Article Writing Month Update: Confessions Of An Instinctive Writer

DR MIKE FINCH

Two weeks of the Defence Studies Department Article Writing Month have now passed and progress has been good. If a word count stands as the ultimate guide, then I should be content. At the close of week one I was pushing two thousand words. By the end of last week the figure stood at over six thousand. Given that my aim at the start of this process was to hit somewhere in the region of eight to ten thousand words by 29 February, with the additional goal that those words might make some sort of sense – then I’m more than half way there.

I should qualify this statement of progress by admitting that 1 February did not see me attempting to run from a standing start. As I suspect is the case for many of my departmental colleagues, Article Writing Month has given me the chance to focus on something that I have been thinking about for a while. In my case, I’m using a source base that I spent some time consulting last October – a trove of documents that follow-on from previous research on Edward Mead Earle’s Makers of Modern Strategy and relate to the historiography of military history. The real challenge this month lies in translating what I have gleaned from those sources into something that coheres as an article.

Knowing that Article Writing Month would take place in the New Year, at the end of October I took the decision to put the sources down and stop typing. As a result, when I returned to the materials this month I did so with a level of focus that might have been lacking had I attempted to write from the sources straight away. Indeed, one of the most important things about Article Writing Month, for me at least, is that the preparation for it imposed a degree of discipline. I also benefitted from the inevitable ruminations that had followed in the period between then and now. Since reflection is often as important as writing, the gap between consulting the sources and writing the article became a positive one.

In last week’s update Robert Foley outlined some of the methods and tools that he uses to help ensure steady writing progress. My own approach is largely devoid of special methods: I don’t have a daily word count target, I don’t use storyboarding techniques, and I don’t use any special software. Part of the reason for this is pragmatic. Since things like Scrivener only came to my attention after Article Writing Month had begun, I decided that it would be better not to spend time familiarizing myself with them if it risked eating into time that could simply have been spent writing.

The other part of the reason is that I enjoy writing without too many constraints. To put it another way, I try to be as instinctive as possible. I tend not to plan very heavily or prepare exactly what I want to say. Of course, having looked at the sources already I have some idea about the direction of travel, and, as noted, with this project I’ve had plenty of time to reflect too. But the truth is that I often find extensive planning quite stifling. I much prefer to follow my nose, only sketching out a brief overview, including the main points to cover and the sequencing of the argument, and then get to writing straight away. My weekly goals for Article Writing Month have been equally broad. My aim in week one was to get the ball rolling with a couple of thousand words. My goal last week was to start fleshing out the major sections of the article, as well as to improve on the word count from the week before. My goal for this week is simply to continue in the same vein.

Of course this approach carries risks, not the least of which is the danger of inefficiency. Having a vaguer notion of what needs to be written increases the chances of drying up, losing the flow of the argument or the smooth transitions between sections. Yet there are benefits too. For me, part of the pleasure of writing comes from uncertainty: not knowing exactly what will translate to the page until the typing begins. I often find that the best insights and observations come only in the process of writing itself, as new ideas reveal themselves with the ordering of thoughts into prose. And because my plans are not particularly rigid, I have no compunction about breaking them. Last week, for example, I spent a significant period of time re-ordering what I had written so far, changing the sequence of argument and information to suit a new structure which I considered to be stronger than my original approach. As a consequence, my word count increased at a far slower rate in the second half of the week than it had in the first, but this was justified by the results. I ended the week with a better, more cohesive piece of writing than I had started with, and with the knowledge of where I intended to go next.

Another benefit of Article Writing Month is that it has got colleagues talking about the process of writing, sharing what works for them and what doesn’t. I’m keen to find out more from them and open to amending my habitual approach for next time, but for the next two weeks I’m sticking with instinct.

Image via wikimedia commons.

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