Reflections

There’s No Perfect Writing Process

Image result for the secret miracleMy local library carries a copy of The Secret Miracle, an edited collection of author interviews about the writing craft. I have no intention of reading the book from cover to cover, but I spent an hour late last week exploring the writing routines of a diverse array of successful authors.

And what I learned, surprised me.

I have written before about the dangers of romanticizing writing. The process is messy and hard. Yet, I often assume that all successful authors have type A personalities with strict writing routines. The Secret Miracle pokes holes in the common writing advice that I’ve encountered on AuthorTube or in the writing blogosphere.

True, most of the authors interviewed treat writing as a job with fixed hours, but they don’t all write everyday. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that few authors follow their outlines to a T or rush first drafts. Ultimately, the only “secret miracle” to writing is perseverance.

How long does it take you to finish a draft?

Rodrigo Fresán: I don’t write thinking about a first draft. I edit all the time while writing. Because the first finished version is the only one (and maybe it is the tenth or twentieth draft).

Like Fresán, I edit as I write. I used to be ashamed of my slow writing speed, but many authors, it seems, take ages to produce a polished “first” draft.

How polished do you try to make the prose in a first draft?

Susan Minot: Pretty well polished. Though I do line edit afterward. But the polish is the difference between good writing and average writing.

Claire Messud: Doesn’t everyone always try to write as well as they can, at any given moment? I can’t imagine not caring, whatever draft I’m dealing with. It’s a matter of aesthetics, as much as anything – infelicities, it seems to me, should be deliberate, not a matter of inattention; because they mean something too.

Do you outline? If so, how closely do you follow it?

Andrew Sean Greer: I write a very careful outline and then abandon it halfway through. It is always a difficult moment for me, but of course I know that it is crucial to follow the way the story has grown, even if it means leaving the road and bushwacking my way to the end.

I always have a detailed outline before I start writing an academic paper, but I realize soon enough that my outline contains massive holes. I often produce three or four different outlines while writing my so-called first draft.

If, like me, you spend ages writing a first draft because you don’t always know what you want to say or you are not satisfied with sloppy writing, take heart! You’re not alone. There is no one ideal writing process. Don’t be discouraged by the writing advice you find in self-help books; they work for some people but not for everyone. Find what works for you, and go with that. As long as you reach the finish line, it doesn’t matter that you write slower than your colleagues.

Reflections

Not Dead, Just AWOL (PhD and This Blog)

I am currently beginning the dissertation phase of my PhD. That is my excuse for neglecting to blog for the past few months, despite having read some great works. For most of the summer, I have read books related to my research interests (15th and 16th-century life writing). I have also begun turning a term paper into a journal article. “Begun” is the key word because I’ve only worked for two hours on the paper the entire summer. I tell myself that I’m early in my doctorate program, so it doesn’t matter that I haven’t worked seriously on the article all summer. Nevertheless, I need to adopt some kind of writing routine to reach all of the deadlines that I have set for myself.

But none of this explains why I have not written reviews for the books that I’ve read. The real reason is lack of interest. For some reason, I have not wanted to write reviews for by Luther Blissett or Orlando Furioso by Ariosto. I don’t think that I have grown tired of this blog. On the contrary, I have a list of posts about reading and writing that I’ve wanted to publish for the past six months. It is true, however, that I am less interested in promoting well-known classics than I used to be.

My blog has evolved over the years. I started in 2014, when I was 21 years old. At the time, the blog was called Exploring Classics. I even created a Classics Club list, with the intention of reading those 50 classics in 5 years. I’ve abandoned that project for the past three years. I am now 27, having completed a 2-year master’s program and 2 years into a PhD program. My intellectual and research interests have changed over the years. And of course, I have grown in maturity. Each time, I have adjusted the layout of the blog. Two years ago, I finally gave in and bought a domain name. So Exploring Classics is now Exploring Literature.

Perhaps, I am concerned about what people might think if I were to write about my academic writing struggles. Vulnerability is not my strong suit. But at this point in my academic career, I have experienced some challenges that I want to write about. Other academics may find them relatable. I will continue to post reviews of some of the books I’ve read, but I want to explore literature from a different angle than I have in the past. Rather than focusing predominantly on reviews, I will write more writing and research-related reflections.

I hope that making this post will encourage me to finally make the many posts that I’ve wanted to make for the past few months. Let me know if there are academia-related topics that you would like me to cover on this blog. Thanks for sticking around.

Reflections

Stop Saying That Good Writers Are Born

Image result for self-defeatismI strongly dislike the debate over whether a good writer is born or made. It fosters a defeatist mentality. Why do we feel the need to ask this question in the first place?

