Multiple Drafts and Writer’s Block

Writer’s block typically arises from a complex of issues. In this post, I discuss one factor that can contribute to writer’s block and how writing multiple drafts and thinking about the different roles of those drafts can help deal with that one difficulty. The idea of writing multiple drafts of a single work is hardly a novel one, but I have not seen this particular take on multiple drafts in relations to writer’s block (and now that I typed that, I’m definitely not going to go look to see if any one else written something similar! I wouldn’t actually be surprised).

One problem that can contribute to writer’s block is the conflict between writing to learn and writing to communicate/writing for presentation.  When writing early drafts of a work, writers are often seeking their argument and their focus, and in such cases, the concern for learning about the work can conflict with concerns for presentation. This can occur in a number of different ways: concern for grammar, spelling and punctuation distract attention from finding an argument. Worries about how readers will respond the work—fear of rejection or memories of previous difficult feedback—can create emotional stress that distracts attention.  One such conflict that can cause problems, which I’ve seen several times with academic writers, is the conflict created using a theorist that you don’t want to cite.  In one case in my experience, a writer who was interested in some ideas from Freud had a professor who hated Freud. Because his professor would respond poorly to works citing Freud, he quite reasonably wanted to avoid citing Freud. At the same time, however, he relied on Freud as an intellectual landmark.  He associated many of the ideas he used with Freud, and so when seeking to understand his own arguments, he turned to Freud. And this created a block: in trying to work through ideas, he would think of Freud, but then he would get stuck because he didn’t want to write about Freud, so his process of intellectual exploration was interrupted by his concern about how his work would be received.

Thinking about the different (and potentially competing) roles of drafts, can, perhaps, help reduce this specific conflict of interests.  If the specific role of your present draft is to learn and explore (and will be mostly private), then maybe you can set aside concerns for presentation and just explore.  Ask yourself: do you have a good sense of your argument—do you need to write to learn?—or do you already have a good focus and now need to think about communicating with your audience—do you need to write for presentation?  

Generally, in early drafts, the purpose is to learn—to learn what you really care about and what is most important for the project. Later, once you’ve committed to a sufficiently tight focus, then you start thinking about how to present ideas and communicate with your audience.  This is something of a simplification: you may never stop learning and changing what you think most important (thus stories of people frantically rewriting at the last minute), even as you try to complete a mature project; and you can gain some benefit from thinking about how to communicate (or at least with whom to communicate) even early in the process of research design.  

As a matter of process, this scenario with the writer trying to write around Freud displays how the two concerns—of learning and of presentation—are in conflict for a writer who is not certain of the precise content, focus and argument of the work.  By specifying the role of a draft as exploratory (and private), then he can go ahead and write about Freud as a point of reference that helps him learn about the shape and scope of his own argument.  Because that first draft is only for learning, there is no need to avoid Freud, who can thus play an important role as an intellectual landmark in the exploration of ideas that is occurring during the writing of the early draft. Putting aside the concern for presentation allows greater freedom in the exploration of ideas, which is crucial in the process of finding one’s own voice and in developing original research.

Once the argument comes into better focus, the writer can switch her/his efforts from learning and intellectual exploration to the question of presentation.  If a draft has already been completed, and the scope of the argument has already been set while using Freud as a point of reference, then the writer then has a much better position from which to work on the question of how best to present his/her own argument.

Basically, if you are not yet sure what you want to say, you benefit from exploring that first.  If you are not sure of what you want to say, it is crucial to explore those ideas with freedom before getting bogged down in presentational details.  If you think of some scholar—Dr.X—when trying to explain your work, explore that connection, explore that relationship. Why is Dr.X important to you? What aspects of Dr.X’s theory are like or unlike yours? What is it about Dr.X’s work that makes it a useful point of reference?  Write these things out to learn about the intellectual terrain on which your work is situated.  Use the landmark of Dr.X help you see the whole landscape of ideas, and thus help you understand your own position better, and also identify other scholars whose work provides useful intellectual landmarks for use in later drafts that get written once your argument has clarified. [This post is about writer’s block and using separate drafts with distinct roles, so I’m not going to get into the question of whether a scholar who “hides” a source by using alternative sources for citations is committing some ethical breach.]

