Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Some Thoughts on Writing, Especially Big Projects

A discussion on Twitter got me thinking that I'd like to write up some observations about writing. They are based largely on three things:

  • Twenty years as a professional writer, usually with tight deadlines. I've been a technical writer since 1996, and mostly I have had to deal with deadlines. (I will say that I'm happier and get more done when I have externally-imposed due dates.) I've been writing paid music reviews since 2004, and deadlines are the reason I got my SF Opera Les Troyens review done in a reasonable time frame (before the second performance), but you still haven't seen my blog posts about the Chicago Troyens...which was last November.
  • Editing projects of varying lengths for professional publication. These include a novel and a doctoral dissertation, plus some shorter articles.
  • Thirtyish years of practicing and more than 20 years of teaching martial arts. Yeah, I've learned things that apply to writing projects.
Martial arts practice is different from writing. It's a physical practice that is significantly influenced by your internal state, learning style, physical abilities, and cognitive strengths. In my style, there are also no deadlines: in general, nobody is giving you a due date to test for a particular rank. You can take as long as you'd like.

In a situation like this, it can become a teacher's task to motivate a student who is practicing regularly but seems directionless and therefore isn't making progress. Setting deadlines may in fact provide some structure for that student and help her to move ahead. I would generally not make this a deadline for a rank test, but I would not hesitate to say "I would like you to demonstrate 5 (or 10) arts of your choice in three weeks. Please bring a list of what you'll demonstrate to the next class." And then I'll make sure the student gets time to practice those and gets feedback from me, too.

In terms of long writing projects, getting hung up in your material in some way can hold you back. For some writers, making up a detailed outline and even a detailed schedule may help you move forward. You can get all sorts of elaborate tools for these tasks, or you can just use a spreadsheet or word processor. Using something less complicated is a good idea, because otherwise you can get sidetracked by learning an elaborate tool.

Just committing to writing 250 (or 500 or 1000) words per day might be enough to help you make progress. After you make something a habit - such as writing 250 words a day - for many people, it'll get easier to do. There's a lot of psychological research published at this point about how to change or establish habits, with different approaches to doing this. One of these approaches might work for people who feel stuck and would like to change their working habits.

Then there's perfectionism: OMG THIS JUST ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH MUST REVISE. AND REVISE AND REVISE. My first jujitsu sensei always said "Strive for perfection, accept what you get." In martial arts, this is easy to understand, because you will do that imperfect technique thousands of times during your years of practice. Some will be great, some won't be, but over time, your basic standard will go up. I can execute dozens of techniques on a consistently good basis, but that's after a lot of hard work and a couple of dan rank exams.

When you're writing, you get something that you don't have in the martial arts: the revision and editing process. Until you turn in the final manuscript, you have lots of control. Yeah, the words on the page might seem to suck, but you will have lots of opportunities to revise your book or dissertation. 

And, you know? Sometimes they'll suck, but sometimes, maybe most of the time,  they won't. You might not be the best judge of what you're writing! It's a good idea to have friendly eyes, people you really trust, take a look at your project while it's in process. They are more objective than you are. If they're good writers or editors, they may spot organizational issues that, when dealt with, make everything flow better. 

It's important, very important, to keep in mind that your manuscript is in flux. Let go as best you can if you find yourself stuck, or obsessed with a particular section, or chapter or day's writing. Work on something else: it is entirely possible to write a large document out of order, as long as your revision process allows you to ensure end-to-end coherence. 

Here I'll throw in something the composer Sheila Silver said to me when I interviewed her some years ago: she composes by sitting down every day and composing. Sometimes what she writes is good and moves ahead the work in progress. Sometimes it's not and she winds up tossing it, or saving it for another time. It's a process that isn't all that different from the process of writing: get something down on paper, evaluate as dispassionately as you can, get something down on paper....

I say "as dispassionately as you can" because, hey, this can be an emotional process for a writer. I write technical documentation, and one salient fact of life for tech writers is that your work becomes obsolete with some speed, depending on the kinds of products you work on. A manual on how to use the database query language SQL won't date that much, because SQL is forever, within various variants. However, every word I wrote between 1998 and 2006, when I was with Documentum, is probably completely obsolete by now. It was useful when I wrote it; they paid me; I genuinely don't care that it's obsolete.

Your dissertation or novel will stay interesting, useful, and current for lots longer that that, and you are probably more emotionally involved with your dissertation or novel than I am with any of my documents. (I am, in fact, somewhat on the cynical side about what I write, and if you saw how tech companies operate, you might be too! Cynicism:it's a good survival skill. And I like the company I work for.) So it's harder to feel dispassionate about. 

What you can do is keep this in mind: writing is a craft. Yes, there's plenty of art in it, but ultimately, it's a craft. It's true that there are people whose writing process never becomes easy. But the more you can do to regard it as a craft, as something you get better at, the more likely it is that it will get easier for you over time.

I'm going to throw in maybe one or two final thoughts before I publish this: try not to get too socially isolated while you're got a big writing project going on. I know how absorbing the work can be, and I know how easy it is to get stuck inside your own head. See people at whatever level works for your place on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. Talk about things other than the writing project. Give yourself a break. 

And, really lastly, get yourself physically out of your writing space. You can't just stare at the screen all day. Get out into nature or the city streets around you. If you're ambulatory, you might find walking on your breaks to be helpful; movement somehow shakes things loose and can give you new ideas or cast useful light on what you are doing. 


Patrick J. Vaz said...

This is thoughtful, useful, and even . . . inspirational. Thanks.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you!