationship with your work.  It has been argued that procrastination can stem from resentment (Fiore’s The Now Habit), and one way to resent your work is to feel trapped by it.  This writer who lost his loved one might resent his work if he feels forced to it at a time when he’s grieving, so my concern is that forcing himself to work (or my pushing him to work too aggressively) will not improve long-term production.  At the same time, I do want to encourage this writer to think about his work as a potential escape from his grief—engagement in an activity can, at least for short periods, give some relief from emotional difficulties.  This all is part and parcel of his relationship with his work.  I want to focus on helping him improve his relationship with his work, because I think that writers, who often lose enthusiasm for their projects as they near their completion, can gain great benefit from rediscovering the lost passion that initially inspired a work.  Creating such a shift of attitude can be facilitated by taking some time off.

How much can productivity increase?

In my quantized example above, I indicated that time off in a long project can be made up with small increases in productivity.  That is somewhat dependent on context, however.  The amount that productivity can increase is dependent on how productive one already is. 

Someone who is already very productive, and working a lot, won’t easily increase productivity.  If someone is working 100 hours a week and using the time effectively, then it might be really hard to get a 5% increase in productivity.

But, for people who have been getting stuck on a big project, like the writer who lost his loved one, the story is very different.  People who are stuck on big projects are often people who are facing particularly low productivity with respect to their historical norms.  A dissertation writer who gets stuck and fails to make progress on a dissertation is almost always someone at a relatively low level of productivity compared to their own history.  People advance to writing a dissertation because of their demonstrated ability to do scholarly work. So often, productivity levels with respect to large projects are relatively low compared to previously established performance.

A writer whose anxiety stops her from sitting down to write is producing no writing at all.  If she has a history of previous success as a writer, then there’s an opportunity for massive improvement. Recently, I worked with a dissertation writer over about nine months, at the end of which, she successfully defended a dissertation. During the first few months, little progress was made—perhaps one chapter was revised during the first three months we worked together. During the last six months, however, the remaining three chapters were revised and new introductions and conclusions were written, drafts submitted to committee members and revisions made with respect to the feedback received.  More importantly, perhaps, the writer went from saying “I can’t get anything done; I’m not getting anything done,” to saying “I am making progress.”  I can’t precisely quantify that difference, but that’s the real key, if we take the long view.

Emotions are key

I believe in practice. I preach the importance of practice. I push people to write every day (I also push myself to write every day).  But, in a long view, practice wants to be built on a good foundation—a foundation that brings the writer back to the writing day after day.  Emotions are key in that foundation.  If you feel bad about what you’re doing, and if doing what you’re doing makes you feel bad, it’s going to be really hard to maintain a good level of effort.  If, for example, writing is a source of anxiety, or if you resent your writing because it keeps you from attending to other important things in your life, then it’s hard to keep going.

In this long view of writing practice, taking time off for mental health and doing other things to support a positive relationship with writing help lay the foundation for a positive practice that allows the writer to access their abilities and put them into action on a more regular basis.  Writing is hard. It requires effort.  But, like many things that require effort, it is also rewarding.  If we develop a good relationship with writing, then maintaining a healthy and productive practice is much easier and helps unlock greater levels of productivity as focus and energy shift away from the anxiety or resentment and back towards the interests that really motivate us. And if we do that, in the long run, we’re going to be more productive.

How to Become a Better Writer (3): Find Your Voice

Back at the beginning of September, when I started this series of posts, I had been triggered by a video discussing musical practice, and what makes a good musical practice. On the one hand, I thought that the video was generally right: everything it suggested would help if someone were to incorporate it into their practice.  But I also felt that it was missing something crucial—something that has been central in my understanding of practice for a long time.  That missing element, which I rarely see discussed, is the element of personal motivation and satisfaction—which, in this post, I’m going to link to the idea of finding your own voice.

To recap the somewhat wandering narrative of this series of posts: My starting place was the intention of exploring/discussing how to become a better writer, but I immediately got on the tangential question of what it means to say that someone is a good writer.  There were, I argued in three posts, several different criteria for what counts as a good writer, suggesting consideration not only of the quality of writing produced (in the first post), but also the writer’s own perception of the process (in the second), and the long-term impacts of the writing process on the writer (in the third). By the time I got through these, I wrote a couple of more specific posts about practice that were responding to specific ideas that I had come across while working on the three “good writer” posts—one about approaching revision (whether to piece together drafts from fragments of old work—what I called “Frankenstein-ing” a draft—or to take the good ideas from old work but to try to find completely new expressions—what I called “growing a draft from the cloning vats”), and one about dealing with criticism, and particularly about moving on despite criticism.  Because the narrative has started to wander, I may close the series with this post, especially because, in a way, the whole subject of my blog is how to become a better writer, so it doesn’t really make sense to dedicate a separate series of posts to that subject.

