Writing Tip #4

Tip: When you’re stuck, step away from the computer and change your location.

Today was my first day back to work after turning in my article on Saturday. I expected it to be a slow day, but I knew if I didn’t get anything done I’d start the week demoralized. And it could so easily go downhill from there. So when I hadn’t done a thing by noon, I printed out a couple of working drafts, closed my computer, and headed to the coffee shop. I ended up with only 40 minutes to work. And work I did. I got through the first and most difficult section of turning my article back into a dissertation chapter. In only 40 minutes.

Stepping away from the computer means I won’t get sucked into the internet, and I can see my work from a different perspective. Similarly, changing location helps me feel fresh as I approach the same old paragraphs. I had a friend who would stay at home all day studying, but would change locations every hour or so. He was convinced that it kept him focused and engaged. And psychological studies bear this out (see here, for a report). Though people usually apply the “varying locations” advice to studying for tests, I find a new location can also help in analysis tasks.

When I follow this advice (which is probably not often enough), I typically end up at my favorite coffee shop downtown. Where do you go when you need a fresh location?



Checkpoint: Article submitted

As part of my writing account, I can now count my second book article as COMPLETED! I submitted my revised article to the editor this evening. I may have to make a couple of style changes, if the editor requests. Or, this may be the last I see of the article until it’s published sometime in 2013.

To celebrate, first I’m going to sleep a lot. Then, I’ll take a few hours out of my work week to clean up my office and the other parts of the house that now have books piled in them. And maybe some foofy coffee on Monday morning.

Here’s a little snapshot of my writing account:

  • Article #1: completed
  • Article #2: completed
  • Intro: completed
  • Chapter 1: completed, but needs minor revisions
  • Chapter 2: drafted, needs completion to send to writing partner
  • Chapter 3: drafted, needs a few revisions to send to advisor
  • Chapter 4: bad abstract done, started reading
  • Conclusion: nothing yet


How had I never heard of This Year’s Work in English Studies, published by Oxford Journals? It is what the title says. Over the weekend I skimmed the 2012 section on “The Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama from 1550”–about 15 pages of brief reviews on the monographs and major articles on the period that were published in 2010, and I found a few articles relevant to my dissertation that I had missed. I’m planning to skim back through issues from the last 10 or 12 years to make sure I haven’t missed anything else. I wish I had known about the source and consulted it early in my project to get a better sense of the critical conversation surrounding my authors. But alas! Better late than never, right?

Planning the Writing Retreat, Take 2

I’ve been working on a couple chapters to prepare for my writing retreat. As I work, I keeping coming across all this research that will be helpful to have on the trip. If I try to take everything on the list in my head, I’ll need a bigger car to transport it all.

Luckily (I think), the cabin I’m staying in is a 5 minute walk from the parking lot, a walk that involves crossing a creek. I’ll have help getting materials to the cabin, but it’s likely I’ll need to trek all my stuff out on Sunday by myself. So I’m limited to what I can carry. I say “luckily” because I can easily imagine myself diving into a bunch of research and spending the whole time reading rather than writing. As we’ve discussed at Dame Eleanor’s, research and reading is a necessary part of writing, but this weekend, I’d like to get through some of the tough writing tasks needed for my chapter revisions.

I haven’t quite decided yet, but I may limit myself to two or three books and whatever pdfs I have on my computer (being able to search documents and having to read from the screen save me from getting sucked in to reading whole articles). Still, I’m tempted by some book chapters and books that I’ll need to use at some point.

While I’m thinking, I’ve got to get packed–clothes, food, and a flashlight and whistle to warn away the mountain lions.*

What would you take? What kind of balance would you strike between writing writing, and the research part of writing?


*I did get an official letter of warning from the farm where I’m staying: “Our purpose is to inform you, not to frighten you. Having appropriate information is important. That being said, we are hopeful that you will keep your reservation here at Working Farm.” Comforting, no?

Writing Trick #3

what I wrote about what I need to do on Ch. 2.

This trick works when I’ve got a full draft that I need to fix, but one that doesn’t need major revisions for argument. I do a full read-through of the chapter/article, and as I go, I do minor editing and make notes of all the things that need fixing. Nothing tricky there. But as I’m making notes, I flip over the draft and write the page number and task on the back of the last page. Ta da! I’ve got my new task list. Some tasks are wonderfully easy (say, “add citation page #,” or “eliminate repetition”). Some are not so bad but take a little thought (like, “add 1 sentence to connect to thesis”). Some are for when I’ve got a chunk of time and am feeling energetic (“add a paragraph on ekphrasis,” or “finish conclusion para.”). Sometimes I type up the list and clip it to the back of the draft; sometimes I just use the handwritten version. On occasion, it ends up on my whiteboard.

