When to walk away from review

Note: In the “Do you work?” series, a doctorate. and an academic writing coach answers questions from faculty members and graduate students about scholar motivation and productivity. This month’s questions arrived via Twitter and Facebook. Read his previous columns here.

Question: When I revise, I sometimes end up overloading things and creating problems where there were none before. How can I avoid doing this?

can’t stop won’t stop

Dear CSWS,

Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that the most important part of complexity and confusion Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was his ethical and aesthetic corpus – which, notoriously, did not exist. He had just passed the last part of the Tractatus attesting that the language of ethics, aesthetics and riddles was nonsense because “every question that can be asked can be answered”, and ends the infuriating treatise with the infamous remark 7.53: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen, or what cannot be spoken about, must be passed over in silence. Therefore, the most “important” part of the work was the part he did not write.

Maybe it was Wittgenstein who was just a jerk (he was, it’s known, an incredible jerk), but he was also right. Sometimes what we don’t do is as important as what we do. And that’s especially the case when you’re writing something difficult.

You’re missing a key ingredient in your revisions here, CSWS, and that ingredient is time – specifically, time as far removed as humanly possible from anything you’re working on.

Once you get around 75% rewriting a chapter, article, or even a section, my recommendation is to set it aside for exactly one week. If this review was particularly draining to create, intellectually or emotionally, set it aside for two weeks. Two more weeks and you might forget what you were talking about. (On the bright side: you will read the clearer parts of your manuscript and think, Who is this very intelligent person and how did she find this?) Less time and you’ll be back where you started, overloading something because you’re too close to it and risking twisting it beyond recognition because you’re writing entirely in shorthand that no other reader but you will understand.

So you need to take a break from the draft – just long enough to stop understanding most of your weird shorthand, but not long enough for you to stop understanding anything. Then you can read the work with eyes just fresh enough to see exactly what you need to do to make it all make sense.

Question: Once again, I find myself overwhelmed by circumstances beyond my control. now intertwined, thanks to Covid, with two years of work interrupted. I seem unable to stick to a regular research schedule with all I have to do. How can I find time for long-term projects when I can barely make time to wash my face in the morning?

Still not OK

Dear SNO,

After another stressful start to the year, I too wonder when (or if) I’ll be well again, but the good news is that it’s been so long since I was well that I’ve forgot what it does!

Here’s something I recently recommended to my overwhelmed clients and they tell me it helps them. When planning your work for the week – and yes, step #1 is to create a very simple list (place it somewhere easily accessible) that plans your research time and sets goals that are succinct, concrete and very, very reasonable – give yourself a simple caveat:

If you feel too overwhelmed to even start the task you’ve set for the day, make a deal with yourself to cut the task in half. Say your goal is to do 90 minutes of work on a section of your manuscript, or 90 minutes of focused note taking on something you read, or 90 minutes of data coding. Before making a full vintage sesame street Don Music prints (“Rats, I’ll never…ever finish!”) and give up, cut your task in half and tell yourself you only have 45 minutes to do. If you’ve scheduled 30, tell yourself you only have to do 15. If all you’ve scheduled is 15 minutes of work and you still want to crumble at the thought, then literally set a timer on your phone for 7.5 minutes and remember that you can do almost anything for 7.5 minutes.

The key: persevere for any amount of time to maintain momentum.

As I’m sure you know, one of the hardest things to do as a writer is to resume work on a draft that you abandoned. The give up period seems to get longer and longer the longer you care about it – a situation best avoided at all costs. Halving your goal will usually trick the part of your mind that’s opposed to the work into thinking it got away with something. This leaves room for the rest of you to do something.

Question: What is one thing that seems counter-intuitive that you always recommend to clients who have difficulty with their writing, that I should try?

Friendly contrarian

Well, FC, go for a walk.

It may not look like it, but I’m serious. If you’ve scheduled 30 minutes of work time for a given day, but you’re so overwhelmed and dread even half that time, then, if you can, put on some shoes and get outside.

Don’t bring anyone else. Do not listen to podcasts or music. Make it just you and some fresh air. Now walk around for about 10-15 minutes and allow yourself to space out your draft. As the endorphins from walking start kicking in, you’ll probably stop worrying about what to do and what not to do. The sentences may start to come to you.

Or, if you’re like me, you may begin to visualize the broad outlines of your argument and a vague outline might take shape. (If you’re still worried, walk faster. If you’re in better shape than me, jog.)

When you get home, do a free write for 15 minutes without even taking off your coat. If that’s too intimidating, speak in your voice memo app for about 2 minutes (longer than that will be impossible to transcribe) about what came to you while you were outside on the go.

Now what are you waiting for? Get out and start your walk/write!

Comments are closed.