This post was inspired by the podcast on writing rituals over at James Hayton’s blog. He focuses especially on the beginning and end of the writing day, which I agree are critical times.
I spent considerable hours as an undergrad writing creatively. After taking the standard Intro to Fiction and Intermediate Fiction courses, I decided to apply to the Kidd Tutorial, an intensive (and intense) yearlong creative writing course. I was accepted! Hooray. I spent the next year juggling regular and serious creative writing output, plus scholarly analysis of the craft, with classes like Physics and Organic Chemistry. It was quite the experience. Just me, three other undergrads, our MFA-student instructor, and two hours twice a week of discussion, workshops, and pushing my limits. It made for some truly frazzled finals weeks.
At the end of the year I left with a far deeper understanding of and appreciation for writing, the knowledge that I did not in fact want to be a creative writer for a living, a mild-to-moderate sense of creative burnout, and—perhaps most important to my current occupation—much better-developed skills for saying what I wanted to say and for pushing my mind to continue creating when I felt like I was trying to draw water from a dry well.
Surprisingly useful skills for a scientist.
Over that year and the years since, as my writing output has become more focused on scientific papers, I developed some strategies and rituals. What it comes down to is, sometimes your brain is like a well-trained adult German Shepherd ready to focus on the task at hand, and sometimes your brain is like a little hyperactive Labrador puppy that’s as likely to pee on the floor from being so excited as it is to flop over with no warning and take a nap because it’s just done.
We should not yell at puppies for accidents or for napping (and really, THEY ARE SO CUTE if also aggravating), and we should not yell at ourselves if and when we struggle with writing. And sometimes even a grown-up German Shepherd needs a play break.
Just like there are ways to train your puppy, there are ways to train yourself to at least smooth the writing process along. Here are some things I have invented for myself, with an eye to the special weirdness of my own brain. Modify as you desire for your own weirdness. (Note that the only thing scientific about these ideas are that I tested them on myself and refined the ones that worked.)
1. Develop an “I’m writing now” situation that engages multiple senses.
The idea here is to build an association between the activity of writing and your ritual. A very strong association. Then, ideally, when the ritual starts, your brain gets into the writing “mode” much more efficiently.
For me, for whatever reason, the following seem to work:
- Sound: I usually associated about an album’s worth of songs with each story I worked on. Yes, I am one of those people that will happily listen to a handful of songs over and over and over again, at least for a short while. This builds up a strong connection between those songs and that story (or paper), and has the advantage that after awhile the music is so familiar it fades into the background, allowing your mind to focus on the words you’re making. I still get vivid memories of writing certain stories when I hear songs I used for them. Similarly, I strongly associate Goat Rodeo Sessions and the Imagine Dragons album with scientific productivity, because I’ve spent a lot of time listening to those albums while working.
- Touch: Easy. I write best when I am cozy. This usually involves wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up (also functions as blinders!) and/or wrapping a blanket around myself.
- Scent: I go the easy route and use a candle. It is my writing candle, and it smells like pleasantly cinnamon-y spicy things. You could use…I don’t know. Room spray, perfume, those cool little lavender satchet things, whatever.
- Taste: This one is less rigid. Basically it means I have a snack and/or tea while I write, because it keeps the resistant parts of my brain from being all “But we are HUNGRY and we want something to DRINK and this is BORING WE SHOULD STOP NOW.”
- Sight: Less important, because you’re staring at the damn computer screen (or notebook) most of the time. Perhaps we should interpret this more loosely as location. Writing always in the same place can certainly help trigger writing mode, although it’s important to remember that shifting locations can be important too.
2. Warm up with a free write.
I first learned about this from my high school English teacher when I took College Writing my senior year. It is not a new concept; see the Thesis Whisperer, most creative writing books, etc. The general idea is that you take a focusing idea (or not) and just…write. Type or longhand, doesn’t matter. Don’t think, don’t stop, even if you have to write “I am stuck on this and I hate writing and where am I going to go with this” over and over again. Just go.
