I’m having a lot of trouble writing lately, not because I can’t think of anything to write, but because I have this vague feeling that I am unable, mentally, to string words together into grammatically correct sentences. I know that isn’t likely true, but the feeling is persistent. I have about six writing projects to complete in the next three to four weeks: one or two are short, being in the 50 to 250 word range. Three others are longer: from 1,000 to 7,000 words. The shorter pieces are vaguely academic. The longer texts must be pure scholarly extractions, clean and pure, free of dross and impurities. Those pieces must leave my hands as representatives of my best possible self.
Of those projects, the one that gives me the most grief (what’s called in Oxford), the transfer of status project. It’s a two-piece project. The longer of the two is a glorified writing sample between 3-5,000 words. The second part is a muscular thesis proposal of about 1,000 words. Both are due together, along with some paperwork, at the History faculty offices on the eight, and final week of Hilary term, or 8 March. Because I’m determined to stay on my supervisor’s good side for the majority of the next three years, I want to have good drafts of the essay and abstract on his desk well in advance of that deadline: Friday of sixth week would qualify as well in advance, by my standards.
In simple numbers that’s a minimum of 6,000 words, nicely written, referenced, and formatted, in about seven days. Experience assures me that this is well within my abilities. Friday morning has shaken that confidence.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I know that it’s the product of specious thinking and a quick re-read through Silvia will give one all the counter arguments one needs to defeat each and every reason for not writing.1 My problem today, however, is impervious to reasoned counter-argument. My writing habits are idiosyncratic by most standards. I have learned that some habits are arbitrary and can be discarded. Other habits are essential and function as compensation for my inherent, and permanent, weaknesses. A habit that was once suspected as frivolous appears to be load bearing.
I used to print out copies of working drafts on a regular basis. I would read them over, mark them up with a pen, and then get back on the computer and clean up the text. After a while I realized that I was missing a step in this process. After marking up the hard-copy, I rarely followed the edits on the page when I started editing on the document on the computer. I usually—eventually—made the same changes I suggested on paper, but I would also make more radical changes or I would cut out text or re-arrange things in ways I had not previously considered. Depending on the length or complexity of a piece, I might print out five or six drafts like that.
When I came to Oxford this was no-longer possible. I did not get a printer until very late in the first term and I have been reluctant to print anything not absolutely necessary. Better to ration ink and paper. Printing these disposable drafts was a habit that was quickly discarded.
I have been struggling with this transfer project more than I expected, not because I don’t know what I’m doing, but because I haven’t been very happy with what has gotten down on the screen. As a change of pace, I printed off what I had so-far, which was about 800 words of solid introduction and 2,000 words of rough-draft.
It was terrible.
This was particularly troubling because I know this topic really well and that’s usually an advantage for any writer. After some careful thought, and some reflection on how I had produced that text, I came to accept that my knowledge of the topic was the source of the problem. That may sound like a disingenuous bit of humility but here is how it works in practice:
The first paragraph, of what was supposed to be a general statement of the subject area and a short segue into the thesis problem, all of 400 words, had six footnotes and three quotes. Yes, it was learned and steeped in research but it was the prose equivalent of a re-animated corpse, stitched together from long dead academics. It worked, but it was hideous, and given the opportunity, would toss small children into fishponds and in a tragic climax, kill its deluded creator for having given it life on the page.
I am all too easily distracted by what others have written about my area, particularly when they have written it so much better than me. I feel compelled to wedge their words in-between mine and while that can work in places, like historiography or when summarizing debates, you can’t write a complete paper that way. When writing about honour and ideas of worship-fulness I would much rather drop some great chunk of D. G. Shaw onto the page and tell the reader “here, this guy says it better than me.” Richard Kaeuper has said all that is worth saying about prowess as a moral virtue, so why don’t I just quote him instead of summarizing him. Why would I try and speak for Keith Thomas when he does so well on his own?2
History is, at its core, a process of building 10% of new content into a structure made with parts previously on the market. History is built on footnotes (and they will have to put out my eyes, before I will give up superscript numbers. Parenthetical citations are the hobby of madmen and sociopaths and I will have none of it).3 That does make writing problematic, especially in the early drafts.
My solution, which is perhaps inelegant and more than a little discomforting for me, is to try my best to produce first drafts, essentially complete drafts, with all the beginnings, middles, and ends, extempore. This is possible with this topic because I know it fairly well, start to finish, and I have done enough pre-planning that I have a little map of sorts to guide me from point A, via B-E, to F. Writing this way changes the focus from the sources to the prose and while I still have to drop in the occasional place-holder that reminds me “here be references,” the prose fits together much more cleanly. Inserting the details, notes, quotations, and the necessary impedimenta of the academic paper, is much easier with the text already in place, than building around the sources as I go.
This, at least, is my plan. It has worked before. I just forgot why I did it that way in the first place.
This is also why I’m glad I have that printer.
1 Let us all render thanks and obsequies to Paul J. Silvia, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, (American Psychological Association: Washington, 2007).
2 These are amongst my favourite writers and sources and will, naturally, have special place in my project. David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England, (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2005), Richard W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, (Oxford University Press: New York, 1999), Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2010).
3 History as footnotes is someone’s line, not mine but I am drawing a total blank on who said that. Any suggestions would be appreciated.