I particularly dislike this debate because it’s so hard to evaluate. Who do we consider a “good” writer? Because this debate often comes up in writing circles, my assumption is that a good writer has been published and has won a few literary awards. But are all successful writers good writers on an aesthetic level? Are all unpublished writers bad writers? Do all good writers get published?

I can name many authors who have written New York Times bestsellers but who would probably not get As from their English teachers. But their books are published and have been optioned for movies. Isn’t that the dream for many writers? There are equally as many writers with MFA degrees that have never published a single book. Are they bad writers?

To statistically determine whether good authors (however defined) are born or made, we could conduct a large-scale study on the childhood interests of such authors. Maybe all of them were prodigious writers at a very young age. But I doubt it. Time and time again, we hear stories about critically acclaimed authors who took up writing late in life. My favorite children’s author Roald Dahl was ridiculed by his teachers and told that he would never amount to anything.

And yet, so many people feel the need to say that writers either “have it” or they don’t. What’s the point? If success is defined by publication or prize, then an unpublished writer always has the potential to be published. An unpublished writer could become a published writer whose story sets the tone for how other unpublished writers see their own work.

There’s no point in asking yourself whether a good writer is born or made. No matter who the writer, writing requires discipline and practice. Unless you are on your deathbed, you – the unpublished, unrecognized writer – could become a published, recognized author. But only if you write and finish a project.

Let’s stop promoting the defeatist belief that artists are born, not made. In Academia, we use the term “impostor syndrome” to refer to that false belief that you do not belong in a graduate program or the professoriate. Impostor syndrome is particularly sinister when it is cultivated in us by our friends and mentors. Stop allowing other people to define success for you or to limit your potential. Stop self-sabotaging your own career or hobby. Work on improving your craft.

Reflections

Why I’m Such a Slow Writer

Related imageI don’t often talk about my writing struggles on here. I might share goals or writing advice, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing my faults publicly. I resist being vulnerable because I am terrified of being perceived as a complainer – perhaps because my emotions were often ridiculed and dismissed as a child. Nevertheless, I want to share my failures with you because I know that failure is necessary for growth. So here goes.

Yesterday, I submitted my final term paper for the Fall 2018 semester after having worked on it for over three weeks! Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You think I have a problem with procrastination. Nope. I wrote consistently over the three-week period. Many days I worked for 2-3 hours. Nevertheless, it took me three weeks to write a 20-page term paper.

My major problem is that I revise as I write. I am doing it right now. It’s so hard for me to resist the urge to correct clumsy, disorganized prose. I worry that I’m missing transitions or entire paragraphs.

For this paper, I made serious structural edits every 3-5 pages. Then I wrote a few more pages. Then I made even more changes. One day I spent almost two hours writing two sentences. Another day, I spent over three hours changing the order of paragraphs and rewriting topic sentences.

This needs to stop!

I need to be okay with writing multiple drafts. I must resist the urge to write a perfect first draft. In fact, I’ve noticed that my writing is more, not less, clumsy when I agonize over each and every sentence. Paragraphs don’t flow as well.

A more organized and detailed outline would certainly help, but perfectionism is what’s really holding me back.

There are some reasons for this. I’ve never been a “creative”. There was a time when I thought I might like to write fiction, but my writing is very plain and straightforward. I hated creative writing assignments. I couldn’t even write a decent essay in high school. It also doesn’t help that writing is shrouded in myth. Many writers claim that you are either born a writer or you’re not.

Although my writing has improved greatly over the past three years, I know that I will never be a wordsmith. And I’m honestly okay with that. I just want to get my point across. I care about academic writing because I want to communicate my findings with the scholarly community. But at my current writing rate, it will take me a decade to write a dissertation.

My goal in 2019 is to accept that my first draft will be atrocious.

Reflections

2019 Writing, Language, and Blogging Goals

Closeup Photo of Journal Book and Pencils

First of all, Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating!!

happy new year christmas GIF

Now, on to my 2019 goals:

I usually review the goals that I set for myself the previous year, but I’m not going to do that this year because I didn’t achieve any of them. Nevertheless, I did work toward some of my university-related goals, so I am generally pleased with my progress.

