Struggling Through the Writing Process: Or, How I Embraced Poor Writing
It’s been some time since I’ve blogged. It’s been a busy, yet productive semester. And while I wish more time had been devoted to trips to the library and the archives, I’ve been doing quite a lot of writing. Grant proposals, conference abstracts, and writing samples have stolen away much of my work time.
One thing that really slowed me down was my ferocious struggle with writer’s block. Now, I could easily attribute this to fear. The fear that hundreds of other people would be submitting proposals to the various things for which I’m applying. But it’s far easier to say I simply struggled with an inability to articulate the ways in which my dissertation has evolved and my need to write everything perfectly right from the first draft. There were many a day I’d sit glaring at my computer writing and rewriting the very first sentence of a draft. After some time, I realized this wasn’t going to be a good long term strategy for productive writing. I was letting writer’s block win. What should be easy turned out to be extremely difficult. One page conference abstracts seemed like 20-page treatises looming on my to-do list.
Then I was fortunate enough to come across Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In Lamott’s book is a chapter entitled “Shitty First Drafts.” The chapter essentially argues that sometimes it isn’t a bad thing to write a poor first draft. Sometimes it’s more important getting the words onto the page. Perfectionism is more often a hindrance than it is a strength when trying to write out new ideas for the first time.
Reading this liberated me. So I decided to embrace its core ideas. I sat down and just started writing. Most of what I wrote was absolutely awful. But sometimes I’d find a perfect little nugget that made its way into the final version. Sure, it means I have a lot of revising ahead of me. But I learned that I need to write a bad first draft in order to know how I don’t want to say something before I can figure out how I do want to say it. And as one of my professors always says, “the only good writing is good rewriting.”
Sometimes you can’t always sit around and wait for the perfect wording to come to you. I think everyone in academia tends to be a perfectionist in one way or another. That is probably even more true for a grad student writing a dissertation. But anguishing over every word and phrase exacerbates writer’s block. I found that if I was too afraid to write something poorly, it was far too easy to fall into the tailspin of writer’s block and procrastination. It’s one thing when you are cranking out a historiography to get it done for a class. There’s a forced deadline there that motivates you to write. But when you have no set schedule and you are writing for a long term goal? That’s a different challenge. Getting over my writer’s block and fear of bad firsts drafts was an important step in the dissertation process. I can’t guarantee I won’t face this problem again. But by embracing the “shitty first draft,” I’m able to be a more productive writer. And I have a feeling that will come in handy when I start writing more frequently. Because, after all, the best dissertation is a finished dissertation.