advice · research · writing

Humanities writing without a formula, but with a plan

I was just reading David Perlmutter’s latest column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, on procrastination. (I was, OBVIOUSLY, procrastinating on writing this blog post, nyuk, nyuk.) It’s all very sensible and you should go read it.

However, one bit of advice struck me as very likely to frustrate humanities academics, particularly graduate students embarking on dissertation writing. This particular bit of advice came from the section called “What is the real deadline?” but it might have fit under the section called “Create a master plan” as well. The advice is:

One anti-procrastination measure I’ve seen employed by “on time” academics is to create mini-deadlines that break down the completion of a larger project into smaller segments. Think multiple train stops on the way to the final destination. When I co-write a paper under a conference deadline, for example, I ask my partners to finish the introduction by a certain date, the methodology section by a subsequent date, and so on.

The problem with writing in the humanities is that our work proceeds differently than in the social sciences, even, let alone the hard sciences or other experimental disciplines. Our papers are not broken down into discrete, standard sections like “Introduction,” “Literature Review,” “Methodology,” “Results,” or “Discussion.” Each piece of writing, if done really well, develops its own organizing structures.

So advice like Perlmutter’s (and he’s by no means alone in advocating planning and mini-deadlines) can be very frustrating for novice writers in the humanities. First, we may bitterly laugh at the idea that we even know what sections our papers or dissertations or books will have, let alone any idea of how long each might take to “write up.” Second, the idea that any such eventual sections can be tackled on their own and completed in some sort of sequence is also seen as some kind of lunacy. Arguments in humanities writing tend to …. loop, to iterate, to shift, to frustrate and surprise their writers in equal measure and at every turn. Every sentence, every section, every chapter from the very first to the very last might be getting substantially revised until the very last day of writing. Once, I wrote an article about You’ve Got Mail. I wrote for two months on one interpretation of the film (the use of email is hopelessly naive and futuristic) and ultimately published it arguing something completely different, after another two months of writing (the use of email is nearly nostalgic, and returns the genre to its 1930s roots). Who knew that would happen? Not me. And the idea that I could have mapped out the sections in April to complete them in stepwise forward motions until submission in August would have struck me as at once hubristic and completely clueless.

Why the disconnection? It comes down, I think to the notion of “data” or “data collection” or “experiment”–in a really meaningful, fundamental way, in humanities disciplines, the process of scholarly writing is itself the act of research, of experiment, and the texts we are producing constitute the data we are analysing, as well as the analysis. So in the humanities we may strike upon an idea, and begin to read up on it, often quite substantially. But the “experiment” we perform is the act of analysis that develops in the course of writing, not before.

So. Anyways.

How can a writer in the humanities disciplines benefit from all the great advice to plan, to create mini-deadlines, and such? I think, because of the way our research, experimentation, and “write-up” are all so deeply intertwingled, we may be even more prone to procrastination than other writers, from the sheer impenetrability of the problem and its lack of steps, if nothing else.

I have a couple of suggestions. They must work, because I did manage to get that romcom paper finished in the time I had allotted, for example.

Here goes:

Plot hours on task, rather than milestones. I think we can roughly estimate how long a scholarly article takes to write, once we start writing them. Novice writers might ask their supervisors or mentors. I know that an 8000 word article takes me … about two months-ish if that’s all I’m doing (sabbatical), and three-ish if I’m doing other things too (research term). Eight months if I’m writing during the teaching term. Once I get to the part where my reading and knowledge is deep-ish enough that I’ll say to my husband, “Dammit, I’m going to write an article about this because everyone else is wrong,” that’s when I start the clock. If I work on it about three or four hours a day, I’m done in two months. So all I need to keep track of are the hours I’m spending on the project, and I can be pretty sure when I’ll get it done. This allays my worries and keeps me on track.

Count total words and pages read and written, rather than milestones. I just wrote a book chapter on Facebook using auto/biography theory and design theory. It was solicited for a collection with a contract, so there was a Real Deadline*. The task seemed overwhelming and my ideas were spinning out in a million directions. How I got my focus was just to write random shit down, every day, all the time. I could easily–I mean, very very easily–produce anywhere from 200 to 4000 words of freewriting every day based on what I was reading and thinking. For the 8000 word piece, I ultimately wrote about 20,000 words of … random stuff. Now I’ve got the seeds of a couple of other pieces as well. Early on, I told myself I just had to get two pages of random writing done everyday, related to the project. Or I had to read one article related to the project every day. Caveat: you may be tempted to just read all the time, because you feel not adequately prepared to write. This is a mistake. Start writing right away, even if it’s only marginalia in what you’re reading.

Race through it like a puppy just release from his crate. Maybe you sit down, to face that section on Thing Theory, but while you were brushing your teeth you had an idea about personification and Internet tools. For God’s sake, write down your new idea and keep writing about it until you run out of steam. And if, partway through, you stumble on a great blog post on materiality and capitalism, that links to three articles you are desperate to read, read them. You can’t do this everyday, but it is foolish to squander enthusiasm. The days are longer than you think, so if you go off on a related tangent for 20 minutes or 2 hours, you’re still moving forward without jeopardizing your thinking on Thing Theory. Do that after lunch. Follow your enthusiasm, particularly at the beginning of a project. Generate enough ideas and sources and writing and notes that when you’re well and truly stuck, you have something to work with.

