For about two and a half years, writing my dissertation was an agonizingly slow process. In that whole time, I only managed to write a single chapter. But this semester, I’ve written two chapters in just a couple of months. This change is due in part to desperation: I have to graduate in May, so I have little choice but to get this thing done. But if I’d been in this position a year ago, I likely would have had to drop out. Desperation only works when you’re equipped to use it properly.
I’ve received no shortage of writing advice over the past few years. Create a schedule and stick to it. Set process-oriented goals instead of product-oriented ones, such as writing for a certain amount of time rather than producing a certain number of words. Write for four hours a day (or two or six or eight, depending on who you ask). Don’t be a perfectionist. Take time off occasionally. Just sit down and start writing. Butt in chair. Write.
But for nearly three years, none of this advice really worked. Occasionally it helped, but the benefits were always fleeting. I’d work happily for a week or two with my small and reasonable process-oriented goals that were tailored to my most productive times of day. But then I would suddenly fail to meet those goals, and get too discouraged to get much done. I’d create a schedule that seemed like it should work for me, but it would quickly fall apart. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t follow the seemingly simple steps to dissertation success. I was pretty sure I just didn’t have the dedication to do it. What other reason could there be?
What I failed to recognize was that I needed to alter these steps and my approach to them to make them fit my personality, my tendencies, and my circumstances. I thought I was tailoring them to my needs, but in fact I hadn’t even figured out what my needs were. Without realizing it, I had been trying to squeeze a circular peg into a square hole–to follow what I thought should work for me rather than what actually did work for me. Unsurprisingly, all this accomplished was to make me miserable and unproductive. There were steps I needed to take–things I needed to learn–before I could implement the advice I’d been given, and to implement it effectively.
Here’s what I had to do:
I learned to prioritize enjoying the writing process.
Or at least, not hating it. My therapist suggested that I needed to make writing more enjoyable for myself, and to prioritize that above all else–above all the instructions I thought I was supposed to follow. It took a while for me to believe that this made any kind of sense, since I had become pretty deeply convinced that my failure to adhere to the dissertation advice I’d received meant there was something wrong with me. But once I started to value enjoyment above any of those expectations I had of myself, I was surprised at how productive I could be.
On days when I just couldn’t focus, I’d take a break for an hour or two, or I just wouldn’t work on my dissertation at all. I set a highly flexible schedule for myself: I knew what times were generally best for productivity, but I forgave myself when I (very frequently) got little or nothing done during those times, or just gave up on it altogether for days on end. I worked in groups as often as I could, to make the process more fun and less isolating. Most other times I worked in my home office, which has tons of natural light. I bought a good monitor and chair to help with my back pain. But when pain got distracting and unpleasant anyway, I took a break to stretch for a while, go for a walk, or just do any activity that involved standing for a little while. At the beginning, sometimes I’d only work a couple of days a week, because that’s all I could do while staying reasonably happy. Some weeks I knit more than I wrote. But as time went on, I was able to write more and more often without making myself miserable–and sometimes, I even enjoyed it.
This blog post (which I wish I’d seen years ago!) describes a similar approach, which I really like. It posits that we “knowledge workers” could focus a little less on the industrial age perceptions of work and productivity, because productivity isn’t just about getting work done.
I learned that others struggle with writing too.
As I mentioned above, I had become convinced that my inability to be productive was due to my own personal failings. I thought that I–not my process–was the problem. But then, once again on the advice of my therapist, I tried to make writing more social–to make it a group thing rather than just a me thing. I started working in groups more often and, perhaps more importantly, I started talking about writing more often. Both with strangers on Twitter and with friends in real life, I started to admit publicly that writing was hard for me. And, to my surprise, I found out that almost everyone else had similar troubles.
The straw man PhD student I’d built in my head who had no difficulty writing for a few hours every day turned out to be entirely imaginary. All I had to do to prove this straw man wrong was to talk about my writing openly and honestly. After practicing this regularly for a few months, I finally started to believe that I was not the problem after all. I had been going about writing all wrong, but that didn’t mean I was inherently incapable of doing it right. Ironically, recognizing–and believing–that it was ok to suck at productivity made me a lot more productive. Having trouble getting work done used to frustrate me so much that, after one little setback, I’d accomplish nothing for days. Now, I forgive myself, take a break, and move on. If others struggle with writing, then why shouldn’t I?
I learned that “ugly” writing is an essential step that I can’t skip.
My perfectionism is so deeply ingrained that telling me to just stop being that way doesn’t work. I have no capacity to understand what it means, or how to change it; you may as well tell a cat to stop meowing. It’s just the way I am. I thought I wasn’t being too picky about the quality of my work; it just seemed more efficient to edit as I went, so I wouldn’t have to clean it all up later. I’d never written any other way, and I didn’t know how to write any other way. But recently, I found out that many writers believe that writing requires two distinct steps. The first is to write a rough draft–not a decent draft that needs a bit of cleaning up, but a spectacularly bad draft with little structure and nonsensical paragraphs. The second step–entirely separate from the first–is to clean it up.
I found this blog post by Alan Klima enormously helpful because it describes these two phases in a way that makes a lot of sense to a perfectionist: it posits that the first draft is not for the eyes of others, and it should be written accordingly. During this stage, you’re not supposed to write words that the reader will eventually read, because it’s too early for that. Klima suggests that this stage is absolutely crucial, because it prepares you to write what the reader will read. In other words, horrifically bad writing isn’t inefficient–it’s a critical part of the process, and it’s meant for no one but me.
To describe this first fantastically awful draft, I’ve adopted a term that I’ve seen academics on Twitter use (particularly in the #WritePeasant writing group): the “ugly draft.” I’ve started using Scrivener to write my ugly drafts, in part to remind myself that this writing is not for others–it’s a step I’m taking to get to decent writing. While I’m using Scrivener, it’s not only okay to ignore reasonable paragraph structure and write sentences that don’t make sense: it’s essential. Once I move the draft over to Word, it’s time to pretty it up–to write words that readers will read. I can hardly believe how much faster I write now that I’ve learned to make this distinction in a way that makes sense to me. If I have the time and I’m in the right mood, I can pump out 2,000 words in an eight-hour day. They’re ugly words, but that’s exactly how it should be.
Now that I’ve taken all these steps, I am able to identify what advice works for me and what doesn’t–and that nothing is going to work for me every single day. I know that I need to think carefully about what goals will be best for me on any given day, week or month–and whether goals are even a good idea at all at that moment. Some days I start writing exactly when I’d planned to and can focus for hours on writing hundreds of words. Some days that just doesn’t happen. Sometimes I get overly concerned about the quality of my work, but I’ve found ways to counteract that enough that I can usually get something done. In other words, I’m hardly the ideal productive writer, but I’ve found a flexible process that suits my ever-changing needs and my own weird perspectives.
The above three steps have been enormously helpful for me, but I can’t imagine they’d work for everyone. We all have different needs as writers and learners. And I know not everyone has the time to slow down and barely work for a month or two while rebuilding your entire approach to productivity. I was lucky to have that luxury. But I’ve shared my experience in hopes that it shows how important it is to identify our individual needs as writers, rather than trying to squeeze circular pegs into square holes. Don’t try to change yourself to fit your process; change your process to fit you.