Saturday, July 28, 2018

Writing Workshop: Resistance

The scariest moment is always just before you start.

–Stephen King

[Note: Most of the material from these writing workshop blog posts, plus a lot more never-blogged material, is now available in my book, The Writing Workshop: Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia.]

In the last post, I described Writer’s Block as a myth. The myth is that a mysterious force descends upon us and prevents us from writing, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But of course it is true that people often find it difficult to write, and especially to get started writing. In the writing workshop, we call this resistance.

It’s tempting to beat up on yourself when you have trouble writing. Often we attribute the difficulty to some flaw in ourselves: Laziness, disorganization, lack of talent or self-discipline, and so on. This way of thinking makes us even more unhappy. Please don’t do this to yourself.

Instead, please think of your resistance as a friendly monster: It loves you and wants to protect you. It knows that writing makes you vulnerable. Your ideas might turn out to be foolish or false; you might discover serious mistakes in your own work; and whatever you write is sure to be judged and criticized-- and probably rejected multiple times-- by anonymous reviewers. These small fears quickly lead to big ones: What if you don’t have what it takes to succeed in this profession? Your friendly resistance monster wants to protect you from all the bad things by preventing you from writing in the first place.

I have two big dogs that bark loudly whenever a stranger approaches my house. They are trying to protect their home and family. But their barking is an annoyance, because most of the time the stranger at the door is delivering something I ordered, like a package or a pizza. Or sometimes the stranger is a neighbor or a friend who hasn't spent much time at my house, so the dogs don't know them. I want these strangers to come to my door. It would be nice if my dogs could tell the difference between welcome and unwelcome strangers, but they can’t-- they bark at everyone. I don’t blame them for that; they’re just being dogs, and guarding the house is in their nature. In the same way, please don’t blame your friendly resistance monster for trying to stop you from writing. It’s only following its nature by trying to protect you.

Procrastination: This computer screen is filthy!

The resistance monster is stealthy, but it often shows itself in the form of procrastination. Even if I have carefully planned my writing and set aside time for it, it may be that when that time rolls around, I am seized by a desperate urge to do something else. For example, say that I have planned to work on the revision of a paper from 9:00 to 9:30 AM today. I have turned off email notifications and resolved not to check any internet sites until after my writing time. I make a cup of tea and sit down at my computer at 9:00 sharp. I am about to turn on the computer when I notice that the computer screen is covered with smudges.

9:00. This screen is filthy! I can’t work like this. Now let me see . . . I know you’re not supposed to use paper towels to clean a computer screen because they can scratch it . . . You’re supposed to use cotton, right? . . . Is this T-shirt made of cotton? Hmm, I don’t know. I really need one of those special microfiber screen-cleaning cloths. I’m sure I have one around here somewhere . . .

9:04 Oh good, here it is. Now let me just clean the screen . . . that’s better. . . oh wow, look at this keyboard! How did it get so dirty? Look all these grubby fingerprints on the keys—what am I, a coal miner? Well, I’m just going to take a cloth with some grease-cutting stuff on it and wipe off the keys . . . That’s better. Hmm, there’s still a lot of crud in between the keys . . . I need some compressed air. Or better yet, a wooden toothpick. Yes. I need a wooden toothpick. Because I am a person who takes care of my equipment. Now where were the wooden toothpicks? I’m pretty sure I had some in the kitchen somewhere . . .

9:14 Here they are-- wooden toothpicks. Waaaay at the back of this cabinet. Hmm. Now that I’ve taken most of the stuff out of this cabinet, I might as well take the last few items out out and wipe down the shelf underneath . . .

When this type of resistance appears, it doesn’t feel like you’re avoiding writing. It’s more like you suddenly discover a sincere motivation to do some other task-- maybe even one you’ve been avoiding for a long time. Joseph, a member of our writing workshop, had a manuscript that he had not worked on for a year. At one meeting he said that his goal for the upcoming week was to work on the paper. But the next meeting, he still had not worked on it. He explained that when his scheduled writing time had arrived, he suddenly felt motivated to re-caulk the shower, which his wife had been asking him to do for months. He spent the rest of his writing time that week on the shower project. When he came to class, he was disappointed about not working on the manuscript, but happy that his shower was finally fixed.

