On Writing

I’m supposed to be writing today, finishing up the second draft of chapter three. But I have a headache and quite get focused on it, so I’ll blog my random thoughts about writing instead. That should indicate how I–personally, for my own posts–compare blogging to real writing. I rarely do a second draft on my posts, even though I know it would improve them (I really should work on punchy introductions that get right to the point, and the overall structure of my posts), and I rarely think as deeply as I am trying to do for my book.

Writing, as you may know, is hard work. I’ve read that the brain sucks down a lot of calories (and Chris will no doubt enlighten me if I’m wrong), which makes sense to me because writing and thinking can exhaust me more than a day of hard physical labor. And there’s a mental exhaustion, which is more debilitating than a physical exhaustion. With the right mental energy, a person can keep slogging through an astonishing physical effort, but no amount of physical energy seems to offset a loss of mental vigor.

That’s probably part of the reason I write the way I do, in patchy batches. Some days I could easily write twenty hours and work on sections of three different chapters plus an unrelated project, or simply work through a very long difficult patch of one topic. Then I might not write for several days. I’ve known artists and computer programmers who work like this, so it seems to be a common artistic approach (and academic writing is artistic–if it’s any good). But I remember reading about an author–it might have been Tim O’Brien, but I’m not sure–who insisted that a good writer had to write every day. I can’t, but he’s not really wrong. If I let a few days go by between the time I work on a particular project, it can take me the better part of a day to really wrap my mind around what I was saying and what I intended to say next, to really get myself into a groove where I actually start putting words down on paper, rather than just re-reading the ones already there. And if I don’t get back to it then the next day, the next time I might also have to spend the better part of the day figuring out where I was and what I was doing. I ran into that a lot when working on my dissertation, and blew a couple of months not making progress because every single day I put in was a “figuring out where I was” day. I went to Iowa for four days last week, which involved a tiring ten hour drive each day. I got home Sunday, and accomplished zilch on Monday. Yesterday I got back in the groove, but today I woke up with a headache. Tomorrow and Friday I might get something done (although Mrs. Hanley is hoping I’ll help her with painting the house before the weather turns cold), but Saturday and Sunday I’m officiating at swim meets all day. And I’m likely to be tired Monday, although with luck not too tired to work. At the end of that week I fly out to Syria for two weeks.

Yikes. And by the time I return from Syria, it will be mid-November and my sabbatical runs only through the end of this year.

I won’t get the book finished during my sabbatical. More specifically, I won’t even have the first draft finished, as I had hoped. Blame that on not getting any writing done during the summer (not one blessed bit), and every bit I do write taking more time than I had anticipated (although I did in fact anticipate that).

As I noted, writing is hard. I had a pretty clear vision in my head of what I want the book to be, but turning that vision into a reality is just damned difficult for me. I know the concepts I want to present, but getting them down on paper, clearly stated, at the correct point and in an intelligible and useful order, with the proper anecdotal examples…that takes time. I had hoped I could do a first draft of a chapter in a day or two. No go. And I’m enough of a perfectionist that a first draft isn’t enough for me to show anyone. Indeed, my first drafts could fairly be called first and a half to second drafts, at least, but I call it a first draft when I get to the end, no matter how much reworking I’ve done before getting to the end. Then I do a second draft before giving it to my wife to read. I’m blessed on that point. She’s a wonderful reader, with a great knack for noting when I’m pitching it too low or too high, for when I’m not being clear, and for when I have a suboptimal synonym or a misturn of phrase. She’s been doing this for me for almost two decades now, and I’ve learned to trust her judgment. She’s always right, as I learned the hard way. Early on I would sometimes reject her advice, but twice I submitted papers for a class only to have the instructor single out one and only one sentence or clause out of the whole document, and in both cases it was the one where I had rejected her advice. I’m a bit slow, but not a complete idiot, so ever since I just take her critiques and revise until she approves.

That’s the third draft, and only then will I put chapters online for any others to take a whack at. And both of the chapters I’ve put online so far I’ve revised based on comments I’ve received. That’s draft four.

