By Stephen J. A. Ward, February 15th, 2016
Academics and other friends frequently ask me: You are a writing juggernaut. How do you get it all done – your books, chapters, online columns? What’s your secret?
One answer: I need to get a life.
Another answer: I have more time to write than you. I am retired. But I was productive before I retired.
A less charitable view: I churn out superficial pieces. Ouch. I hope that is not true.
I cannot fill your head with original, publishable ideas. I can’t make you a brilliant writer. But I have a few methods for getting things done.
It is all about organization. You must become a raving, semi-committable nut about process. In two ways: (1) You must be totally clear about why you are writing. (2) You must be totally clear about your plan of attack. If you are not clear on these two things, don’t even start writing. Forget it. Go back and get clear.
Why are you writing? Obvious, right? Not so. Many scholars and researchers become excited about a topic or new idea. They start writing, feverously. Then they get entangled in execution problems: They over-write. They wander around – the way we accidentally get off the main highway and go down alleyways. Then the alleyways lead to dead ends.
Here is the best way to know if you are clear: Write an introduction to your anticipated magnum opus in under 800 words. Then write a two-paragraph abstract of the introduction. State in precise and plain terms your topic, your contribution, and why it is important. I said precise and plain. Then give it to some ordinary person – the person next to you on the bus — and see if they understand it. If you struggle with the introduction, you lack precision in purpose. If you plunge into writing anyway, you will regret it.
What is your plan of attack?
But much more. I have an outline for each chapter. I have an outline of each section of the chapter. I place word limits on each section. What is more, I alter the outlines as I go along as better ways of organizing material occur to me. Outlines evolve.
I never write without the relevant outline beside me. It prevents me from getting lost in the verbiage. The outline also tells me if I am spending too much time on a particular section.
I am sure Freud could explain my reliance on outlines as sort of a security blanket. But, never mind Freud. They work for me.
A few more tips:
- Find a time of day to write: Protect that time. Set deadlines for sections and stick to them. Try to write a little bit every day. I type notes to myself where I stop for the day, so I know how to resume the thread of thought.
- Go to the beach: When you become frustrated with a section, take a break. Walk the beach, walk the dog. My best ideas have come when I am not at the keyboard. I keep pencil and pen all over my apartment (and in my car) in case a good thought strikes.
- Use paper and pen: There are times when I get really stuck, despite my outlines. I take a notebook and pen and sit on my balcony. I sketch the concepts I am struggling to organize. I draw little boxes for ideas and use primitive arrows to connect them. Suddenly out of this maze, I SEE a better pattern. I then quickly type the pattern into my computer. Whew! I have posted some of these primitive drawings on Facebook to the amusement of friends.
- Write first, edit later: Once you have done (1) and (2), start writing. Do NOT stare at an empty screen and induce writer’s block. Do not write one perfect sentence at a time. Just start writing, darn it, even if the prose is mediocre. Let the ideas pour out of you. Write long. Then, go back and edit, and fix. This editing, remarkably, will give you great ideas on what you are really trying to say, and its structure. A virtuous circle: write an outline–write copy–edit copy–then improve the outline.
So my advice is: With Prussian discipline you must channel and structure your marvelous insights and ideas.
For those poor souls who still believe, romantically, that you can rely on inspiration and who dislike structure, what can I say?
I am not your best guide.
I wish you well.
About Stephen J. A. Ward
Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, journalist, educator, consultant, keynote speaker and award-winning author.
He is Distinguished Lecturer in Ethics at the University of British Columbia and acting co-chair of the Ethics Advisory Committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
Ward was a war correspondent, foreign reporter and newsroom manager for 14 years and has received a lifetime award for service to professional journalism in Canada. He covered conflicts in Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Northern Ireland.
His current research is on the future of media ethics in a global interactive world. Also, he acts as an expert in other areas of ethics.