Many of us procrastinate by doing other work that isn’t writing. We call this workcrastinating. Instead of writing, it is tempting to answer emails, or grade papers, or fill out IRB paperwork, or debug code. You have to do these tasks sooner or later anyway, says the resistance. Why not get them out of the way now? 

Put off procrastinating for 20 minutes.

My solution is to ask myself, Can the non-writing task wait 20 minutes? In other words, when I sit down to write and suddenly think that I need to clean the computer screen, I ask myself: Does the computer screen really have to be cleaned right this second, or can it wait 20 minutes? Similarly, if I suddenly feel that I should answer email, I think, Can the email wait 20 minutes? I decide that I will do just 20 minutes of writing, and then I will clean the computer, answer email, recaulk the shower, sort out my sock drawer, grade a stack of papers, or whatever the other task is. Most often, I find that after I’ve been writing for 20 minutes, my resistance (which is really a form of anxiety) has subsided to the point where the other task no longer seems so urgent, and I’m able to complete my planned writing time.

Negative Self-Talk TV

Resistance can sometimes take the form of intrusive thoughts that make it hard to concentrate on writing. We compare ourselves to other people; we dwell on things that we regret saying or doing in the past; we wonder what other people think about us; we daydream about our future success or worry about future failure. These thoughts are very distracting. They make it hard to pay attention to anything else.

In the workshop we call these thoughts, ‘Negative Self-Talk TV.’ We even make up names for the shows on our own private channels. I have a show called Jackass, which plays nothing but video of foolish things I regret saying and doing. One of my students described a show where people mocked her for daring to do a PhD in cognitive science after having studied architecture as an undergraduate. It was called, So You Think You Can Science. A show that most everyone seems to have is The Biggest Loser, where we compare ourselves unfavorably to other people.

The metaphor of Negative Self-Talk TV doesn’t work in one sense: We can’t turn off these thoughts as easily as we turn off a TV. But these thoughts are like TV shows in a different way: As long as you watch them a lot, they stay on the air. If you ignore them as much as possible, they eventually get cancelled.

So although we can’t simply turn off Negative Self-Talk TV, we can at least try to ignore it while we do our work. It’s like an annoying TV in a gym or a restaurant or a doctor’s waiting room. It may be stuck on a channel you don’t want to watch, but you try to ignore it as much as possible and get on with whatever you need to do. And unlike the TV in the gym or restaurant or waiting room, Negative Self-Talk TV really does get smaller and quieter when we don’t watch it. As time passes, it can change from a big, high-definition color image to a small, scratchy black-and-white image, and eventually disappear altogether.

If you want to work more actively with your intrusive thoughts, you can use techniques borrowed from mindfulness meditation. A four-step technique taught by some Buddhist teachers is abbreviated RAIN, which stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. Here’s how you can use RAIN to deal with negative self-talk TV or the howling of your resistance monster.

  • Recognize the thoughts that you’re having. This is what we do, in our workshop, when we name the shows on our negative self-talk TV channels. 
  • Allow the thoughts to be there. Don’t try to do anything about them. This is what we do when we just let the negative self-talk TV play in the background, and get on with our work. 
  • Investigate where you are holding tension in your body. (It's usually the throat, chest or belly.) If you think of your resistance as a monster, this is the step where you gently ask the monster, “Where does it hurt?” 
  • Nurture your monster. Thank your monster (sincerely!) for trying to protect you, and tell it that you are going to do some writing now, and it’s going to be okay.

When you can’t look away

Most of the time, resistance and negative self-talk TV are just annoying and distracting. But if your negative thoughts are overwhelming you—interfering with your ability to take care of yourself in basic ways; making it impossible for you to work; if you feel hopeless or have lost interest in things you used to enjoy, then don’t just grit your teeth and try to tough it out alone. Talk to someone you trust, like a counselor or a doctor, about what you are feeling. You don’t have to suffer in silence: Help is available, and you deserve to be happy.

