Do a Google search on some variant of “How to write in graduate school” and you’ll find sources galore, typically sources that discuss how difficult it is, how to grind your teeth, and push through. I’ve always been turned off by this advice, mainly because all of it is based on a single premise: writing is painful, and there’s nothing we can do about it. One of my favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway, said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
No doubt, writing can be painful, particularly when you find yourself writing something you care little about. But we shouldn’t let that reality blanket all of writing.
My own process developed over several years of graduate school, mostly in an answer to the pain I was feeling as I pounded away at the keyboard. My process is based on a simple principle: eliminate all the elements of writing that can cause pain and adopt a baby-step process.
The blinking cursor can be a jerk. It just stands there, staring at you, blinking at the same pace and daring you to type something brilliant. It always reminded me of those inflatable clowns with the scary, laughing faces rocking back and forth: Go ahead! Write something awesome! I dare you!
What’s the solution? Eliminate the blank page. Let’s start with the most common assignment in humanities and social science courses: the literature review.
I liken my writing process to sculpting. I can’t start sculpting without clay. Which brings us to step 1.
1. Collect your clay
So many students, even veteran graduate students, attempt to write without having anything to write with: no research and no literature. They instead stare back at the blinking cursor and try to fight him on his own turf. I take a different approach by collecting a ton of research before I write any prose.
2. Pile your clay on top of your clean slate and identify initial forms
As I’m reading and collecting research, I take note of what might be relevant. If I see a particular passage I deem important, I add the passage and citation to a blank page. I continue this process until pages begin to fill up with sources and excerpts. Patterns begin to emerge. Themes begin to reveal themselves. If, and only if, the mood strikes me, I may add a bit of prose. But there is no pressure to do so.
3. Identify possible forms within the clay, but realize they may change
I take note of the themes emerging from the literature by categorizing them under subheadings. These subheadings may change as I add more and more research, but I soon find myself keeping within certain subheadings.
4. As the structure becomes apparent, begin shaping what you see
By now, I have pages of sources and their excerpts in an order that makes sense. I can now finally begin to write prose.
Notice what this does: I have eliminated the painful steps of writing, mainly the process of trying to synthesize disparate research and write prose at the same time.
I have also eliminated the fear of the blank page. To go further, I actually open a new, blank document and paste my entire research log into that blank page. From there, I give myself a bit of space at the top and then begin writing. Now, I don’t even have to shuffle papers, it’s all right there in front of me, immediately below the cursor.
5. Shape the clay into its truest form, but maintain a flexible mindset
Writing is a process of revision; it is never a product. I allow myself to complete what I call a 1.0 beta version of my document. Now, most of this version probably sucks, but that’s okay. It’s just my 1.0. There will be many versions. To go back to our clay metaphor, I’ll paraphrase Bruce Lee with regard to revision: Be like a sculptor, who doesn’t keep adding clay to statue, but strips away the inessentials until the truth is revealed.
In the end, consider yourself a sculptor, your research and literature are your clay. Eliminate the pain of the process by slowly allowing your piece to take shape. This is my process. And it has never failed me.