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I’m not crazy, but it is a head-game

I get more work done when I’m not crazy. I have invested wayyyy too much emotional energy into the quality of the finished thesis that I have a hard time exercising the necessary detachemnt from the writing to actually make the revisions I need to make.

I wish I could say that I didn’t pursue this degree because I wanted to prove something to myself and those around me about my intelligence. But, that would be false. I have an ego and need affirmation. I want to demonstrate my intellectual abilities and to stand apart from other people based on an ability or talent I’ve cultivated. I want to have my own place “at the table” with the other smart people, not because they like me or think I’m easy to get along with, but because they think I have a contribution to make.

These expectations about the process (and other people) are not helpful, and so I am trying to let go of them.

Revisions are harder than writing, at least for me. Sure, writing can get me down especially when I’m not clear about what I want to say. But it’s the process of doing revisions during which I have to keep at least two versions of the text in my memory—the old draft which was reviewed and commented on by outside readers and the current draft being formed by moving around and deleting portions of the text—that overwhelms me.  I’d probably be better at doing revisions if I had an outline in a separate document to which I could refer as I move stuff around.

Increasing writing fluency?

For me there is no “secret key” about improving my speed—it’s all about getting over or through or around the stuff that it keeping me from actually doing the writing or revisions.

When I am free, detached, and confident I can write. I get to this emotional space by exercising, by disengaging from the draining activities and relationships in my life, and by focusing on my goal (degree in hand). I also find it is much easier to write if I don’t fuss with “how it sounds” or whether the way I phrase something is sophisticated enough.  That is an editorial question, not a question worth getting hung up on during the writing phase.

A shared anxiety

This is an article from Slate.com about increasing the speed and fluency with which we write.  I was chastened by this quote.

Like many writers, I take a lot of notes before I compose a first draft. The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don’t look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.

This highlights the issue of identifying what exactly one is doing at a particular time, about doing just that one task: writing, taking notes, or evaluating and commenting on the notes. While I’m supposedly writing am guilting of spending too much time and energy back in my notes reviewing and evaluating those ideas. Is this what it takes to write?

  1. Dreaming, brainstorming, writing in my thesis journal about general issues
  2. Hunting and gathering new ideas: I try to read new publications in my field that are beyond my thesis topic.  This keeps me fresh and up-to-date, and it helps me keep my thesis in perspective.  Even just a half-hour of reading a book review can help stimulate new ideas and motivation.
  3. Planning and outlining I often skip this step or breeze through it too fast and it backfires on me every time.  It is much more helpful to realize early in the process that I need to do more research on something than later in the process when integrating new research is more complicated. Note: this is also a good time to create a few other related documents for art history papers: the list of figures with their captions and copyright info (add numbers during the writing phase), bibliography, timeline of important dates or events, list of important names with alternate spellings, etc. This is also the best time to request books and scan articles.
  4. Write out the questions I want to answer and the keywords I want to use. It makes sense to put these directly into the outline document. I like to have a hard-copy of the most up-to-date outline with me most of the time.
  5. Researching, reading, and taking notes. I try to always comment on the readings in my notes. Sometimes something I’ve read will stimulate a big thought and then I’ll go to a fresh page/document and write out the idea into a paragraph (or more). When this happens the writing goes fast and the usually the core idea is important. I try to use this time to distill only the information I need to use that relates to my research project. My weakness is to take notes on everything—trying to be responsible and  comprehensive—but that backfires because then I have tons of notes but little that is relevant! This is a major hang-up of mine that I am getting much better about not doing.
  6. Write a draft longhand using the outline and referring to my notes as little as possible. This is what I’m supposed to do, but I’m not there yet. I try to go back to my notes only when I need specific details (page numbers, dates, etc.) I have a bad habit of leaning on my notes too heavily when I’m writing which makes it really hard to be free enough to write my own ideas and arguments.
  7. Type up the draft and print it out. For longer writing it may make sense to write out a section of the outline at a time, type that section out, and then write some more. I find I loose efficiency if I do any one thing for too long!
  8. Use the hard copy for editing. Focus on cohesion in the paragraphs and coherence among paragraphs. Concision is nice and correctness is a must. Clarity comes over time and from rewriting sections that are complicated.
  9. Apply the edits and print it out again.

Much of this is based on this post. There is no perfect way, but there are better ways.

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