For this post, I want to focus on what is perhaps the most important tool in becoming a good writer: finding your own voice. By this, I am not referring to tone or style, but rather to discovering or recognizing your own values—what really matters to you—and your own sense of value in what you do.  In this sense, I am linking the idea of finding your own voice with the idea that the process of writing can be rewarding at a personal level.  This linkage is crucial and is what I think is missing from discussions of practice that focus on specific types of exercise or discipline.

Speaking and Writing

How many people do you know who prefer writing to speaking? How many people do you know who find it easier to write?  How many people do you know who hate to write? And how many people do you know who hate to speak?  Because of the difficulties of writing and also the context in which writing is usually learned, writing becomes something that many people hate to do, even if they love to speak.

But writing is just another tool to express ideas.  People use writing for the same basic reasons they use speech, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find that people would use writing with the same enthusiasm they use speech—if only writing weren’t so darn difficult.  And, actually, it turns out that people will use writing—a lot—if it feels easy and natural. The whole world of text messaging and social media shows that many people are perfectly happy, even enthusiastic about writing, given the right context.

Learning to write involves a lot of trial and error, and often a lot of correction.  Writing in schools, where most people do most of their early writing, is often centered on assignments and grades and criticism/correction of the many errors that early writing projects entail. None of that is much fun to deal with—at least not for most people.

But if you get good enough, writing is less difficult, and more like speaking in the sense that the technical difficulties related to communicating become less significant, and it is easier to focus on the ideas being communicated. Which hopefully means getting to communicate about the things that are important to you.

Following your passion

Speaking of following one’s passion is something of a cliché of new age philosophies, and as such, it is often dismissed as being impractical—“woo woo” as the barista at my local coffee shop might put it.  That is, however, a mistake.  It’s taking the worst extremes of a suggestion as representing what is typical, and then rejecting the typical on the basis that it’s too extreme.  Yes, sure, when considering the idea of following your passion, it’s easy to imagine people pursuing some artistic career with little ability and little chance of turning that pursuit into any practical means of supporting themselves.  But because we can imagine such examples, doesn’t mean that we have to live them ourselves.  It is entirely possible to be passionate about something important or lucrative or both. Many medical professionals are following their passion.  Many teachers are following their passions.  Most of my work is with scholars, many of whom have or aspire to the Doctor of Philosophy degree, and for many the search for knowledge is a passion, and also something of great value to wider society.  The idea that philosophy is a pursuit of passion isn’t a new-age idea, though.  It’s an idea that was present in Ancient Greek culture, in which the pursuit of knowledge was literally called “love” (philo-) of “wisdom” (sophos-).

If we consider a basic claim of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, that the best moments of people’s lives are when they are engaged in the difficult challenging activities that lead to the flow experience, then we can believe that following passion is not so much about pursuing some whim, but rather about trying to succeed in difficult and often valuable endeavors.

Most people care about real things.  Even people engaged in activities that might be considered frivolous can be doing something valuable to multiple people.  What might seem ridiculous to one person might, in fact, be extremely valuable to another. Just above, I offered the example of someone pursuing an artistic career with no hope of supporting themself, as if that were a frivolous thing, but that’s a problematic example.  For one, it’s not sensitive to specifics of context that might matter to the individual—perhaps the artist gains a real  and necessary personal therapeutic benefit from pursuing art.  And, for two, it’s not hard to find examples of artists whose work was derided in their own time but are respected now.    

Following your passion can sound impractical, but the realities of following passion are far different.  People who follow their passions are often driven to become very good at what they do. Writing happens to be one thing that people can become passionate about.

Passion and Practice

People who are passionate about something, often work on that thing.  They practice.  And practice is the crucial factor in becoming good at something.  This connection between passion and practice is another old idea.  There is a quotation from Sir Philip Sidney’s “Apologie for Poetrie” on this point that I have long appreciated: 

For suppose it be granted — that which I suppose with great reason may be denied — that the philosopher, in respect of his methodical proceeding, teach more perfectly than the poet, yet do I think that no man is so much [a lover of philosophy—“philo-philosophos”] as to compare the philosopher in moving with the poet. And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching; for who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught?

(From Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1962/1962-h/1962-h.htm; Project Gutenberg is an excellent resource. Please support it.)

Sidney highlights the importance of motivation—of the desire to accomplish something, in this case to learn—in the accomplishment of goals. The key assertion, which he phrases as a question, is that people who are motivated to learn will learn (and regardless of whether their teacher is the better or worse).

Passion leads to practice.  Practice leads to skill.  And skill leads to greater satisfaction in the activity, while also sparking enough dissatisfaction to continue to grow.

Conclusion

Do you want to become a better writer? Why? What ideas do you want to express? What stories do you want to share? What knowledge? What ideas?  What is it that you really care about?  What, to refer back to this post’s title, do you want your voice to be saying?

As you find your voice, and begin to understand what is important to you, it becomes easier to write because you have greater motivation to deal with the difficulties involved in expressing yourself clearly.