When I get through to the end, I’ll ask a few trusted associates to review it for me, then go back and work through it again while they’re reading it, for draft five. Their comments will lead to draft six. I’ll be using chapters in class as I get them written, rather than wait until I finish the whole thing (not ordering a textbook to use in place of the chapters puts more pressure on me to get the damn thing done), and comments from students over the next year and a half will also be incorporated, not necessarily as a separate draft, but as additional fodder for drafts five and six.

The rewriting process is something that good writers do, and bad writers don’t. It’s as simple as that, and something that’s incredibly hard to get students–that is, students who don’t write well–to understand. Sure, good writers can write a better first draft than a bad writer’s third draft, but good writers can write great third drafts, and avoid odd word jumbles like, “it is a frequent cause fact,” a phrase that’s indelibly stuck in my head, and which appeared in a paper I wrote as an undergrad. The paper received the school’s best paper in the social sciences award, but my pride in that achievement is radically dimmed by that meaningless conglomeration of words.

When I want to scare my students, I tell them that one of the papers I co-authored had so many drafts that we lost count at 15. It might have been 16 drafts, or it might have been 19. The journal accepted the paper conditionally, requiring that we…revise and resubmit. It’s a damned good paper, befitting its placement as the lead article in that issue of the premier journal in the discipline. There’s nothing about that paper which dims my pride in it. And yet it has a typo. Go figure.

Because of time pressures, the policy briefs I write for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding often go out after only two drafts. They have a great editor there who sends them back to me all covered in red. Some of his suggestions I reject because they would change my voice (and I like my writing voice better than his), but three-quarters of them are real improvements. I appreciate him greatly, but I’ve grown to rely on him, which makes me a bit lazy.

I don’t have that luxury in writing my book. So I’m working harder at getting it right the first and second time. So far I have at least a first draft–or close to–on six chapters, an estimated one-fourth of the book. I have completed a third draft on only two of them. Today my goal was, perhaps still is, to complete the second draft of chapter three, so I can give it to my lovely assistant (aka, Mrs. Hanley) to critique. I would have had it finished yesterday had not my children’s swim practice intervened, but by the end of that, then getting supper fixed and making sure they had done their homework, I suddenly realized I was too tired. What a surprise ending to the day. I’m almost finished with the second draft, but I realized I had a misplaced section in it–one piece that stood alone in the middle of the chapter actually belonged as part of the last section of the chapter. Shit. It’s not just a matter of cutting and pasting, because it in part reiterates (or preiterates) what the last section says and in part adds more to it. So it’s a matter of careful rethinking and rewriting. A few paragraphs can sometimes take several hours.

My biggest struggle to date is my chapter on the Bill of Rights. I originally intended a single chapter on it, but I’m trying to keep my chapters down to a maximum of twenty-five U.S. Trade size pages (6×9 inches). The Bill of Rights as I wanted to do it can’t be done in twice that. So I decided to focus on the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments. I’m not finding a way to do that in twenty-five pages, either. So I decided to focus on the First Amendment in this chapter, emphasizing substantive rights, and do a separate chapter on the Fourth and Fifth, emphasizing due process rights as procedural rights (and the first person to mention substantive due process gets a free rectal exam). It’s a great example of how the project evolves from the original vision as you get into the details. But I’m still deeply displeased with my First Amendment chapter. The section on free speech is too long and casebook like, leaving almost no room for the religion clauses. While I’m going to dispose of the free press clause with a very short section devoted almost entirely to NY Times v. U.S. (although I’m open to suggestions there) and dispensing with the assembly clause entirely, I haven’t left myself anywhere near enough room for the religion clauses. And I draw the line at two chapters on the First Amendment. No way, no how. And I see the same problem looming with the chapter on procedural rights, even though I’m going to completely ignore the takings clause and give pretty short shrift to the double-jeopardy clause. Do you know just how many important Supreme Court rulings there are on free speech, freedom of religion, search and seizure, and due process? I’m going to have to ignore really important stuff if I’m going to keep these chapters to a reasonable length and avoid writing a legal casebook, which is not the style and approach I want to take. Those chapters may take three or four drafts before I give them to my darling spouse for review.