Language and Writing Goals

  1. Let’s start with the most ambitious one. I would like to have a manuscript ready for submission by the end of 2019. Thankfully, I have picked a topic that my advisor agrees is worth turning into an article.
  2. In 2018, I relearned elementary Latin and began reading classical and medieval texts. My goal in 2019 is to read a Latin work (classical or neo-Latin) from start to finish. The length is irrelevant. I just want to have a text under my belt. I read about 50 pages of Neil Klim’s Underground Travels by Ludvig Holberg last summer, but I probably won’t be able to finish it in 2019 because it’s a fairly lengthy work. My biggest weakness is vocabulary. I look up nearly every word in the dictionary. This needs to stop. I’m sure I will be able to read more quickly if I spend time everyday memorizing vocab.
  3. Write for an hour at 7 am every morning. I’m finally going to implement Joli Jensen’s advice in Write No Matter What. Not everyone is a morning person, but I work better in the morning. This is also the best time for me to write, based on my schedule.

Blogging Goals

I’m pretty sure I write the same goals year after year. Will 2019 be the year? We’ll see. I am only setting myself two goals this year.

  1. Post once a week. The only reason why I do not posting regularly is because I don’t write my posts in advance. Instead, I try to do everything all at once. Successful bloggers plan their posts in advance.
  2. Successfully complete a Classics Spin book. To be honest, the 50-book Classics Club challenge no longer interests me because I already have a massive PhD reading list to get to in the next year-and-a-half. But I love the community and what it stands for. I have lost touch with most of the bloggers I knew in the early days of my blog. I am hoping that the Classics Spin challenge will encourage me to interact more with the community.
Writing Daily in November

Writing Daily in November | Year 2

Pen on Notepad PaperAt the start of 2018, I said that I would not be blogging everyday in November, as I did last year. Daily blogging is more challenging than daily writing because posts are public. However, after much consideration, I’ve decided to take up this challenge again. As I’ve written before, I am a huge believer in the importance of developing a writing habit while in graduate school.

Unlike NaNoWriMo participants who will be writing over 1,667 words a day, I will be writing only 500 words a day. No one wants to read thirty 1,667-word posts! I certainly don’t have the time to write that much on the side while also working on end-of-term papers (due in early December).

Let me know if there are particular topics related to books and/or Academia that you would like me to write about in November. Coming up with ideas is the hardest part of this challenge. But this year, I plan to outline my posts days in advance so that I am not wracking my brain for ideas at 11:40 pm.

I received quite a lot of positive feedback for my daily posts last November, so I am hopeful that you will once again enjoy my content.

Reflections

PhD Reflections/Tips After Year 1

Row of Books in Shelf

I recently completed my first year of a PhD in French. There are two major reasons why I have decided to post the following reflections/tips.

First, I believe that it is healthy to reflect periodically on one’s progress when undergoing a long-term project.

Second, my reflections may help current and prospective graduate students who come across my blog.

Reflections/Tips

Now on to the reflections. I have made a list of 10 PhD-related things that I have discovered about myself and about graduate school in the past year. All tips are inspired by personal experience:

1) Being a PhD student is very much like being a wannabe actor who has recently moved to Los Angeles, California. The odds of “making it” are slim but thousands of us try every year. PhD students and newbie actors are in their industries for one single reason: they love what they do.

2) Constructive criticism is so valuable. Most professors (across institutions) do not grade term papers, so take seriously any constructive feedback you receive. Constructive criticism from a professor who has taken the time to read and mark up a paper should be received with gratitude.

3) On the flip-side, nonconstructive criticism is not only demotivating but also utterly useless. Try to ignore anyone who criticizes you or your work without telling you how you can improve. They are not worth your time or mental energy. They don’t care about your success.

4) Make friends with the other PhD students in your program. Support each other. You are all in this together.

5) If you have been following my blog in the past year, you will be familiar with the following advice: Academic writing IS your job. This is especially true if you are in the humanities or the social sciences. Start thinking of yourself as a writer because you are one.

6) You are an apprentice learning a craft, not an artist trying to harness a Muse. In popular imagination, the image of an apprentice evokes practice and determination. The image of an artist, on the other hand, evokes a born genius who effortlessly produces one masterpiece after another while sipping a latte at Starbucks. The apprentice takes concrete steps to improve her craft. She knows that a poorly-constructed table is not a reflection on her character, and that practice means progress. For more on this, check out Joli Jensen’s excellent book Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (I also made a video about it here).

7) Participate regularly in activities that take you outside of the academic bubble. You need frequent reminder that there is a world outside of academia and that this world can be just as fulfilling as the one in academia.

8) Mental health matters.

9) Attend local conferences in your field even if you are not presenting. You will learn a lot and meet other academics.

10) When a family member asks you what you study, try to explain. The act of trying to explain what you do to someone outside of academia will teach you a lot about yourself and the importance of your work for wider society. What you study matters, so share it.