The process of writing about a Dr.X in an early draft can help clarify a sense of purpose and a sense of argument.  Once you have a better sense of direction and focus, then you can turn your attention to crafting an effective presentation that doesn’t rely on Dr.X, ideally by citing alternative scholars who have expressed similar ideas with less problematic context, for example, as might be done by replacing Freud citations with citations from more modern psychodynamic theorists.

I recently wrote about trusting the process in writing. This is, I think, one issue where it’s necessary (1) to recognize that there is an ongoing process, and (2) to give that process space and time to work.  If you don’t see your process as including both drafts for learning and drafts to refine presentation, then you’re forcing yourself into a situation in which your concerns for presentation will work against the necessary process of exploration, and that can contribute to a larger writing block.

If you’re stuck and having trouble finding your voice, put aside your concerns for presentation. First, write to learn, then, later, write for presentation.

Listening to Yourself

Recently, I saw a motivational quotation on the order of “Do what you love and it isn’t work.” It struck me as unrealistic and unhelpful. It fails to capture the difficult and intimate interplay between love and work—whatever kind of love we may be talking about.  Love calls on us to do things that are difficult, even unpleasant or painful. Often we surmount difficulties and minor discomforts for our proudest achievements and best experiences. But it’s possible to face too much difficulty, and too much pain, and then love can be destructive.  To have a healthy relationship with the things we love—whether people or activities or otherwise—it helps to be able to listen to ourselves and make good judgements about how much difficulty is the right amount of difficulty.

Passion often lies where there is great difficulty. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that the best moments in people’s lives occur in activities that present significant challenges—the “Flow” state that Csikszentmihalyi has researched occurs in difficult activities, not easy ones. The activities that he describes as flow activities are ones where there is a danger of failure and a possibility for growth.

Shortly after seeing that motivational quotation, I was out for a run. (I’m not sure I go fast enough to call what I do “running” anymore, but I’ll call it running.) While running, I was thinking about the practice of listening to myself and the value of self-knowledge, and thinking about that in the context of writing and developing a writing practice, as well as the context of going running.

Going running is difficult and it is also something that I love.  When running well, I feel better than I do at any other time.  But I’m liable to aches and pains.  Tendonitis is a frequent issue, as is tightness or cramping.  Understanding these pains and being able to self-diagnose—listening to myself—helps me decide when to run harder and when to stop and engage in some treatment (like stretching).  You don’t want to keep running if running is going to cause more damage or prevent damage from healing; you do want to keep running if the exercise will help resolve the problem. Being able to listen to yourself helps you make a good judgement.

This ability to listen to oneself is valuable in all cases where love leads us to a difficulty: do we continue to follow our passion, or do we pull back because our passion is causing damage? 

To develop a successful writing practice, it’s important to listen to oneself, and to understand which difficulties are a sign to stop and tend to yourself, and which are just difficulty and discomfort to work through.  

This is true at both the physical and emotional levels. Physically, to write, and to work on writing has real dangers—I have known more than one researcher whose work was brought to a near standstill by repetitive stress injuries.  RSIs are better understood now than when I was in graduate school, so fewer people are crippled by them—partly because we better understand the danger and the danger signs (as well as appropriate responses).

Danger of overwork also exists on the emotional level, I believe. It is possible to turn a work practice into something so unpleasant that it becomes hard to work.  The idea that obstacles to writing stem from psychological issues is hardly a new or inventive one. Two sources where I have seen this idea are Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit and Keith Hjortshoj’s book on writing blocks, both of which discuss different psychological issues that inhibit writing.

Whether the pain is physical or emotional, being able to listen to yourself and correctly diagnose the severity of various discomforts can help you develop a more effective writing practice.  And that understanding can help your realize a project that is important to you and also difficult—a project of the sort that is often called a “labor of love.”

A labor of love requires a positive and beneficial practice that provides sufficient rewards to justify the difficulties involved, and part of that requires the ability to listen to yourself in order to understand what the costs are relative to the benefits.

The “do what you love and it isn’t work” trope fails to explain or understand the idea of a labor of love, and so cannot support such a work. If you think that doing what you love means that you don’t have to work, then you will almost certainly interpret all difficulties as a sign of something wrong—perhaps, even that you don’t love what you’re dong enough.  A more realistic view of what constitutes a good relationship recognizes that significant difficulties are part of the best things in life.