How to Become a Better Writer (2): Work Past Criticism

My original plan for this series of posts has been somewhat lost since I originally formulated it about six weeks ago, but my general goal for my blog as a whole, and indeed for my work as a writing coach, dissertation coach, and editor, is to help people become better writers, so it’s pretty easy to fit something else in that heading (indeed, there’s some question as to whether I shouldn’t just drop the whole “how to become a better writer” title).  And, given that I personally write and strive to become a better writer, I’m often thinking about how I can become a better writer, and so have ideas that can be translated into a blog post on the subject of becoming a better writer.

The past several days, I was working on the copy-edited files for my upcoming book, and one of the things that I was dealing with was with working past criticism.  On the one hand, I was dealing with the criticism of the copy-editor, which, admittedly, was not about content, and was pretty easy to deal with.  And on the other, I was dealing with my own internal criticism, which was somewhat wider-ranging, and was rather more difficult.  But whether your own internal criticism or the criticism of others, if you want to become a better writer, you have to learn to work through criticism. If building skill depends on practice, then criticism cannot be allowed to break that practice.

Different purposes for different writers

There are varied reasons to write: some people might write just for their personal satisfaction, others might write for fame, and others might write because their careers demand it.  Different kinds of writing will expose you to different kinds of criticism.  The better you understand your reasons for writing, the easier it is to deal with criticism that is irrelevant to your writing.  

For example, if you’re writing for the therapeutic value of writing and exploring your thoughts, then criticism regarding your spelling and punctuation are mostly irrelevant to your purpose.  Spelling and punctuation are conventions that are used to help writers communicate with others, but if your intention is to use writing to evoke ideas and work through them, then you may understand yourself sufficiently without the least concern for the formal conventions. 

Or, for example, I’m writing a blog generally aimed at highly educated writers who are seeking advanced degrees, so criticism that my sentences are relatively complex might be misplaced.  I choose this example because I have an SEO plugin for my blog that always tells me that my writing will do poorly in search engines because the sentences are too long and the text too difficult. (According to the SEO plugin, this post scores poorly on the Flesch Reading Ease test, and it also has sections, paragraphs, and sentences that are too long.)  I recognize that criticism and work past it. But, to me at least, that criticism seems off-base, because the people I want to appreciate my writing are people of high intelligence and competence. (Admittedly, I’m not sure about this being the right course of action—after all, if the search engine won’t rank me, then no intelligent, competent people will even learn that I have written.)

Knowing your purpose in writing is valuable in working past criticism because it helps you ignore criticism that isn’t suited to your purpose.

Self-criticism

Self-criticism can be paralyzing.  Too much self-doubt and projects get abandoned.  As I worked on the draft of my manuscript this past week, I was constantly battling with the sense that I had not done enough or that I should have done something better.  These thoughts were a significant drain on my energy and limited progress.  Instead of just checking to make sure that the copy-editor had not missed anything or introduced any new mistakes, I pondered over sentence after sentence, and paragraph after paragraph, wondering how much to change, and how much I could change (the publisher had explicitly stated that changes should be kept minimal).  These internal debates raged as I moved through each chapter, bemoaning the work that realistically was that outcome of years of effort on my part, not to mention several different reviews of different drafts, so it’s not as if that manuscript over which I was so tortured had never gotten any support.  To be sure, my book has flaws.  It also has strengths.  

One particular difficulty in the moment of editing is that you are looking for problems at a very granular level.  My book isn’t really about details, but rather about big core ideas. Looking for problems, especially at the level of sentences or paragraphs, simply isn’t very sensitive to larger-scale issues like narrative flow or overall argument (where I believe/hope my strengths lie) because the attention is focused on finding small-scale problems.  Emotionally speaking, the editing process forces a focus on weaknesses, not strengths, which can sap the necessary confidence to keep working.

Criticism from others

Criticism from others can also be paralyzing, especially if it links into self-criticism. Whether the criticism concerns something you already see as a weakness or something about which you feel pride (or something in between), it can trigger significant doubt about the ability to progress and reach a satisfactory conclusion.

In some ways, it’s easier to deal with criticism from others than self-criticism, if only because it’s sometimes easier to ignore or dismiss what others have said. When I get feedback from other people, I always ask myself whether they’re right or not, at least at a granular level, with respect to specific concerns.  (If someone dismisses my work out of hand, I’m not particularly inclined to worry about that—it’s usually a waste of time trying to please someone who won’t be pleased. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, however, and that’s one reason feedback can be more difficult than self-criticism—more on that below.)  When I get detailed feedback, I have generally find that some of it is really helpful, some of it difficult but helpful, and some of it less helpful or even wrong.  I know that I have made mistakes when giving feedback to other people, and I know that people have made mistakes in giving me feedback.  So, in processing feedback, I try to sort out the stuff that I do want to use from that which I don’t. And that sorting allows greater equanimity in dealing with the feedback—it’s less of a challenge to my confidence (and even a boost to my confidence, sometimes) to see the feedback focuses on things that can be easily fixed.