The Life-Changing Magic of a Daily Writing Practice

The most effective long-term tool for eliminating resistance is to write little and often. In the workshop, we encourage everyone to establish a regular daily writing practice, and we support each other via the shared daily writing log. If you can cultivate the habit of writing every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes, your resistance will diminish by a huge amount. 

Start with one, easy thing.

Resistance is strongest just before you start writing. A good trick for getting started is to focus on doing just one, easy thing. For example, you might resolve to revise one sentence. Or fill in one citation. Or draft one figure caption.

Focusing on one, easy task helps you get started, and getting started is huge. That’s why our shared writing log doesn’t ask how much writing you got done, or whether you met your writing goals for the day. It just asks whether you wrote or not. Our motto is, Either you wrote today, or you didn’t.

My favorite thing to do when I’m having trouble writing is to set a timer for five minutes and commit to writing for just that long. A curious thing often happens: Although I have frequent impulses to quit writing (especially at the beginning), they don’t happen to coincide with the ringing of the timer, so I keep going. For example, my thought process often goes like this:

  • 9:05 pm. Ugh, look at the time! The whole day has gone by and I haven’t done any writing. Why didn’t I write first thing in the morning? I’m way too tired to write now . . . I will just have to put a ‘no’ on the writing log . . . how embarrassing, I’m always preaching about daily writing . . . I’m supposed to set an example! OK, I’ll write for five minutes, but that’s all. (Sets timer for five minutes).
  • 9:06 pm. There, I fixed a typo. How much time left? Four minutes. (Sigh.) OK, I’ll look at one more sentence . . . 
  • 9:09 pm. Nice, I revised a whole paragraph. And still one minute left on the timer. OK, I can keep going for one more minute . . . 
  • 9:10 pm (Timer goes off) Shut up you stupid timer, I’m in the middle of a sentence . . . (sets timer for another 5 minutes). 
  • 9:13 pm There, another paragraph done. Can I stop? Hmm, two minutes left on the timer. OK, I can do another two minutes... 

Often, I end up resetting the timer over and over again. After a while, I get annoyed by the frequent interruptions of the timer, and I start setting it for ten- or twenty-minute increments. I almost always end up doing more than five minutes of writing.

Alternate little chunks of work with little rewards.

There are days when I can’t tell myself that I’ll just write for five minutes, because I have a pile of work to do and a deadline. Once I was complaining about this to my colleague and friend Lisa (who is also generously editing this book). I said, “This journal review is a month overdue and I promised the editor I’d finish it today, but all I want to do is lie on the couch and read a novel.”

Lisa said, “How about alternating? You could do one section of the review, and then read one chapter of the novel.” What a good idea! Now I use Lisa’s system whenever I have a pile of work to do: A little bit of work, a little reward, a little bit of work, a little reward . . . It helps me keep going when I desperately wish to be doing something else. 

Drafting Without Judgment

Of all the tasks involved in writing, the one that seems to trigger the most resistance is the task of writing a first draft. I think much of this resistance comes from a mistaken idea many people have, which is that good writers write good first drafts. In fact, that’s not true at all: First drafts stink. They always stink; they’re supposed to stink; that’s their nature. Hoping your first draft won’t stink is like hoping the manure you buy for your rose garden will smell like roses.

When it comes to drafting, the key to overcoming resistance to learning to draft without judgment. To do this, make a conscious decision to produce what we in the workshop call ‘word vomit.’ (Some of us, including me, like to put our word vomit in green font; I don’t know why.) To produce word vomit, you make a vow to write without evaluation, judgment or criticism. You promise not to use the backspace or delete keys, and not to rewrite or fix or improve anything. If you write a sentence and then immediately think of a different way to say it, just go ahead and write the second sentence after the first one. Leave all the spelling errors and sentence fragments and half-finished thoughts and irrelevant nonsense right where they are. Just let it be a hot mess. Here’s an example of what the first paragraph of this post might have looked like when it was just a ‘word vomit’ first draft:

