The title says it all, doesn’t it? February and the blahs. Especially the writing blahs. Blah!
February has delivered on all that it has to offer yet again this year: wretchedness & demoralization. Like last February. And the February before that.
If you are at this moment moving to scroll down to click on “comment,” and insert your own thoughts on seasonal-affective disorder, and how I might consider getting some outdoor exercise for just a spare ten minutes a day, consider this for a moment: my wretched, angry face as it conjures thoughts of your slow demise by vitamin D poisoning, extreme outdoor yoga, or excessive cheeriness.
It ain’t just winter and the sun’s early-to-bed and late-to-rise sleeping habits that have got me down. Really, it’s my dissertation. I feel so frustrated with the writing process that the thought of sitting down in front of my computer renders me suddenly manic with panicked efforts to not think of doing it, and, when I do muster up the courage or calm or whatever it is to type, type, type, I usually start the session smugly surprised with my quick success, and end it slumped and crestfallen, wishing I could drown my keyboard into submission with tears of frustration.
It is time that I take my own teacherly advice.
Last week, I led a workshop on revision strategies for the class I TA for. I also work as a Writing Assistant at McMaster, and meet with students one-on-one to help them with anything related to writing. What is interesting about this type of work is that much of it involves considering not what students need to write, but how they might approach that “what” in ways that work for them, and for the project they are working on.
I am throwing myself a lifeline of sorts, then, with this blog post. I’m gonna share with you some writing & revision strategies that can help writers work out conceptual and structural hurdles in their work. And I’m going to try a few on my own work, because it just dawned on me this morning that while I have used many of these techniques to good effect when revising already-polished articles and papers, I have never used them to help me think through an unfinished piece, or a piece as large as a dissertation chapter. What follows is a discussion of some common problems writers experience in their approach to a piece, and some techniques that target teach.
We’re gonna skip this one, simply ’cause I ain’t a sufferer of this particular malady. In fact, my current problem is that I keep writing the introduction to the chapter I am supposed to be finishing. I should be ending it, but I just keep re-beginnining it. If writer’s block or procrastination were the problem, we’d be talking about the kitchen-timer method, journaling, outlining, recording my verbal thoughts, parcelling a large project into smaller, more manageable pieces, and the importance of just bloody writing for a set time each day. If you are struggling with writer’s block, though, don’t overlook these ideas. In fact, if you are struggling with getting words on the page in any way, and you are not dedicating regular, set hours of the week to pressing fingers to computer keys, then I feel deeply, terribly sad for you. It is February after all; sh*t is sad. You sad twits.
Some jerks say that writer’s block does not exist. I think this is supposed to be empowering because, you know, it takes the power out of your flimsy and pathetic excuse for your not-writing problem and places that power back into your hands. Sometimes writer’s block is just an excuse, in a way; we build up emotional resistance to writing and we name it writer’s block, never realizing that if we just sat down and wrote anything, that that emotional resistance would begin to dissipate pretty quickly. That said, I think there are “legitimate” (not to say that emotional or psychological barriers to starting a new project, or working through some difficult ideas are illegitimate) instances of writer’s block where what is blocking you is a giant-ass knot of conceptual brain-hurt. Those knots take time to work out, along with a few of the above-mentioned anti-writer’s-block techniques: brainstorming, outlining, talking out loud, research, research notes, journaling, free-association writing, etc.
I started the last section by clearly stating that we were gonna skip the writer’s block issue. Then I talked about it at length. This is what I mean by logical incoherence. While I’m clearly not suffering from anything that might stop me from rambling on and on, I apparently suffer from the inability to construct paragraphs and sentences that link logically, one to another. I have also apparently been afflicted by Tired Metaphors Related to Illness Syndrome. And surliness.
Logical incoherence is what happens when you know what you want to say, and might even be able to clearly articulate this verbally to a friend in a logical, if compressed, fashion, but cannot translate this sound-byte version of your argumentation to the massive apparatus that is your dissertation. Or essay. Or whatever.
Yeah, I’ve found myself in this utterly crazy position where I know exactly what I want to say–frick, I can even just bloody say it–but not in a sustained way across twenty or thirty or fifty pages. This makes me feel wonderfully relieved about the prospect of my oral defense. Except that if I can’t translate these thoughts to a written piece of large scope, there won’t be an oral defense. Which in turn reminds me again that it’s February.
So this is what I’m gonna try: reverse outlining, metacommentary and block-quote play (I just made that last one up. Right now. Brilliant, eh?). These techniques help writers check and develop the logical coherence of their writing. They are revision strategies, and they can help you identify weak links in your line of thinking that you have overlooked, or, hopefully, they can help you suture a piece of badly mawled writing–like my dissertation chapter–into something whole, something coherent. Oh–I am convincing myself in the very writing of it! What a heart-warming, February-thawing feeling: hope!
Editing for Logical Coherence: Some Techniques
Reverse Outlining: Cut & paste the crap out of your paper. Open a new document, and paste your thesis, and every single topic sentence into an outline format. Print. Take pen and highlighter, and follow your own logic. Or don’t: realize there’s not much there to follow and start rearranging, adding, and subtracting. This is a wonderful way to see the forest and ignore the trees.
Metacommentary: In the margins of your own paper, jot down 2-4 keywords describing each paragraph. Highlight each topic sentence. Check: Does each topic sentence reflect the keywords that describe its paragraph? You will find, especially in a long piece, that the answer is often “no.” Revise. In the process, the logic (or ill-logic) of your writing will become apparent to you, and how you might remedy this by rearranging your paragraphs and adding missing material will be easier to see.
Block-Quote Play: For any sections of your writing that have yet to be fleshed out, insert (in a different font or off-set from the rest of the text) all of the relevant quotes and data that might conceivably make their way into that section. Print and play with your blocks by literally cutting them up and re-arranging them, or simply use the cut & paste functions on your word processor.
And now it’s time to eat some custard tarts. I figure I’ve got at least fourteen hours in which I can bask in the guilt- and anxiety-free warmth of the hope these strategies offer before actually having to try them. Fourteen hours in which I can enjoy custard tarts, chocolate, and a few glasses of wine without wanting to cry. Yesssss.
***Update: That sh*t works! In less than ten minutes I realized my chapter followed no discernible plan; in only another hour or so I had a solid outline by which to reorganize and finish it. Just gotta, y’know, do that. Finish. Finish finish finish.