I love having a finite list of tasks that I can pick and choose from, all of which move my writing forward. If I’m needing momentum, I can start with some easy tasks and cross of a bunch in one sitting. If I have some energy and time, I can dive into the bigger tasks. Somehow it makes the next steps of the project seem more manageable.

Do you have a similar step in your writing process?

Planning the Writing Retreat

I leave Friday for a 48 hour writing retreat. Because  I won’t have internet access nor a printer nor a car, I need to plan ahead.

A few weeks ago I drafted goals:

Big goals: write the end of Ch. 3; write the end of Ch. 2; write an intro and outline of Ch. 4; draft a conclusion; read parts of one or two books for Ch. 4.

As I get closer to my leave date, I’ve modified my goals based on what progress I’ve made:

Modified goals: Ch. 3: draft the conclusion, revise intro, add signposting throughout; Ch. 2: revise conclusion, revise intro, add signposting throughout, accomplish a few little tasks from task list; Ch. 4: write and revise an abstract; Conclusion: draft a really bad draft; (optional) read parts of one or two books for Ch. 4.

My goals have gotten more specific, and I’ve slimmed down what I’m expecting to do with Ch. 4. But perhaps a better way to think of it is:

Chs 2 and 3: revise for argument; Ch. 4: write abstract; Conclusion: write zero draft; read if possible.

Last night I attempted to make up a schedule of events:

  • Friday arr. 4pm
  • 4-4:30 write 750 words
  • 4:30-5 draft Ch. 4 abstract
  • 5-5:30 start conclusion draft
  • 5:30-6 take a walk/snack
  • 6-7 work on Ch. 3 conclusion
  • 7-8 work on Ch. 2 dumb tasks?
  • 8-8:30 work on Ch. 2 conclusions (at least freewrite about them)
  • Saturday
  • S: 8am–write 750 words/eat
  • note: Ch. 2 tasks or Ch.2 conclusion can be traded for Article2 tasks
  • note: if 2/3 of the time has been used on assigned task, the rest can be used to read
  • 8:30-9:30 work on Ch. 2 tasks
  • 9:30-10 work on Ch. 2 conclusion
  • 10-10:30 walk/break/snack
  • 10:30-11 work on Ch.2 conclusion
  • 11-12 work on Ch.2 tasks or conclusion
  • 12-1 lunch/walk/break
  • 1-2 work on Ch.3 tasks
  • 2-3 work on Ch.3 conclusion
  • 3-3:30 break/walk
  • 3:30-4:30 work on figures/dumb stuff
  • 4:30-5 work on Ch.4 abstract
  • 5-6 work on Conclusion draft
  • 6-7 dinner/break/walk/read
  • 7-8 work on Ch. 2 or 3  writing chunk
  • 8-9 work on Ch. 2 or 3 writing chunk
  • 9–beer and movie time!
  • Sunday
  • 8:00-8:30 get ready for the day, eat, pack up some.
  • 8:30-9 write 750 words
  • 9-10 work on Ch 2 or 3 tasks
  • 10-10:30 break/walk
  • 10:30-11:00 work on Ch. 2 or 3 tasks
  • 11-11:40 write a “state of the diss” document, assess what’s left to do.
  • 11:40 pack up and hike out.

Because I haven’t done a writing retreat before, I’m not sure if having such a specific schedule is the right move, or if I should have more general assignments (e.g., Saturday morning: Ch. 2 work; Saturday afternoon: Ch. 3 work). I may find out that it’s hard to shift gears from one chapter to the other, and thus I should stay with a particular chapter for a longer period of time. With the specific schedule, I’ve tried to put in regular breaks and vary my writing tasks. I’ve also tried to vary little tasks, like modifying footnotes or finishing sentences, with more intense writing.

The other unknown for the weekend is that I may have my article draft back from EF, so I may need to spend some time reading and revising in order to get the document back to EF early next week.

I plan to keep fiddling around with the plan as the week goes by. I’ll report in my final plan, and again after I return.

Any suggestions?

Keeping sane–a few writing tricks

In my last post, I mentioned my notetaking system for printed articles:

I make notes on the front page of the article with the relevant page number and a brief description of what I’ll find there. It makes it easy to skim back through an article to find the quotation I want, or to get a general sense of the argument.

In the spirit of sharing, here are a couple more tricks I’ve come across in this very long dissertation writing process.


In my last post, I forgot mention that I also highlight the thesis statement of the article, for easy reference.

