Monday, April 14, 2008

It's an opportunity for feedback! Or, How I Learned to Get Things Done

Dustin Wax posted a great lifehack today about getting creative work done by clearing project space, rather than breaking big projects down into small tasks. I mean, that works to a point, but like he says, there comes a time when you've got an idea, maybe, you've done a lot of reading, and you've got to write the damn thing! "Writing the damn thing" is very much on my mind as the end of the semester, and the attendant term paper deadlines, loom on my horizon.

His article speaks to some of the ways I've had to change my thinking about writing and getting things done in my first semesters in grad school. The issue for me is usually getting past the overwhelming fear that gathers in my chest when I look at a blank Word doc on the screen, or even at all of my assembled notes and readings. I feel a rising panic that I have nothing to say, or just don't know how to do this! Here are some of the mantras and methods that have helped me immeasurably in getting going, getting through, and getting done:
  • It's an opportunity for feedback. It's not meant to be perfect! I learned this one from a very wise lady (thanks, Lisa!), and I have been known to repeat it over and over - particularly to get started, and then to print out and move on. It keeps me from obsessing (too much) about whether my ideas are valid, and about each word and phrase. It's all purpose, really, and reminds me of something another wise lady (thanks, Mom!) taught me:
  • If I already knew everything, I wouldn't be in school.
  • I don't have to start at the beginning. Instead, I begin with what I'm inspired to say, whether that's a particular point in my argument, an engagement with a particular source, my reasons for wanting to write this in the first place, or even my research methods. I used to get hung up on writing the perfect introduction, and by the time I'd gotten that, I had lost all the energy and inspiration that fueled my creative fire.
  • It doesn't have to be coherent the first time. The way I say this to myself, actually, is "just vomit onto the page." This goes along with not starting at the beginning. Thanks to the wonders of cut and paste, I don't have to order my argument logically or coherently at first. I'll get to that. The important thing (and again, see above) is to get it down on paper.
  • Leave a trail of breadcrumbs. I leave notes and other signposts for myself in the body of the paper where I've put sentence fragments or ideas that need filling out. This visual map helps me to trace my thoughts back to the original flash of insight that sparked an argument. It also alleviates the fear that drives me to feel like my writing of the paper has to start at the beginning and flow perfectly the first time: the fear that I'll miss something in the revision process. (True story: I turned in a final paper as a freshman in college that still said "Explain this more fully..." Which I hadn't. I love in-text highlighting!)
  • At some point, you've got to stop reading and just write. When I get there, I know that I'm putting off writing with reading, which is really just the fear of having nothing to say disguised by a drive to do further research. There is no substitute for just sitting down and writing. (For tips on how to do this, see Dustin's excellent article, or any number of lifehack posts.) And here's something to remember:
  • The only good paper is a finished paper. So, I use the GEPO method: Good Enough, Push On. I have to remember that I may not get an A on this assignment, but if I don't turn it in, the grade will be much, much worst than that. And anyway, my best has always, always been good enough. And in any case, for each assignment,


Anonymous said...


Great article and wonderful comments! Just what I needed to read today as I was thinking of all the reasons I could research more instead of write - I just need to get it done!


Jenni said...

I'm so glad! I'm in the same situation today... Good luck!