5 April 2014

Act Now!

In a confused flurry of russian-doll references, I quote James Thurber, whom Patrick Dunleavy quotes from Lewis Minkin:
”Don’t get it right, get it written”*
This is good advice. I explore it in this post.

1. A Revisionary Attitude

Following Thurber’s instruction, there is no such thing as writer’s block. That inertia may occur when a writer refuses to jot anything until the would-be-jotted idea is perfectly formulated in one’s mind. This echos an idea written by Voltaire in his poem, La B├ęgueule:
The best is the enemy of the good
(le mieux est l'ennemi du bien).**
The command is simple: don’t worry about perfect; don’t worry about silliness or shallowness or repetition; just get a draft written.

2. Before Finishing

When blank pages yield to scrawled text, it’ll be good enough to revise into good text, or it will beg to be thrown in the bin. Either way, the writer wins. If the first attempt is an acceptable first draft, half the battle’s won--editing and revising that draft might be dull, but it is easier than concocting the prose in the first place. And if the product is rubbish, it highlights what not to include in the next version. Dunleavy considers this idea:
[A] first draft is to make text where there was none, to get something written, to get the elements you have in play more or less defined, even if only in a preliminary way and often in the wrong order. As your text grows you will (…) necessarily lose some control over it. [As a text's length increases, so does its complexity, and you will struggle to] hold its entire argument in your head at one time. Nor can you even fully understand what you have written or why the argument turned out as it did. Rebuilding this mastery is a key element in the second stage of the writing process, where you can (…) organiz[e] text in a coherent fashion” (Dunleavy, Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation (Palgrave Macmillan 2003) p 136).

3. Conclusion

This pro-active approach is useful at any stage of one’s education. Consider a working-text near or at its completion. It is sometimes helpful to pick an idea (either at random, or because it obviously needs improvement) and re-write it. Sometimes this instantly suggests better alternative text. And if the new attempt is worse, it indicates the original is adequate. But this only works if you actually write. Stop ruminating. Stop cleaning and diverting. Stop procrastinating. There are times for all these things. But it is not now. Now you should just write!

4. Further Reading

'On Misinterpreting Voltaire' is an interesting article. The essay shows interpreting Voltaire without reference to productivity can lead to an altogether different meaning. The pithy wisdom can be used to justify nihilistic inactivity: why try anything if perfect is impossible? I do not advise this standpoint under any circumstances, especially during a legal education; the link that opens this paragraph might demonstrate how to argue oneself out from the defeatist spiral.

On completing written work, 'How can we write efficiently?' is quite a good article. Tim Albert’s focus is medicine, but his remarks apply more broadly.

* The full reference is James Thurber, cited in Patrick Dunleavy, Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation (Palgrave Macmillan 2003) p 136, citing Lewis Minkin, Exits and Entrances: Political Research as a Creative Art (Sheffield Hallam UP 1997) p 100.
** I thank Graham Ferris for stating this during, I think, the final months of my undergraduate degree. Whatever the date, I have steadily become a more disciplined writer since hearing the phrase and accommodating it in my habits--more so, I think, than I would have developed without the advice.

Created: 24 July 2014. Version 1.0.

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