Of course, as I suggested above, one of the difficulties in receiving feedback from others is that there are times when you simply cannot avoid it.  If you’re a student and your professor insists on something, you’re pretty much stuck. If an editor at a journal or publishing house insists on something, you’re not quite as stuck, but there’s a compelling reason to deal with it, especially if finding a publisher or journal that will accept your work is not a matter to be taken for granted.  It can be very difficult to try to do something that is outside your vision for your work.

Keep working

The emotional barriers are pretty high, but finishing work depends on getting past those sticking points.  In the effort to become a better writer, practice is central.  And the crucial first factor in any practice is the actual engagement and effort involved.  As a writer, that means working even in the face of criticism.  There is a necessary perseverance for the writer who wants to get better. This, more than anything else, is the crucial step.  Undoubtedly, it’s better to be able to learn from criticism and to use that criticism to keep growing: by hearing, understanding, and adapting to criticism, your practice and your efforts are guided and directed.  But even if you just ignore criticism and keep working, that will help you become a better writer.  An undirected, sloppy practice whose only discipline in its regularity is still a better road to improvement than a highly structured but irregular practice.  Within reason, anyway.  I’m not sure how to measure this at the margins: is a highly structured practice carried out for 3 hours a week better than a loose practice carried out 4 hours a week?  I can’t be sure when comparing such small differences in practice.  But I’m pretty confident that a sloppy practice for one hour a day, seven days a week, is going to do more for skill than a highly disciplined practice for two hours each Saturday with nothing on the other days.  And for that reason, I place such a high value on working past criticism including, criticism of one’s own practice schedule: better to practice badly than not practice at all.

A long time ago, I read about a empirical study that had followed a group of people developing skill (I can’t give a citation; can’t remember the source; and don’t want to go looking right now), which basically found that the people who accurately assessed their work were less likely to develop skill over a longer period than those who over-estimated the quality of their performance. The primary difference was that those who over-evaluated themselves did more work because of their (over)confidence.  We could say that the people who faced the least self-criticism did the best.  But, ideally, practitioners learn from self-criticism, thus refining their ability by responding to their various strengths and weaknesses. Which means that to really excel, you need both the criticism to guide and refine your work, and the ability to work past criticism to continue your pursuit of your goal to produce a good written work, and also to become a better writer.

Becoming a Better Writer: Frankenstein vs. the Cloning Vats

About a month ago, after watching a video on how to practice music, I started to write a post on how to become a better writer, with the basic theme being practice and my intentions aimed at discussing some ideas about developing a good practice.  As I worked on that post, however, I got sidetracked into a three-post digression into discussing what it means to be a good writer because how do you become a better writer without knowing what a good writer is?

In my posts on what it is to be a good writer, I discussed three general dimensions of being a good writer: (1) producing good written works; (2) enjoying or feeling a sense of accomplishment when writing; and (3) having a writing practice that leads to growth.  The first of these three dimensions is the one that most people think of with respect to “good writers,” but the others are important, too, because of their relationship to the key factor in becoming a better writer (in all three senses): practice.

As I said, I started this series of posts about a month ago, when I had a certain vision of what I wanted to do.  But in the course of that month, things have happened that give me new ideas, or at least lead me to revisit old ideas.  This post is related to becoming a better writer—it is about one specific question in how to practice writing effectively—but it is a bit more specific than I was planning on.  However, I’ve decided to go with this because the idea for it was sparked by a recent interaction with a writer.

Re-animating old work vs. growing a new draft

This writer was talking about using previous papers as a foundation for a new draft, and spoke of “Frankenstein-ing a draft,” meaning to pick chunks of old work, and to stitch them together into a complete whole.  Reflecting on this plan of action (and looking through the old drafts to find pieces that could be used for the “Frankenstein draft”), I came up against a principle that I strongly believe helps writers use their time and effort more effectively.

Because the language of the discussion was one from science fiction/horror, I framed a comparison in terms of the genre: is it better to create a Frankenstein draft, or is it better to get something out of the cloning vats?  The idea of a Frankenstein’s monster is pretty clear: a body stitched together from several different parts, perhaps awkwardly.  My idea of “cloning vats” isn’t something I can associate with any single cultural work (a search for “cloning vats” turns up a lot of science fiction games). In this particular analogy, I’m imagining the “cloning vats” as a system in which old organic matter is recycled to provide the raw materials from which new creatures are grown.  In terms of writing practice, I’m really focusing on the choice between revising and rewriting—the choice between trying to reuse old material and trying to generate new material.

A newly grown draft will better embody new ideas

The first reason I recommend this is that we learn as we go: if you have learned something new or thought of something new, that new idea will be much easier to bring to life in a new draft than it will if you’re trying to stitch it into a Frankenstein draft.  The pieces from which a Frankenstein draft is built are a reflection of what you thought at some previous time.  Trying to make new ideas conform to demands of a draft built on old thinking can push you away from what you have learned.  

Perhaps most crucial in “new ideas” are the shifts in the purpose that drive any given draft.  In the specific case that inspired the post, the writer wanted to reuse material that was originally written to answer questions from professors. That material was admirably suited as answers to the questions, but not so well suited to the present need, which is to explain the foundations of the dissertation they are trying to create.  Even if the two drafts share most of their content, the difference between writing an answer to a question like “what methods can be used to research…?” and the question “what methods were used in this specific project” is a massive one.  One question asks for an overview of methods; the other asks for explanations of why specific methods were used.

