Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

Work on One (Little) Thing at a Time

I have previously written about Henry Miller’s dictum to work on one thing at a time until finished, but it’s a subject and idea that is important to me, so I’m coming back to it, from a slightly different angle, even if I have discussed the same ideas before.

Personally, I have a lot of things to write: I have correspondence with various individuals, both personal and professional; I have blog posts; I have new books to follow the one I’m just finishing (available for pre-order already!). And, in addition to these projects on which I have already started investing effort, there are lots of ideas I have that might become something, but they’re just ideas for the moment, not yet risen to the level of “project.” 

There are times when ideas come to me clearly as coherent pieces that could be captured in an essay.  These times, however, are rarely when I sit down to write.  When I go running, in particular, I often have ideas for writing, and often compose writing in my head.  The idea and the expression seem clear in my head when I’m running.  But when I return and sit down to write, that clarity is lost.

Indeed, one of the more frustrating experiences of being a writer is that the ideas come at times when it’s inconvenient to write them down, and then when there is time to write, I get stuck.  This is not so uncommon. I have worked with many writers who have plenty to say but are still struggling to write. 

My best response to this is to pick one small thing to focus on, and to work on that one small thing.  That way, I get away from being overwhelmed by all the things that I could say and just focus on one single thing.  This focus helps avoid the distraction and confusion of trying to say everything that needs to be said.  It’s hard to say several things at once. It’s hard enough, really, to say one thing at once, if you want to say it well.

If I choose to focus on something small, and on something relatively easy, it makes it easier to overcome emotional barriers to writing—my fears that I will write poorly, that my writing will be ill-received, etc.  A focus on something small and easy (or at least easier) allows engagement with less at stake.

When I think about focusing on something small, I often think about an anecdote related in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he relates his experience as a writing teacher with one particular student who was having trouble writing.  The problem started with a student who wanted to write about the United States. Sensing this was too much, he suggests just writing about Bozeman, Montana, the specific town in which the university was situated. The student failed in this, writing nothing. To help, he reduced the scope of the project, suggesting the student write about one street in the town. Still, the student remained stuck and unable to write.  The anecdote recalls how, in frustration, the teacher suggests writing about one specific building on the street, and even goes so far as to suggest starting with one specific brick in the facade. This insight came at least partly from his recognizing that he himself had had problems related to having too much to say. (“A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say.” [pagination changes in different editions, so I won’t give page numbers. The passage from which I quote here and in the next paragraph is right near the beginning of part III — maybe 15 or so paragraphs in.])

Interestingly, he goes on to explain the problem as being a problem of trying to repeat other people, which seems like a different issue (“…the narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious that she had to do some original and direct seeing”). I don’t see how he made that logical leap. As I see it, getting stuck because you have too many things to say is distinct from getting stuck because you’re trying to repeat others rather than expressing yourself.  Yes, one dimension of getting stuck when trying to repeat others is the choice of what to repeat, which is a flavor of having too many things to say, but repeating others is often also a sign of fear to express oneself. It is absolutely crucial for writers to develop their own voice: where else will originality come from? (And when I speak of developing one’s own voice, I mean this more in an intellectual sense than a stylistic one: it’s about the ideas you choose to express, more than about any way of expressing them.) But the problem of finding one’s own voice is not the same as the problem of having too much to say, a claim which I make based on my own personal experience: I frequently get stuck because I have too many things to say for this brief essay, and only occasionally get stuck trying to find or express my own voice. So, regardless of finding one’s own voice, a good step for a stuck writer is to choose to take one little step that allows focus and immediate progress, perhaps by picking one idea to write about, even if there are others that are also important to you.

Oftentimes, the problem of having too much to say manifests as a competition between ideas, with each vying for attention as the most important.  A writer once described her experience as a traffic jam of ideas, a metaphor that most of us can understand, where the problem of motion is not caused by the vehicles (the ideas) or the road (the writer’s ability to put words on the paper) but by the vast number of cars (ideas) competing for that limited road space and thus interfering with each other. It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about which idea is most important.  And spending that time thinking about what to write, often means not writing.  And not writing, and spending a lot of time thinking about what to write, can be stressful and can trigger anxiety about ability to write, which sets off down a difficult path.

If you have a lot to do, or a lot to say, picking one thing to do, however small, can be a good way to get started. Picking that one thing allows you to focus, put aside distractions, and get something done.  Personally, it’s better to do something than to feel stuck: if I do something small, even if relatively unimportant (e.g., a blog post), I can cross it off my to-do list, and I get that little satisfaction, which can often help me engage with some other, larger and more intimidating project (e.g., my next book).  So start small and focused, and see if that can help you get unblocked.