Last chpater ls latst time the in the post about well in post 3 i was like ‘writersblock is a myth! ‘ and that was kind of obvionoxious because you were proby like ‘No it’s not, what do you mean a mythi, you think i LOKLIKE LIKEnot writing/? I ondon’t LIKE it, I WANT to write but I CAN”T write so it’s nota myth its REAL . . . so i mean it’s not a mythin the sense that peope realiy experience it but it’s a myth to hin think that you can’t do anything about it . . . because well maybe it s more like it’s a mth to thin k that its that there’s no cure for it of that or that you can’t do anything… so yes, i gueet get it m people feel blocked nad it and its’ hard to write by but they can do something. You can do something and I can do something , we do something about it in the workshop, about this, and people who think they have a lot of problems with writers block, I mean people who WERE having a lot ob problemtns .. they have less problems. They … so the point is lets’ not call it writers block because that sounds like … i don’ t know to me it sounds like there’s nothing you can do about it . . . i don’t know does it have that connotation ? Let’s call it resistance. Well we call it that. I don’t know, so does that have other, does resistance have other connotations?

The point of producing a word-vomit first draft is to stop evaluating the words that you’re putting on the page. Writing requires two opposing forces: Creativity and judgment. Creativity allows you to generate new ideas. It requires an open mind and an attitude that says, ‘Yes!’ Judgment requires a skeptical mind and a critical attitude. It helps you to find and fix inconsistencies in your argument, identify problems with the organization of your writing, weed out unnecessary words and irrelevant tangents, and so forth. Good writing certainly requires good judgment . . . but not right at the beginning. At the beginning, what’s needed is creativity. The problem is that for most of us, judgment is easy and creativity is hard. We have to practice holding judgment in check so that our creativity can surface.

There are also times to hold creativity in check: For example, when you are proofreading a grant proposal an hour before the submission deadline, that’s not the time to be creative. Even if a bunch of new ideas for great experiments occur to you in that moment, you shouldn’t try to add them because you don’t have enough time to rewrite the whole proposal and polish it up. Instead, you should focus on proofreading the grant that you have already written, and save your new ideas for the next proposal.

In the early parts of a writing project, the opposite is true: This is when you need to let the creative part of your mind take over. And to do that, you must give the judges and critics in your mind the day off, because judgment suppresses creativity.

It is the nature of human beings that we find it much easier to be judgmental than creative. Criticizing and finding fault is like scratching an itch-- we can’t help ourselves. We also know that reviewers will judge our writing eventually, so it’s naturally difficult to suppress the urge to evaluate the writing ourselves as we’re producing it. But that’s exactly what we must learn to do. 

Decide to write something bad.

Personally, I often overcome resistance by deciding to writing something bad. For example, I might have the following conversation in my mind (both voices are my own):

I can’t write this paper. 

What about badly? Can you write this paper badly?

Well sure, but I can’t write it well.

So write it badly, and fix it later.

And that’s how I’m able to start writing.

Take dictation for the resistance.

Resistance monsters are like everyone else-- they just want to be heard. So when my resistance is making it hard for me to write, I sometimes take dictation for it. OK, I say to my resistance, I have something I want to write, and you are preventing me. So let’s write down my stuff and your stuff together. 

Then I just start writing down all the thoughts in my head: I write down my thoughts about whatever I’m working on, as well as the resistance monster’s thoughts. It’s very liberating to just put everything down on the page without having to sort through and figure out what's what. The resulting draft is wildly disorganized and incoherent, but that’s fine! Remember, first drafts are supposed to stink. Here’s an example:


Preschool number concepts and an intervention that didn’t work very well.

How we tried to teach math to preschoolers and it was probably a waste of time.

Cardinality, equinumerosity, counting principles, and other things you probably don’t care about.

How can we be out of milk already?

NSF gave me money to improve preschool math education and I kind of think I failed them.

Cardinality and approximate numerosity and estimation and counting and the preschoolers were bilingual.