Growing a new draft helps build skill at writing to the blank page

The second reason I recommend writing a new draft is that it’s more practice as a writer.  Writing a new draft is going to challenge your skills more.  This is not to say that there’s no skill developed in the attempt to build a Frankenstein, and I could be convinced that you learn just as much in either process. So maybe I shouldn’t include this as a reason to rewrite instead of revising.  It depends on which ability is more valuable to a writer: the ability to revise, or the ability to compose on a blank page.  Offhand, I would say that the latter is more important, but it’s a question that might be worth exploring: in particular, I’m thinking about my own personal problems with revision and my tendency to get frustrated with my own work.

Growing a new draft builds the confidence that you can write a new draft when needed.

A third reason I argue for the rewriting rather than revising is that, in the context of a larger practice of writing, or a career that involves a lot of writing, it’s good to start to think in terms of writing quickly and easily.  Writing is always going to be difficult, but the question is whether that difficulty is intimidating or not.  Speaking is difficult, but people speak when needed. Some people avoid public speaking, of course, but no one would argue that such avoidance places limits on the person in many career contexts.  Avoiding writing is a lot like avoiding public speaking: it’s giving up a valuable tool. Willingness to rewrite takes some confidence in writing ability, but it can also help build that same confidence.  In a way, this last point might be the most important in terms of becoming a better writer: it’s much easier to be a good writer if you think that sitting down to write will be productive.

Growing a new draft can be easier than revising old material

A fourth reason I argue for rewriting is that in my experience it can be easier than revising.  People are often intimidated by a blank page, and turn to an old draft because there is comfort in the completed work.  Many think that revising will be easier than writing anew, but in my experience that’s not necessarily the case.   Revising is hard work.  Writing is hard work, too, but bot necessarily as hard as many feel it to be.  Writing, the verbal expression of thought on the page, is not really more difficult than speaking, at least in the sense that the real difficulty in both writing and speaking is finding words to express ideas.  Writing is harder than speaking because writing does require consideration of punctuation and spelling and the such—but those are minor details that are secondary to the difficulty of finding good ways to express ideas.  With practice, issues of spelling and punctuation become less difficult and demand less attention, and interfere less with the main task of expressing ideas.  That people can produce a lot of words in a short time when they don’t worry about punctuation and such is evidenced by the exams that students write.  I’ve known plenty of people who struggled with writing blocks when given a lot of time to write, but almost all of them have successfully written essays in exams with limited time.  It’s not as if these people somehow lost the ability to write a lot of words in a short time, it’s more that there is some inhibition stopping them from writing so quickly. People who wrote 500 or 1000-word essays in 3-hour exams could also write 1000-word essays in 3 hours of writing time, if they made the same compromises they made in the exam: to write something, no matter how messy, and no matter that they may not be entirely confident.  If you believe that you can write 1000 words in a few hours, suddenly rewriting a 4000-word chapter doesn’t seem nearly as intimidating.

Context-dependence

Which technique is best, depends on context (not surprisingly).

For one, the less time you have, the more the reason to Frankenstein something, especially if you only have a very short time. If you only have a day to put together a presentation, then stitching together a Frankenstein makes good sense simply because it’s hard to generate  lot of new material in a very short time.

For two, I would say that Frankenstein-ing is more valuable when dealing with recent material.  The longer it’s been since you have written something, the more likely that you will have learned something that might shift how you approach that subject.  

For three, the quality of the work influences whether to try to re-use it: the better the work, the greater the incentive to try to make use of it.

But re-using material isn’t always a good idea because you don’t want to over-repeat yourself.  There are contexts in which re-using material is fine. Rough drafts or material written for coursework is fine for re-use (though perhaps lacking in quality).  Previously published material, however, may not be acceptable if you’re supposed to be creating something new and original.

Conclusion

Sometimes, it’s great to have old writing that you can reuse. Having fragments that can be patched together into some whole, however, awkward, can be immensely useful in a tight spot. But on the whole, being able to compose a new work readily, and having the confidence that you can do so, is the more valuable skill for a writer.  Don’t tie yourself to the limitations of old work if you can create something new that does a better job of integrating the old material.  And don’t assume that trying to piece together old work is easier: often it’s much harder and more frustrating because old work doesn’t capture any new learning since the old draft was written (especially learning about your purposes: is what you are trying to accomplish now, the same as what you were trying to accomplish then?).

If you want to be a better writer, try to write new things, instead of relying on your past work.

What is a Good Writer? (3)

My original plan for a blog post was to discuss practice and how practice can help someone become a better writer. But I got sucked into the question of what is a good writer and now I’ve written two posts already without talking about how to become a better writer because I felt I needed to discuss how to become a better writer without knowing what qualities makes a writer better or worse?  

