How do you write?

In the last few days, I’ve talked with a couple colleagues who have very different approaches to writing, from me and from each other. One always seems to have reams of material on hand, which he shapes into books and articles. Another seems unable to produce much other than in marathon sessions where he winds up generating a super-abundance of material that then needs to be vastly cut down to fit within the bounds of the project he’s working on.

My technique is much more systematic and goal-oriented than either. I rarely produce academic writing purely “on spec,” without knowing what project it’s contributing toward. Even with the devil book, which is strangely the first book I’ve written without having a contract in hand (or the need to produce a dissertation), I’ve had a specific publisher in mind the whole time and have been in dialogue with the editor. I’m also much more regimented in my approach — I typically have an overall outline in mind and try to write one section of a chapter each day while I’m writing, in such a way as to set up the next section. This usually results in me writing just the right amount, with very little unused material left over.

I developed my approach under the emergency conditions of trying to write Zizek and Theology between my coursework and qualifying exams. I spent a couple days “writing all day” — i.e., dicking around most of the time and feeling guilty I wasn’t writing — and realized that was not going to work. I stumbled onto the approach of more focused sessions of two or three hours, devoted to one specific step in my argument. I also found that to make the process sustainable day-to-day, I sometimes had to force myself to wait until the next day to write the next section, because when I did too much one day, I normally paid for it with a totally lost day soon after.

I’ve been operating under those emergency measures ever since, and it’s worked pretty well. My method has proven adaptable to talks and articles, and it got me through a dissertation, a trilogy of shorter books, and it’s now serving me well for the devil book so far.

I have nagging doubts, though. I wonder if my thinking is becoming too regimented along with my writing technique. I wonder if I would benefit from a more open-ended approach, or even from the occasional marathon session — arguably the best chapter of Politics of Redemption, the Anselm chapter, came out of an uncharacteristic marathon session. My approach has allowed me to do a lot, but are there things it’s keeping me from doing? Maybe once I finish up the devil I can let myself explore a little more.

But what about you, readers? How do you structure your writing time? How did you arrive at your chosen method? Have you experimented with various approaches?

3 Responses to “How do you write?”

  1. Dan Waterfield Says:

    I write in the afternoon, from about 12 to 5 ish with a target of 1k to 1.2k words. If I read that before, then i stop, if I don’t, then I try again in the evening if I think it’s going to be good / if I haven’t even managed 500 words. When i’m drafting I’ll stick on Tallis’ Spem in Alium + Allegri’s miserere as a prompt for my body, an ‘okay, now we’re writing’ sort of thing. Though the music only came about relatively recently, and only after I’d listened to it almost to death. I can’t listen to music while editing, only drafting.

    I’ve found word counts + repetition of writing x amount of words every day much more profitable for my productivity than timing, especially when it comes to writing with chronic illness on the table.

  2. Matt Frost Says:

    On days when it works, I get up in the morning, move the computer to the dining room table once my wife is off to work, open a given word processor file and its associated scratch text files, and write (with appropriate research checking moments interspersed) until 12 or 1. Two of those five hours will usually be wasted, sporadically, often in conversations, but writing will actually get done, and by the end I will be out of the ability to focus. Then, I get up and do the dishes, and ideas hit me, and I revise for up to an hour and a half, and then it’s time to make dinner. (Lunch is something I have lost the knack of, if nobody is home. Snacks I get. Some form of fuel goes in. But “lunch” is a thing that only happens with people.) I’d say this works about every other day; if I have multiple projects that are disparate enough it can work for weeks at a stretch by flipping between things day by day. But I pay for that eventually, with solid blocks of downtime. Off days are good, because housework gets done and the mind flies around merrily without having to pull the cart.

  3. Gómez Plata Says:

    I put myself a goal, 500-1000 words usually (not in English by the way). Then I get everyone off my back and put my headphones and write and read my notes (and write more notes) at the same time, I usually read and write almost at the same time which makes me worry about my style and originality. I usually drink a lot of water and listen to music (that I don’t know the lyrics of or is very rhythmical).


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