The Writer’s Paradoxes of Passion

What are good principles on which to base a writing practice? In seeking such principles, it is pretty easy to find intractable problems or unanswerable questions.  Sometimes these intractable problems are tradeoffs, like the tradeoff between time and quality: you can always spend more time to improve the quality of a work, but timeliness is itself an important characteristic, so one is trading quality for promptness.  There’s no right answer there, but it’s not quite what I would call a paradox in that it is not inherently self-contradictory.  When it comes to passion in writing, however, there are paradoxical elements: you need to have a passion for what you do at the same time as you remain apathetic about it. This can manifest on a few different levels.

Passion for abstract quality

Whether artist or scholar, writers have a sense of what will make a work good. Having some vision of what you want to create—a sense that it must be just so—that it must have certain specific qualities—this is crucial to doing work of quality.  Sensitivity to the finer points of your work is invaluable, and a passion to get them right is important in finding the energy to deal with all the necessary details.

This same driving passion, however, can be paralyzing, as anyone who has ever struggled with perfectionism knows. So the writer (or other practitioner) simultaneously needs (1) to be passionate about creating a work of quality and (2) able to accept flaws in that same work.  This first paradox of passion is, perhaps, not so much a clear paradox in the sense that it is inherently self-contradictory, but rather a matter of finding the balance between the passion for precision and surrendering that care at certain moments.  It is a matter of striking a balance where something is good enough despite imperfection.

Passion for personal significance.  

If you care about something passionately, that can be motivating, and it can also be problematic. There is a dissertation-writing book that suggests that the best topic for a dissertation is basically something that you don’t care about but that can tolerate because caring too much can be a problem. I’m not a big fan of that idea or approach, but I do understand and agree that passion for a subject can be problematic in research. There are two problems: (1) passion about a project can certainly lead to being over-ambitious, which can lead to difficulty in completing a project,  and (2) passion can lead to disillusionment when the grand ideas meet the practical difficulties of bringing a project to completion. That’s the basic argument for how a passion for personal significance can interfere with action.

The flip side of that argument is that personal significance is crucial for motivation and for avoiding emotional malaise.  The basic principle of Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is that people are emotionally healthier and better able to overcome difficulties if they see a meaning in what they do.

Personally,  I agree with Frankl. I think it’s crazy to start a project that you explicitly choose for being uninteresting.  I think that’s a good recipe for ensuring that you’re miserable with your work. Still, there is some truth that the same passion that motivates us and makes work fulfilling can become an impediment to dealing with practical limitations.  Our passion may be sparked by a grand, sprawling vision, and the work that we can personally realize may be so frustratingly limited as to disappoint, and thus interfere with motivation.

On a certain level, this is a question of risk and reward: the more passion you have for a project, the greater the impact you feel from any success or failure.  (There are, of course, other factors in measuring risk and reward.) As the level of personal care increases, there is greater motivation to reap the potential personal rewards of success, but that can be accompanied by an uncomfortable increase in apprehension about potential bad outcomes.

In any event, in this sense, we can say that there is a paradox of passion because the passion for personal significance can both help and hinder the creative process.

Passion for communication

If you’re writing to reach others—if you have some message that you want to share—there is an important role for caring about communication and communicating well.  Writers often care deeply about what their audience will think.  This passion can directly contribute to fear of writing: plenty of people get stuck thinking about the negative feedback they might receive in the future (especially if they have struggled to deal with negative feedback received earlier). If you’re writing a journal for yourself or making notes to explore some idea, of course, then there’s no real relevant concern for others.  But most writing has to do with reaching an audience.  

I would guess that the first audience most of us write for is our school teachers, which has the unfortunate consequence of getting many to think of writing as an unpleasant task whose primary upshot is criticism of the limits of our writing. As a result, thinking about writing for an audience triggers anxiety about writing well enough and about receiving negative feedback. Because of this association, one of my principles for developing a good writing practice is to write without concern for what others will think.  If you’re spending your efforts worrying about other people, it takes your attention from your subject, and increases stress related to potential outcomes of your effort.  You need, in other words, to put aside a passion for communication to write easily so that you can focus on your own ideas. But that’s an approach that is really only useful for breaking through anxiety-based writing blocks.  

Once, you start to actually write, it’s valuable to think about your audience and what they would like.  Focusing on your audience and on trying to understand them and their interests helps because writing is about communicating with others (at least sometimes).  Thinking about writing in terms of communication can help shift the sometimes problematic relationship with grammar and punctuation: if you think of grammar, spelling, and punctuation as complicated rules that you have to follow or be punished, then it’s natural to fret about whether you’re getting them right or wrong.  If, however, you think of them as tools that help you communicate more effectively, your focus will remain on the ideas you want to communicate, and difficulties with grammar, etc. will not bring your writing to a complete halt.  Thinking in terms of communication helps keep the focus on the ideas that you want to express: what is the message that you are trying to express? Please note that I distinguish between thinking about how to communicate your own ideas to various audiences, and trying to write what you think that audience wants to hear.  A passion for communicating your own ideas is good, so long as that focus on your own ideas doesn’t blind you to the difficulties in communicating to different audiences.

