Defeating writing challenges

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

I found the writing portion of my PhD difficult. The words slip easily from my mind onto the page while writing for myself. However, I often found myself blocked while writing the dissertation. At times, putting words onto the page felt almost painful. Below, I describe how I overcame this challenge.

I like to analyze and understand everything. However, one of the things that I came to realize is that I don’t understand the writing process. I don’t understand how I convert ideas into words. When I attempt to analyze writing, the writing stops. Analysis may be fine in the later editing stages but I find analysis deadly to the process of synthesizing new text. While writing, I have to force myself let go of my impulse to analyze and to write without trying to write.

I also have a tendency to focus on problems and details. I like to ensure that I have covered every possible issue and exception. As a result, I tend to focus in on problematic details, forgetting the context of the entire work. This results in blockages within the writing process. To reduce my focus on problematic details, I exported notes that I had made out of the main document and into a separate file that I don’t see while writing. I also forced myself to skim the entire work each day to remind myself of the big picture.

Here is my personal list of techniques. Keep in mind that everyone writes differently. While I found these techniques helpful, the same techniques may or may not work for you.

  1. Trust that the process of writing will, sooner or later, result in something good. It’s not necessary to understand how ideas are converted into words. Just sit down and write and see what happens. The act of writing is an act of faith and analysis shuts down the writing process.
  2. Write what you know and keep it simple. Don’t try to write beyond your knowledge. Just write what you understand and write it as clearly as possible.
  3. Keep working on a creative project that generates new content, even if only a little time each day. This creative work will feed into and accelerate the writing process. Writing 100% all day every day leads to burnout.
  4. Know that the core ideas meet or exceed the requirements of the final product. This makes the writing go smoothly. You don’t need to understand how ideas are converted into words. You do need to understand the ideas themselves.
  5. Realize that other people probably have lower expectations than you do. Don’t aim for perfection. Just write.
  6. Gloss over problems and gaps in the main document as though there is no problem at all. Present everything in the best light possible, as though anyone could read it tomorrow and feel like it is complete. If you have to, keep a list of notes in a separate document that you don’t see while writing.
  7. Do not put notes in the document. Extra notes create blockages in the writing process as the mind focuses on fixing problems rather than writing. Extra notes also bring problems to the attention of reviewers. This distracts them from the writing that you have already completed. If something is missing, let them bring it to your attention. Keep extra notes in an extra file that you don’t see while writing.
  8. Skim the entire work daily. This provides context. It will prevent you from writing in a way that does not fit into the rest of the document.
  9. Freely delete low quality material. Holding onto junk text will block the writing process. If you can’t bear deleting, cut and paste that material into a separate document that you won’t see while writing.

    Two more points for techies…

  10. If you are using an editor such as latex, make sure that you can easily see, navigate and edit the product in its final form. When reading the final product, you will see things that you cannot see in the editor.
  11. Use source control so that you can easily delete or rewrite low quality work throughout the document, knowing that you can always get it back.

These techniques were helpful to me and they may be helpful to you. If you would like more ideas about defeating writing blocks, I highly recommend Understanding Writing Blocks by Keith Hjortshoj.

Orwell on writing

Monday, June 5th, 2006

Entertaining and opinionated writing advice from George Orwell.

On Writing

Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

I finally finished reading Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. I talked about this book at an earlier time on this site. The book starts by talking about what to do rather than starting with rules of grammar. By focusing on the goals of writing, it becomes easier to write and learn without becoming blocked by fear of grammatical error. Williams saves the “rules” for the last chapter where grammar becomes more about refining the style of writing.

I also finished reading On Writing by Stephen King. I found it entertaining and easy to read. King’s book is mostly about his life as a writer and his attitude and approach to writing. He has some good tips too.


Wednesday, July 6th, 2005

I have taken very few English writing courses — most of them pathetic — so I’ve had to learn to write on my own.
In the last two years, I have found a couple good books on writing:

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.
This thin book provides basic rules for plain and clear writing. I found it an easy read and a good start for improving my writing.

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams
This book starts by focusing on how people read and develops principles on how to make writing more clear and powerful. I find it easier to understand than the English courses that I took so long ago. The book seems to stay close to the meaning to be communicated rather than breaking sentences into tiny pieces. I have been slowly working my way through this book for the last year and have gleaned many insights into writing. I’m about 2/3’s of the way through now and am looking forward to the rest of the book.

Also, here are some writing tips from Barbara Kingsolver:

  • Your first sentence (or paragraph) makes a promise that the rest of the story (or novel) will keep.
  • Give your reader a reason to turn every page.
  • Keep a very large trash can beside your desk.
  • Show, don’t tell. Everybody knows this rule, and most of us still break it in every first draft. Be ruthless. Throw out the interior monologue.
  • Be relentlessly descriptive. Use details from every sense you own.
  • Set your scenes in places you know well. Otherwise, your details will be bogus.
  • Know what your theme is. If you can’t express what you intend to get across in a concrete sentence or two (or for a novel, a few paragraphs), do you really think anyone else is going to get it? Write it out for yourself, point blank. Then toss it, and return to your story with a better sense of direction.
  • Write with nobody looking over your shoulder. After your book’s published, you can worry about whether the subject is commercial, how your mother will like the steamy sex scenes, etc. But while you’re writing, your only worthy concern is defining your particular passion and giving it a voice.
  • Revise, revise, revise, revise. Fill up that recycling box. A first draft is a work of construction; the seventh one is the work of an artist.
  • Don’t wait for the muse. She has a lousy work ethic. Writers just write.

I was introduced to the idea of eliminating the copula verb by reading a friend’s website. Since then, I’ve found a couple interesting sites about E-Prime. The title “E-Prime” annoys me but I find the idea intriguing. I would be curious to hear your opinion.

Feel free to share your thoughts on writing and writing resources in the comments.