The many stages of writing: a personal take

Laura Sangha

For the past few years, I have been asked to contribute to a postgraduate training session on ‘Preparing to write’ which I deliver jointly with a professor in the English department. It is something that I really enjoy doing, because it is a chance to compare my own experiences and practice with other researchers. And each year I am struck anew by the similarities in the way that we approach our research, as well the fact that there are always new techniques and ways of working out there that I haven’t considered. Whilst the English professor has a complicated system of index cards and quotations, I tend towards colour-coded excel spreadsheets, both of which methods have something in common with Keith Thomas’ labour (and envelop) intensive working practices. The informal and inclusive nature of the discussion of the training sessions are a great way to encourage reflection on our working practice, many of which seem to organically emerge and ossify throughout our training and early career.

Excel is currently my favourite note taking tool.

Excel is currently my favourite note taking tool.

Alongside thinking about preparing for writing, I have just bashed out my first paper on my new research into Ralph Thoresby, and found this blog post on what we might mean by ‘pace’ in writing incredibly useful for thinking about the processes involved. Recently Matt Houlbrook’s lyrical photo essay/ biography of a book chapter had also set me wondering just how similar our experiences are when it comes to writing. Does everyone feel the same deep unease [terror] when you open the new document and begin to formulate that first sentence? Or derive the same small comfort from putting the title at the top of the page, formatting it nicely, and saving the (as yet still blank) document to file? Why is it that I can only write 1,000 words a day, whether I have finished them by 11am, or 9pm, and does everyone have a ‘natural’ daily word limit? Is there an optimum number of jokey asides to include in a paper? And how do you turn off autocorrect in the latest version of Word?

With all that in mind, I thought I would be therapeutic to briefly summarise the main stages that I pass through when I am writing.

The dreaded introduction.

Undoubtedly my least blank docfavourite part of writing. The uncertainty, the weight of expectation, the fear that you have forgotten how to do it. The enormously intimidating existing scholarship and the huge pile of primary material. The plan that made sense when you wrote it but which is now an undecipherable mass of crossed out paragraphs, arrows pointing to nowhere, and an obscene number of question marks. NB. This entire post could have been written just about this point.

The false start.

Continuing the theme, the false start. You finally start getting something down, you pick your way through a particularly difficult bit of historiography, and you are feeling quite pleased with yourself. You stop for a cup of tea, and when you return, realise that you have 2,000 words of a 4,000 word paper, but you haven’t even mentioned the topic in the title yet. None of your 2,000 words are essential and most will need to be cut so you can actually address some of the important things. But the great news is: a false start is infinitely better than no start, and you can just deal with the editing later. NB. Save the original file because you might be able to use it somewhere else.

The comforting middle bit.

Before this post descends into paralysing misery, I usually find that once I get going, I tend to get into a groove and progress reasonably steadily. I generally target either a certain number of words each day (c. 1,000) or completion of a particular section from my plan. Attacking longer pieces of writing in bite sized chunks is essential and helps to make me feel accomplished every day, not just at the last. That said, there will inevitably be…

Possibly blasphemously, I also fondly think of the darkest day as the Slough of Despond [William Blake, Frick Collection New York].

Possibly blasphemously, I also fondly think of the darkest day as the Slough of Despond [William Blake, Frick Collection New York].

The darkest day.

There are lots of reasons for the darkest day, that day when your muse deserts you, and writing simply does not happen, or progress is so slow that an outsider wouldn’t notice it. For me it is usually when I am tackling a bit that is tricky conceptually, or if I am trying to synthesise and reduce something rather complicated into a manageable and not too distracting size. After hours of furrowing my brows, picking up and putting down books, groaning, re-reading articles, chewing my fingernails, cutting, pasting, and standing up to look out of the window, I usually have something useable. That’s the moment I save those precious 300 words, put my whip down, and leave that dead horse alone.

The race for the finish.

Finally, your steed has miraculously revived, the wind is in your hair, and you are heading into the final straight! Everything is great. You have crossed out the majority of your plan, you have discarded all the boring and inessential parts, you have mastered that horrible bit about predestination. You are so excited about finishing you write two sections in one day. Your conclusion is so close you can smell it. Your examples are fitter, your jokey asides are funnier, your analogies more similar, and your argument more persuad-ier. It turns out that dreaded introduction was worth it after all. Now – to the pub*!

*It is important to celebrate your accomplishments, but please drink responsibly.

9 thoughts on “The many stages of writing: a personal take

  1. Very interesting to see the similarities and differences with my own writing process. The writing itself follows much the same path, and it certainly does feel like a pilgrim’s progress some days.

    There are also some similarities in notetaking: I too use excel, but only when working with very regularised primary sources (e.g. petitions in my case). In contrast, I take a more old fashioned route most of the time, though not quite as old fashioned as index cards or Thomas’s envelops. Instead, for my archival notetaking, I just have a massive MS word file divided up by archive and then subdivided by series, volume/file, and item/page. It’s currently 518 pages and growing, which means it takes a while to load up, but at least it’s all keyword searchable. My note taking for secondary sources is less systematic, but I’m trying to do move towards similar system there too. Richard Blakemore has written a few posts about his own methods which sound much more technically savy:

    • Thanks for sharing Brodie. Your MS file sounds old school, but effective – I had a very similar system when I was doing my doctorate, though I had a separate file for each chapter (which made sense, when my structure was chronological). I have never mastered secondary notes – every so often I start a new system but I rarely manage to keep it up to date in the midst of teaching and so on. And there is always that feeling that it is just too late to try to solve that particular problem…

  2. Fascinating to see the similarities with my own process. I don’t use excel but have recently started using the ‘comment’ function in word to add tags to my notes and transcriptions so that I can see my thoughts on a particular bit without reading the whole thing again. I usually try to hit 1000 words a day when writing as well, and tend to feel really good when I achieve this, but as you say feel deflated after a tea break when I realise they will probably all need re-writing. The introduction is also definitely the worst bit!
    Great post Laura thanks

    • Many thanks for sharing Jen! It seems the ‘review’ function on word is something that people are increasingly using to annotate their transcriptions. I recently transcribed a large document and found myself using footnotes to add my own comments and memos about things to check later and so forth. It was useful because it didn’t interfere too much with the actual material. When I am making notes on secondary my own thoughts go in square brackets so that I can be clear whose ideas are whose.

      • I am also a fan of the square brackets and I often put it in a different colour or bold so its clearly differentiated – its amazing how we all work in such a similar way really

  3. I’m replying a bit late, but this is a great post Laura, and was very timely for me, as when it came out I was just starting to write the first chapter (actually chapter no. 3) of my monograph. I too spent ages formatting the document ‘just so’, adding titles, quotes, subheadings, only to stare at the blank space. I quite like the introduction though, as an exercise in clarifying what I actually think (worryingly I’m not always certain of what that is before I start writing!). I try for a couple of thousand words a day, always panic I don’t have enough to say, and always write far too much. I use a mixture of word and excel for organising my notes, including colour coding and comments. I was asked about organising material for a dissertation by a PG student recently, and it struck me too how little we discuss this. There’s something to be said for letting people figure out their own system, but at the same time it’s useful to offer useful hints, tips and short-cuts, in a session like yours!

  4. Pingback: How do historians write? | Doing History in Public

  5. Pingback: How Do Historians Write? | Doing History in Public

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