Most of us find that we don’t have the time to complete a piece of writing in one sitting. In fact a blog is probably about the only thing that you can finish in only one go. Retracing thinking steps can be pretty time consuming so it’s important to have a strategy to manage the coming back, to avoid spending much of the second or third or fourth writing sessions wondering what on earth we were thinking.
I was recently talking about this with Jon McGregor who, because he is a prize winning writer, often gets asked about his practice. His advice is, that when writing a big text like a book, to never complete a sequence of events, but always leave the writing unfinished. And instead of just stopping dead, finish off with a set of points that indicate where the writing is intended to go next.
The habits of accomplished writers have something to offer busy academics. Judging by the little box of library cards that Jon had with him that day, I suspect he might be one of those people who also has an overall mapped out structure that he follows. I noticed a recent picture of Will Self in his office where he was surrounded by orderly sequenced post-it notes, which suggests that he too follows some kind of mapping out approach. I know not all writers do this, but it does seem a helpful strategy for academic writers to consider.
When writing a big text like a book – this applies to a thesis too – I always have about a page abstract of the whole thing and then another half page for each chapter which has bullet points of the various bits that I think will go in. This is printed out in hard copy and sits next to my computer. I also cut and paste the chapter abstract into the screen document and then proceed to fill it in. And if I have to stop writing half way through something I always leave an expanded set of bullet points to help me start off again. So I have both an overall plan, a plan for the specific piece I’m writing and a place to start when I get back to it. I do much the same for a journal article.
I now rarely find myself wasting time wondering where I am going when I come back to a piece of writing, even if the break from it is one, two or even three weeks long.
Of course this is not the only way to keep track. Do you have strategies that work for you to keep track of your thinking for writing?
I needed the (free) assistance of two pieces of excellent software for drafting my dissertation – Evernote and Bubbl.us. The first for text/pictures/thoughts/structure/recall wherever and whenever the brain is “in the zone” for writing. The latter for continuously mind-mapping the beginning, middle and end.