April 2005

Success in Writing: Everyday Reflections from Two Colleagues

By Trudelle Thomas, Ph.D., Department of English and
Anas Malik, Ph.D., Department of Political Science and Sociology

Writer's block and other obstacles prevent many scholars from reaching their potential as writers.  Some put up a good front, but just under the surface are discouraged because they can't find a writing rhythm.  An unlikely collaboration between two Xavier faculty members in different fields, at different ranks, has led to insights that have helped us both.

In May 2004, over refreshments following Xavier's Commencement ceremony, we first met and struck up a conversation about each other's writing projects.  Anas Malik was a first-year faculty member in Political Science and Trudelle Thomas was a veteran Professor in English, who had been at XU 17 years.  Malik had a book project in mind but faced writer's block, and needed a plan. Thomas was making final revisions in a new book.  Because she teaches courses in writing, she had many practical suggestions for overcoming writer's block.

This chance encounter led to a series of conversations about writing that helped us both.  As a result, over the next few months, Malik's manuscript began to take shape, and Thomas renewed her interest in writing. Now, a year later, Malik is nearing completion of his book draft for an interested publisher and Thomas is working on a second book. In hopes of generating discussion, we summarized our conversations below.

1.  Where are you in your career?  Has your writing-routine evolved over the years?

Malik:  I'm in the early stages of my career, and so don't have a long time frame over which to compare changes.  I?m still developing and fine-tuning a routine that works consistently and efficiently.  

Thomas:  My writing routine has changed tremendously over the 17 years I've been at Xavier.  Always, it's been really important to me to carve out a block of time during every week to write.  I reserve one day a week where my research-writing is my main priority and put in several hours at my desk.  I also write during some summers.

Because writing requires so much self-motivation, I need to create an intangible container that includes an inviting workspace, a timeline, a schedule, a set of habits.  Walking briskly often helps me think through an idea.  Color and sunshine are also important parts of my writing process.

2.  Has technology changed the way you write?

Malik:  Technology is integral to my writing. I do virtually all my writing on a computer, either my laptop at home or my office desktop. I use a small USB storage drive which is attached to my key chain. It looks like a remote-entry car key. Almost all my current projects, class notes, and other materials are stored on it. It's convenient- I simply insert it into the USB port in my office desktop, and work on the files directly off this drive. No multiple files, no lugging around a laptop and risking shoulder strain, no merging changes into existing documents- all are eliminated. It's like carrying a giant stack of floppy disks with me.

Google Desktop search is a free program (available from Google at desktop.google.com) that allows quick searches of all files for words and phrases. It works much better and faster than the normal Search function. I tend to create new files often. When I?m working on a project, Google Desktop search makes tracking down related references in my own writing swifter and more efficient.

Thomas:  I?m on a couple of listservs that broaden my perspective. The actual writing and thinking hasn't changed all that much.  I still do a lot of the idea-mapping and first drafting by long-hand.  The slowness is an advantage. Technology has made it easier to do research, to revise, and to keep track of files.   

The Internet has added an element of angst to my research process everything is so urgent, and there's so much bad information constantly coming at us. Faulty instructions make it needlessly difficult to learn new programs. I resent that! Anas Malik has been helping me find more ways to use technology to my advantage.

3.  What was the biggest obstacle to starting your book-manuscript?  How did you deal with it?

Malik:  Starting any major project requires a vision. Once the vision is there, I can see where my contribution is headed. I now recognize that the vision for my current manuscript was born years ago. Writings related to that kernel have accumulated over time, with nuggets lying in different projects: I'm now integrating these and new material, into a coherent, readable, and systematic investigation.

Thomas:  Like everyone, I find it a challenge to juggle competing priorities.  During my early years at XU I worked every weekend and had little personal life it was a huge challenge to prepare classes, grade, and establish the habit of research-writing.  When I had a baby in my fifth year, it became a much greater challenge.  I lost momentum for several years and kept only a trickle of research going.  It was important to be attentive to my family.

As my son grew to school age, I returned to my research with renewed vigor.  Now it's matter of deciding what questions I want to investigate.  I want to tell young parents that you have to accept being a tortoise while your children are young; there will be time later to race ahead.

I agree with Anas that forming a vision is essential. I also find it tough to organize a book- which chapters and which order. The book I just finished (Spirituality in the Mother Zone) tells a story. It has narrative tension that makes you want to keep turning the page. I put a lot of effort into making it not just informative but also a good read.

4.  What are good tactics or strategies for becoming a more productive writer?

Malik:  Variety helps me. When I'm running out of steam on one project, it's usually a welcome break to put a little work into another one.  Balancing writing and teaching can be tricky.  To get any writing done, I have to force myself to make time for it into my daily schedule. I grab time when I find it, even in small chunks. I might note a thought or comment and incorporate it into the numerous active word-processing files that I have on my portable USB drive.  The times I've done so- my dissertation, for example, and the current project- have made the work more sophisticated.

