In a fit of deadline-produced procrastination, I was looking up the word ‘spec’ yesterday. Interestingly, it has some conflicting meanings in idiomatic use. “Spec” sometimes means “to specification,” as in “the contractor built the new porch to spec.” This meaning describes something planned and agreed in advance, contractual. Another meaning, though, arises in common usage: to do work “on spec” means, “on speculation”–to produce something complete and for a particular purpose without being contracted to do so, and hope to be paid. Both kinds of spec apply to academic research writing, I think.
Here’s a question for you: which of the two following scenarios prompts your best work? Please circle your answer below:
A) To specification: You commit in advance to a project / abstract / topic / argument / idea to be submitted in advance of a real deadline for inclusion in a conference / proceedings / special issue / book / collection.
B) On spec: An idea somehow comes to you, unprompted, and you follow it up with research and writing until such time (whenever such time might eventually come) you decide it’s well and truly Done, and you seek out a venue to which to submit it, and hope someone will take it.
This is really a vexed question for me. Like all undergraduates, I used to think I did my best work under very heavy deadline pressure: after all, all my essays were prepared the night before they were due, and I got A+ on everything, so that means it was the right way, right? That I need strong deadlines? Err, maybe not. Often, I was three-quarters through something (at 3am) and realized my main idea was wrong. I was, of course, unable to go back and start over, seeing as the paper would be at that point mostly written and due very soon. And the library would be closed. So I’d make the sentences nicer around a stinker of an idea.
The funny thing is, I have often thought as a tenure-review-fearing faculty member that deadlines might produce my best work. I would tell myself that if I committed to a conference paper on Topic X, I would surely be motivated to create something awesome. Or at least get my literature review done. But it turns out the same thing would happen as in my undergrad: I would back-end load a lot of the work, particularly during a teaching term. And worse, if I’d submitted a really detailed proposal or abstract, outlining my conclusions in advance, I was sort of committed to those conclusions, even if the research, as it advanced, was pulling me in a different, sometimes contrary direction. So … B?
Then again, in the year or so before I went up for tenure, those deadlines, some sought out by me and some being the result of direct invitations, actually lit a kind of productive fire under my rear end. I produced more and better work than I had managed before. So maybe those obligations, those firm external deadlines, made me do more than I would have made myself do otherwise. And maybe I thrived. Like how sometimes a yoga teacher can make you do a one-minute plank, or 15 sun salutations in a row, that you would never push yourself to do at home, and you discover your own strength? Hm. Maybe … A?
When I finally handed in my dissertation, I swore I was going to let my research breathe, give it air, let it take the time it took, until it was fully cooked. My discretion, my meandering scholarly path, my digressions and side projects, my integrity. I would let the ideas lead me. It would be great, organic, natural. Except my productivity slowed, and I procrastinated a lot, usually out of terror either that my ideas were terrible or that they were good. Yeah. Definitely … A.
Only, sometimes when I commit to something in advance, I change my mind on the whole fundamental idea, or the topic, or the theory, or my conclusion contradicts my initial aims. Sometimes, I just can’t get it done on time, and the guilt and panic prompt sleeplessness for months. Or maybe I can get it done but I really think it needs six more months and a different venue. I send it off and see it in print and think … no, that’s not quite right yet … so, B?
I think maybe that this last couple of years, with all of its B-prompted writing, I have seen how much I can get done when I apply myself. I’ve maybe learned not to be so afraid of my own ideas or my own inadequacies: with application, the work gets done and it’s usually pretty good. So maybe, left to the whims of A-prompts, I might not procrastinate so endlessly, revealing in the potential of something rather than the execution or completion of it.
Do I need hard deadlines to make me work to potential? I’m not sure. Do you? Do you write best on spec? Or to specification? Do tell.