I’m still holding onto a perhaps vain hope that as I move further forward in the book the structure I’ve laid down will be clear enough that everything else falls into order much more clearly. It could happen. In some ways I’ve had a better idea all along about how I want to treat federalism and the three branches of government than I did about how to begin the whole thing and about how to cover the Bill of Rights. But things still get slow as I work out the details, the proper references, citations, and examples.

And in the middle of all this, I really need to finish up two long-overdue articles, including a policy brief I’m cowriting with Jon Rowe, who’s probably given up on me by now (Jon–the delay was worthwhile; the not-Ground Zero not-mosque issue makes a perfect referent for examining the Christian nation thesis! I’ve got a great opening paragraph done!).

Anyone who wants to write for a living should a) avoid having children, perhaps any family at all, and b) avoid involvement in any projects or organizations that suck up time. Live someplace where you can take nice leisurely walks to clear your head and chew over issues, whether for you that involves a walk down to the coffee shop, through a park, or out in the woods. Throw away your TV and cut off your access to the internet (facts can be double-checked after the first draft, down at the local library, but you have to resist the temptation to read or write on blogs, check the news, see the latest lol catz, etc.).

It also helps to keep an industrial size bottle of aspirin around the house, for those days when you have headaches.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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10 Responses to On Writing

  1. Pinky says:

    Thanks for sharing your meta-thoughts.

    The brain is such an amazing part of our body. We just about have to attribute every thing to its workings. I like to learn about it.

    Your writing reminds me of my reading. Some days I can read from morning wake up to back to sleep. Lately, I’ve been having trouble reading–I mean paying attention to what is on the pages in front of me.

  2. Chris says:

    Hemingway, I believe, had a rule that he had to write 500 words before noon every day. After that, it was all hunting, fishing, and absinthe. If he can get away with doing it that way, I see no reason why the rest of us shouldn’t be able to.

  3. James K says:

    Chris, that’s actually not far off how I finished my Master’s dissertation. OK, there was less hunting, fishing and absinthe, but I’d work 6 days a week from about 8-12 (the computer labs were nearly deserted that early), and then do other things in the afternoon when I wasn’t thinking as clearly.

  4. James Hanley says:

    JamesK–You can think clearly in the morning? I can’t even imagine that concept. Yesterday morning I tried to drop my daughter off at the wrong school, not for the first time.

    Chris–The rest of us only wish we were Hemingways, eh?

    Pinky–I’m always mildly amazed that anyone finds my meta-thoughts worth reading, although I myself like reading other people’s meta-thoughts. Thanks for amazing me.

  5. James K.,

    I’m a similar writer. Now in the process of writing my seemingly never ending dissertation, I must write in the morning, and almost every day, if I want to make any progress at all. Once the late afternoon rolls around, I’m worthless as a writer.

  6. James Hanley says:

    Well, of course no normal person can write in the late afternoon. That’s nap-time. Between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.; that’s when normal people write, right? I mean, I am the definition of normal, am I not?

  7. Chris says:

    I write best between 11 am and 3 am, and between 6 am and 9 am, though if I write between 11 and 3, I will not be writing between 6 and 9, so I have to pick one.

  8. Chris says:

    11 pm that is.

  9. D.A. Ridgely says:

    I dislike writing. I like having written.

  10. James Hanley says:

    I understand that, but I find myself unable to feel the same. I often enjoy the process of writing greatly, but I get less satisfaction out of having written than I expect, because unlike a painting or a sculpture, I can’t view the produced object in its entirety at a glance. For finished products, I get more pleasure out of the bike shed I built this summer, solely because that I actually can see in its entirety, in one glance.

    In that respect, writing frustrates me tremendously.

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