Reading About Writing

by Shannon Lucky
IT Librarian, University of Saskatchewan Library

I have been sick for two weeks. Home on the couch, too much TV, never enough tea kind of sick. It has been the kind of terrible cold that makes you unsuitable for human contact and too foggy to do any real focused work but I had so much downtime that I started itching to do something productive (but not too difficult). I decided to try to catch up on all of my unread listserv emails, blog posts in my RSS reader, and articles I had dumped into a “to read” folder that I never have time to open. There was a lot to cover so I decided to do a quick triage, group articles by theme, and tackle the most interesting stuff first.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t get through everything. I did wander down an interesting rabbit hole of articles about writing and procrastination – my research Achilles heel. Maybe there is something about having uninterrupted hours of free time (and a low-grade fever) that made all these articles feel very profound and personally relevant, but it was wonderful to have several days to let curiosity and serendipity lead me in many directions reading about how to write more, how to write better, and how to make writing less painful. In the past I have tried many different productivity methods to get more writing done, but this break to read broadly about it and reflect on my own writing practice (or lack thereof) motivated me to make a real change. It reminded me of meeting my trainer at the gym for the first time. She asked me what my fitness goals were and I, clearly not understanding what a normal fitness goal is, said that I wanted to become the kind of person who likes to run. Now I want to do the same thing with writing.

The first thing I should probably do is learn to keep better notes that refer back to my sources, but so much of the advice I read was repeated again and again in the books and articles that I read. Here are a few of the tips that stuck with me and that I am dedicated to trying out:

  1. Read a lot. In quantity, but also different subjects, mediums, and genres. You never know when a newspaper article or novel will make some connecting or spark some new thought. This can work for both the content of your research, but also how you write about it. I have started saving examples of writing that I love and make a point of re-reading it when I get stuck or am feeling frustrated. I have a folder on my computer full of articles, excerpts from books, bios, poems, and comments. Many are not related directly to my scholarly work but the writing style can teach me something about communicating effectively or connecting with a reader.
  2. Write a lot. This one sounds obvious, and it is. To get more writing done, I need to write more. Writing everyday is best, but it is most important to write frequently and consistently. Writing more, especially if the writing is bad. Practice is the only way to get better and the more writing I produce the more raw material I will have to fish the promising bits out of the stuff I never want anyone to read.
  3. Schedule time to write and defend it uncompromisingly. This is one that I have read before and have tried to follow but have mostly failed at. I have a recurring meeting in my calendar during the first hour of my work days for “writing”. This usually translates into returning emails or catching up on something I didn’t get to finish the day before. It is time to find a way to get this time back by treating it as a non-negotiable appointment. I would never skip a meeting with a colleague or a student so I need to start treating this time the same way.
  4. Editing is critical. It is necessary to give yourself some breathing room between writing and editing. Getting over the idea that my writing must be good out of the gate is going to be a process for me. I copied out a few choice sections from Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” about the importance of the “shitty first draft” and her three step editing process: the first draft is the downdraft (just get something down), the second is the updraft (fix it up), and the third is the dental draft where you check every tooth. My key takeaway – leave time for at least three drafts! You cannot do that the night before the deadline.
  5. Writing is research. The process of writing is formative, it is a way of thinking so I need to give it time and attention. There is nothing to gain from rushing through the process to get to the finished product. Barry White (the other Barry White) wrote a great book about thesis writing called Mapping Your Thesis that has great advice about scholarly writing in general. His argument, both encouraging a bit depressing, is that writing creates insight because thinking and writing are inseparable processes. Writing and revising is a recursive process. Recursive processes are not compressible, there are not shortcuts, and writing will always be a struggle.

Now that I am finally back on my feet and feeling human again I am dedicated to taking a new approach to my research and writing. If you have other advice I would love to hear about it in the comments section. If you are interested in checking out some of the writing that inspired this post the following is an incomplete list of my writing advice sources:

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This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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