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Writing methods


I have been suggesting for a while that I will do a post on writing methods, i.e. how I go about conducting ‘big’ research projects that are over 7-8,000 words. This means that ‘writing methods’ is, strictly speaking, an inaccurate title, but ‘research methods’ might be more misleading, so I’m going to stick with it!

There is some great advice out there about how one should write. People like Clarissa, Jonathan MayhewMictlantecuhtli,  et al are proponents of the Pomodoro technique (and its variants), perhaps epitomised in this post by Thomas at Research is a Second Language (hat-tip to Clarissa for pointing it out to me). I wish I did this, and I need to think seriously about how to implement it in my life (although I suspect ‘thinking seriously’ is simply a wonderful way to put off implementing it in my life…).

I am currently a user of the slightly chaotic, it-will-all-come-right style of writing, about which Mictlantecuhtli and I had a brief conversation in the comments of one of Clarissa’s posts last week. This is because, I confess, I harbour deep down a romantic notion of the academic literary critic as being spontaneous, beholden to inspiration, etc., just like the romantic image of a brilliant genius author. I was not directly encouraged in this by any of my undergraduate professors (at any Ivy League school), in part because I was always far too shy and self-deprecating to ever put a demand on their time (i.e. seek out their mentorship). I do not perpetuate the approach to writing by virtue of their support up the academic career ladder, as I haven’t really started yet. My only explanation is that I am, quite simply, sporadic at all things. It is an unfortunate family trait, and despite sincere longing for proper self-discipline throughout my secondary and tertiary education, I’ve never actually done anything about it!

With this confession in mind, then, below the fold is the process by which I sculpt (the best term for it, I think) longer research projects on the assumption that I have already chosen at least one of the texts on which I will be writing.

  1. Conceive: Have a vague idea of where you’re going. Usually, I find this to be a natural product of the process of reading, re-reading and annotating the primary text on which I’ll be working. Sometimes, I have a specific idea that springs to me and then deliberately annotate around that idea; with other texts, it is only after I’ve been through the whole text for the first time that I begin to have an idea of what I would like to do with it. (N.B. By this, I mean the first time with a view to formulating a topic for writing; I have normally read things at least once before!)
  2. Scout for materials: Hunt out some readily accessible secondary sources on some relevant keywords. This generally happens via JSTOR or other journal search engines because it is a speedy and convenient way to get started. This helps to shape the initial, more general ‘vague idea’ I have by pointing out where critics have already done something to death, where potential gaps or disagreements might be, and therefore where I might most productively start to work.
  3. Play with these new materials: Read some more and make some notes. This is the point at which my almost obsessive note-taking kicks in. Scrivener informs me that I have some 36,000 words of notes (mainly quotations) in my ‘research’ section of my dissertation. The dissertation itself is to be 12-15,000 words long. This means that I have two to three times the number of necessary words already in notes! Scrivener makes it easy to excise certain sections from PDFs via the clippings feature, and this can be really helpful, given that a lot of JSTOR’s PDFs are still images (so no copy-and-paste available) or are very badly formatted for copy-and-paste.

    I do this detailed note-taking for three reasons. The first is that it enables me to always have everything on hand (particularly useful in step 8). The second is that my notes dump (as one could uncharitably call it) serves as the main citation/bibliography check. Finally, it is only be actively manipulating my secondary sources that I begin to tune in fully to the resonances between them, the links, connections and discontinuities, and how I might begin to stitch them together.

  4. Begin to piece these materials together: Structure the notes and ideas. Now that I have plenty of things down ‘on paper’ (in Scrivener), it’s time to start grouping them together. With my MA dissertation, I’ve been doing this using a variety of collections for theory, items relevant to each specific author, and the dissertation itself (the working drafts of each chapter). In the past, this has involved simply copying things from the notes dump into a new Word document (very low-tech!). In order to keep everything straight (and to get a good sense for what critics might be dominating), I colour-code each individual secondary source. This makes it easier to go back and locate something if I’ve lost a reference (e.g. to an author or a text), as well as making the monolith of text much easy to handle visually because it is rainbow-coloured!

    It is at this stage that a lot of the writing starts in order to link bits of the material together and really guide my thinking. So, for example, am I going to highlight Kaja Silverman’s writing about the dominant fiction over Eve Kofosky Sedgwick’s vision of homosocial triangles? This will by guided not only by the annotations I have on my primary texts, but also by the sense I’ve got of where other materials are leading. The point is to try to flag up the interesting things that I’ve noted down but that, ultimately, don’t belong.

  5. Start hewing chunks off: Print out and begin scribbling in red pen. Despite having switched to Scrivener and using colour-coding, I still struggle to do everything I need to do on the screen. It is just too easy to glaze over and get lost in the word count that you have. Actually printing out onto A4 divides the blocks of text up into a much more user-friendly set of materials. At this stage I am cutting out and moving (with vigorous arrows) chunks of text that will not work.
  6. Turn back to the initial concept: Re-read the primary text(s). Now, with all of everyone else’s ideas floating about in my head, I return to the primary text(s). Depending on how long the text is, I will make notes about the most salient parts of it either in Scrivener or do it longhand on some good ol’ lined paper! This means looking at the text partly through a new lens, but of course refreshing my initial thoughts on the topic and refining them, as necessary.
  7. Sculpt, tinker and weave: Bring everything together in something resembling prose. This now involves imposing a real framework upon what is a wordy and colourful mess! Unless things fall into place fairly quickly, then this often involves a few ‘prints’ and handwritten sections of chapters until I have enough of a structure in the Scrivener document to be comfortable tackling it purely on the screen. Typically, I start at the beginning of each chapter and go through until I have made so many edits that the print-off is getting hard to follow. Then I type these up (as described in not much detail here), print off and start again. This means that the start of each chapter gets read through quite a bit more than the end, which can be rectified in step 9!
  8. Turn back to the key secondary sources: Re-read the notes (and occasionally the full texts) of the secondary texts. Through various reworkings, it can be easy to decontextualise or distort a quote from a secondary text, or to lose something really useful by accident or because ideas have developed. I will go back through my notes and re-read all the bits that I thought, at the start, might be useful. Any new gems (or errors!) that I find, I will work in to the specific paragraphs I already have written.
  9. Step back and check the proportions: Read all the way through a few times to tighten up from start to finish. It is easy for a long essay to wander and digress during the course of however many thousands of words are available. This way I can check that the key terms I am using do not morph slightly through the course of the essay, that I actually achieve what I promise in the introduction, and that there is a strong, consistent thread running through the whole essay. Sometimes, this may involve writing short one-sentence paragraph descriptions (often on the back of a print-out!) to make sure that things are ordered in the best way possible and that nothing is repeated unnecessarily. I can also check that interesting digressions haven’t started to dominate particular parts of the essay, which is a particular risk in the middle part of an essay!
  10. Check the foundations and do a final polish: Do all the citations, check the word count and polish up the flabby sentences. This speaks for itself. The notes dump makes the citations relatively easy, particularly with the colour-coding. The time spent reading and re-reading each paragraph should make the polishing fairly easy to do!
And that is my ten-step ‘system’!

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