This post is a follow-up to one I wrote way back in September. I am finally finishing the book I started then: Howard S. Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article.
Taking seriously Lynn Hunt’s argument in “How Writing Leads to Thinking,” I wanted to take a few minutes to summarize the process Becker suggests as one way to circumvent our anxieties as we begin to write a new article, paper, or book. Doing so allows me to reflect on my own writing practice and how to improve it. As Hunt notes, no one is born a writer; rather, each person must become one.
The following process for thinking through writing comes from chapter 3 in Becker, Writing for Social Scientists:
- Instead of thinking about writing a first draft, think of it as a free-write. Write everything that comes to mind as quickly as possible without consulting notes to see what ideas emerge and what connections can be made. This piece of writing will be disorganized and repetitive, but that is okay. It is not meant to be anything more than another set of notes. This takes the pressure off because you don’t have to worry about the best way to introduce your argument (since you probably don’t know exactly what is yet), how to organize it, or about getting it “right.”
- Then, write down each and every idea in your free-write on its own notecard. Don’t toss any out! Organize the notecards that seem to be related. Do this quickly; trust your intuition. Make a card to go on top of each pile that summarizes all the cards underneath. If one or more don’t appear to fit, set them aside and create new piles with their own summary cards.
- Organize the summary cards in any order that seems to make sense. There will be more than one that works but not many more. Each way will emphasize a different aspect of your research. You just need to decide which version matches your objective and motivation in writing.
I’m not sure how this process might work for a longer piece of writing, say a dissertation or a book. Perhaps it would be helpful to follow the steps for the general argument first and then chapter by chapter. If anyone has tried this or another method for organizing their thoughts for a large project, please share your ideas in comments!