In the first post in this series, I discussed different dimensions of writing that could be used to judge whether a person is a good writer—particularly use of punctuation and grammar, content, audience approval. In the second post in the series, I discussed internal, personal criteria for judging whether someone is a good writer—mainly, the writer’s own assessment of the process, with respect to both enjoyment and sense of accomplishment: if you can say that you feel a sense of accomplishment when writing, then maybe it makes sense to say you are a good writer. Similarly, if you enjoy writing, we might say you are a good writer.  Acknowledging these criteria does not eliminate other criteria for judging good writing, rather it highlights some dimensions of what it means to be a writer that are important if you want to become a better writer.

In this post I will discuss being a good writer from a slightly different angle: not on the basis of the material you write, and not on the basis of your experience of writing, but on the basis of the impact of your writing process on your life. And in this discussion, I want to segue to the theme of practice and the role practice plays in becoming a better writer, which I had intended as the center of the posts I intended to write on how to become a better writer.  

Healthy and Unhealthy Writing Practices

When I was in graduate school, repetitive strain injuries were just coming into wide recognition, and prevention was not yet understood. I knew several fellow students whose career in academia was interrupted or slowed by such injuries.  That, I would say, is a good example of an unhealthy practice, and someone who has such a practice is not, according to this criterion, a good writer.

Another example of an unhealthy practice might be a practice that creates emotional difficulties.  I’m thinking specifically about the explanation of procrastination offered by Neil Fiore, a psychologist who worked with doctoral candidates, in his book The Now Habit. Fiore’s basic argument is that procrastination arises from resentment—he writes about students who set expectations for their writing practice so high that there is no room in their lives for anything else. Such students, he argues, come to resent their work, which triggers procrastination. By contrast, students who maintain a better work-life balance are more likely to feel good about their work and therefore keep working.

There are other ways to have an unhealthy practice.  If your writing depends on drugs or drinking, it creates a dynamic that is hard to sustain over an extended period. (Perhaps it is worth distinguishing between someone who uses a drug to write—e.g., “I can’t write unless I’m drunk/stoned/etc.”—and someone who is dependent and also writes. The former might lead to the latter, which is not good. The latter, of course, is a problem of a more general impact than just a writing practice.)

Generally speaking, a practice of writing (or, indeed, of anything else) can carry the seeds of its own future. In one path of growth, a damaging practice means that each successive session of practice becomes increasingly damaging and moves the practitioner further away from health. In the opposite path, each successive session, free from injury, allows the opportunity for a positive engagement—whether that positive experience is learning something new that helps improve skill or technique, or a sense that you have done something well, or perhaps even some enjoyment of the experience.

In the long run, a healthy practice will support itself and the practice will become more rewarding. Regardless of your skill level, practice still takes effort, so I wouldn’t say that practices become easier. Indeed, without some fairly significant investment of effort, it’s not much of a practice, and won’t tend to help skills improve very quickly, so practice should involve some difficulties. However, with greater skill comes an increase in the reward for any given effort.

In this sense, I would argue that one way to be a good writer is to have a healthy practice that supports itself, rather than an unhealthy practice that sows the seeds of its own destruction.  Of course, if you have a good practice (and are a good writer in that sense), you’re likely to develop skill over time and become a better writer in the other senses, too.  With practice, you are likely to experience growth in numerous different aspects of your writing.  This is, I think where I start to segue to my original subject of how to become a better writer.  

Having touched on different ways of being a good writer (ability to create good written work; self-perception of the process; sustainable, growth-supporting practice), I want to start talking about how to get better at all of these.  The key is practice: if you practice, you will get better (at least assuming that the practice is not self-destructive). Practicing will even help you develop a more effective and more sustainable practice, if you keep that as one of your goals.

Practice is activity sustained over time

One session of effort isn’t really a practice. Practice is something that is sustained and maintained over an extensive period of time. If we talk about a doctor’s practice, it is not any one case we refer to, but the whole career of treating different cases.  For a writer, we can draw a parallel: the practice is not any one written work, but rather the sustained effort of writing many different things over a long period of time. (I suppose I wouldn’t want to exclude someone who consistently and regularly worked on one single work over a long time—that would be a practice, too. If your practice is more about your personal benefit from working on a project—it’s a hobby rather than a career—then the regular activity is what matters, even if nothing is ever completed.  But that kind of practice won’t help with at least one skill that is valuable to writers: the skill of making the necessary compromises to finish and let go of a project.)

It’s only with a regular and repeated practice that you develop in a significant way.  Sure, there are people who pick up new skills quickly, but to really refine a skill—to practice it at a high level—it’s necessary to keep at it.  This makes perfect sense if we think about the physiological basis of our experience and thinking: both the physical and intellectual aspects of any practice are rooted in our bodies.  Practicing something not only develops physical motor skills related to that activity, but also develops the neurophysiology that supports those patterns of thought.  Writing is not clearly linked to any specific physical activity—there are different ways to write—but still the practice of trying to express ideas will consistently activate any neurophysiology related to word choice, for example.

