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Monday, November 23, 2009

How I Write?

Via The Faculty Lounge, here's an interesting story from the Wall Street Journal about how writers write -- where, when, how they plan their books, how they avoid writer's block, how much they throw away, and so on.  We've talked a fair amount on this blog about the "why I write" question but less about the "how I write" question.  I'd love to hear from people about how they get their most productive work done.  Given that I'm in the process of writing two books, the question is of some urgency to me.

For myself, I would give a couple of answers.  For most major projects, I (or a combination of my research assistant and I) transcribe all the little quotes, sections, and arguments, along with my occasional marginalia, from the articles and books I'm reading into a single document, with cites and page references noted, so that once I'm writing, instead of combing through all the work I've read I can refer to a relatively discrete document.  (Although my "source notes" document can run to 80 or 90 single-spaced pages.)  For the most part, I don't commit words to paper until I've gone through this process; I'm not one of those who can start writing with "fill in later" or "cite tk" peppered through the draft.  My first drafts thus take quite a while to come together, and the process often fills me with a certain sense of nausea or of approaching an unclimbable hill, but they also tend to be fairly polished and in far less need of multiple drafts.  There are second and third drafts, to be sure, but the first one is often quite close to the final result.  Typically, for a longer project, I'll also do a fairly full outline for each section or chapter.  Although I still often have to work my through the argument(s) in each section, I have a fairly strong sense by that time of what will go where and how the course of the argument will proceed.  Although I can go for weeks without writing (and in a mire of self-loathing and borderline panic), once I start a lot can get written at a time.

That's my general approach, but I think there's some value in messing with your method now and again.  It's fun to challenge yourself from time to time by trying something different.  Maybe that means a new genre.  Maybe it means trying some approach you've seen and admired elsewhere.  Maybe, a la Peter Gabriel recording his third solo album without cymbals, it means aiming fairly deliberately and experimentally for some goal or other.  (For example, can I write a piece without (excessive) commas?  As you can imagine, this is one I usually fail, although striving for it helps to discipline my sentences.)  Occasionally, and for the right kind of piece, it does mean trying the approach of just writing freestyle and then filling in the blanks later.  

I really would love to hear what works -- or doesn't! -- for others.  That goes especially for books.  I'm enjoying writing these books immensely, but it is decidedly a different kind of challenge. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 23, 2009 at 09:54 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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Comments

Interesting post Professor Horwitz. My thoughts here http://joshblackman.com/blog/?p=2506

Posted by: Josh Blackman | Nov 23, 2009 10:50:38 AM

I have blogged about this in the past; it's a hard thing to pin down. I used to do it almost exactly as Paul describes, although often working directly from the marked-up and highlighted sources, rather than from a lenghty source document. And I remember well the nausea, but I also remember the genuine relief and accomplishment of producing a first draft that was, in many respects, complete. The drawback, it seems to me, is that workshopping off such an approach, where a draft is expected, is less effective because the draft I could provide is so complete in many ways.

I recently have moved to more of a book-writing approach: Writing a first draft, almost entirely unsourced, based on the ideas as they are forming from my own thoughts, research, etc. The resulting first draft is very skeletal and not very far along. But it gets done sooner, which gives that feeling of "OK, I'm on my own" sooner. It also is in condition to workshop. The second draft would include footnotes with general information. Complete cites and parentheticals wait until a later draft.

An additional benefit to the latter approach is that I find myself putting more substance into text (especially in talking about other sources) and relying less on long parentheticals from lots of sources.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 23, 2009 8:03:01 PM

These are great tips, Paul. I tried Scrivener (for the Mac OS X) and found myself spending more time trying to figure out how to use it than I likely saved in writing the article. Perhaps that was an "investment," and if I had only used it a second time, I would have become more efficient. I have used with more success a dictation software (Dragon Naturally Speaking) to prepare something more than an outline but not quite a first draft. The version for the PC is pretty good. The Mac version has a long way to go.

Posted by: Bridget Crawford | Nov 23, 2009 9:15:13 PM

Paul,

Wow, you're writing process is exactly like mine. I feel strangely better...

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Nov 24, 2009 12:32:41 AM

One minor thing that I've tried. This is a tactic that supports a larger process. I have a notebook and pen everywhere. The car. The kitchen. My night table. If I had the technology, I would put one in the shower. No thought about a current or future project should go unwasted- and I have a rotten memory.

Occasionally, these notes give me something to warm me up if I have a block about what to focus on next.

Posted by: David Friedman | Nov 24, 2009 3:31:55 AM

I agree with David. Writing down the spontaneous ideas as soon as possible, then looping them into others for an article concept, seems to work for me.

Posted by: Andrew Jurs | Nov 24, 2009 8:58:08 AM

I use a method similar to Prof. Horwitz's. I recently invested in a second monitor for my computer, so that I can have my source document (or other research trail) and my manuscript open and full screen at the same time. If you haven't tried this, I highly recommend it. It is almost like using paper again.

Posted by: Anon | Nov 24, 2009 9:37:16 AM

OneNote is very handy. You can collect your thoughts as well as external sources in a folder devoted to the article. If you take a minute to transfer law review articles you are going to cite to the folder, it also makes it easy to prepare a physical notebook for cite checking later, as well (I've decided I like the Hein versions of articles to the Lexis/Westlaw versions for this purpose, as they have the original pagination and diagrams.)

Posted by: Ray Campbell | Nov 27, 2009 2:52:27 PM

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