Writing is hard for many reasons. Passion can carry the writer through those difficulties.  On the whole, I strongly recommend trying to find things that you do care about when you write, and to care about how well you write. Nonetheless, passion can lead into some problems, too, and thus the paradox: the same passion that is beneficial can also inhibit the work.

What is a good dissertation? (3)

Another consideration in the “good dissertation is a done dissertation” context is what it means to finish a research project.  Speaking abstractly, every research project has limitations.  There are limits to what can practically be accomplished, so compromises are made.  For example, a sample of data is gathered, rather than collecting data for an entire population. And beyond the immediate practical limitations, there are the new questions that all good research will inspire—questions about the implications of current findings or the ways to address limitations in the current study. All of this is to say that any one specific research project is part of a larger web of issues and questions, and the limits set on that project are not set by any abstract logic, but rather by the decisions of a researcher.

Think of it this way: let’s say you start with a research question X.  The question is complex, however, and it can be meaningfully analyzed into a number of separate issues, X1, X2,…XN. If your goal is to find an answer to X, then that goal is approached by finding answers to X1, X2,…XN.  But this leads to the question: do you have to find answers to all of X1, X2,…XN to have a “good” project?  Consider, for example, the question of mixed-methods research. The premise of such research is that the different methods invoked give additional perspective and insight into an issue.  The question I ask, however, is whether the studies done with the different methods can be presented as a series of interdependent projects that support each other.

If every research project leaves behind new questions, how do you decide when one project stops and another begins?  If you’re thinking about doing X1, X2,…XN to finish your dissertation, can you just do X1, get the degree, and then pursue X2,…XN as a doctor rather than as a student?

What is a good dissertation? (2)

While working on these good dissertation posts (of which this is the second of three), I looked at a few other sources on the web, and I found a blog post by a doctoral student who complained about how the expression “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” angered her and how it felt like it was something of an invitation to lower the quality of her work.  The post struck a chord, because her emotion mirrored what I often felt getting similar advice when I was working on my own dissertation.  It seemed to me like a gross violation of the concern for doing good work.

My view has changed over the years, however.  One factor that has driven that change has been an increasing respect for an idea I got from Laurence Sterne, the 18th century author, who once wrote (I paraphrase) that a bad letter on time is better than a good letter late.

In a way, finishing projects and meeting schedules are a set of skills in their own right—an ability to make practical compromises that are still theoretically and qualitatively acceptable.  The temporal factor is hugely important.  It matters for the audience: what is new and interesting to a person at a certain time may not seem as interesting or compelling five years later.  It certainly matters for the writer/researcher: the longer you spend writing your dissertation, the less time you have for other things.

This is all contextual, of course: someone who is working productively and is generally on schedule ought to focus on maintaining the highest quality possible rather than on just finishing as quickly as possible. But someone who has gotten stuck? For such people, it’s pretty valuable to start thinking about how to limit the scope of the project and focus on “just finishing”.

What is a good dissertation? (1)

There is a common saying in academia: “A good dissertation is a done dissertation.” It’s a claim that is a little cryptic to me because it can be interpreted in a few ways.  Is it saying that if it is good, then it will be done (i.e., accepted)? Or is it saying that if it is done, then it is necessarily good? 

I don’t want to get lost in debating the finer points of how that phrase could be interpreted, but rather to focus on the idea of a “good dissertation.”  What is a good dissertation?  By what standards or criteria do we say “it’s good?”  Phrasing the question that way, however, focuses on abstract criteria and obscures a crucial reality: research projects (including dissertations) are not matched up against abstract criteria in an abstract context, they are evaluated by individuals.  And different individuals hold different standards.

If you’re writing a dissertation, your standards are certainly the first to which you ought to refer.  If you hope to do original research, you need to start by trusting yourself and believing in your own judgement.  But, of course, self-evaluation is a tricky thing and it’s pretty easy to get lost in self-doubt.  

Because self-evaluation is difficult, it can be useful to rely on the evaluations of others, particularly the evaluations of professors with whom you work.  Speaking generally, you do not want your professors’ views to wipe away your own, but when it comes to saying whether the work is good enough, that’s a good time to take their views over your own. If your professors are satisfied, why push beyond that before getting your degree? And, in a way, the most important time to listen to your professors with respect to “good” is when you’re setting the limits of your project, because people who object to “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” often do so because they are ambitious (and ambition is good, in appropriate measure), which leads to trying to carry out projects that are large and difficult.

