In the last post, I promised to write about the research repository pilot project and security. But right about now, as we enter the final stretch of the Fall semester, I find myself hitting the wall when it comes to writing, whether I’m working on a research paper, a grant application, or a course paper. Frankly, there are days when I’m not sure if I’m going to make it (i.e. get all this blasted stuff done). I think of one of my favorite quotes is from E.L. Doctorow. He said that “writing a novel [or research paper, or grant application] is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The point is you don’t have to be able to see all the way to the end of the paper. (That point where you run victory laps around a top-tier journal for photographers.) You just need to see your way out of the page on the computer screen that you’re staring at now.
Here is some practical advice from my colleague and writing coach, Jennifer L. Greer, a former full time newspaper journalist who now teaches in the Professional Development Program at the UAB Graduate School: “Take it day by day, paragraph by paragraph, 30-minute brain dump by 30-minute flash of genius.” She offers some survival tips we used this summer in a graduate writing workshop, GRD 712, from her own experience and a book called How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia. Silvia’s book is a great resource for new research writers because it’s skinny (about 130 pages), easy to read with big type, and full of strategies for throwing off the procrastination monkeys and boosting productivity. I read this book last November (2009) and found it to be a cornucopia of good advice. Here are some of Jennifer’s tips:
- Write 200 words a day, no ifs, ands, buts, or other conjunctions.
- Print out what you finished yesterday, read it critically, and “revise it up” at least 20%. That means don’t just find the typos and leave it as average work. Go on a hunt. “Bird dog it”, as we say in the South. Look for opportunities to make it better.
- Share small sections of your work — 2-5 pages or less — with a friendly critic. Don’t wait until you have 40 pages and ask someone “to spare a few minutes” to give you some feedback.
- Update/revise your paper’s outline; if you don’t have one, make one, or go adopt a dog (OK, we like dogs in the South). Seriously. Silvia says writers who don’t outline “should drive to the local animal shelter and adopt a dog, on that will love them despite their self-defeating and irrational habits” (p. 106).
- Create a writing/editing to do list for the week. Cross off something every day.
- Update your references and citations; review a couple of other bibliography, reference and reading lists to see where the holes are in your sources.
- Beef up your arguments. Brainstorm and outline another article, a review article, critique, letter to the editor, conference proposal, etc. Always have more than one writing project simmering for when you get bored with the one you are working on now, which happens sooner or later. Writers have love-hate relationships with their topics, no matter how much of their lives they have invested in them.
- But, don’t plan that victory lap just yet. Some of these tips require a lot of work, and you may miss a few days of “200 words a day” at first. You need to work up to this level of writing discipline. If you miss days or self imposed deadlines, do not beat yourself up. Reconsider, regroup, and set some more attainable intermediate goals. Over time you will build your writing stamina and eventually you will be able to “write a lot” every day.
Everyone hits some rough spots when it comes to writing, but with good advice from mentors like Jennifer Greer, authors like Silvia, and a lot of hard work, you can get through the rough spots and end up a better writer as a result.