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.