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.

Fear and Confidence in Writing

Once, a writer told me about a book she really liked called something like The Writer’s Book of Fear. I got a copy and got about as far as the author saying that fear is the defining element of all writing.  I don’t remember exactly what he wrote, but it felt alien to my experience of writing.  This is not to say that I know no fear in writing; I experience many different fears when writing. But fear is not the only thing I feel when writing, by any means. I would say, in fact, that it’s not even close to my dominant emotion when writing.  In my opinion, actually, writing will best grow out of a cautious confidence that you have something to say that is worth saying—and this is a confidence I believe many fearful writers have. Many people believe that they have an important message to communicate, but if asked to write it down, the fear of writing poorly can take over.

Confidence plays a huge role in how writing develops, and for struggling writers, it is often a major cause of writing blocks. Over-confidence can lead to imprudent action and can blind a writer to problems, but on the whole, I would think these are far better problems for a writer than to be paralyzed by doubt. Practically speaking, it’s almost always better for a writer to take the risk of getting rejected than to leave the page blank. 

Here’s a rough self-diagnostic: do you have a history of thinking your work is great and then getting rejected? If so, you might be over-confident, and you might benefit from reviewing your own work a bit more critically in an effort to improve it. But if that’s not your history, and if, indeed, you have a history of thinking your work is poor, even after it has been accepted/approved/graded, then you would likely benefit from having more confidence in your work, or at least writing with a willingness to be wrong—writing to try out ideas and ways of expressing ideas. 

Believing in yourself is crucial, especially if you are self-critical. When I am struggling with doubt about the strength of my work—especially when contrasting my work to other writing I have seen on the same topics—I often try to soothe myself by remembering the wide variety of opinions that any one work will face, which pretty much guarantees that someone will disagree, but also means that there is likely someone who will agree. For many, it’s easier to sink into focusing on the people who will reject the work and the different ways in which it might be rejected than it is to focus on those who will like the work and the different ways it will be accepted. But it’s worth the effort to focus on the  people who will likely be supportive.  Keeping your eyes on the people who will like your work is a good long-term strategy for a writer, because they’re the ones who will support your efforts, so it makes sense to think about how to work with those people.

I don’t want to over-simplify here.  A person who is generally supportive can also be harshly critical. I just got feedback on my book manuscript that basically said “I really like this project, but it needs to be but by 30%.” Along with the general comment the reviewer provided a long list of problems and weaknesses. The bulk of the communication was “cut this,” and “cut that.” With that kind of feedback, it can be pretty easy to lose sight of the crucial “I really like this project” part. If you are looking for support and someone makes a harsh criticism, it can cause emotional distress. In such situations, it’s important to keep an eye on the general motivation for the criticism, and a brief comment of overall support should cast direct criticisms in a different light.  It’s hugely different to receive feedback that says, “This is junk. Look at all the problems:…” than feedback that says “This is great. But look at all these problems:…” The list of problems might be identical, but it’s those crucial three opening words that matter. It takes confidence to hear feedback, but it can also build confidence if you focus on the positive aspects of the feedback.

And, if you have confidence enough to listen to criticism, you can really improve your work by presenting it to others and learning from their feedback. Fear, meanwhile, will make it harder to work on criticism.

Too much doubt is typically the problem for all the writers who have gotten stuck somewhere in the process without finishing a work. Writer’s block—the failure to write—can have roots in many different fears: that you don’t know enough, that you might be wrong, that you don’t write well enough, that other people will disagree, that others will laugh, that you will be rejected, and all the related flavors of doubt.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who struggled with a writing block due to over-confidence.

