Failing to start work well before the deadline is down to sheer laziness, right? Wrong, says an article in Wired magazine. Here’s why I think this idea has significance for writers.
Several years ago, I wrote a chapter in a textbook about supporting student writing. I pitched my idea to the editor in plenty of time and then, once I received the go-ahead, did nothing more. In fact I did nothing more on the project for almost the next year, except ponder upon it from time to time, anxious and clueless. A week before the deadline, I bought myself a bumper pack of dark chocolate digestives and binge-wrote all five thousand words in one palpitating go.
This is not the tale of an isolated incident. Much to the consternation of my parents, school teachers, lecturers and academic supervisors, I’ve been working this way my entire life. I don’t especially like it. It can be exhilarating, but mostly it’s really scary.
Fruitless Attempts at Habit Reform
Periodically, as with my undergraduate dissertation, I have pledged to reform my habits and have duly begun to write much earlier. The result was always a lengthy period of constipated straining, squeaking out dry little pellets of writing which were only transformed into half-decent work at the eleventh hour, as the deadline loomed over me with menace. After a few uncomfortable tries I gave up, and decided to accept that I need an adrenaline-flooded system to do good work.
Two Approaches to Problem Solving
An article (or report, or essay, or email, or whatever) to be written is a problem to be solved. That’s why my attention was piqued by an article about approaches to problem solving in the May 2016 issue of Wired magazine. Apparently, people tend to favour one of two problem solving styles: either they work consistently and methodically towards an end result over time, or progress through experiencing a single big flash of inspiration, apparently out of the blue. The first group are known as ‘analysts’ and the second are called ‘insightfuls’.
Deadlines Provoke Insight
It’s pretty clear to me that although I often use analysis, I’m more inclined to rely on that lightning bolt of insight. And just in case you were wondering, we insightfuls allegedly exhibit reduced activity in our frontal lobes, the part of the brain sort of responsible for planning and focus. That’s probably why we keep running out of dark chocolate digestives. It’s probably also why we really need the close proximity of an external deadline to provoke those ‘eureka’ moments.
Nobody’s a Natural
It occurs to me that insightfuls are probably more likely to feel like natural born writers, as opposed to analysts who are only too aware that any writing task takes a lot of sustained effort. We insightfuls are also probably less likely to view writing as a process, which means that when we get stuck, we tend to stay that way, with no idea of how to unstick ourselves. But the real truth is that while some people find it easier to get words down on paper, nobody can be a natural at every kind of writing. It’s a skill which must be learned. That’s why for me, the key to keeping the faith with my terrifying model of eleventh-hour productivity is constantly remaining aware that writing is indeed a process.
Writing as a Process
It’s a process which tends to have the following elements (but not all of them, and not all the time):
Prewriting. Yes, seriously. You can—and sometimes should—do some writing before you, err, do your writing. This might be something as structured as creating a linear essay plan or writing a story outline, or it could be an anarchic, unblocking activity, like doing a brain dump.
Research, although this really should be something which takes place in parallel with the other parts of the process. Otherwise it can become the best way possible to procrastinate. Do all your research in a lump up front and you’ll never be ready to start writing. Result!
Drafting. Yup, you’ve guessed it. This is where you try and get all your ideas into some semblance of consecutive thought, using your research materials to back it all up. This part hurts and takes quite a long time, but you’ll get through it unscathed as long as you don’t try to write your introduction first. I mean, come on: how can you introduce something you haven’t even written yet? That’s just setting yourself up to fail.
Revising. Sometimes this is known as editing, but I believe that the task of editing naturally divides into two parts. The first—revising–is where you try to make your work more readable. The second, known by me as polishing, is where you try to make it more aesthetically pleasing. This bifurcation works well for me, as indeed it has worked for at least one other writer.
The Writing Process for Insightfuls and Analysts
Getting back to our insightfuls and analysts, you’re probably thinking that this is a model which plays more to the strengths of the latter than the former. Not so, I reply, for the devil is in the detail, and you have a lot of freedom in the way you tackle each stage of the process. When I worked in the now sadly defunct writing centre at London Metropolitan University, I employed a repertoire of strategies to help many different kinds of writers. Some of these were very structured, others far more freeform.
And now this article from Wired has not only helped me understand why I’ll probably never be very good at getting started well before a deadline, but also gives me a useful framework for sharing my various tricks and tips with you, through the medium of this blog. I cordially invite you to get in touch to share your own writing advice, and also to ask me about your writing problems, using the comments section below and on Twitter.
Remember: writing is tough, even for prize-winning authors. We don’t have problems with the written word because we’re lazy, stupid, from the wrong social class or lacking in flair; we have them because we haven’t yet found the right suite of fixes and hacks for the way we work. So don’t be ashamed of your writing difficulties. You’re in very good company. Share them here and you might even make them go away!