By Daveena Tauber |
Anne Lamott advises us to write “shitty drafts”—sage words that can help us bypass our internal censor, who always seems to be sitting on the porch with a shotgun saying, “you call that a sentence/paragraph/ research question/dissertation?”
I am all for shitty drafts.
But what happens when your pastiche of paragraphs, outlines, stray quotes, and half-baked notes becomes a kind of ball and chain that you can neither shake off nor push forward?
Most of us feel weighed down by an existing draft at some point. Maybe you lose the thread of your argument or just can’t quite get to the next insight. Maybe, having labored so hard just to get these words on paper, you are loathe to delete a single one, even when they are not working. Or maybe you came to a stuck point and stomped off in disgust hoping things would be clearer when you came back.
In my work with dissertation students, I often see folks who are coming back to work after a hiatus and have trouble moving past their existing draft. Likewise, it’s not uncommon for graduate students to experience a slump after completing major milestones like passing a review, giving a big paper, or submitting a chapter. Unfortunately, returning to an unfinished draft can feel like an anchor rather than a wind beneath your sails. Here are some ideas to help make sure that your existing text doesn’t sink your project.
Write your way back. Our impulse is often to read and re-read our existing material, hoping to regain the thread or have a flash of inspiration. Sometimes this works; other times we just reproduce the feeling of stuckness. Rather than re-reading, try writing your way back in. Before you pick up the draft, start writing. What do you remember? Why did you start this project? What interested you about your subject? By writing you reconnect with your draft on your terms, not its terms.
Level up. Rather than trying to re-enter the content of the project, write a narrative about the project. What are you hoping to do in this chapter or project? What work have you already done? What pieces are still missing? Writing a metanarrative about the project can get you out of the weeds and up to a vantage point where you can see the landscape of the project itself as well as the space of possibility around it. It can also help you produce the kind of narrative that will ultimately structure the project. This is important because a common problem with dissertations is that they are “all bricks and no mortar,” meaning that they lack a narrative framework.
Dodge your draft. Ditch your existing draft by starting a new “working draft” document into which you cut and paste earlier material. Sometimes starting fresh can break the organizational and conceptual chokehold imposed by the existing draft.
Good shitty and bad shitty. I have seen students get stuck on their drafts because they could not tell exactly where their material ended and their sources began. Shitty drafts become problematic when you have to spend hours revisiting your sources to find out if something is quoted, paraphrased, or your words. Engage in safe drafting practices to protect yourself from unintentional plagiarism (and save hours of needless work). Always put quotation marks around words that are not yours and add page numbers. Indicate paraphrase as a note in parentheses to yourself—and add page numbers.
Text testing. Sometimes you’re not sure whether a chunk of text “lives” in one place or another. Maybe you’ve written your way into an eddy where the beginning of a thought stream fits neatly with the preceding material, but the end connects with a different part of the project. Test chunks of text in multiple places by highlighting both chunks (in a color other than yellow). Then read the text in each context and decide where it works better.
Save it to let it go. For writers who struggle to get every word on the screen, letting go of material can be agonizing. Having an “outtakes” file can help assuage the sense that you are “losing” text and free you up to make real edits. I have heard students call these “fragments,” “compost,” “the cutting room floor,” “the lonely sentences file,” and even the “kill-your-darlings” file. Whatever you call yours, know that you can easily cut and paste text back into your project. These files also become important sources of ore to mine for future projects.
Print and reverse outline. If you have worked with your text primarily on screen and you feel stuck, it may be time to print the sucker out. If you have room, spread the pages out on the floor or a big table. Then “reverse outline” by annotating what each paragraph or chunk of text does. Seeing this will help you group “like ideas with like,” re-organize material, decide where things go, and find the holes that need filling in. Better yet, print multiple copies and ask your peers to reverse outline the text too. Emphasize that they don’t need to read every word—just skim and give their sense of what you’re doing in each paragraph (questioning, reporting, arguing, giving evidence, etc). Offer to do the same for them when they need it.
Finally, remember that most people go through many cycles of feeling like their project falls apart and then falls back into place. Losing the thread of your concept can offer a productive time to back up and rethink important aspects of your project. Learning to notice and allow both parts of this process is part of what makes you a resilient writer who will keep moving across the finish line.
Dr. Daveena Tauber is a composition scholar, consultant, and teacher who specializes in pedagogies related to graduate-level writing. Her practice, ScholarStudio, serves individual writers as well as institutions, offering workshops, residencies, curriculum design, and faculty development. Find more of her work on writing and teaching writing at scholar-studio.com and scholarstudioblog.wordpress.com.
(Photos (C) Daveena Tauber)