For the neurophysiological benefit of a practice, the activity has to be repeated. The efforts have to be repeated.  A marathon runner wouldn’t hope to become a good marathoner by working out really hard one day a week.  A writer who hopes to write well while only writing one day a week is setting up a good opportunity for frustration and failure—a once-a-week schedule gives enough time between practice sessions that you can lose touch with what you were trying to do in the previous session.

What makes a practice effective?

Realistically, when I started this series of posts, several weeks ago, I had some specific ideas in mind for what I wanted to say about practice.  Then I got sidelined into these three posts about what makes a writer a good writer.  I don’t remember right now what those specific points are, but I do still want to talk about how to become a better writer.  And as I write that, I do remember that one impetus for starting a post on practice was watching a video about how to practice a musical instrument, which led me to start reflecting on the question of what makes a good practice and what kinds of practice would help a writer become a better writer.  Those concerns are going to be the subject (I think) of at least one following post, in which I will discuss ways in which practice can support the different kinds of good writing.

Summary

To summarize my three posts on what it means to be a good writer: there are different criteria that can be applied.  The most obvious criteria for being a good writer are those associated with the creation of good writing.  This is, I think, the main consideration when people talk about being a good writer, but, as I mentioned previously, assessment of written work is context dependent, and there can be substantial disagreement on what counts as good writing.  In addition to this main group of criteria, I also argued that one can be a good writer because one has a good experience of writing—this kind of writer is good at writing not because of the quality of what is written but because he/she/they feel good when they write.  And finally, in this post, I argued that a “good writer” is someone who has a good writing practice: a good writer can be someone whose practice of writing leads to them getting better as a writer.  And that is the question I want o pursue in my next post: how can practice help?

What is a Good Writer? (2)

In my previous post, I was motived by a desire to discuss how to become a better writer but got no farther than exploring the question of what a good writer is. I discussed a few different criteria—the ability to write according to formal conventions, the importance of content, the importance of persuasion, and the ability to produce material in a timely fashion.  But it occurs to me that these are all objective or external in the sense that they can be judged by anyone: if you write something, other people can judge whether it has good punctuation or good content. Different people might not agree on whether the work is good, but they have documents/evidence on which to make such judgements.  But with respect to the question of what a good writer is, there is another criterion of crucial importance that is purely internal and subjective: the writer’s own experience/self-assessment.  What is writing like for you? Is it a good experience or a bad one? From a purely personal perspective, the question of being a good writer could be reframed in terms of whether or not you yourself feel like you are good at it, and whether or not you enjoy it.  These two are intertwined, but I’m going to separate them in this post.  

This internal assessment of being a good writer is very important. The key to becoming a good writer is that you practice, and your experience of your practice  will have a huge impact on how frequently you practice, and thus on whether you can become a better writer.  There are, I think, two aspects of this: enjoyment and accomplishment.

Enjoyment

Given the freedom to choose, people are going to spend more time doing things that they find enjoyable than they will doing things that are boring or tedious or painful. If an activity is painful or unpleasant, it’s likely that it will be avoided.  If we learn through reward/punishment, or are motivated by pleasure/pain, we learn/are motivated to avoid the punishment/pain.  

If writing is experienced as painful or a form of punishment, you’ll probably spend less time trying to write.  You may struggle to write at all.  There is a pretty large subset of people who view writing through this negative lens. One book I read argued that the defining emotion felt by writers is fear. A dissertation-writing book I read argued that dissertation writing is “dull, dull, dull,” because, apparently, it’s necessary to emphasize just how bad that process is. I don’t think that’s an unusual perspective because there’s a decent number of dissertation books that focus on “surviving” dissertations. It’s not hard to find people who think of writing (academic or otherwise) as an unpleasant and unwelcome task.  For that matter, I was one such person: I hated writing when I was young.

For a lot people, writing becomes so fraught with anxiety that it is too painful to start.  Such anxiety can lead to a negative feedback loop, where anxiety about impending deadlines makes it difficult to even think about the task, which leads to not writing, which leads to further anxiety as the deadline continues to approach. And then, at the last second, the work has to be done in a panic, which is hardly a recipe for developing warm and comfortable feelings about the process.

Part of being a good writer, from a personal perspective, is whether writing is good for you: if you enjoy it, that it, in itself, a reason to say that you are a good writer.  There are plenty of people who actually have positive feelings about writing, and about the benefits of writing, so it’s not as if finding writing a rewarding, positive experience would be that much of a surprise.  Writing, which combines challenges with the opportunity for growth and success, has the characteristics of activities that lead to the “flow” experience described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the experience that many people (in Csikszentmihalyi’s research) consider the best in their lives.

The more that you feel pleasure in an activity, the more likely you are to do it, and “doing it” is the key for practice: if you “do it,” then you are practicing, and if you’re not “doing it,” then you’re not practicing.  So there is a potential positive feedback loop here: where pleasure leads to practice, which leads to greater ability, which helps make the process enjoyable, which leads to more practice.  But that’s moving aside from the focus on the internal experience of writing, and the idea that one criterion for being a good writer is to enjoy writing.

