How do we move from product to process as academic writers?

I’m teaching a thesis writing class this year. This time around, I’ve been documenting the warm up exercises and tools that I use in the class a bit better than I did last year and for some reason I thought it would be worth sharing this one. Just like today’s annoying cooking blogs, there is a preamble, which you can skip if you just want the recipe.

It’s a truism in the study of teaching writing that focusing on the product of writing does not help students become better writers – Donald Murray’s 1972 piece “Teach Writing as a Process, Not a Product” is (depressingly) still a good read. And there are a surprising number of productivity blog posts re-packaging “process not product” advice as though it’s brand new. Often the explanation for how to see writing as a process follows Murray’s lead, identifying “process” as including pre-writing as well as revision. Thus, we begin to see a much bigger field of activity beyond sitting down with cursor or pen as part of writing – reading, taking notes, reflecting, sharing work, talking about what we’re writing about, going back in and polishing it, and much more. This is really useful, but it’s insufficient especially for academic writers working on any longer sort of project like a thesis or dissertation. If we had some success making it through undergraduate paper writing, or even the sort of writing we do in grad classes, chances are good that we got habituated towards writing with a timeframe amenable to producing written chunks in the area of 25-30 pages, where we’d build for a term towards a final paper. Sometimes there’re “process” bits, like draft-writing or the option to revise short work into the longer final product. But it’s usually still possible to write and revise in intensive bursts, pushing through procrastination with a mix of adrenaline, guilt, terror, boredom, and fear to produce something that can be turned in.

For longer work, including the kind of work practice that can sustain us as writers over a lifetime, this approach isn’t good. In fact, it’s terrible and one of the reasons writing is an occasion for so much unnecessary suffering. This approach to writing is politically important, too, as it’s embedded in a metric-organized neoliberal system of measurable and rewardable production of content; perhaps it’s not explicitly meant to shut down odd, creative, twisty, unpredictable writing, but it does. And it does this disproportionally, so that the writers that we don’t ever get to read are racialized, working-class, and otherwise outside the academic mainstream.

The product-oriented writing approach is ripe for and maybe even produces perfectionism-procrastination and magical thinking; when we have something due at a particular time and we haven’t worked on it at all, we can slide into the pattern of thinking that somehow it’ll all just come together. Writing is often non-linear and moves at enormous speed, unpredictably, but I’ve observed that often grad students in particular take incompletes in classes in order to finish term papers, and then become hopelessly stuck.

And so the advice often is to pick a process, but I haven’t seen much explanation of how actually you do that. So here’re two “how” suggestions.

The recipe: Writing process two ways

1. Attend to yourself when you are writing – even when you’re writing in a product-oriented way, since that’s probably the main way you’re writing. Notice what you feel like, what feels good and what feels hard. Notice what music you like, who you’re with, whether you’re writing by hand or on the computer. Notice where you are, what you did to get there, what your entry sequence was. Notice your body, your breath, how you feel. Pick three of the things that, simply, feel like they’re working with some ease and try to do those things again this week. So, if you feel good in a cafe, with noise-cancelling headphones, using a website-blocking software that helps you not randomly scroll through the internet for a fixed amount of time, do that again. If you feel good in a library with silence and a particular friend, see if they will come to the library with you again. If you like writing in a bar in a paper notebook with eight books stacked around you and a particular hat on, try to do that again. See how that feels. If it feels good, do it again. In the second week, try to do that thing two or three times. For most of us, in our real worlds, two or three times of doing writing a week is going to be fabulous, amazing. Some of us have writing processes that allow us to touch in to writing daily or many times a week – also wonderful.

This approach is to set up times and places where you write and to trust that if you show up there and do some writing, you’ll have done some writing and eventually a product will emerge, particulate from a solution. This approach starts from the smallest and least outcome oriented approach you can find, and looks at what happens if you build on it. It’s iterative and completely content-free, and for that reason might sound good but not stick at all. So there’s also idea #2.

2. Think of a product you know you want to produce, and the date by which you need it. Then start inquiring further:
◆ How many words does this thing need to be?
◆ What are the different parts it will have? How many words are those parts, typically (in your own past writing, in the genre you’re writing in, in examples of papers or dissertations that have been successful)?
◆ How many writing sessions are realistically possible between now and the date the thing is due? How many units of writing will make up a session? (Where the most common units are pomdoros or 45-minute increments)
⁃ This should itself be a separate recipe. To determine a writing session, you need to also have a work week, which basically means having a day or two off which you take as entitlement not reward – a weekend. Then you have the work you need to do to sustain your life, like groceries exercise showers seeing friends. Then you perhaps have wage work. All of these things take reasonably fixed amounts of time, and the “writing sessions” that are possible are also units of time. I’ve observed that no academic writer I know can sustainably write more than three 45-minute units in any given work day, and usually we do much less – in my life being able to do between three and ten units a week is quite luxurious.
◆ How much do you write, un-edited, in a unit? How many of them will you need to make it to the product you have? Or conversely,
◆ How much will you need to write in each unit in order to make it to your product?
◆ How many other products are you supposed to produce in this time frame? Is it actually possible to do them? If it’s not, how are you going to manage that?
◆ Assign a number of sessions or units to any given week, and plug away through the words until you have a draft.

I’ve found it useful to think about the ways that products and processes are different. Notably, a process is a human experience, an activity, a thing we are doing. It has duration, material reality, an affect or a mood. It is something, by definition, that it is possible to do because it is fundamentally nothing other than a doing. A process is not a crisis, or an exception. A process is amenable to habit. We can make a process small enough that it doesn’t terrify us, small enough that we’re not able to fail at it. And this means we can make processes that allow us to write, and that is worth doing.

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