ABSTRACT: Yeah, whatever I’ll write it after the paper is drafted. But I suppose I can try to draft something now. So we tested a bunch of kids on a bunch of number assessments and some of them did better than others and there were big inter-group differences and no, I didn’t look at individual differences, why does everyone ask about individual differences? Would everybody just shut up about the damned individual differences already? The things that all humans have in common are SO much more important than the things that make us different from each other... is this 250 words yet? [Checks word count] Only 101 words. Dammit. I mean, I guess some of the individual differences research is interesting. Some kids use more effective strategies and whatnot, and maybe you could identify the strategies and teach them to other kids and maybe that would be helpful . . . So anyway, we tested like 550 kids and we got results and I will tell them to you in this paper. The most interesting ones were the counting and cardinality tasks. And I’m not just saying that because this is like the 30th paper that I’ve written about counting and cardinality. They really were the most interesting. The written numeral tasks were a bust; big floor effects. and the ANS tasks were sort of interesting, except I’m not sure we figured out how to measure it right . . . So . . . SES had a big effect, I mean who is surprised by that? Why is that even a question we ask anymore? I guess we ask what it had an effect ON . . . and bilingualism didn’t have much effect, which I guess is interesting? I mean but why would you expect it to have an effect? I guess I must have thought it was an interesting question when I wrote the grant and they thought it was interesting enough to fund it but now that I know it didn’t have any effect I’m like DUH, why would it have an effect once you take SES out of the equation . . . Ugh, is this 250 words yet? [Checks word count] Yay! 363 words! Abstract drafted!

Of course a draft like that will go through many further revisions, but that’s fine. It’s still a huge step forward from sitting at my computer feeling unable to write, or worse-- avoiding sitting down at my computer in the first place.

Knowledge Telling vs. Knowledge Transforming: The Difference Between Amateur and Expert Writers

Professional house painters say that most of their work is done before they ever open a can of paint. They spend most of their time cleaning and priming the surfaces to be painted, and then covering edges and trim with tape. By the time they actually apply the paint, their job is almost done. Even though the surfaces will be covered up and the tape will be removed, this careful preparation makes the difference between a professional-quality paint job and one that looks sloppy and amateurish.

Writing is similar. Whereas novice writers expect to sit down and write something good, expert writers spend a very long time on the early parts of the writing process-- first creating multiple outlines and drafts to figure out what they want to say, and only later thinking about how to communicate it to others.

In this way, expertise in writing is different from expertise in many other domains. When we think about mastery of any skill, we imagine that masters do things faster and more easily than novices. We imagine newbies struggling while experts breeze through. But this is not the case with writing-- Writing never becomes automatic. As researchers Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter observe,

Expert writers generally are found to work harder at the same assigned tasks than nonexperts, engaging in more planning and problem solving, more revision of goals and methods, and in general more agonizing over the task. (Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1991). LIterate expertise. In Toward a General Theory of Expertise: Prospects and Limits (171-194) Cambridge University Press.)

That’s right-- expert writers work harder than novices. It takes them longer to write things. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the number of outlines and drafts that people write.The reason expert writers produce multiple drafts and outlines of a single manuscript is because they understand that writing is a form of thinking. The act of writing allows us to see our own thoughts more clearly and reflect on them, and this causes the thoughts themselves to evolve. In the course of writing, we generate new ideas and gain new understanding. Experienced writers know this, and they don’t consider it a waste of time to make an outline, then another outline, and then a draft, then another outline, then two more drafts, and so on. Newbies think that writing is just a way to tell other people what you think; experts know that it’s actually the way to figure out what you think. In Scardamalia and Bereiter’s words, novices see writing as knowledge telling, whereas experts see it as knowledge transforming.

The Bonsai Tree

I often think of the overall process of writing as similar to gardening, and I think of each writing project as a plant. It starts out as an idea, which I imagine as a little, brown seed. An idea may not seem very special, just as a seed does not look like anything special. But that’s how all ideas start out.

I imagine each writing project as a bonsai tree. Bonsai are small trees grown in pots. Cultivating them is an ancient art in Japan. To me, writing a paper seems similar to the process of cultivating a bonsai, because both processes seem to require a balance. First, a bonsai must be nurtured it to help it grow big and strong in all directions; this is how I think of non-judgmental drafting. As it grows, the bonsai is also gently shaped and pruned; this is how I think of outlining and revising.