Speaking personally, I don’t know that I would consider writing one of the best experiences in my life, but I wouldn’t say it’s painful or unpleasant, even though it can be difficult.  There are moments when writing can feel exhilarating, and even when I feel like I’m doing well enough that it feels good.  I would say, however, that the good feeling I get is not so much pleasure in the activity itself, but the sense that I am dong something well, which brings me to my other point.

Accomplishment

The idea of accomplishment or success is one that can easily be focused on outward success and recognition, a criterion that can be used to identify a good writer (though may not necessarily do so: there are writers who have had commercial or popular success who are, by other criteria, poor writers). There is a different kind of success, however, that is more personal and internal.  A personal sense of accomplishment is often rewarding, even if that accomplishment is not recognized by others.  There is no question that such a personal sense of success can be supported by external feedback, but it need not require such feedback.  In many areas of endeavor, the idea of setting a “personal best” is common. It’s not really an idea with a clear correspondence in writing—a personal best is usually measured with respect to some single measurable dimension—but even without such a clear measuring stick, a writer can feel a sense of accomplishment.

You can believe that you have done good work, even if you have not found anyone who will agree with you.  One way to be a good writer is to believe that you have done good work.  There are plenty of stories of writers (and other artists, for that matter) who struggled to find anyone who would recognize their work, but who were, in time, recognized for their brilliance.  This is, possibly, the most important dimension of being a good writer: if you believe that you can accomplish something, you are more likely to try to accomplish it rather than avoiding it. Therefore a sense that you are a good writer—that you accomplish something when you write—is very valuable.  The belief that you are doing work that has quality and value is a crucial support to a writer. I often wonder whether self-confidence is not the most important determinant of public success, especially in academia (which is the kind of writing I think about most).  

This sense of personal accomplishment is only one mode of being a good writer, and it’s certainly possible for a writer to have self-confidence that disagrees with the assessments of others. But this essay is not going to try to reconcile the gap between a writer’s self-assessment and the assessment of others.  Despite the fact that external assessments might not meet personal assessments, believing that you accomplish something when you write is one important dimension of being a good writer.

Conclusion

I’m going to wrap up this second “what is a good writer?” post here. In pursuit of understanding what is a good writer, I argued that a “good writer” can be someone who thinks they write well—perhaps they take pleasure in writing, or perhaps they think they accomplish something.  This internal assessment is possibly more important than any external criteria simply because the internal assessment is a crucial source of the motivation to continue practicing, and practicing is the key to becoming a better writer.

When I started this essay, I was thinking that it would wrap up the “what is a good writer” part of my prospective series on practice and becoming a better writer, but I’m considering whether there isn’t another dimension that I have not discussed–the question of how you write and the impacts of writing, for example, if your writing posture leads to repetitive stress injuries, are you a “good writer?” If you can only write when you’re drunk, are you a good writer? If your writing practices lead to the disruption of personal relationship, are you a good writer? I’ll have to think this through.  Maybe my next post will consider whether good practices are criteria for identifying a good writer. Or maybe it will move on to talking about practice and becoming a better writer.  When I do get to talking about how to become a better writer, the idea that one can enjoy and feel a sense of accomplishment in writing will be a subject of further discussion.

Taking Small but Useful Steps.

Some writers get stuck by anxiety about what to do next or anxiety about how to do their work. Recently I was working with a writer who does fine, once working, but who gets stuck by anxiety.

We were talking about analyzing some qualitative observations. Our discussion was focused on analytical and theoretical concerns, so we didn’t discuss the practical point I’m suggesting in this post.

If you are struggling with writer’s block of some sort, or you feel stuck when you are trying to write, especially if anxiety is an issue, it can be useful to focus on taking the smallest steps that you can that also make progress.

The writer and I were talking about analyzing statements made by people, and our discussion was concerned with dealing with the bridge between the statements and the analyses. And so what we didn’t talk about the specific practical difference between (1) trying to develop and present an analysis based on a whole corpus or even a sizeable chunk of a corpus, such as an entire paragraph, and (2), trying to develop an analysis based on a single sentence or even a single word.

Often, by focusing on the smallest possible unit, you can define a piece of work that is small enough that it doesn’t seem intimidating.  Focusing on one sentence or one word and trying to explain why it is significant to your work can be much easier than trying to explain a whole paragraph.

Not all words or sentences will be good choices for such focused attention, but if you’re struggling to deal with a larger mass of text—a whole paragraph or more—then one way to approach that text is to simply focus on one feature of interest–one word or phrase or sentence—and explain why that feature seems significant to you.

This is one possible suggestion as an alternative to trying to engage a larger text en masse. It’s a way to get moving and to engage with a project when anxiety might be problematic. In the long run, the whole corpus must be analyzed and discussed, but in the immediate moment, every individual step matters, and if you’re concerned about your progress and struggling with anxiety, taking a single small step can feel like making progress and that can reduce anxiety. And reducing anxiety is often the real key in starting to write.