One of the reasons I find it so valuable to develop and maintain a regular writing practice is that it can reduce some anxieties and fears the come up in the process.  If you practice writing and experiment with putting words on the page, you reduce many anxieties in the process. One big hope is that the regular practice helps you feel less concerned about any single sentence or paragraph: the more sentences you write, the easier it is to focus on the ones you like and ignore the ones you don’t. And each additional sentence you do write, can contribute to your sense that you can produce writing (even if you want to edit it). Other possible benefits of a practice that can help ease the process of writing are that a regular practice in writing will lead  to greater familiarity with your word-processing software, possibly reducing some anxieties there, and, practicing might help you feel more comfortable with punctuation and grammar (not necessarily comfortable, but at least less uncomfortable).  Writing practice can help you find your own voice and that can help you feel more confident, too.

We can’t necessarily control our emotions, but we can develop a writing practice that might give confidence at least in the process, even if doubts about what to write remain.

Work on one thing at a time until finished

As number one on his list of 1932-1933 “Commandments”, Henry Miller wrote “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”

It’s an extremely valuable dictum, despite the difficulties I have putting it into practice.  There are two elements to it that I really, really like, and one element that is really hard or imprctical.

The first element that I like is the idea of working on one thing at a time.  At a very immediate, moment-to-moment scale, working on one thing at a time is the only way to go.  Over very short time frames—a few minutes, perhaps—the only real options for working are: 1. to work on/write about one thing with focus, or 2. try to decide what to work on/write about.  There is good value in spending time trying to decide what to do, but at some point it’s necessary to stop thinking about what to write, and to start writing.  When you do start writing, you want to focus on writing one sentence at a time—there is a larger goal, but it’s built up of the small steps.

The second element that I like is the “until finished” part, which is also the part I don’t like.  What I like about the “until finished” idea is the focus on finishing.  There is a place in this world for journal writers and free writers to write for the sake of writing or for the self-discovery involved, but if you want to get a degree or get published, you have to finish things in a timely fashion. When your focus is on the question of finishing a project, you’re less likely to get stuck with a project that is too large to complete, and less likely get stuck endlessly revising. Focusing on completion doesn’t guarantee finishing, but it does shift the approach somewhat from “what is the best work possible?” to “what is the best work I can accomplish in a reasonable time?”  Perfectionism is less likely to lead to paralysis if one of the criteria for perfection is “completed !” or even “completed on schedule!”  

The “until finished” aspect, however, has two problems: 1. it can be hard to know what “finished” is, and 2. it’s often impractical to focus exclusively on one project over longer periods of time. The first of these points is related to the question of not knowing enough. People looking for answers may feel that a work is unfinished if it leaves a lot of questions unanswered or raises more questions than it did answer, but answers always lead to new questions, so it’s possible to think a work is unfinished, even if outside reviewers might judge it as an interesting and valuable project. Secondly, the idea of working on one thing at a time is perhaps impossible (or impossible to define) in the context of a research career. What counts as “one thing” in a research career? Is a research career just a series of independent projects, each “one thing” taken one at a time, or is it a larger program that leads to a series of specific projects?  I think the second is more realistic for most scholars and grad students: They are driven by a larger question, but one specific research project only speaks to some of their questions of interest. (Whether seeking a professional or academic career, the researcher needs to consider the specific research project in the larger context of the career.) Miller, whose “commandment” inspired this post, wrote fiction, and perhaps it is easier to segment a career in fiction.

The “until finished” idea can be impractical, too, because finishing a work often includes delays when you can’t work on the project. For someone seeking an academic career, it’s valuable to be able to start working on a new project before an old one is complete because of the many delays that go into executing many projects. Publication, for example, is loaded with delays during which a work is not necessarily “finished” but you can’t work on it. During those times, it’s good to have some different project to work on, but then what do you do when it’s time to go back to the work in publication? Having multiple projects at different stages of development can help a scholar use time more efficiently.

But when you have multiple projects and demands on your time, it’s much easier to get overwhelmed. It’s much easier to spend time wondering what to work on next, instead of just working on one thing. And it’s easy to lose time switching between projects instead of focusing.  That’s why, in terms of developing a regular practice, it’s good to work on one thing at a time until finished. Miller called that a commandment. For me, it’s more a goal or a principle for which I strive, but with deference to practical concerns. For me, it’s a particularly useful goal that helps me focus on my writing when it is time to write, and helps me prioritize and act, rather than get stuck debating what to work on and overwhelmed by the many things that I could or should do.

