Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Shouting at myself

Please pardon the wonky formatting. I tried to erase all the formatting from Word and redo, but Blogger wouldn't hold onto the changes. Twice. I have no idea what it will look like now.

I’m headed to a professional conference in a few weeks to give a paper.
(And in all truthfulness, I wouldn’t be going to the expense of the travel if my abstract had not been accepted.) That it is now March has reminded me that I should, you know, actually write the damn thing already, get it to the supervisor for comments, revise, revise, revise, and so on. I only write this now since I have already put in 90 minutes today and am at the halfway point now. (Handy paper formula: almost 2 minutes to read a page of double-spaced text, 8 pages for a 15-minute talk is just about perfect.)

As I alternately typed like a madwoman and then sat staring blankly at the screen, I thought about how different my academic writing process is in comparison to what I do here.
Not that every post I write comes out in a steady stream from start to end and there’s still plenty of blank stares, but this is almost always a fairly linear process with a few touchups at the end. A few cuts away to grab whatever links or pictures I need, but it’s mostly me and a single screen.

While working on my conference paper, however, it is not possible to focus on a single screen.
Before opening this new document, I already had three instances of Word open.

One contains my abstract so that I can go back to it as a touchstone from time to time. Are my thoughts leading me off-track? Does this take me to the point I promised I would make?

Next to it is my “Running thoughts” file. It’s currently at 11 pages, though is not at all solid text. Bolded headlines break it up into smaller sections. Some are informational, such as the chart of all occurrences of a specific word throughout my main text; others contain a paragraph or two on a sudden thought that will probably make their way into the paper in some form or another. A further group is those paragraphs I cut from the conference paper as veering off-topic; I am a collector of words, and it usually takes a while before I feel certain that those paragraphs will not be needed somewhere else. Finally, there are the two-sentence sections, dashed off thoughts and observations that have nothing to do with my immediate work, but which may play a role in my dissertation (and let’s face it, there is absolutely no way I’ll remember them later today, let alone months from now, if I don’t get them down into writing).

The final instance of Word is, of course, the paper itself. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Usually I would have Firefox open too, ready to perform various searches: bibliography, library, dictionary, Wikipedia. I also have a number of academic resources bookmarked, including a number of scholarly works that are available in Google Books. (Plus, what if a friend has a very important update in Facebook or Levenger needs to let me know about a sale.) The only reason I’m not on the internet right now is that Trillian and I are at Starbucks and her need for the internet while working is more pressing than mine. (Though maybe I should put ‘working’ in quotes since she just showed me the Cake Wrecks for today.) (Second side note: and since I wasn’t online, I put this aside and didn’t get to post it until much later.)

I do have iTunes open right now. The music being played on the sound system here is not bad, but I find that having the physical barrier of headphones helps me block out ambient conversation. Familiar music also helps me concentrate since it requires less attention for me to figure it out.

Moving away from my computer, there are always stacks of books. Fewer when I’m working away from home, since I didn’t want to cart around six different books, most of which might receive one glance, if that, during a work session. So the two volumes that make up my author’s text sit on the windowsill next to me right now. At one point, both were open, with various fingers and pieces of paper marking passages I needed to reference.

And then there’s coffee. There’s almost always coffee. A snack is nice too, but not during the most productive flurries of typing.

But back to the file that is the actual paper, the kernel of the whole process.

For a shorter paper like this, and especially one I will be delivering orally, I have to start at the beginning, get the introduction set so that it provides me with the momentum and structure I need to properly approach the body of the work. It never starts out well; I always begin by supplying way to much general information and philosophizing. But that stutter moves into a basic outline which helps me see if I’m moving in the right direction. Then I can go back and cut what I’ve already written like crazy, distilling it to the most important points that will propel me forward. It should tell you something about the process that in the two weeks before today, I had written two pages that contain broad introduction and then a more specific introduction that had just moved into some of the details pertaining to my topic. I was able to tighten that up and then move into the actual body of my paper, churning out another two pages in under two hours. Parts of that came from my “Running Thoughts.” Which makes sense, since the point in keeping a file like that for me is to have a number of thoughts written up and ready to slot in where needed.

Now before I wrote first drafts on a computer, I would fill my margins with notes—facts to look up, other directions I might explore, questions to raise. In the main text, I would leave blanks when I couldn’t come up with a word or squiggles under phrasing that dissatisfied me. Early drafts were filled with these once I understood my personal approach to writing. If I don’t have a system for glossing over minor quibbles until I start refining, I will spend forever obsessing on a single word.

Composing on a computer, however, doesn’t really allow for these little notes, at least not in the same format as before, so I’ve had to develop a new system. I used to employ highlighting in various colors, but it takes extra mouse movements and, when I have tried to color code, can get confusing.

So I’ve taken to shouting at myself.

Sprinkled throughout my draft are parenthetical notes, typed out with CAPS LOCK: ON. Notes to remind myself to check exact quotes and citations, items to consider for future revisions, phrases that just don’t sound quite right, summaries to skim over one section so I can get on to what’s in my head. As long as I’m typing more than one word in this style, I am guaranteed to see it on my next read-through.

This approach has also taught me when it’s time to take a break. As I reach my limit of productivity, the ratio of writing intended to stay in the paper to my loud notes shifts dramatically. Once there’s more of the latter than the former, it’s time to look away for a bit, until I ready to address the shouts calmly.

Which is the perfect time to write a blog post. Or check out Cake Wrecks.

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