That academics are reluctant writers has become something of a joke, a meme, in the last several years. The internet is full of self-mocking jibes and hashtags like #shouldbewriting. A good portion of posts by the hillarious and at times depressingly truthful social media account, ShitAcademicsSay, are all about how you, like all other academics #shouldbewriting.
At the heart of this good-natured public confession, however, is a problem characterized by guilt. Many academics feel they should be writing because any time spent doing anything but writing is time wasted. I remember feeling this way myself.
But I also remember that, sometimes, it wasn’t a reluctance to write that kept my fingers flying across the keyboard, it was an inability to write. I often suffered from bad writing sessions where the words just wouldn’t come or the ideas seemed stuck in quicksand, impossible to see let alone rescue from the sandy depths of my brain.
However, as an academic in literature, I had also spent years teaching composition, and so had all the secrets of the writing trade in my back pocket to pull out when necessary. Outlines, brainstorming, organization, thesis statements–I not only knew how to do them, I knew how to teach them.
Often, these tricks helped me turn a hopeless writing session into a productive one.
Three tricks I’ll share share with you today–outlining, the shitty first draft, and reviewing previous drafts–can help you, too, break through a bad writing session and produce better, more powerful writing.
You may have been forced to write an outline or two during high school and undergrad. You may have loved them, or you may have hated them. But the bottom line is they are useful. And not just for organizing your ideas, though they’re good for that, too!
Outlines can help you find important connections between your major ideas and arguments. Identifying these connections has two benefits: 1) you will better understand them yourself, and 2) you can better explain them to your reader.
Start by thinking about your main argument, thesis, or answer to the research question. What are your supporting points? What information does your reader need to know first, second, third, etc? How are your supporting points connected to one another?
Spend time outlining the proper order of ideas, answering the above questions, and letting those questions guide how you organize the ideas in your writing. Doing so will give you a stronger sense of how all the puzzle pieces fit together.
#2) The “shitty first draft”
One of my favorite tricks, as an academic writer and as a teacher, is Anne Lamott’s concept of the “shitty first draft.” It’s the idea that all first drafts are, well, shitty, and that writers shouldn’t worry about perfecting their prose until later iterations of the manuscript.
I’ve often taught this to my freshmen composition students, and I encourage creative writers to make use of the shitty first draft as well, but I think academic writers, also, can benefit from Lamott’s strategy. Here’s how!
First, write. Just write. Don’t worry about organization or clarity or whether you have the absolutely most perfect words ever for every sentence. Just get those brilliant ideas in your head onto the page. Now!
Think of this initial word vomit as a lump of unformed clay and yourself as a master sculptor. You can’t shape and carve your next masterpiece without that ugly lump of clay, that shapeless mass of potential.
Why will word-vomiting imperfect prose into a first draft make your writing sessions more productive? Because you’re not hindering your progress with delusions of perfection! You may reach perfection later, but don’t let striving for it immediately keep you from writing. Focus on the ideas, not how fancy they sound. Writing a shitty first draft allows your ideas to take center stage.
#3) Reviewing previous drafts
One way to stop feeling stuck during a writing session is to spend fifteen or twenty minutes reviewing what you’ve already written.
This reminds you of what points you’ve already made and helps you focus on your paper’s major task or goal so that when you do begin writing fresh words, you do so with purpose.
You can supplement this pre-writing session review by writing a Focus List after the review.
- What is the day’s writing goal?
- What is the purpose of the section you’re working on?
Having the answers to these questions front and center during your writing session will keep you focused and make sure your session is productive.
Outlining, accepting the shitty first draft, and reviewing previous work will ensure your writing sessions are productive every time!