Introductions, Writing Patterns, and Tidy Desks: Personal Reflections on the Writing Process

A while ago, Mark Carrigan asked me to contribute a blog to a series he was curating on the writing process. I said that I was too busy writing to do so. Now that I’ve just submitted the manuscript I had been working on, and haven’t quite got around to starting the next piece, I thought I could use the time to reflect on writing.

I don’t find writing an easy process. Or rather, I don’t find starting the process of writing easy. I will often spend days trying to write the perfect first paragraph because somehow I’m convinced that I need to get this first paragraph right in order to be able to move on. Usually, I’m trying to condense the whole article in that one paragraph … and getting annoyed that it doesn’t seem to be possible.

During those first few days I might also tidy my study, re-arrange my books, and this last time I actually redecorated (in my defence, the room needed it and it was a big project I was starting!). I usually also get cross a few times, especially if (when) someone looks at my attempts and says ‘yes, that’s fine, just get on with the rest of it and then come back to the first paragraph’ (don’t they know that if the first paragraph isn’t right then the rest of it just won’t flow?).

After a few days, however – and I never know quite how many in advance – something breaks, I stop obsessing about that first paragraph and get on with writing the rest of the piece. At this stage, I really enjoy the process. I’m not one of those people who write their final draft the first time around. I read and then write, and then read and then rewrite, and then rewrite again. I enjoy engaging with other texts, seeing an argument develop, and getting words to turn into sentences and then paragraphs and then finished pieces.

While this may, or may not, be an interesting personal reflection on the process of writing, I’m not sure how helpful it is. So in an attempt to think about what might be helpful through this reflection, I offer the following thoughts.

We all work differently – this may be obvious and not in need of saying, but I thought I would just reiterate it here. In that sense, it’s important to work out how best you work and whether you do indeed have a pattern of working. I didn’t realize for quite a while that I have a really difficult time with introductions and so for those first few times when I was writing and it just wasn’t going anywhere I would get really down and frustrated and concerned about my very ability to write.

After it happened a few times (and it was helpfully (!) pointed out to me that this is ‘what I always do’ and that it usually works out OK) I began to recognize the frustration as part of the process of ‘clearing’ before the writing could begin. It didn’t necessarily make it any easier to live through, but I was more convinced that these difficulties would pass, rather than be despondent that this was how things would always be.

This was also when I began tidying my desk and re-arranging my bookshelves instead of just sitting in front of the computer screen trying to get the words in the right order. These activities helped pass the time and were useful in both being practical (my desk often needs tidying) and also in providing space for thinking about the article. So every time I would head back to the keyboard, things would be a little clearer and then one time instead of getting frustrated I would be getting somewhere.

Getting to know your own patterns and ways of behavior doesn’t necessarily stop you repeating them, but I’ve found that in recognizing them I have been able to manage the associated emotions, which in turn has eased the very process of writing.

Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Theory Centre at the University of WarwickHer recently submitted manuscript, Connected Sociologies, will be published in the autumn by Bloomsbury Academic.

Categories: Sociological Craft

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4 replies »

  1. To the extent that I actually sit myself down and write, I enjoy writing. I find it almost excitingly freeing and cathartic once I get into a piece of writing or into the rhythm or habit or keeping a journal. Once in the habit, writing also becomes ‘easy’. But, oh the agony of getting out of the starting blocks. There is, of course, a neat metaphor emerging here.

    So I don’t think the problem you relate is that unique, as writing is perhaps one of the few activities that closes that gap between mind and matter, or thought and reality. That is indeed the wonder of writing I believe: it might be (along with other artist pursuits, such as singing or art) the truest, most compassionate and also most powerful, reflection of oneself. Essentially, your very core, your inner nature cannot help but being present, in at least some way, in anything you write. There are certain pursuits and activities one can perform with a higher degree of insincerity than others – writing surely falls at the lesser end of this continuum.

    Getting back to the metaphor, for me writing is akin to running around naked. Starting to write something is like walking around your own house in the nude – often difficult at first for most people. But try it a couple of times and you will start to enjoy it. The next step is to let someone see you naked. The next would be (hypothetically, for me at least) to walk around in public in the nude. That first draft, having someone read over it, can really be as terrifying as approaching them without any clothes on. Publishing it takes your bare ass to the streets, and in our digital age, to the world.

    The more one gets used to seeing himself naked, the more easily and readily they will take off their clothes. And so, the more one comes to recognize that deep-seated self that is ever-present in their work, the more one may come to accept, even like or love, it and ultimately know it, and then, the less apprehensive one might be to once again reengage in conversation with it – with himself.

  2. Fascinating and encouraging piece ; hope many others find it…
    I’ve never decorated, but cupboards sorted ; shelves tidied ; rooms cleaned etc figure high on my list of ‘prevaricateese’…

  3. Thanks for this – I always enjoy personal insights into the writing process. I agree that finding the patterns and habits that arise during different working processes (article writing being different from lecture writing, which itself differs from conference talk writing) is essential to making them work for you. I now know that when I sit down to write a paper, it will be brainstormed, mind-mapped and planned in excruciating detail at least four times on separate pieces of paper, before I am able to physically face my computer screen and start getting the words out. I suspect for me the matter is not so much ‘having the plan’ and writing out different versions of what’s in head multiple times that builds enough momentum to get me onto the page.

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