Wisdom from a writer, applied to academics. OR: why everything seems to take five dozen drafts.

(In case you haven’t noticed, guys, I’m resurrecting the blog.)

My dear friend Nina, a.k.a. the Slackmistress, has the following to say about why she doesn’t get writer’s block:

If someone held a gun to your head and said start typing, bub, you’d start to type. Would it be good? Good god, no. But you’d be able to say something. Because when the options are write or death, writing isn’t all that difficult a choice.

If you’re being paid, you can’t turn to your Executive Producer and say, gee, guys, I can’t come up with anything. What you mean is I can’t come up with anything good.

My guess is most writer’s block is: I can’t come up with anything good.

That’s not writer’s block.

Working in TV, you have to produce the next episode. It doesn’t matter if inspiration has struck or not. And to be honest inspiration rarely strikes when you’re mid-season and you’ve been working long days and writing and re-writing and oh, dear god are they OUT OF JUMBO RED VINES?! and you’re sitting in a room or in front of an EP who’s waiting for the next brilliant idea. This is where you learn how to pitch. Your idea may be crap, but you sell the hell out of it and figure out how to make it good later.

Because that’s what 99% of writing is: figuring out how to make it good later.

It seems to me that this is a big insight for academic writing too.

First, it explains why when faced with deadlines on academic work (whether as a student in courses, or as a grownup in conferences and such) it’s surprisingly less difficult to turn out something at the last minute, even though we were struggling with it beforehand. Because we were suffering from a delusion at the “struggling” stages. The delusion was that we didn’t have anything to say, when, as Nina wisely points above, we just don’t have anything good to say. Which also explains why these last minute papers, especially from undergrads who are less practiced at saying good things faster even though they might have an equally high baseline level of intelligence, turn out so bad. So we can all probably turn out better deadline-oriented work by forcing ourselves to the realization that we can actually write something before the deadline drags us bodily to the computer, it’s just that it won’t be good.

Second, it explains why turning out actually good work requires so many damn rewrites. Because when we actually produce something, it’s less because we’ve solved the problem, than because the pressure (whether external, from deadlines, or internal, from guilt) finally pushes us to put any old crap down on paper — and hence requires copious revision, a.k.a. “making it good later.”

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3 Responses to “Wisdom from a writer, applied to academics. OR: why everything seems to take five dozen drafts.”

  1. Nina the slackmistress Says:

    I was going to point out that this advice could probably be applied to all writing, but I’ve never really done any other sort of writing, so I didn’t want to be a total ass. (Just partly one.)

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    You are not an ass in the least!

  3. Stuart Buck Says:

    Writing isn’t hard at all; it’s thinking that’s hard. Once you’ve thought over a subject from top to bottom, writing is just typing.

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