It appears to me that a strange affliction amongst some of my most diligent students holds them back whenever there is an assessment due, or a deadline for submitting work approaches. I call it planning writing to death and it is a particularly pervasive procrastination technique. It is problematic because one is not aware of it when they are impacted. One may even think they are being productive when in actual fact they are not.
As a procrastination technique, planning is well known to novelists and fiction writers. But it is something that I notice grips academic writers and students especially badly.
It is almost the opposite extreme of unstructured writing which I’ve dealt with in previous posts (headings and so on as a way to organise your writing). This is a disorder where headings, plans and structure inhibit writing altogether.
Symptoms may include excessive note taking, copious amounts of reading, thinking and an absence of words on the screen.
Those most at risk include binge writers and perfectionists.
Treatment includes some of the tips described in ‘How to Write a Lot’.
Most importantly it requires you to realise that your writing sucks. But that it doesn’t matter.
My writing sucks. Most people’s writing sucks. But that’s not the point. It’s there. Starting, doing and finishing something are much more important than doing something perfectly.
Writing is like Golf – the perfect round is never going to happen. Ever. But by starting, getting things down and doing them regularly, you will improve.
I used to be a serial sufferer. It impacted on my own writing greatly. I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Not until my line manager (2 weeks into my first Research Assistant job) asked me what I had found out. I explained, this, that and the other. She then asked, “So what have you produced?” The penny dropped and I had to change my ways.
It doesn’t matter what you know, it only matters what you have to show.
So how do you approach this problem? There are a number of things I now prescribe when treating planning writing to death.
Ban yourself from reading any more.
Chances are you’ve already read enough. What is important is getting something down. Set yourself a writing target and don’t read anything else until you’ve met that target.
Read with a pen in hand.
Reading with a pen in your hand will encourage you to read actively, rather than passively. Look for an excuse to write something meaningful if you are devoting large tracts of time to reading.
Write a fully formed paragraph.
Write a paragraph summarising what you have just read before going on to the next article/ book chapter on your list.
Under each of your headings, spend five minutes writing off the top of your head the thoughts on the topic. Do this without reference to readings and literature etc. Once you have done this, you will have material to begin with.
Get the first sentence out of the way early.
The first sentence of the day, of an article, chapter, report etc is always the most difficult. Smash it as soon as you get to your computer. Get rid of it. You don’t need the weight of it to impede the work you do for the rest of the day.
With these tips, I think your writing may well go on to survive and make a full recovery.
Have you tried these tips?
Do you have any other hints to use when you find yourself planning writing to death?