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.

Use what you have, even if you have doubts

The process of writing often raises doubts. For example, I often write a sentence and then ask myself “how do I explain/support/defend this statement?” or, more negatively, “isn’t that obvious or unimportant or both?”  Such questions are often coupled with the disconcerting sense that what I have written is not good enough, and can’t possibly be good enough without adding material.

The sense that what I have written isn’t good enough—perhaps that I can’t defend it or that no one will care about my bland blather—can bring the writing process to a halt.  If my critical view of my own work leads me to think that that what I have is uninteresting, it slows or stops my writing, because, after all, who wants to write something that will be dull?

Sometimes it’s no problem to write something boring: I write as a practice and don’t expect things to always come out well.  Part of the practice is to keep writing when material isn’t working so that the material can be improved. Writing a draft that gets deleted isn’t a big deal. But sometimes, it’s not enough to just practice. Sometimes it’s important to have something to share with others. Today, for example, I want to produce a blog post, and there’s no blog post without something written.  I could blow off posting—it’s not as if I’ve never missed posting before.  In other situations, it’s not useful to simply blow off creating a work.  In some cases, there are serious repercussions from a failure to submit work. Currently, for example, I am contractually obligated to submit a full manuscript to my publisher by July 15; failure to submit violates the contract and would, at the very least, damage my chances of getting my book published. Or, for example, a student seeking a degree might have a deadline to submit a thesis, with, at least, the danger of having to enroll for an additional term, if not the greater danger of losing a place in the program.

In such cases, letting a project fall by the wayside, isn’t really an effective solution. Sometimes, it’s necessary to produce something, even if the something seems weak.

It is very frustrating to work on a piece of writing that seems like it will be uninteresting and unimportant. The attempt to produce good work from an idea that currently seems uninteresting and unimportant is one of the most difficult tasks a writer can face, because working on a project that you don’t believe is important is a good way to feel bad about yourself.

But if a significant deadline looms, it’s valuable to keep writing through the frustration and fears.  For myself, and most other writers, I think, the thought of getting a bad response is at the forefront of their attention. Certainly a writer worrying that work isn’t interesting enough or important enough is focused on how people will respond, because ideas like “interesting” and “important” are only really meaningful with respect to people (or other thinking creatures): for something to be interesting, there must be someone interested.  I don’t want to discount the danger of writing something that your readers deem uninteresting or unimportant, because that’s a difficult outcome to work past.  But that focus actually obscures a potentially greater danger: that of not submitting anything at all.

I have seen this dynamic and lived it myself: being self-critical, I see weaknesses in my work, and fearing the response of others, I then put that work away, letting it die, rather than taking a chance with it.  Many students I’ve worked with worry so much about the negative feedback they have received from their professors that they stop writing at all, fearing more negative feedback.  But holding back work may allow you to avoid negative critiques of your work, it also guarantees that you will not receive any positive credit.  For me, with my contractual obligation, and for students with their academic requirements, the failure to produce any work at all is far the worse outcome. Getting your work roundly criticized is difficult. Failing to meet a deadline, however, can lead to even more difficulty, including dismissal from a graduate program.

This is, I think, a variety of the well-known trope that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. There may be times when it’s better to avoid notice entirely, but if you want to meet your obligations as a student or writer, it’s better to risk the negative feedback from a weak work than face the certain consequences of submitting nothing.

The greater the significance of the deadline, the greater the value in focusing on what you do have and on working to improve that. It may not be the most interesting thing ever (in the eyes of your viewer), but using what you do have to meet a deadline is a valuable practice.