Protecting Children from Feral Hogs

A man in Arkansas recently entered the gun control debate with a viral tweet asking “How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?” Protecting your children, of course, is an aim that cannot be criticized. Feral hogs are a significant problem in the U.S. for many reasons, and their population is growing. His concern, therefore, cannot be dismissed lightly.


Can you imagine that actual scenario? Imagine it as a movie scene: children playing in bucolic yard. Suddenly, the pigs trample in, straight for the children. Happily, dad has his gun handy with a loaded large-capacity magazine.

“Get out of the way kids,” he yells, as he takes careful aim. (We assume, of course, that his kids never come under his arc of fire.) And then he lets loose with his semi-automatic, accurately pouring bullets into the crowd of hogs. Within seconds there are 30 to 50 dead or dying hogs on his property.

Children successfully protected! And, of course, watching 30 to 50 large animals get blown apart won’t cause those children the least distress.

And then he has 30 to 50 animal carcasses to deal with—perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of 8,000 pounds of dead hog.

A great way to protect your children from feral hogs, and to also provide the whole family with plenty of pork to eat! Because, of course, that gun is always handy, unlocked, and with fully loaded high-capacity magazines ready to slaughter that herd of hogs.

Perhaps it reveals my city-dweller’s ignorance to wonder why the hogs need to be killed to protect the children. A fence wouldn’t kill the hogs, but wouldn’t it be a more effective solution to protecting the kids? That fence will be on duty 24/7, and won’t take a break to go to the bathroom. It won’t get taken by surprise. It won’t need to get and load a weapon. What do you think? Is an assault rifle a good way to protect your kids from feral hogs? And does protecting your kids necessitate killing the hogs?

As I conclude, I wonder, was that tweeter just asking a hypothetical question, or has he actually already lived out this scenario, where he killed the hogs threatening his playing children?

What’s the Right Length?

When I was younger, I would have said that you should write what needs to be written, and stop there. My thinking was, at least in part, a rationalization for writing shorter pieces, which generally take less time and effort than longer work. And it was also partly a disdain for padding out papers with BS. I had a strong sense that for any question, the answer only had so much to it.
As I’ve gotten more comfortable writing, however, I find that most ideas are so entangled with others that it is almost impossible to draw any concrete line where you can say “this is all that needs to be said,” because pretty much every answer will lead to new questions.
Nowadays, I feel almost the opposite: if you have interesting material, then the question is not so much about what needs to be said, as it is about what your audience will bear. What’s the attention span of your audience? Whatever it may be, if you have a sense of it—whether they’ll read 100 words or 1,000 or 10,000—then you can give your audience a presentation that suits the time they have available.
There is a lower limit on this, however: If you are interested in discussing complex ideas, you’re probably going to need hundreds or thousands of words. Very short forms simply do not allow for tremendous detail.
This little essay (if it can be dignified as such) is about 250 words—a good length for stopping, I think. What do you think should determine how much you write: what you have to say, or the amount your reader wants?

Back to blogging

Back in February, I wrote about Henry Miller’s “commandment” to himself to “work on one thing at a time until finished,” and, with a looming contractual deadline for the revised manuscript (typescript) of my book, I was doing that—at least with respect to my own writing.
I just recently finished revisions of my book manuscript, which is now in production with the publisher, Routledge. With the contractual deadline approaching, and with a fairly ambitious plan for revision, I dropped any work on writing blog posts. I didn’t actually work on only one thing at a time, because I did still have other stuff to do, but at least my efforts writing my own original material focused on the book manuscript.
But now that I’ve got the manuscript done, I’m turning back to writing blog posts. Before the hiatus, I had been writing one post each week, but as I come back I think I might aim at shorter and more frequent blog posts—instead of about 1,000 words per post, once a week, I’m going to explore the possibility of shorter, more frequent pieces. This post and the last have been more like 200 words than 1,000. I’m wondering what the ideal length for a blog post should be. What do you think?

Manuscript Submitted!

This post is to celebrate submitting my revised book manuscript to the publisher.  Back in March, I received the reviews of the full manuscript and began revision.  The biggest problem, actually, was the fact that I had changed the title, and that change in title impacted more of the text than I had anticipated. Anyway, from late March through mid-July, I revised and rewrote, and hope that I made the darn thing better.  And now, it’s done!  It’s good to be able to celebrate one’s own accomplishments.  

Sometime in 2020, the book will be available. I’m hardly done with it—there are still going to be page proofs that need to be proofread, and there will be an index that I have to make.  But for the moment, at least, I can take a moment to celebrate.

It’s actually been about two weeks since I submitted, but with the manuscript revisions, I had gotten behind on a couple of other projects that I needed to finish.

It’s officially going to be Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice, published by Routledge.