For me, the difficulty and frustration of not knowing what to write, of feeling that my ideas are weak or of limited interest, of not knowing how to make a coherent argument, of feeling that my hoped-for and intended argument has totally fallen apart, all of these are real pains. There is real difficulty and distress related to these things.  But is it suffering that will cause long-term damage? Knowing yourself and listening to yourself helps prevent engagement from becoming unhealthy.  

Doing what you love takes work. It involves real frustrations and difficulties. That work and those frustrations and difficulties are not necessarily signs that you’re doing something wrong or that you don’t love enough.  That’s where listening to yourself is about: by listening to yourself, you get information about your processes and you can use that information to develop better, healthier practices.

In this post, I have focused on listening to yourself with respect to managing a writing practice, but as a final note, I want to point out that for a writer being able to listen to yourself—hearing your own voice, and trusting your own judgments—is crucial not only in managing the practice of writing, but in finding material to write.  To write original work, there is no other source than your own voice—but that’s a subject for a different post.

Trusting the Process in Writing

For some writers, there comes a point where it can seem like there’s nothing to write about, or at least nothing worth writing about.  At that point, one option is to simply stop writing.  But, of course, that might not be a good option.  Another option is to skip the big picture and reduce the process to a matter of small steps and to trust that a process of engagement will help you open some paths of development.

Trusting a process is difficult, especially when a deadline looms.  It can be hard to accept that you might benefit from engaging in some apparently trivial task, especially if you feel a lack of basic ideas worth writing about.  But again, if the issue is a choice between being blocked—stuck feeling that there is nothing that you can write or that you want to write about—and trusting the process, then trust the process!

You won’t find something worth writing about by avoiding your project.  And you won’t find much satisfaction in just stopping.  Just stopping leads to the certainty that your project will not be accepted.  Trying to get published? You need a manuscript. Trying to get a degree? You need a manuscript.

Trusting a process can be annoying.  You might ask, “If I can’t find a big issue to write about, what’s the point in engaging with some small tangential task?”  Or you might say “that suggestion is so trivial, it won’t help.”  Such complaints have some validity. There is no question that there is better efficiency found in working on something when you have a clear vision of what you’re going to do.  But, again, the context needs emphasis: saying that it would be better to have a clear vision of your goal doesn’t help if you have no obvious route to gain such a vision. If you are feeling stuck, and feeling lost, trusting the process may be the only alternative that leads to productive activity.

There are usually a large number of minor tasks that a writer can pick up to start engaging with the process.  There is always value in trying to make a one-sentence statement of purpose for a project.  A writer who has lost a sense of direction can particularly benefit from taking the step of writing a one-sentence statement of purpose, and even better if that task is engaged repeatedly: write that one-sentence statement. And then write another one-sentence statement. And another.

A similar task is to write an outline for the work you want to write—this is, in a way, an inversion of the previous task: writing a one-sentence statement of purpose focuses on the over-arching structure.  Writing an outline focuses on the pieces that make up the structure.  It’s certainly possible to write an outline without having a clear sense of what your final argument will be—perhaps you have a few examples that you want to discuss, or a few issues—even if you don’t know exactly how they are related, you can put them into some outline.

If tasks like doing a statement of purpose or an outline seem intimidating, there are also tasks that are more granular.  Pick one sentence from an old draft and focus on that one sentence. What is good about it? What is bad about it? What could you do differently? Pick one idea from an old draft and write about what you hoped for with that idea and what problems you have faced. 

Or pick some publication in your field to which you can contrast your own work. Why is it like yours? To what extent are you interested in the same issues? And where do your interests differ? If you don’t know what you want to write about, you might find some subject of interest by looking at what others have written and thinking about how you want your work to compare.

Or, if you have empirical data that you have gathered, go back to that data and ask yourself again what the data shows. If you have empirical data, you should be focused on writing what is there in the data.

I’m a big fan of having a clear vision of where you want to go—an overarching sense of purpose and sense of direction are powerful guides for a writer.  But it’s possible to lose sight of those goals in the midst of a project. If you are wandering around the conceptual landscape wondering where to situate your writing, don’t scorn taking small steps. Small steps may seem meaningless or worthless—there’s little clear direction in writing about an idea you’ve rejected, or about an author whose work you don’t think you can use—but the process of engaging them earnestly can at least give you more information to figure out where you stand in the conceptual landscape, and where you might want to go.

