Graham Harman has a really interesting post on writing here.
As I’ve said several times in conversation (and I think once in print) I’m fascinated by how academics write – it’s the one thing we all do, but rarely talk about. I’ve done a couple of sessions on writing and publishing, from the perspective of being a journal editor, when I’ve been a visitor to other institutions. I’ve always really enjoyed such sessions.
I made a decision when I first did such a session that I would write about writing and speak to that, rather than just talk about writing. Here are a few excerpts…
There is really one piece of advice I can give you right up front. There is no ‘one way’ to write. There are ways that work for you, and ways that don’t. But… many people have got into habits that are unproductive for them, and there might be some things that others do that are helpful suggestions…
- I don’t see a distinction between writing and research. I don’t ‘do’ research and then write ‘it’ up. Rather it’s a continually intertwined process.
- I write almost all the time. I try to do some every day. Even if it is just typing up notes or going over a section that I drafted before.
- As I work mainly with texts (primary texts, secondary literature, documents, news reports etc.), the note taking is an integral part of the writing. I write commentary around the quotes and that helps generate things I might use.
- I write, knowing that nothing I write is final. I don’t agonize over words, I try to get the gist of what I am thinking, saying, arguing down, and go back over it again and again. Several times. Writing and overwriting. Texts emerge – I rarely sit down and begin writing ‘a paper’ from scratch.
- I tend to think in terms of book length projects. I am clearer about the next books I am planning to write than about the next article I will submit. I tend to see books as my priority, articles as interim statements of book-projects or chances to do something a little different (sometimes in collaboration). Book chapters I tend to do if they are interesting projects I’d like to be involved in, or they give me the chance to do something that I know would not work so well as a journal article. So, different styles of writing for different projects.
- I don’t write sequentially. Sometimes an abstract or introduction comes first, often not. I usually sketch out a framework and then begin dropping quotes and ideas into the framework which then gets elaborated (easier if all your book notes are in computer files)
- I write lots of what might be called ‘stage directions’ into the text – these say things like ‘rework this bit’; ‘this isn’t very good [or worse]’; ‘needs references’; ‘does this work?’ etc.
I’d like to think that the versions I circulate for comments, and certainly those that I submit somewhere have this all cleaned up and polished. But everything but very late drafts are a terrible mess – you can see the cogs and gears turning. This is one of the reasons why collaborative writing is a strange thing to do.
There are times when a conference paper/invited seminar is just that. But equally many times it should be seen as the initial version of a written paper. So I always write conference papers. Even if I then, later, generate a powerpoint to use, it comes from the text, not the other way round. There are lots of people with conference papers that never got elaborated; or powerpoints that don’t make sense when they revisit them months later. ‘Death by powerpoint’ isn’t just for the audience.
A lot of the rest is mechanical stuff about note-taking, computer work, etc., and there’s a discussion of what I write and inspiration that I reused in my inaugural lecture.
Hopefully something in here is of interest to others. Maybe sometime I will work on this into something publishable. I wouldn’t disagree with Graham’s comments – I just work in a somewhat different way.
There is a terrific piece on the mechanics of historical research, written by Keith Thomas, here. Both Peter Gratton and Adrian Ivakhiv have posted about this already. I do think of myself as a historian of sorts, and this is extremely interesting reading. Even though I now take all my notes on the computer, or type them up soon afterwards, there is much here that relates to my own practice, especially for the history of territory book I am currently writing.