Beyond the simple benefit of fulfilling an obligation, working through that frustration can be very valuable, because if you can get through the emotional difficulty related to fearing feedback and thinking your work is weak, you can often come out the other side with a greater conviction in the value of your work.  One thing about ideas that seem uninteresting as you write about them is that they weren’t always uninteresting to you.  I never arrive at a point where I’m writing something I think uninteresting without there having been some earlier moment when I thought it would be interesting.  There was something that I thought interesting that got me started, even if I have lost sight of that original interest.  Recovering that interest is often possible, and can help me get back on track. Of course, sometimes, I can’t recover that original interest, but I still need to produce something. In such cases, it is important to do the best I can with what I do have on the basic principle that writing something is better than writing nothing.

Keep things as simple as you can; Complexity will arise

A writer recently expressed to me the concern about her work being too simple, a concern triggered by, among other things, being told that her work was pedestrian (which I discussed n my previous post). But for the great majority of scholarly work, if done carefully, complexity is almost unavoidable. The real world is not simple, and a scholar trying to document the real world is not documenting something simple.  Analyzing data gathered in the process of documenting the real world is not simple, either.

My experience of writing blog posts often goes something like this: an idea formulates into a basic message and plan for what I will say; I start writing; I think of an example to use; I start to describe the example, and in so doing, I find complexity where I thought was simplicity. No matter the clarity of my plan, once I start writing, I discover complexity.

It’s easy to find complexity if you are being careful and trying to focus on details. All you need do is be curious and careful.

Suppose, for example, you try to describe a simple household process like getting a glass of water.  That’s simple, right? You get a glass; you hold the glass beneath the faucet; you turn on the water and the glass fills. But complexity lurks. Where do you get the glass, for example? In your own home, you know where the glasses are, but if you’re visiting somewhere, finding a glass may require extra steps, such as opening many cabinets or asking your host. Getting into details might lead to asking what criteria are used for choosing a glass: do you take the one closest to your hand? To which hand? Do you prefer a large glass or small? Do you look to make sure that there is no visible smudge or dirt on the glass? Do you prefer one material over another (glass vs. plastic, for example)? If a glass has a colored material or an image printed, does that matter?  Beyond these practical questions of how to get a glass (we haven’t even started talking about locating or operating a faucet yet), if our aim is to describe the process, we might choose to try to define what we mean by “glass”—does, for example, a mug get included? A mug is not a glass, but it will be effective for drinking a “glass of water” if we interpret the phrase loosely? In many contexts, such an interpretation suffices: imagine asking a friend for a glass of water and them giving you a mug filled with water. Would you complain that they had failed because your water was served in a mug not a glass? And beyond these questions relevant to getting a glass of water in practice, if we are describing the process of getting a glass of water, we might examine how or where the glasses (or mugs) were procured, and how they were made. Although they are not questions for the practical situation, for someone documenting or describing a process, those questions directly follow (even if we might decide that they are not sufficiently relevant to include in a description of getting a glass of water). So trying to describe something simple, quickly leads to complexity if you just ask questions.

Another way that complexity can arise for a writer is by trying to define terms. Suppose you want to write about [term/concept].  It’s good form as a scholar to define the crucial term to your audience, so you try to define [term/concept]. You may turn to a dictionary, where you find multiple different meanings of [term/concept]. You look at the literature in your field, and you find several different authors have all defined [term/concept] in their paper, and they have all done it differently. If the observed complexity of the use of the term hasn’t stymied you, you might sit down to try to write your own definition of the term. In that process you use [term2/concept2], and that leads to the question of whether you need to define [term2/concept2].  Defining terms is a rabbit hole of complexity, as every definition requires using terms that could themselves require definition.  In his beautiful essay “Avatars of the Tortoise,” Jorge Luis Borges describes this as an infinite regression first identified by a Greek Philosopher (whose name escapes me, and I don’t have the Borges text at hand). Defining terms/concepts is not simple, and scholarly writing requires definition.

