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How I Write

In these pandemic conditions—or really at any time—you might not exactly be crying out for people to tell you how to write. This business we’re all in is personal, and I always found overly-strong interventions from other people infantilizing. It’s easy to talk to people in a way that belittles, and believe me, I ingest belittlement like a sponge. The Internet is full of dudebros telling you how much they write, bench—whatever. Life is full of such people. From my classes this year, where I showed negative feedback I get on stuff, I hoped I conveyed a sense that I struggle with the same things you struggle with. What I have that you don’t is mostly that I’ve been doing this for longer. Academic work is also a place I've gone to in the midst of personal crises of one sort of another--crises milder, it must be said, than those you may be experiene right now.

So before anything else. This is not a time for meta-anxiety: for feeling anxious about feeling anxious, for living with a sense that there are those who seem just to be getting by, or even focusing more. As a person in authority--and if this helps--let me confirm for you the rightness of feeling, right now, as though it's impossible to get anything done, a situation confounded by seeming to be in the shadow of those getting it done. The department and the university acknowledge this, and have put a variety of structures in place that recognize the rightness, the dignity, of your having these feelings.

With that said, I have found a few things that work for me in getting projects finished. These may not work for everyone, but I’m hopeful one or two of these might spark some ideas. They won’t work for everyone—they don’t even work for me, all of the time. Different projects require different approaches.


  1. Non-evaluative daily goals; writing and editing phases

Writing is management more than it’s inspiration: setting out time to do it, putting yourself in the physical and mental space to do it. One thing that “broke” a lot of hang-ups I had about writing—or, more accurately, let me work around them—is setting out a schedule of non-evaluative targets. 200 words, or 2 hours, are not evaluative targets: you check the box if you’ve done them or not. This gives you a sense of regular progress, as well as time when you can stop writing and relax effectively. Nothing I have ever done has helped me more than this, in terms of writing.

This kind of goal does occasionally mean that you write a lot of stuff that you don’t wind up using. This is also why I build writing into generating and editing phases: the first a set amount of words per day, the second a set amount of time (for editing.)


  1. Daily reading time; pump-priming reading

I have found, in phases when nothing was working, that making myself read some secondary criticism—even not directly related to the project—got me into a mindset where I could write more. This kind of “pump-priming” reading (I hate this term, but what better?) might bring you out of whatever thought patterns were holding up writing. They also mean you’ll find yourself with ideas to stick into your project—it might not be immediate, but I’ll often find something I read last month goes into something I’m writing now.


  1. Writing groups and peer reading

I’ve actually found writing groups hard to sustain—please don’t add to your stresses if this is the case for you at the moment. But you do have a group of other people writing roughly the same assignment. I find it useful to have readers who will read for a particular thing—proofing, use of evidence, what-have-you. There have been years where I’ve pondered making writing assessment part of module activities, but this never exactly works out: some people don’t work well in writing groups, some aren’t in circumstances to contribute. But if it works for two or more of you, this can be an effective way to move things forward.


  1. Use other writing as a model

One thing you can do is go to other writing in a way that’s really instrumental: see what a book like Jane Austen and the War of Ideas does with a citation. It’s probably best to stick to things in the discipline of English—History, for example, uses sources differently. But this can help if you are stuck. It can also help you break your writing down into units or set-pieces or just smaller chunks, smaller than the paragraph: here’s an explicate-citation-in-my-own-words chunk; here’s an explain-my-term chunk. I’m most happy to send you to examples of these, by the way.


  1. De-emphasize the individual day

Particularly if you have a regular schedule you stick to, one bad day doesn’t matter all that much. If you had your 200 words—or even if you don’t—the important thing is that you have a plan to get back on your next scheduled day and do 200 more—or 250, maybe, if you only got to 150. A steady writing schedule makes any individual day less dramatic.


  1. Understand writing will feel terrible for at least part of the time

I wish I had a better way of putting this, or better advice. We’ve all read hundreds of accounts of the difficulties of writing—for years, I never quite got that what I was feeling, how vertiginously awful writing could be at moments, was somehow related. The celebrated literature of how difficult people find writing sometimes applies to you as well. That’s what I’ve proposed here: a way of working around this, rather than a way of banishing the feelings.


Today’s the 23 April. I submitted my second book to press on 20 April—and there’s that dudebro benching language. On 15 April, I was doing the late, late revisions to the book, and I felt anxiety about the book to the point of physical nausea. Really and truly, I thought I was going to have to delete that chapter—and another chapter seemed kind of shaky…and so on. I’ve never figured out how to move past this happening some of the time. Nor have I figured out how, as the meditation tapes say, to embrace this side of writing as a friend. It feels terrible. Knowing that what feels, objectively, like the writing is not going well might be a subjective, passing feeling isn’t exactly empowering. But it might help you grind out another day’s writing, and then another’s, and so on forward. This is a management task that we usually present as a creative performance—when we talk about it at all, when we denature the work of writing, which we usually don’t.