Pruning cannot come before nurturing: The plant must be allowed to grow before it can be pruned back. If the gardener stands over the seedling with the pruning shears and cuts away at the tiny sprouts before the plant can establish itself, it will die. Similarly, the early part of a writing project demands that you generate a lot of text without judging (like allowing leaves and branches to flourish) before you cut it back and shape it.

Outline, Draft, Outline, Draft, Repeat...

In the early stages of the writing process, the only intended reader is yourself. The purpose of outlining is to take a step back from the details and just trace the branches-- the lines of reasoning-- in the argument. The purpose of drafting, on the other hand, is to generate the leaves-- the actual sentences and paragraphs and examples and details-- that make up the bulk of the manuscript.

You might write several outlines just getting the overall structure of your argument worked out in your mind. Then, when you try to turn the last outline into a draft, you might find that some of the points don’t actually make sense. Or you find that several points you had listed as separate in the outline actually turn out to be different ways of saying the same thing, and they should all be merged into one paragraph. Or you might draft a paragraph for what you thought was a minor point, and discover that actually you have a lot to say about it, and so you decide to expand it into a whole section of its own. By the time you get to the end of the draft, the outline you started with no may longer summarize your argument. So you make a new outline. And so it goes, back and forth between outlining and drafting.

Some people like to start with drafting; others start with outlining. Please start with whatever seems easiest to you. The key is to produce both drafts and outlines, going back and forth between the two as necessary to develop and clarify your thinking.

A Step-By-Step Recipe

If you like step-by-step instructions, here is a recipe for you to follow in tackling a new writing project. (1) Get a finished example to use as a template; (2) Make a topic outline; (3) Turn the topic outline into a sentence outline; (4) Turn the sentence outline into a first draft, taking dictation for the resistance as necessary; (5) Re-draft and re-outline until you are happy with the content; (6) Show your outline to someone for feedback; (7) Revise for readability. (In real life, Steps 5, 6 and 7 are not so neatly separated. Steps 6 and 7 both tend to cause authors to return to Step 5 and change things. But in order to explain each step clearly, I will pretend here that they happen in a neat, linear order.) Here is a more detailed explanation of each step, along with an example showing how a piece of writing evolves from a topic outline to a rough draft. 

Step 1. Get a finished example to use as a template.

Before I start trying to write anything, I like to look at one or two finished examples of similar documents. These answer some big, basic questions: How long is this thing supposed to be? Is it one document or a group of documents? How is it formatted? Can it have figures? What level of detail should it have? Is the tone formal or informal? It’s easy to get a finished example of a published article, but if you need a examples of unpublished things like grant proposals, you’ll have to pluck up your courage and ask around. The websites of funding agencies often list the titles and abstracts of recently funded projects, along with the names and university affiliations of the authors. One good strategy is to find a successful applicant from your own university and ask if they’ll share their proposal with you. But you can also email people at other universities and ask if they’ll share theirs. The worst they can say is no, and you can always count it as a rejection for the collection. (One step closer to a party for everyone!)

Step 2. Make a topic outline.

A topic outline is basically a to-do list of things you plan to write about. The topics are just placeholders to remind you of the points you plan to include and roughly where in the document you plan to put them. For most writing projects I only make one topic outline, at the very beginning. All later outlines are sentence outlines. 

Step 3. Turn the topic outline into a sentence outline.

Now replace each item in your topic outline with a complete sentence. This sounds simple, but a lot of thinking happens in this step.

Step 4. Turn the sentence outline into a first draft, taking dictation for the resistance as necessary.

Now treat each sentence in your sentence outline as the topic sentence of a paragraph, and go ahead and write the paragraph. This is where the practice of drafting without judgment becomes really important. I like to put my first drafts in green font, to remind myself that they are not to be judged. They can be full of errors, typos, mistakes, digressions, and taking dictation for the resistance, and that’s just fine.

Most writers say that first drafts are very hard to write, But because I practice drafting without judgment, I don’t find them hard to write. The more you give yourself permission to write something that’s off topic, disorganized, rambling, and full of errors, the easier writing becomes.

It’s nice to be in a space where you are accepted and not judged. When you learn to create a little of that space inside your own mind, writing becomes much, much easier.

Step 5. Re-draft and re-outline until you are happy with the content.