Complexity arises in the process of argumentation/justification, and there is a similar regression of questions. Suppose, for example, I want to explain why I have chosen a specific research method—methodX.  Every statement I make in favor of methodX can be questioned. If I say I have chosen methodX because it’s appropriate to my research question, the natural question that follows is why (or whether) it is appropriate to the question. If I then offer two arguments—argument1 and argument2—for why the method is appropriate to the question, I have two new arguments that each require some defense. Logically speaking, any argument can be questioned, and each answer offers new arguments that can be questioned.  

It is exactly this kind of logical path from one question to the next that leads many writers down discursive rabbit holes that can inhibit the writing process. And it is one reason that citation is so valuable for the scholarly writer: you can end the string of questions by saying “because FamousAuthor said so.”  It’s not a logically perfect foundation, but what the heck…we all need to find a foundation, and even the greats rely on the foundation of the scholars who have come before—Newton said “If I have seen farther, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

If you want to describe something, and you are careful about it, complexity will arise.  If you are a scholar, you’re supposed to be careful, and, in my experience, that leads to what most might consider a surprising result: good scholars almost almost always have too much to say. I’ve known lots of writers who worried that they had nothing to say, and I’ve known lots of writers who wrote very little for fear that they have nothing to say. But I can’t remember any writer who, once writing, wasn’t able to say enough. The far more common (and more difficult) problem for writers is to have to cut material to get their article or book down to a word limit. (Because of the difficulty of cutting down a draft, I strongly recommend writing first drafts that are short!)

So, don’t worry that your ideas are too simple, embrace that simplicity. Try to capture that simplicity in writing. If you’re careful and attentive to detail, complexity will arise. Indeed, so much complexity arises that there is great danger in getting lost in it, and the writer needs to learn to say “here’s where I stop asking questions.”

Jargon, complex prose, and the writing process

Recently I was speaking with a writer who bemoaned the fact that in her field of study people (including her) tried to write complicated, jargon-filled papers. This was not a new idea—I have heard that in many fields, especially those that value post-modern philosophies that writing complex prose is a matter of pride, or perhaps of ego: I have heard it suggested that writing prose that no one can understand will actually earn the author respect because people will assume that they’re just so smart. (Of course, there are also many who mock these same authors as being bad writers.) Many famed scholars are known for their difficult prose—Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida are particularly renowned for these issues.

I don’t know what other writers are thinking when they write—at best I can interpret the words they have chosen—but I believe that often difficult and complex writing is the product of honest attempts to clearly convey complex and difficult ideas.

Consider, for example, legal writing—another field notorious for difficult, jargon-filled writing.  Do we want to assume that that lawyers and judges write difficult prose because they want to impress everyone with their erudition? It seems much more likely to assume that lawyers and judges want to be understood, but the nature their work involves significant complexity that is difficult to communicate.

The way I see it, ideas are complex. And, in the world of scholarship and research in which new understanding is sought, it seems possible that a new idea—a new perspective—will not easily be conveyed in the language that developed to express old ideas. I’ve struggled to understand some very difficult writing that, in the end, rewarded me with very interesting ideas. Those ideas might possibly have been written in clearer and simpler language.

But, as the post title suggests, I’m more interested in this question from the point of view of the writing process. Getting back to the writer I mentioned in the opening paragraph and the idea of trying to write complex prose, I want to speculate on the impact of such an attempt to the scholarly writing process.

It seems to me that trying to write complex and jargon-filled prose adds a layer of difficulty to an already difficult task. Doing good scholarship is hard. Analyzing data and developing theoretical explanations for observed phenomena is hard. Exploring logical concerns with theories is hard. Coming up with a clear, coherent, and consistent explanation for anything is hard.

Not only is it hard to come up with good explanations, it’s also hard to write clearly about those ideas.  Perusing any user’s manual will demonstrate how easy it is to write unclearly about something that is often fairly simple. So, if you’re a scholar trying to develop explanations/theories, your job is made difficult both by the conceptual complexities and by the difficulties of writing.

To me, it seems like trying to write complex and jargon-filled prose adds yet another layer of complexity and difficulty.  Not only do you have to figure out the ideas that you want to express, but you also have to work to make the expression complex. it’s an extra layer of effort.