Taking small steps that seem pointless may involve taking steps that are almost no help whatsoever. Maybe some of the small steps you take lead directly to dead-ends.  Those steps don’t directly contribute to the draft you’re trying to create.  But such steps do contribute to the process—they may not help a draft directly, but a series of such small steps helps delineate the project: every step you take that leads to a dead-end also helps set limits of the project, and seeing limits on the project can be useful in understanding what is and is not part of the project.  And the more such small steps you take, the more likely it is that you will hit upon some idea that is valuable and interesting.

Engaging in a process of taking small steps can be frustrating, but if you’re paralyzed or confused, it’s a very useful process for getting out of paralysis and at least limiting confusion.  Stuff is complex, so I’m not going to claim that you will ever be able to eliminate confusion. But the more that you engage, the greater the chance that you will find something that you do feel confident about.

Of course, you need to engage with some energy. It’s not enough to look at an article or passage from an old draft and just say to yourself that you don’t want to use it—you won’t learn much that way. You have to try to explicate in writing why you don’t want to use it.

If you’re feeling lost or paralyzed and you have stopped working, don’t put pressure on yourself to find the big answer. Big answers are really, really hard to find.  Instead, try to take tiny steps: work over old material and ask whether you like it and how to adapt it. Pick something to read and to write about. Make a quick, simple outline. Write one sentence about something.  Trust the process of working on your project because a process can help guide your actions in moments when you are having trouble seeing a larger sense of purpose.

Feeling Overwhelmed? Focus on one thing.

Sometimes, I get stuck as a writer because I start feeling overwhelmed by myriad issues, none severe in itself, but in combination more than enough to distract from the focus required by writing.

There are any number of potential distractions that interfere with writing. Chores and regular life continually present many demands. Maybe no chore or errand is crucial or particularly difficult, but they gain weight in combination as other responsibilities multiply: taking out the trash is trivial if you have plenty of time, but when you’re running late, it can be significant. Everyday life is a constant background noise that can contribute to feeling overwhelmed.

For me, an additional drain on my focus comes as I consider the state of the world. In my opinion, it is a civic duty for the citizen of a democracy to remain aware of news, and reading the news is, on one level no more than a necessary chore like washing dishes. Except for the fact that the news is so vexing. I find myself sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of the real problems that face humanity, starting with climate change, but including the vast range of issues.  Sometimes, the process of writing can provide some refuge, but these problems are present and demanding attention, and again contributing to a sense of being overwhelmed.

And then on another level—much more specific to the process of writing—I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with my own limitations as a writer. For all my practice, for all my effort and work, each new attempt to communicate my ideas involves significant effort and frustration, even when things generally go well!  Even if sentences are generally flowing, and I’m writing a fairly large amount, there is, at the second-to-second or minute-to-minute level, a series of pauses and struggles as each new sentence struggles to fit into both the structure that I imagined when I started and the vision that has developed in the process of writing. Add in to this mix all the doubts I have—have I spelled correctly? have I punctuated correctly? is my phrasing going to be clear? how will different people read that statement? Am I repeating something I wrote before?—and it’s pretty easy to get weighed down with the multiplicity of concerns.

And then on yet another level, I often find myself overwhelmed with ideas.  This is a common problem, I think: someone wrote to me recently to complain of a “traffic jam” of ideas.  Having too many ideas is consistently one of the problems I see in writers who generally do good research: their project bogs down as they try to address every different dimension of a general interest.  In writing this post about feeling overwhelmed, for example, I had manage all the different ways in which I can get overwhelmed—the complication and difficulty comes from the many different threads that can contribute to the larger fabric of feeling overwhelmed, and I can’t talk about all of them at once, and until I make a choice among them about which to discuss first, I can become stuck. 

The more choices a writer has, the easier it is to become overwhelmed, because each choice demands attention. In combination, writing presents difficulties that can be compounded by other difficulties, and these can lead to feeling overwhelmed.

When that happens, I find that my most effective response is to try to focus on something small—something that I need to do, perhaps, and that can be done pretty easily. But only one thing. So, for example, I take out the trash, without worrying about cleaning the whole house. It’s one step in the right direction.  When I would get stuck writing my dissertation, I would often pick one small thing—a citation or page number I needed, for example—without having to fix all the problems that I knew were waiting. When feeling swamped by ideas and other concerns, I can focus on one thing—one idea, one problem—and work on that without concern for other issues. Focus doesn’t solve all my problems, but at least it helps me solve some of them.