The number of drafts and outlines you produce will depend on how much your thinking evolves during the writing process. If you are writing your first paper in a given area of research, you will probably go through many drafts, because your understanding is changing rapidly as you learn about the topic. Please don’t think that writing many drafts is a waste of time! It’s the opposite of a waste of time-- the process of producing those drafts is the process of thinking and learning itself. 

Step 6. Get feedback on an outline (not a draft)

Getting feedback at an early stage of a writing project is extremely useful. But I recommend getting feedback on a sentence outline, rather than on a draft, for a few reasons:

  1. Rough drafts are embarrassing. It’s kind of like letting someone look in your underwear drawer. But you can clean up a sentence outline and make it presentable without too much trouble. 
  2. A draft is long; a sentence outline is short. People are busy. You can buy someone a cup of coffee and sit down together while they read your outline and tell you what they think. But if you ask them to read a whole draft, you have to send it to them and wait a few days, and often they don’t have time to read it, so they either tell you it looks great (which means they didn’t read it), or they just don’t give you any feedback at all.
  3. People can’t see through the messiness of a rough draft. Even if you ask them to just pay attention to the ideas, and ignore all the typos and digressions and sentence fragments and other weirdness, they can’t. They will be so distracted by the errors and clutter that they won’t be able to focus on the thing you want them to, which is the structure of the argument. 
  4. If you’re going in the wrong direction, you want to know right away. Sometimes your idea or argument has a fatal flaw that isn’t obvious to you, but can be spotted by someone else. The earlier you find out about it, the sooner you can fix the problem, change course or abandon the project. (Thanks to volunteer editor Sarah for this point.)

Step 7. Revise to communicate with a reader.

This post is about the early stages of the writing process, when you write as a form of thinking and your goal is to transform your own knowledge. But eventually, hopefully, you get to a point where the structure of your argument is clear in your own mind and you know what you want to say. You’ve met the first challenge of any writing project.

That’s when it’s time to turn your attention to the second major challenge of any writing project, which is to communicate with readers. Writing for communication requires a whole different set of skills than writing to transform your own knowledge; those skills are the focus of Part III of this book. 

The Anti-Resistance: Age Quod Agis

If I could choose only one skill to master in my life, it would be Age Quod Agis, which is Latin for Do what you are doing. The phrase comes from the Jesuits—a 500-year-old order of Roman Catholic priests and monks-- but many branches of Buddhist philosophy emphasize the same idea. When ancient spiritual traditions in different parts of the world independently arrive at the same principle, you know it’s worth considering.

To practice Age Quod Agis is to bring all of your attention to the work you are doing right at this moment. So as I’m writing this sentence, I try to let myself be completely absorbed in the task of writing it, and not worry about what I will have for lunch, or what tasks I need to get done later, or whether anyone will want to read this book. In particular, Age Quod Agis means working without worrying about the consequences of the work, because thoughts about consequences are particularly good at pulling your attention away from the here and now.

When I am writing a paper or grant proposal, it’s very easy to start wondering about the consequences of the writing. In particular, it’s tempting to wonder how other people will react to it. Will the reviewers like it or dislike it? Will the article be accepted? Will the grant be funded? It’s tempting to imagine the reviewers, and to start imaginary arguments with them. It’s tempting to look at the high rates of rejection for grant proposals and decide that even applying for grants is waste of time. But the more I think about possible outcomes-- the more I hope for the work to be well received or fear that it will be rejected—the harder writing becomes.

It may seem counterintuitive to focus on the process of writing instead of the consequences. You might be thinking, Don’t tell me not to think about the consequences; the consequences are the whole reason I’m doing this. If I didn’t need grants and publications, I wouldn’t be writing at all. Of course your ultimate goal is to produce something, and of course you hope it will be well received. But the best way to achieve that goal is to focus on the writing process. You do this by taking care of your health and well-being, managing your time well, and cultivating a daily writing habit. No farmer would say, I don’t have time for planting or fertilizing or watering or pulling weeds. All I’m going to do is harvest and sell vegetables, because that’s why I’m doing this. Take care of your writing process, and the consequences will take care of themselves.

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