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!

Help me choose my own writing adventure

So far my Drafting Week! has been off to a dismal start. I did manage to get myself to the pool this morning with the “Suck Less” exercise policy (I promised myself I could get out after 5 minutes if I wanted to). I swam harder than I intended for 45 min., and now I feel a bit waterlogged. And after a weekend of late nights out, lots of great conversation, a few margaritas, and an afternoon of watching children’s soccer games, I want another weekend for recovery. Or at least a nap.

My brain is foggy, so reading through the chapter draft I didn’t get to this weekend or starting to re-draft my current chapter feels impossible. At the coffee shop today, I tried to start in on the chapter revision and gave up after a paragraph. I did, however, decide on some productive procrastination. (I read two helpful articles and wrote annotations for them, and had a delicious prosciutto, provolone, and fig jam panini on sourdough.)

But now what? To keep up the pace, I need to get through reading the chapter tonight.

So do I:

a) sneak in a nap before the afternoon kid activities start,
b) stick to reading for the day,
c) try to get just the right amount of caffeine in my system so I can be focused and productive,*
d) go to bed early tonight at all costs
e) some combination of the above
f) other

Help me save Drafting Week! from fatigue and bad planning. Recommendations?

* I’ve been off caffeine for twenty some-odd years, and if I do have a full cup off coffee, I get very jittery. Getting the right amount is a tricky prospect.

A sudden drop into Overwhelmed

I started out today with some reading, a little writing, some notetaking. Everything was going on swimmingly, and then this happened:

Is there more research than I can possibly read? Yes. Are there really important things I have tagged that I will forget all about? Of course. Are those the notes on my chapter from 2010 that I forgot to read before my last revision? Yes. Yes, they are. Do I love those little book marker post-its? I think I may have written an entire post on them once.

Solution: Straighten up those piles. Then pick one thing (let me repeat, ONE). Then do that one thing. Take a short break. Drink some water. Repeat.

(For the curious, the books are Sir Philip Sidney, Courtier Poet (Katherine Duncan-Jones), Changing the Subject by Naomi Miller (the purple one), and Sidney, The Major Works (peeking out on the right side). That last one is under Entertainments for Elizabeth I. Also hiding in the pile/mess: Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney Dobranski’s Readers and Authorship in Early Modern England, and Shakespeare Co-Author by Brian Vickers.)

Fake Sick Day

My daughter has been home sick from kindergarten all week. I feel very luck that I don’t have to change my schedule drastically to be home with her. I have to rely on the other families in our carpool to get my son to and from school, I’m housebound during the day, and my writing time gets, shall we say, interrupted regularly. The last couple days I’ve tried to be pretty mellow about it: I let her watch lots of movies, and I lowered my expectations for how much work I would get done.

Today, I tried a different tack. I’m calling it “Fake Sick Day.” I skipped swimming this morning. I didn’t shower until noon. I’m still wearing my husband’s company sweatpants at 5:30pm. I pretty much stayed in bed all day. But I got work done. Lots of work done.

Now I can’t take these Fake Sick Days all the time–my family does need to eat, needs clothes to wear, and needs a semblance of order in the house–but I think I might try to take one every once in a while. For now, because of my work load, they’ll have to be reserved for work. Like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, without the convertible and the ticker-tape parade.

For everything there is a season

I’m trying to make use this fall of helpful cycles in writing. I can’t possibly write 2000 words a day every day and have them be valuable and useful to my project. But I can write 2000 words a day for two weeks, if I’ve done the prep work, which includes plenty of freewriting, reading, notetaking, abstract writing, and outline writing.

I’m currently in a prep phase, and will need to shift into “real” writing soon. In the three other iterations of this chapter (which have all failed miserably in one way or another), I spent some time preparing, but not nearly enough. I was writing early. Especially this summer, writing early was not the answer. The draft actually got worse, and not the kind of “it needs to get worse before it gets better”–it was just worse.*

So now I’m attempting to put in the time reading and doing preliminary writing so this draft has the argument and quality it needs. It’s slow going, but everything’s beginning to coalesce.

The hardest part about doing the preparation work well is watching the deadline approach without having thousands of words on paper in draft form. I’m having to trust the process and will away panic. Not only that, I have to trust myself–my scholarly abilities, my ideas, my endurance. Some days that’s easier said than done. But I have some amazing cheerleaders and some good habits, and those carry me through.

*My advisor’s comments actually included portions he cut and pasted from comments he made two years ago that I hadn’t addressed, or had addressed and taken out again. Sad, sad, sad.

Writing Vacation

I’ve taken the last 8 days off from writing. Totally off. No mental energy. No actual words. No academic reading. And yet.*

I found myself on a bus in Yosemite Valley with a short story idea. (I haven’t written a short story since fourth grade, I think. But even through high school I wanted to be a writer. Long story, that.) I found myself figuring out some necessary plot points. Some character details. I think I’ve finally come to a place in my life where writing is in me. Or I suppose one could argue that it’s been there all along and I’ve stifled it for years and years and years for various reasons.

Vacation gave me that gift, and another: that I am beginning to think more clearly about the end of my current academic work, and what might come after. I haven’t had any grand revelations, but the future doesn’t look quite so scary. I’m beginning to see the choices I have, where I’m limited by the choices I’ve made, and how I might hang on to a writerly self inside or outside formal academia.

I may or may not decide to write the story eventually. For now, I’ve recovered at least some of the mental and emotional energy I’ll need to tackle the rest of this dissertation.

*I am reading Kent Haruf’s The Tie that Binds, thus the use of the narrator’s refrain. (Review: good, gritty, compelling.)