Facing the totality (write an article this summer, or else! Get dissertation done by next summer!) is too daunting and procrastination is inevitable. Inevitable. But creating a detailed outline in advance is not possible in humanities writing, I think. So find other ways to create smaller tasks and more frequent little deadlines that are not based on completion but rather on volume or time, and you’ll get it done. You will.

“Lemme out! I just had this idea that Facebook users are creating
self-biography rather than autobiography!”

* True story! I had this idea it would take me two months to write, during the teaching term. I wrote precisely nothing. So even I need some help remembering my own advice. I got a new deadline, two months from the start of my sabbatical. Nailed that one! YEAHH!

7 thoughts on “Humanities writing without a formula, but with a plan

  1. New idea: writing in the humanities versus other disciplines is like the difference between filming a documentary and a scripted feature film. Both require planning and effort, but the documentary has a much, much higher shooting ratio (of film captured versus film used in the final cut) because you don't know what the story is going to be until you see what you filmed. Scripted features can be planned out much more programmatically, and require a great deal of pre-work before the cameras roll, much more so than documentaries that develop over the shooting period.


  2. I like this post a lot, Aimée! The idea that you should know what you're going to say well enough to map out a detailed plan of action or schedule becomes its own kind of curse on the chances of your writing anything at all, doesn't it? Because you can't do the thinking separately from the writing. The documentary analogy seems perfectly apt. But I think my favorite line here is “it is foolish to squander enthusiasm.” 🙂


  3. Excellent, thought provoking stuff.

    One part of this that strikes me as an important lesson I've learned about my own work habits, and as something important about students in the humanities (and so something I'd emphasize more heavily than you do): the You've Got Mail anecdote. It's not actually automatic that people will get beyond procrastination, and some of them get into a pattern of endlessly coming up with new ideas but never finishing any of them—the writing of something new is more fun than grinding out the details of something you've worked through thoroughly, and in the (daily) short term that can outweigh the (nightly) guilt of deadlines being pushed back forever. What was familiar about the anecdote is that once you reached the stage of writing the whole damned argument out, start to finish, you could see what rubbish that was (“How could I think I thought that? I'm too smart to think anything so barmy”). Then you've got something definite to improve on and write against, and so could produce “what you really thought all along”.

    So … love your general advice. But your caveat about “always reading” needs to also note that it's tempting to go on forever producing random jottings. Eventually, it helps to try to force your ideas to go somewhere specific, so you can distinguish the blind alleys from the road ahead.


  4. I do actually break things down into parts for my papers, especially conference papers. I'll do the research ahead of time, figure out what I want to say with an outline, but as I am writing I will place detailed parenthetical placeholders where a paragraph or idea should be for insertion later if I am on a roll elsewhere. I find that the flow of my papers tends to be better if I do it this way. I tend to set page goals for myself which works really well. But then again, at the moment all I do is research and write. I have no teaching or coursework commitments so I can afford to count results rather than hours spent. I think a 6000-8000 word article takes me somewhere between a month to two months, usually 1.5 to write, but the time decreases with every paper as I become more familiar with the genre.

    I love the advice presented, especially about counting total words and pages read and written. I need to be more disciplined about the amount of time I spend on researching and writing each day–my bad ;p

    I also developed a habit, with revisions, of tackling whatever would cross the most 'to-fix' items off of my list tackling one reviewer at a time when possible. So if the majority of things to fix consist of fixing a few typos here and there, or rewriting a section that just needs some paraphrasing, I do that first and then tackle anything more invasive and laborious (I feel less anxious when I have a shorter to-do list even if the items on it are larger–it helps me to stay focused and organized). But this works better for the communication studies papers than for English papers where things are more synergistic 😦

    I'm still trying to figure out what works best for me, and, as always, advice and suggestions are always welcome over here!


  5. I find it very valuable to do some writing (freewriting, notes, brainstorming, whatever), as I go, because after a large volume of research, it gives me something to start from. For my current project (, which will culminate in an article, I'm trying a variation on that strategy: blogging. I still take rough, illegible notes and do freewrites in my notebook, but I try to convert anything that I think is really interesting/useful into a blog post afterward. That way, I'm forced to make my notes more coherent, and think harder about connections. And, I hope, those posts will be useful to draw on when I'm working on the final paper – I've always been one to write in segments and then stitch it all together.


  6. This is from Veronica Austen, who couldn't bend the Blogger comment system to her will …

    “Another idea: develop your community of writers. The thing that saved me in writing my dissertation was having a dissertation group. We set deadlines for certain amounts of work every month or so AND we met those deadlines . . . often better than we had met self-imposed deadlines or requested deadlines from our supervisors. There's something about being responsible to one's peers that can be the best motivator. The “they can do it, so I better do it” proved rather helpful. And post-dissertation: we give ourselves a private facebook event space every term where we're responsible for offering a progress statement at least once a week. That way we don't lose steam even in teaching terms because we know we're responsible for having made some progress, whatever it is we define as “progress.” And even more importantly, being able to state our accomplishments keeps us focussed on the positive even when things aren't necessarily going their best.”


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