Rough drafts, getting words on the page, and the pain – and pleasure – of writing

Intro: this is the first of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books I’ve read recently that relate to writing: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. (And, yes, one of those is not like the other.) This post focuses on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing.

The post:

Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.

     – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Unfortunately, a universal experience of writing is that getting started can be hard. Rocket knows this:

The next day, Rocket returned to his classroom. It was time to begin. He looked down at the blank page and the blank page looked up at him. But no story would come.

From Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story

This is something that all writers struggle with, but that can be especially problematic for new writers. The task can seem so big and daunting – and there’s a decent chance that you are feeling like an imposter who is about to be exposed.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the key is to get something down. As I’ve quoted before, the author Jodi Picault notes:

if it’s writing time, I write. I may write garbage, but you can always edit garbage. You can’t edit a blank page.

This is the general idea behind the inelegantly but memorably named “barf & buff” strategy that I advocate for people in my lab. The key is to spew some words out onto the page, so that you can polish them later.

This is a major theme of Anne Lamott’s book – she has a whole chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts” and comes back to this theme repeatedly. She notes that, while we tend to think of successful writers as people who sit down and effortlessly have beautiful, awe-inspiring prose come flowing out, the reality is much messier:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper.

     – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

She notes that perfectionism can be a big problem with this – something I’ve noticed in my own writing and mentoring, too, which is what inspired my earlier post on the importance of recognizing what is “good enough“.

Helen Sword also notes both the difficulties of getting started (one chapter starts with a series of rejected openings for that chapter) and that:

Of all the myths surrounding academic writing, the fallacy of effortless productivity is among the most persistent.

     – Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space

One idea that I really liked in Sword’s book came from an interview with Janelle Jenstad from the Department of English at the University of Victoria. Jenstad’s partner is a building tradesman, and she’s adopted the metaphors of “rough cuts” and “finishing cuts” from him. The general idea is that, when you’re first working with a piece of metal, you do a rough cut where you get the general shape right and get rid of most of the excess metal. It’s only after that that you work on the finishing cut, getting the details right. Jenstad applies this to her writing and editing, focusing first on the rough cut (what I would call the “big picture” or structural aspects of the paper) and then doing the finishing cut (polishing the writing, wordsmithing, etc.)

This all sounds like a lot of work, but one of the things I liked most about Sword’s book is the way it notes that this process of writing and editing can be a pleasure.

Yes, writing can be slow and tedious and editing can be frustrating and painful – but it can also be incredibly rewarding when you solve a major structural problem or find just the right way to phrase something.

So much of how we talk and write about writing is negative but, as Sword notes, many academics find it really rewarding in the end. As one sign of this: it’s not unusual to talk to faculty colleagues and have them talk about how much they’re looking forward to writing during the summer. (Stephen Heard’s post on working on vacation features a picture of someone writing on the beach.) Some of this is because they realize that they need to be productive to get grants or tenure or promoted or whatever. But some of it is also because some people truly enjoy the process of writing.

Indeed, I started thinking about the framing of this post on Friday afternoon and, when I got up before the rest of my family on Saturday morning, writing it was the first thing I wanted to do – I wanted to write it and to get the words out on paper (or the screen, as it were). My kids got their breakfast a little late, but I got to enjoy the rewards of having an idea that’s been percolating in my brain come out on the page. I felt like I couldn’t not write it.

In future posts in this mini-series, I plan to focus on editing, social aspects of writing, and one specific piece of common writing advice. But, for now, I think it’s worth noting this summary from Helen Sword:

Building a productive writing practice can be hard, slow, frustrating work – yet successful academics find satisfaction and joy in that labor, nourished by the pleasures of the process and made stronger by its challenges.

     – Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space

But perhaps I should leave the final word to Rocket*. Rocket knows that we have growly writing days but also waggy writing days:

When things were going well, he wagged his tail. When he didn't know what to write, he growled

From Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story

The keys are to recognize that getting started can be hard, that growly writing days are normal and to push through them (or at least accept them), and to take pleasure in the waggy days!


