Writing strategies

Researchers in the humanities read and examine – and they write. A lot. I have found that the quality and quantity of my output depends a lot on the circumstances I write in, on the genre and not least on the strategy I commit myself to.

Theses...

During the work on my doctoral thesis, I had a scholarship and was working at home. I basically spent all day writing on the thesis, which probably wasn’t that healthy. Anyway, for this genre the structure is pretty much pre-defined. It worked well for me to draft each chapter in bullet lists, to which I added relevant references. I then took one bullet point and rewrote it to a full paragraph or sub-chapter. Once a chapter had all bullet points turned into prose paragraphs, I rewrote the whole thing in order to smooth out the transition from one text bit to the next and work on introductory or summary remarks. As daily goals, I marked several bullet points and worked my way through them.

Articles...

Once I entered the post-doc phase, I found myself pursuing several different projects at the same time. As a consequence, the writing strategies from my thesis couldn’t be easily transferred (although I tried). What I do now, is to write down the first draft of ideas as soon as I get the idea. Then, I add facts while I am still doing my research, then supply a layer of interpretation. Finally, I rearrange and structurise what I have and rewrite it to form a coherent whole. Of course, this different strategy also requires a different way of setting goals. With articles, I usually set off a certain amount of time per day (though probably not every day during a week) and determine a certain aspect I’d like to work on. This ensures that although juggling several ideas (and approaches), I maintain my focus during the day and don’t get stuck with one project full-time. It also creates a better balance, as minor projects inevidently end up being in different phases (draft state, final revision, submission, proofs…).

Monographs...

The interesting thing about monographs is that the length and scope is comparable to a thesis, so I need plan that keeps my motivation and output as high as possible over a longer period of time. At the same time, the working situation is significantly different, in that I have different things (such as articles, conferences, teaching) going on and cannot dedicate all my power to this one thing. Moreover, monographs are less likely to have a given structure (although they often have a natural one) and they don’t have an inherent deadline unless the contract has been signed. I like to collect as much text as possible and take it from there. Therefore, I simply set myself a limit of X words per day (depending on the time slot that I know I will usually have available) and write until I have assembled the required number of words, which in most cases will be around 80,000. If I have about two hours per day only to write things down, I can make 1,000 words per day. So in theory, the first draft would then be finished after 80 days/sixteen weeks (it usually takes longer, though). Once that is done, I start to rework the structure and rewrite and rewrite until I find the result acceptable.