One Simple Mind-Shift Into Another Gear
Every day is pain-staking, creaking. Writing your academic journal article, book, or dissertation is coming along so slowly. But it’s not because you’re not trying.
Maybe it even looks like now you’re going to be in big trouble if it doesn’t go faster. It’s getting late.
Or you are starting up and nothing is taking off. You know you have to write. You have a topic. Some material. Even maybe an idea of what you want to say eventually. So why won’t it get going?
Well, I know what it is far more often than not. I’ve had the occasion to observe the process of many academic writers and know what’s going on most of the time. Now, it might not be true in every case, but you have to check. You have to know if this is you, because there is something you can do about it.
Here’s the simple test.
When you start off writing your piece, find out if you basically believe that the words that you are writing are the words the reader will be reading.
This may be a sign that you are writing prematurely.
Of course when we are far along into a piece, or revising or editing, then obviously our frame of mind should include the belief that:
“The words that I am writing are the words the reader will be reading.”
More or less.
But when we are earlier on, drafting, this frame of mind can be the kiss of death.
Yet I find many writers only write in this frame of mind. When they start writing their piece, they actually feel, believe, and/or actually ARE writing the words that the reader will be reading, more or less.
And if this works for you, fine. But if things are painfully slow, then I can almost guarantee one thing:
You are not presently ready to begin writing.
Now that doesn’t mean you don’t have ideas. It doesn’t mean you don’t have material, experience, expertise, knowledge of the sub-literature, etc….
Those are big fat myths of readiness by the way! Those don’t make you ready to write. Many people put off writing because they haven’t mastered those things. But that’s not necessary at all.
And it absolutely does not mean you should not be writing.
What does it mean to be writing prematurely?
“Not presently ready to begin writing” means you haven’t done enough pre-writing to enable you to write under the framework “the words that I am writing are the words the reader will be reading.”
Writing under that belief, and/or fact, is a particular kind of writing. And that writing often requires a lot of pre-writing first to go smoothly.
But many writers skip ahead, and skip over the important step of pre-writing, and begin composing their actual text.
Many writers who write painfully slow do not do the necessary pre-writing. It’s not part of their process.
So when they set out to write something, they are actually writing that thing.
That’s crazy! You have to pay your dues first. No wonder it’s so hard and slow!
Well, of course I have to admit it’s not exactly crazy if it works. It’s not like you can’t make that work. You can. People do. They can write very good things that way. Some great writers have written that way (but more haven’t!).
So we are talking here really about a couple things that have to be true for this to be of help:
- You are writing too slowly and painfully. If you are not writing painfully slow, this doesn’t apply to you.
- And you want it to go faster and easier. You might be writing too slowly, but you don’t want to change that. Which is fine.
But if you want to change, you have to stop writing prematurely, which doesn’t mean not write at all. What it means is that you don’t start writing the actual piece, the article, chapter, whatever, without a lot of prewriting first.
That writing can be outlines and beats. But it should also be tangents, reactions, rants, wording experiments, games, sketches, arguments between opposing points of view, anything, and it could also be essay writing and article writing, with one caveat: although it is in the form of conventional exposition, as you are writing it you have little to no belief that you are writing the actual text that you are going to use.
You are exploring, trying things on for size, seeing how things play out in words.
For some writers this comes naturally. For others it has never crossed the mind to do prewriting. It’s thought that when you start to write, you open the document file, and start writing the introduction, or a different section. That’s how you write.
But many successful writers pre-write for quite a while, days at least, or weeks, and sometimes longer before they start on the real thing.
So why do many other writers not (and suffer the consequences)?
What makes writing so hard and slow?
There’s a simple reason and a deeper reason why some writers skip over pre-writing, and both reasons need to be addressed if you want to change this.
1. The simple reason is that it’s just never been your habit. You’ve always done it one way (and if that’s fine with you, no need to change). And the simple solution to that aspect of it is to start getting more practice at writing in an exploratory mode. Get looser with writing exercises and techniques that rub up against the over utilitarian relation to writing. Join our email list and you can get some help in email and there is a ton more inside our members’ creative writing bootcamp to help with that. Practice your instrument!
2. The deeper reason has to do with a fear of wasting efforts and a belief in a scarcity within you.
Both of these are completely erroneous beliefs and fears.
Of course, the current economic situation in the academic careers doesn’t exactly help put these fears to rest.
But that doesn’t make them any less untrue.
It’s simply not true that investing some time and effort in pre-writing is a waste of time or energy. Instead, it’s setting you up for an easier and faster time later.
And it’s simply not true that your creativity is a limited resource that can run dry. Letting free play with words happen does not exhaust the well, it deepens it.
And if we do try pre-writing, but we judge our pre-writing on the basis of how many pieces of text we can cut and paste and use out of it, we’ve still got it all wrong.
In prewriting, we’re exercising our instrument, and we’re touching into our topic through written words. That’s going to connect with our subconscious, which is going to continue the thinking and the writing in the background, throughout the day, in our sleep even. We are pushing at some things, pulling at others, seeing how it works, what happens, and what can possibly happen, as well as discovering things we definitely don’t want to do.
All of that is making a huge contribution to making things easier later.
The fact is, we can’t know or judge the effects of pre-writing through our normal evaluative processes. In fact, it’s those judgmental processes themselves—trying not to waste, trying to maximize every little bit—that are the thing pushing us into writing prematurely.
We can only know the effects of pre-writing partially, when we look back and see how better things are for us, overall in our process. Some of the reasons why it’s better we can know, some we can guess, and others will remain a mystery.
Some writers are too afraid to let go and do something that does not appear in surface dimensions to be a direct payoff.
Some writers will feel that a few reams of pre-writing are a waste of time because the text in there can’t be imported into their document or doesn’t have direct relation to what will, eventually, be in the document.
And fair enough, to repeat, you can write well without pre-writing. Joseph Conrad, famously, wrote a couple sentences per full day of writing labor.
But other writers, many of them, routinely warm up to writing, warm up to their topic, really grasp it a bit in their hands and take some many days of practice swings before they take a crack at it.
And the reason they are loose enough to do that is because they have no problem just writing for writing’s sake. They trust in writing. They don’t see it a potential waste. Writing helps writing.
So, to get into this mindset, at least on occasion, or to just try it out for a while, there is that simple test you can do:
When you write, is it always under the belief that the words that you are writing are the words the reader will be reading?
If so, can you try to write a little, sometimes, without that belief, and push against the fear that it’s a waste?
Or if you do it a little, can you expand that, write in exploration a little more?
You have to try and see.
Trust writing, just a little, and you will start to see that writing is trustworthy. And then you’ll trust it more.
And that’s when things take off.
To get some writing exercises that will help you learn to pre-write, join our email list and get 5 eBooks sent to you to help with your writing, or join the Creative Academic Writing Bootcamp, if spaces open up.