Writing Wednesdays: write to a deadline by any means necessary

17 October 2018, 1011 EDT

Scholarly work is often written to deadline—the contribution to an edited volume, the essay for a journal’s special issue, and the book review are all going to be fit into someone else’s bigger schedule. … Living with—thriving on—deadlines makes professionals professional.

—William Germano

During my early days in graduate school, I was often struck by the contrast in how academics thought about writing and how journalists do. Before starting my program, I worked at a non-profit and had spent 12 years in the Air National Guard, including stints on active duty. In both capacities, writing regular copy was a regular part of my duties. And yet, while in school, many of my classmates had or developed an aversion to writing. At least that is what we all told each other to avoid sharing our work.

It is true that writing scholarship is different. Working with data, archives, and formal models are time intensive processes, even for the best of us. Doing those well necessarily slows down the writing process.

Or does it? As Steven Pressfield as described it, writing is war against one’s self. According to him, writer’s block, even the most justified “I’m working on my data analysis” kind is nothing more than procrastination. Overcoming procrastination is as simple as building a habit to write regularly, perhaps even daily. Yes, simple does not mean easy.

That is why Germano’s comment about writing to deadline struck a chord with me, and I hope it does with many PhD Candidates closing in on the finish line. These last two months have been exciting as I learn the ropes of life after graduate school. In addition to syllabus prep, working with students, and getting to know my new intellectual home, my primary project is converting my dissertation into a book. It was there that Germano encourages readers to build a habit of regular, repeated writing. Given all these obligations, one might wonder why anyone would take up a guest blogging position. The truth is that it forces me to write to deadline.

So, in addition to other posts on IR, I want to take inspiration from Pressfield and begin posting on Wednesdays about my own writing projects, chief among them is the conversion of my dissertation into book manuscript. These posts will be a digression from the IR blogging in order to open up the black box of the process at a level of granularity that might not otherwise be possible with a single post or long-form essay.

To begin, then, I think it is vital to develop a habit of regular, deliberate writing. I’ve not always been the most disciplined with that, but it is a myth that good writing can happen any other way. The aim of regular writing is not to produce perfect prose for a journal or book manuscript, but rather to train your mind to think like a writer. These and related arguments are what motivated me to apply to write for the Duck. I want to build a habit of writing regularly, and by forcing myself to write published copy consistently I am more likely to achieve that goal.

I do not know if blogging is a good practice for everyone, especially graduate students. There’s a strong argument for “keeping your powder dry,” and therefore avoiding both the distraction from coursework, comp exams, and dissertations as well as any risks of developing a negative reputation before you get out of the gate. Still, I think there are strategies that students could adopt, like a weekly writing group. Not the kind that meets regularly to write in silence, though those are praiseworthy too. Instead, students may want to consider agreeing to meet weekly or by-weekly and show each other their writing. If you’re a graduate student and even the smallest amount of reticence by that idea, consider that all the more reason to do it. Kill, do not quiet, your lizard brain.

Yes, simple does not mean easy. It can be a protracted and arduous process. But the main point to takeaway is that writing is a skill not unlike any other. We only get better at methods through deliberate regular practice. So too with writing, scholarly writing. Until next week, here’s to a week of productive wordsmithing.