I keep an annotated bibliography for each chapter of my dissertation, plus one for theory and one for the general topic. If the article is relevant for more than one chapter, I copy the entry to all the appropriate bibliographies. For each entry, I write a brief summary, sometimes quoting the thesis statement directly, and I add, in brackets, a quick assessment (good, bad, useful) and ways the article might be relevant. Here’s a sample:

Craig, Martha. “Negotiating Sex: The Poetics of Feminization in Sidney’s Arcadia.” Explorations in Renaissance Culture 31.1 (2005): 89-106.

Craig argues that Pyrocles’s cross-dressing sets the stage for an exchange of gender among the major players such that it celebrates femininity. Pyrocles takes on not only female dress, but female authority, and he gains something from it. Pamela takes on a masculinization (esp. when she’s imprisoned by Cecropia). She argues that the good characteristics of the king and queen would be better if used to rule together rather than the strict hierarchy that is reaffirmed at the end. Sidney “embraced this feminization so that his politics and poetics were a celebration, not a lament” (104). [Some good quotes on Gynecia and Cecropia that are mostly incidental to the argument.]

The benefits here are numerous: 1) I’ve got easy access to all the arguments I’ve read that might be relevant to my chapter, and I can refer to the list when I’m stuck; 2) the practice keeps me able to read quickly and assess an article; 3) I can cut and paste the citation into the footnotes; and 4) I’ve got an account of the ridiculous number of books and articles I’ve read for this project.


I print out a lot of drafts. Early in my writing, I often couldn’t find the most recent one. No longer! I save a new draft every few days, or at major deadlines, and I save it as [ChTitle]Draft[Date] (e.g., ArcDraft10-06-12). Additionally, I add a header to the document with the same information. To figure out if I’ve got the latest draft, I can look in my WorkingDocs folder, and check the date on the draft. This is especially crucial for me at this point because I’m working on a chapter draft and an article version of that chapter at the same time.

I’ll post more tricks and habits as I use them. But what about you? What tricks to you use to keep your information and paper organized?

On writing to a deadline

It’s amazing how many things it’s possible to let slip when one is working to a deadline. With a deadline Friday night, so far this week I’ve skipped:

  • making dinner
  • making breakfast
  • putting away laundry
  • reading a book group book (The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer; so far, two thumbs up)
  • getting my daughter to school on time (we actually missed the carpool one day)
  • sleeping
  • exercising
  • answering email
  • reading research texts fully
  • finding a book valuable if it doesn’t have an index

I’m finding that in the last couple days, I’ve moved into the hard-focus stage. Finally, tonight, my argument came together, and I know how the chapter fits into the dissertation as a whole. (Yay!)

I’m also finding that my notetaking system works pretty well. I make notes on the front page of the article with the relevant page number and a brief description of what I’ll find there. It makes it easy to skim back through an article to find the quotation I want, or to get a general sense of the argument.

I like this part of writing, when everything comes together, when I’m writing well and working well with research.


Drafting Week! Take 2.

Last week was officially Drafting Week! (TM) Of course, drafting is going more slowly that I would wish, even though I’m really re-drafting–taking old evidence from the four other drafts of this chapter and fitting it into a new argument. At the same time, though, I’m taking time to fill in blanks, finalize citations, and clean up the prose. I’m trying not to get sucked into making the first three pages perfect and barely finishing the conclusion, but I do find a certain momentum from working on a bit of clean-up before I move on to new paragraphs.

My big motivation this week is that I’m working with a freelance editor I’ve hired to turn this chapter into the article I’ve promised Very Patient Book Editor. (This freelance editor is also a friend, and a PhD in a related field.) The plan is that she’ll edit down the chapter, make sure I’ve answered all the editor’s comments, and format the article according to a very complicated (to my US mind) Belgian style sheet. So that means I must give her something to edit. And early enough that she has time to edit it. She’s asked for my completed chapter by Saturday.

Currently, I have 5,000 words, not including footnotes. My word limit for the article is 10,000, with footnotes. I think I’m done with a little over a third of my material. I’ve got my work cut out for me, and she’s going to get to work some editorial magic.

At this point, Editor Friend is the only thing keeping me sane. With one chapter at revision stage, one chapter in drafting, and one chapter left to write, I’ll be lucky (and hard working and disciplined) to get the dissertation done by my December goal. Add an article with a radically different style sheet to the mix, and I think I’d fall apart. I’d gladly give up coffee, buying books, and maybe even some furniture to pay EF. I’d probably even eat only ramen for a few months.

So here’s to EF and her editorial magic!