*Yes, I realize that really it’s Hills, not Rocket, but I prefer to think of it as Rocket. No word yet on whether Rocket Gets Tenure is forthcoming in the series.

9 thoughts on “Rough drafts, getting words on the page, and the pain – and pleasure – of writing

  1. Pingback: Como escrever um artigo científico – Sobrevivendo na Ciência

  2. Writing fascinates me as a unique mix of artistry (crafting phrases just-so), logic (building an argument piece by piece), and paint-by-numbers (getting facts down in a formulaic order). Much writing about writing seems to concern creative writing, in which case just getting going can be a huge challenge since you don’t know what you want to say to begin with. But with scientific papers (much of what we write), if we start with the Methods and Results (common advice), presumably we can just skip that step, since there’s no question as to what we want to say. No? If we get the formulaic stuff down first, hopefully that can help spark the rest, although I suppose it’s when we get to “the rest” that we might start feeling more like Rocket with pencil in mouth. [I am one of those people that enjoys the act of putting words on a page.]

  3. Megan, this was a fun post to read! I’ve been thinking a lot about how to mentor, coach, and teach writing/communication skills in the sciences (for a while now, but again, specifically, recently). To shift the focus of the discussion slightly, I’m particularly interested in resources for the instructor. So far, I’ve only come across one book of advice for the teacher/mentor coach that I thought would be particularly useful for science-related instructors and advisors. All the rest seem to focus on the writer themselves. That points to something interesting, I think; consider, after all, that the studies that have been done about writing instruction in the sciences (undergraduate-level, broadly, if I recall correctly), tend to have results indicating that a) faculty tend to think students are not as skilled at writing as they should be, but b) faculty do not think teaching writing is their responsibility. It’s a fascinating intersection, to my mind. The book, which I’m trying to find a home for a book review about, is John C. Bean’s “Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.” It was published in 2011, so most journals I’ve approached think it is outdated. But, my colleagues in rhetoric and composition cannot point me to a more current or better book. So, I would love to share a review of it, as it would be an invaluable resource for instructors working to enhance their students’ writing skills. Meanwhile, I strongly recommend the book.

  4. I’ve found blogging to be useful to making writing easier: practice makes better? But in recent years, I’ve found an issue with blog writing: if I sit down like Meghan Duffy did on the day after I thought about a post and write it all (or the vast majority) of it in one go then the post gets done. And more importantly, it feels liberating to do, like freeing myself of ideas that are gnawing at me. However, if I don’t get the whole post (or the vast majority) done in that first sitting then it languishes forever in my ever-expanding graveyard of drafts. And most of the time, when I revisit it, it stops feeling purely positive and starts to feel more like work.

    That being said, I’m not sure if a similar effect exists for paper writing. At least I haven’t yet let a large enough graveyard accumulate there to know.

    • Yes, I agree that I’m much more likely to write a post if I do so when I first think of it! If it ends up not getting written right away, it often ends up never getting written. And I definitely agree that writing it is liberating! I feel like it frees up mental bandwidth for other things; if I don’t write, it eats up a lot of my focus. I sketched out a new blog post idea in my head while running this morning and it’s going to distract me until I can get it out!

      I think there’s maybe a similar effect with paper writing, but much less extreme. For me, there’s a roughly infinite number of possible blog posts, but only a finite number of papers that might get written, which is part of it. I think another part of it is probably related to being the sole author on blog posts, but having coauthors on manuscripts — one thing that keeps manuscripts moving along is not wanting to let coauthors down!

  5. Pingback: Social aspects of writing | Dynamic Ecology

  6. Pingback: Manuscraps: on partially killing one’s manuscript darlings | Dynamic Ecology

  7. Pingback: How much evidence is there that we should aim to write every day? And are their downsides to suggesting that people aim for that? | Dynamic Ecology

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