Therefore, my suggestion is always to try to write as clearly and concisely as possible while also paying attention to important details.  My belief is that if you focus on the ideas and the details, and you try to be as clear as possible, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with difficult convoluted prose anyway. For my part, I try to write clearly and often end up with weak and muddy prose.

I don’t know what Butler was thinking when she wrote, but it’s easy for me to believe that she (and other scholars who write difficult prose) was doing her best to be clear, and that at some point she said “I have to stop working on this project to move on to another.” What was left was no exemplar of elegant prose, but it was not (necessarily) the product of an attempt to obfuscate.

For a writer who is struggling, I think the most important thing is to focus on what  you want to say and on expressing that as clearly as possible.  Trying to meet some stylistic standard is secondary and only worth your effort once you’ve gotten a good handle on the ideas that you want to express.

Product and Practice

Recently, I’ve written a couple of times about missing targets, and I’m returning to that same theme from a slightly different angle after talking with a writer who is trying to get on track with his dissertation work.  We had been talking about setting up a regular practice of writing and he reported that he had missed a day during the prior week. That’s no big deal, but it had me thinking.

This man is in a professional program; he’s not going to be an academic, so he won’t be in a publish-or-perish career that will require public demonstration of his writing. In his situation, it makes good sense to focus his attention on the product he is trying to complete—his dissertation. But I was also thinking about the value of the practice—a subject I think and write about often.

Developing actual products of your work and your efforts is important—without actual products of your work, it’s hard to share anything with anyone.  All the same, each individual product is a one-shot thing (one shot, in the sense that’s only one step in a career, not in the sense that you only have one chance to get it right), while a career or a life is more of an on-going matter.

In the course of a life, which is more important, the products or the practice?  Asking about which is more important necessarily invokes questions of value that have uncertain answers (because different people have different values), but it’s an interesting question, I think.

There is no question that it’s good to have some sort of “product” to show for efforts—a graduate student quite naturally wants to produce the necessary dissertation.  Products are important.  Having something to show for your efforts is important.

Having something to show for your efforts is not the only important thing, however.  Living well and having rewarding experiences is also valuable, even if there is no product.  As a writer, I find that writing with the emphasis on the practice is not only more enjoyable than writing with an eye on the product, it is also more productive. When I am writing for the practice, my emphasis is on using my time well.  This emphasis does not preclude working on some product, but it does make the product secondary to engaging my practice effectively.  

When I focus on a product, I can see the many difficulties that surround me, and I see clearly the many limits of my work and my abilities.  The pieces that I want to be insightful and interesting, often seem trite.  The pieces that I have tried to edit carefully, still have errors. It is, in short, very easy to become frustrated with the product of my efforts.  And frustration is a good way to get stuck working.

When I focus on the practice, my attention is much more directed towards my own efforts: am I engaging in the practice?  Am I giving myself a chance to benefit from the practice? Have I put in enough effort that the practice will pay off?

For me, at least, the practice is more valuable than the product (admittedly, I might say differently if I had ever had a very successful book), because with the practice, I feel more likely to produce multiple products, and thus I’m less dependent on the outcome for any single product.   And realistically, pretty much every person in an intellectual field will have to produce multiple written products. For someone aiming at a professional career—the dissertation writer I mentioned above, for example—the dissertation may seem like the one big writing product, and once it’s done, there’s no need for a writing practice. But that is, I think, a false vision: people in professional careers have lots of things to write, even if never as big as a dissertation.  Professionals write to colleagues, to supervisors, to subordinates. They write to describe their decisions and to coordinate with the people with whom they work.  They write to communicate with other organizations.  

Writing is a skill that is generally used, so developing a practice that helps you improve your skill and feel more comfortable about the difficulty of writing may be one that helps you in many ways and in many contexts.  Although developing a practice is difficult, and it may seem more efficient to focus on finishing a single product, developing a writing practice is the best way to finish a large research/writing project.