The Writing Process

December 3rd, 2010 by Potato

Was it a whole month ago that I wrote:

…today I seemed to pass through that psychological barrier where it goes from being this impossible wall to climb, to being something that ‘hey, I can do!’ There are still a lot of pieces to put together, but it’s starting to look like the pieces will go together in the end, so I will finish it.

Now just a few weeks later and that psychological peace and steady, incremental accomplishment has gone right out the window. The last two weeks I’ve had just terrible writer’s block. That happens disparagingly often with science writing in large part because I care. It’s important that I write something that communicates a complex idea well, and also that what I write is accurate and backed up by ample references to the literature. And by actually caring about the quality I seem to just get locked up in a writer’s block loop where I’ll start a sentence or paragraph, then decide I don’t like it, go back to the paper I was referencing, rewrite it, decide I don’t like it… ad nauseum.

It doesn’t make sense, people tell me all the time that I’m a good writer, (and try to trick me into co-authoring screenplays with them) and I don’t have any problem writing on the blog here (look! I’m doing it now!). That’s partly because I know that this kind of writing doesn’t matter: the whole future trajectory of my life is not going to depend on the content and quality of my blog. My PhD thesis… maybe. But I have to write something, so my process so far has been to not interrupt the brief productive runs that come except for the very most urgent of biological necessities — which does not include sleep. I get myself good and stressed and sleep-deprived and it becomes much easier to not care so much and actually get something down on the page.

But I’m sure you’ve spotted the delicate balance that must be struck: too sleep deprived, and there’s an obvious deleterious effect on writing output. I read a paper and forget what I read before I can even get a summary into my annotated bibliography or a few lines about it in my manuscript. I make grammatical mistakes, get sloppy. I actually don’t mind that part too much — if I can at least get something on the page, it can be edited later. But worst of all is when I get out to the other side of the productive middle ground and find myself losing time to staring at the wall and clicking the top of a clicky pen for a half hour straight (incidentally, this is why I’m not allowed clicky pens at work).

I don’t quite know what to do at the moment. There’s a big gulf between recognizing the source of writer’s block, and actually crossing over to getting stuff done in a healthy, productive way. Our work holiday party is tonight, and though I’ve already got seats reserved I’m thinking of skipping to just keep writing now and sleep then, rather than trying to grab some sleep now. I know that at this rate I’d probably only get 100 or so words out in the whole evening, but I also just don’t want to go and deal with people right now. I’m a mess: exhausted, twitchy, stressed, and vibrating on a level mortal consciousnesses will never truly comprehend as my body becomes one with the stuff that underlies our universe’s existence (that is: caffeine).

2 Responses to “The Writing Process”

  1. Patrick Says:

    Let’s face it: unless you possess an unprecedented level of writing talent, the stuff you’re about to write will not end up in your final dissertation anyway. So don’t sweat it.

    In my case (a Master’s thesis, not PhD) I wrote maybe 200 pages, of which only ~100 pages ended up forming my final document. Those 100 pages were pretty much the last 100 pages I wrote, but I couldn’t have done it without writing the other 100 first.

    Think of what you’re trying to write as a kind of explanation just for yourself. You can even make it somewhat informal (like a blog) if that helps. You’re going to end up rewriting it much better the second time anyway.

  2. Netbug Says:

    Ah yes, but the screenplay will be like triple spaced!

    I wish I could be of more help with motivation or even editing of your thesis, but my greatest interest in any MRI work is “I wonder what would happen if you tried to do an MRI on Wolverine…” or “I wonder what would happen if I threw a bucket of nails in there while that was on…”