I find it helps to start with a question and free write from there. What am I trying to say in this conclusion? Why should someone care about this paper? What do we know from this figure that we didn’t know before? Something like that.
It sounds silly, I know. It sounds like it will waste your time, because none of those sentences are likely to go into your paper. It sounds more like journaling than anything.
But seriously. It unlocks the writing brain; it gets words going from your mind to the paper or screen and that is often the hardest part about writing. It also subdues the editing, perfectionist tendencies. Even if you aren’t one of those people who can handle writing shitty first drafts (links to PDF) a la Anne Lamott and desires to craft high-quality sentences and organization as you go, you can benefit from settling down on the nitpicking early on.
I admit I don’t do this as often as I should. Usually it is a last resort when I am feeling stuck.
3. Draw pictures.
For organization, I like to draw visual representations of my argument. For creative writing, this can take all kinds of shapes–two stories I analyzed in detail had remarkably interesting structure, one with a sort of back-and-forth tidal pattern and the other a spiral that broke through the center at the end.
Less exciting usually for scientific papers. Generally I envision them taking the form of nested hourglasses, a concept I’m sure most of you are familiar with from high school essays.
You know the one. Start off broad, narrow in to your specific ideas, widen out again at the end. The trick is that it’s kind of a fractal hourglass: the paper as a whole should follow the pattern, but (more or less) so should each section within the paper, and each paragraph within the section. This is not a completely rigid concept, but as a ritual before writing a paper, I find it immensely useful to draw at least the hourglass for the paper itself. When sketching out the structure of a section, I’ll often locate topic sentences of paragraphs on the hourglass; the first sentence of the introduction is the widest part, the next is a little more focused, and so on.
For whatever reason, I find the writing process smoother when it involves actual drawings. It clarifies my thinking, and then the words come more easily.
4. If you’re stuck, put in a placeholder and keep going.
Yes, I used this in creative writing and I still use it when I am writing papers. If I’m trying to say something but the words aren’t coming, I’ll pause and think about it for a moment, maybe trying some different sentence constructions. After all, you want to put some thought into it and not just give up the second you meet mental resistance. But if no forward progress happens, try just putting in a placeholder. I use square brackets, [like so], to indicate unfinished thoughts so I can do a search for them before sending off drafts with accidental incomplete bits.
In the brackets you can put things like, [get that one Smith paper with the squiggly bits], [find way to politely disagree with Smith here], [squiggly things are only found in Oregon but I should double-check that], [potentially irrelevant point about extinct Californian squiggles], and so on.
5. Park facing downhill.
I believe this idea (or at least the specific metaphor) comes from Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, a book that I’ve skimmed enough to conclude it has some useful, kind advice in it and it is probably worth reading if you’re looking for writing advice. You’ll find this concept all over, though.
At the end of the day, do future-you a few favors. This is especially critical if you might not be coming back to it the very next day! Stop before you are completely exhausted and sick of the project. Roughly outline the next paragraph you will be working on rather than stopping at the end of a section. Picking up a half-finished paragraph is so much easier than beginning a completely new section.
Write a detailed note at the end of your document outlining what you have done and what you will start with next time. Did I mention how important this is if you’ll be setting the writing aside for awhile? “Today I tightened up my argument about why squiggles matter, but I haven’t yet managed to connect that with the importance of biogeographic distributions of all drawings in general and squiggles in particular. Next time, write the biogeography paragraphs and make sure to include that Jones reference about migratory squiggles, and maybe move some sentences from one of my earlier paragraphs to help tie the concepts together better.”
Clean up your writing area. Save everything. (You’ve been saving about every 15 minutes, right? Save early, save often. Ctrl+S isn’t that hard.) Maybe write something down about how excited you are about the insight you had today that squiggles might have persisted in glacial refugia.
You get the idea.
And that, my friends, is my writing advice for the day.