Writing: It’s a Process
Today at 6:45pm I finished my first academic paper of the semester– the first in my PhD career. If you looked at the clock and imaginary video of me, you would have seen that I started writing said paper at approximately 2:30pm today. However, the video would be lying to you; I actually started the paper two weeks ago. Today, as I was finishing up my concluding paragraph, my roommate came in to talk over a grad school crisis of her own. I patiently listened and responded, until she asked if I had finished my paper. I explained that I had 20 minutes until class and no, it wasn’t finished yet, while she just stared incredulously at me and yelled for me to get back to writing. This started a discussion (wasting another five minutes of my precious deadline-looming time) about our writing processes, which turned out to not be such a waste of time at all.
I explained that I was basically finished with my paper, but that I was still about 150 words short of the recommended word count—a very unusual occurrence for me. Somehow, and I’m really not sure how, I almost always magically arrive at the end of my thoughts and word count around the same moment. I think it must be a super power I was born with (my third cousin Lesa would tell you that all of my “super powers” come from the extra tooth that hides in my bottom jaw…and she would be dead serious about that).
Super power or not, I never have to go back and “fluff up” my paper to get to the word count I need. Today, the solution was to add a conclusion to the conclusion, if you will. It turned out fine, I turned it in on time, and I turned my attention to putting on a pot of chili to cook while I attended my online evening class.
The discussion on our writing processes led me to an important realization: I have a writing process. I really do. Also, contrary to what my mother and closest 15 friends would guess about my process, it does not begin four hours before the deadline; instead, my writing process begins the moment I get the assignment. I think. I plan. I research by reading articles and doing random web searches while procrastinating on other things that I should be doing. I outline. Yes, I actually pre-write. I pull up a Word doc and jot ideas, and maybe even make a rough outline of those ideas. I keep two Word documents open as I write my paper—my idea page and my writing page. By the time I actually sit down to pound out my ideas, they have already been cooking in my head for quite some time, and have likely even found their way, in some shape or form, to my “idea” document. I start writing my paper much before I actually start writing it.
My writing process also has to have a few particular aesthetic elements. When I actually arrive at the “pound it out” stage, I can’t just pound it out anywhere. I need to be in a comfortable chair, preferably one in which I can put my feet up (a couch, a desk chair with an ottoman, or even a coffee shop chair with another coffee shop chair pulled close enough for my short little legs to rest on). The ambient noise is also important; I need either silence, white noise, or music with no words. Coffee shop noise with obscure indie music is fine; coffee shop noise where they play familiar pop music is not. Pandora is my friend, but only if she’s playing Miles Davis or light classical. Pandora playing Diana Krall or Will Smith is not fine. The TV is not fine. Words distract from my writing, so the outside world must be wordless to my ears while I write. Snacking is not something I do while I write (I have a thing about messy fingers), but a beverage of some sort is a must. Wine makes me sleepy, so nothing as classy as that. A glass of water, a cup of decaf tea, a Diet Coke (if it’s not too late), or in cases of oh-shoot-I-have-12-hours-to-deadline-emergency, a cup of good coffee (no Folgers, please) are my companions.
Thinking. Note taking. Research. Outlining. Pounding it out. The only thing that my writing process lacks is revision. I am personally not a fan of revising my own work. For one, although I do start to plan out my writing in advance, I confess that the pound-it-out stage happens dangerously close to each deadline (I may or may not be writing this at 1am Wednesday night. My only excuse is that after writing one paper today/this evening, my brain needed a little time to take in “Modern Family” and “Honey Boo Boo” before it would allow any other productivity). In order for there to be significant revision, you need to have time to do that. You need space between when you pounded it out and when you revise, so that your brain reads things the way you actually wrote them, instead of reading things the way it thinks you wrote them. My best effort at revision usually is a once-over for basic mistakes. If it is a high-stakes piece of writing, that’s different. I send the important things over to a friend for review and suggestions. Then, I’ll take those suggestions under advisement and do a re-write, often grumbling to myself that I hate re-writing and revising. I much prefer to be perfect the first time around, thank you very much.
Sometimes it takes a lot of time and effort to write. Sometimes, though, I sit down at my laptop for a pound-it-out session for a simple reflection paper that I have only been thinking about for a half hour. I sit (still in my comfy chair), I put on my blogger hat (I used to have a blog when I lived a much more interesting life than I do now), I let my inner voice come out on the page, and I enjoy putting together a few pages for a professor I barely know. Most of the time, as I put the finishing sentences on each paper (or abstract or clever work email) I write, I think back to a poster that was in my high school English teacher’s classroom—Snoopy, I think. It read, “It’s exciting when you’ve written something that you know is good.”
Then, there are times when I sit at my computer for a pound-it-out session and…
Snoopy gets me. 
I would like to point out here that I did consider the possible complications of cooking a pot of chili while attending my online class, per my reflection paper from last week on the difficulties of simultaneous online learning and popcorn popping. This time, though, my roommate was there to watch the cooking so that I didn’t set off any smoke alarms. Goal for next week: Don’t cook anything while in my online class.