Recently I had the opportunity to attend a conference with an old friend. The conference was at a relatively remote, logistically inconvenient campus. So we made the best of it. On my own way up from western North Carolina through the Shenandoah Valley and onward to our destination, I detoured off my route, picked him up at a regional airport, and we turned the rest of the journey into a road trip. The time in the car afforded us a much-needed opportunity to catch up socially, but also to update one another on our scholarly projects. Like many people, we both have a tendency to be very good at starting projects, but are not always as adept or timely about finishing them. Now that we live in different cities, it is a little harder for us to hold one another’s feet to the fire, as we had in the past.
Much of our conversation focused on writing, and how much writing has to be done in order to complete even an article of modest length. My friend expressed frustration that so much writing he does never makes it into his finished product, or needs to be generated in order to allow him to create a finished product. I understand his frustration, and suspect that it is common. He worries that he is inefficient or unfocused. I believe he is neither.
I believe, though -- and research supports the idea -- that even the preliminary, never-to-reach-a-public writing that we produce is cognitively important, and indispensable in terms of how it moves us closer to and allows us to generate the additional writing that does go into our finished products. I want to suggest here that even the preliminary, we’re-not-sure-where-this-is-going writing that we produce is necessary and important, and not something that we should resist. The writing we don’t ever print enables us to create writing to print.
Writing is simultaneously a physical activity — the product of scrawling or typing — and a cognitive activity. Empirical research overwhelmingly shows that we learn and synthesize new information and connections during the actual act of writing, no matter how much we may think we already know what we want to say when we actually sit down to write. Too often though we are taught, wrongly, that writing is only a physical act, the mere transcription of ideas already hatched and thought through. Such a mental model could not possibly be further from the cognitive truth. And this mistaken mental model can be damaging to our scholarly productivity.
One of the myths of writing that many of us have become victim to is that we need to have planned out our writing, to have planned precisely what it is that we want to say, before actually sitting down to start hammering out words on a keyboard. Nothing could be less true. No advice could be more counter to how the act of writing and human cognition intertwine. For both freshmen undertaking their first legitimate research project and for experienced, accomplished scholars, the act of writing itself is one of the critical moments within which we actually learn and synthesize new knowledge.
Writing is an act that refuses to be efficient. This is the strength of writing, not its liability. We make new connections and learn what we want to say, even make new discoveries, in the act of writing itself. I am wary of universals, but 30 years of research into the cognitive act of writing shows that we discover new information when we write. This holds true in every discipline, from the humanities to the hard sciences. The "inefficiency" of writing is that these acts of cognitive discovery that occur during the act of writing can make the act itself halting and non-linear. Unlike many of our professional tasks, it can be maddeningly impossible to predict the time we need to complete a particular writing task. Some days the discoveries and words roll out, and on other days they must be wrenched forth.
Waiting until you know precisely what it is you want to say to begin writing is low-productivity, low-discovery writing strategy. You must write in order to learn what it is you want to say, no matter how sure of yourself you are when you begin. Then, of course, the writing must be revised, many times.
Sometimes we need to write something that will not go into our final, finished piece of writing, in order to get — so to speak — to the writing that will eventually circulate to readers. For example, in my own work, I find myself constantly asking a “so what?” question, wondering why the phenomenon I’m looking into matters, wondering why fellow experts, or anybody, should care. As a result, I frequently find, particularly when beginning a project, that I have to write a brief narrative of how I came to be interested in the topic, of why it matters to me. When I was a less experienced scholar, I thought that such narratives could be part of an introduction.
But that is rarely appropriate. Such narratives do not engage the scholarly conversations that make an individual piece of scholarship relevant. I still need to write the narrative in order to launch myself into the larger research and writing task at hand, but experience has taught me to lop off the unnecessary and personal narrative before I begin circulating my draft to journals. This is the definition of writing to not print, and a relatively trivial example of how it can help us reach a larger task.
By allowing ourselves, or forcing ourselves, to generate writing that we know will not make it into a final product, we also open up a strategy for preventing or circumventing the writing blocks that many academics sometimes encounter. Worrying that the writing you are doing is unimportant or irrelevant is a fast track to derailing your own productivity. Just write. Then step back and take stock and sort out what writing has promise, and what doesn’t, later.
The writing we produce that will never actually make it into a finished piece of writing is still productive, productive because it gets us to a cognitive point we could not have otherwise reached. The process may feel inefficient at times, but that process is essential to the production of knowledge, no matter what our discipline, and no matter what form our writing takes.