 Thomas:  I think in terms of quality rather than productivity.  How can I contribute insights or a fresh perspective that will make human life better  A phrase I often use is The process is the pleasure meaning that it's important to enjoy what I?m doing, the pleasure of discovery and writing and revising something so it's really well-done.  It's important to get published but I lose out on the pleasure of it when I get too fixated on publication or worse, numbers of publications.  I am not always able to practice this!

Between the two of us, we offer more ideas for overcoming writing blocks:

  • Try using a large dry-erase board to map out chapters, or a list of projects.
  • Envision a particular audience a good friend who is intelligent, curious, and open.
  • If time is short, write reviews and discussion articles.
  • Realize that nothing you put down on paper has to be camera-ready copy. It may need editing and rewriting, but getting it down in the first place is a vital first step.
  • It?s easier to combat writer's block if you have several different ways to combat it: freewriting, drawing, writing with music etc. Write, write, and write more.
  • Print out a draft, change your physical location, and mark up the paper copy extensively before returning to the computer.
5.  Does social support help you write?

Malik:  Sporadic and ad hoc social interactions have helped tremendously. As a graduate student, I found a writing group valuable. I simply observed what other people were doing, gave them advice, and modeled my own attitude after them. They in turn gave me helpful feedback.  The greatest help I received from them was in finding role models and also emotional support through obstacle-filled patches; post-dissertation, others have been great strategic and tactical sounding boards. For example, Professor Brennan Hill helped me articulate my priorities early on.  Trudelle Thomas provided me with a toolbox filled with tactics and tips, and writer's workshop-style practical solutions; our discussions continue to generate reflections. The social connection matters. I?m not surprised that the Acknowledgements sections in most worthy books contain grateful odes to supportive persons in the author's life.

Thomas:  It's very important.  For most of my years at XU, I've been in an informal writers groups with three friends.  None of them are academicsthey write fiction and poetry.  They offer a fresh perspective.  They motivate me, and they even give substantive ideas and questions. We meet once a month in one another's homes and read our work aloud.  In a pinch, I've also enlisted the help of my spouse and other friends, but the writing group has been the constant thread.  (The group membership has changed over the years.)

 6.  What have you learned about the writing process in your career?  Have you made mistakes?  

Malik:  Unpack your bags! I've heard this advice, in different forms, from many writers. It means to write about the burning issue, concern, or interest right now. Later on, the intricacies and subtle insights that made it exciting might be lost. Another version is to write what you know. Rather than getting stuck and paralyzed being unable to move forward at all, it is better to let the pen flow and write about what you already know. This helps the thinking process and lays a foundation, and a partial first draft. Redrafting and editorial changes can come later.

One mistake I've made is to delay or avoid writing at the moment that something is on my brain. Procrastination means losing the passion and intellectual motivation for a subject. If I leave it for too long, then when I finally sit down to write, I end up having to reinvent the wheel and rethink much. A faster, more efficient, and more productive strategy is to write as I process things.

Another mistake is to not bring closure to projects and get them out the door. One solution is creating self-imposed deadlines that I stick to. I've found that external motivating structures help. If I promise a book review to a journal by a certain date, then the idea that someone is waiting for me to deliver forces closure.

Thomas: It took years to develop a sense of how the academic discourse community in my specialty operated which journals would be interested in my work and how to write for that particular audience.  Early on, I didn't do enough background reading to ground my articles; later I tended to do too much background reading.  It?s a matter of pacing.

I've discovered that writing books for a broader article (beyond specialized scholars) is my best medium.  After a certain point, twenty page articles began to seem confining.  I needed to write a book to fully explore a line of thinking. I'm glad that I wasn't pressured to write a book before I was ready. Like Anas, I also need to work on bringing closure to projects.  I fall in love with my research and don?t want to send it out to the cold world! I've learned that persistence and kindness toward myself are two key virtues.

7.  Does a certain writing environment help?

Malik:  I do have certain preferences about my writing environment. Eliminating distractions is a must. At home, that has meant cutting out the internet service to prevent surfing, and not getting cable tv (and not having any TV, for a while) - drastic, but effective. I don't generally have music playing in the background because it distracts me.

Bright lighting and tranquility matter. I prefer halogen lamps over fluorescent and incandescent lights. In the morning, I like to sit with the large window open so I can occasionally glance out at the grass and sky, and also so the light can come in.

Thomas:  I keep a pen and paper always handy and have been known to write in coffee houses, playgrounds, cars, and parks. When I have a project that needs focused attention, I isolate myself. I've made my home office really inviting and convenient- music, nice art, a good filing system. I often sit on the floor to write and spread out all my books and papers. Like Anas, I eliminate the distractions of phone and internet. I've become an expert at writing during kids school hours- 9 to 3 pm!

8.  Have you found a special time to write?  Do you use a time-line?

Malik:  Early morning is definitely my special time to write. I often feel surging energy and sharp concentration right after I wake up. It's as if my natural rhythms are attuned to being mentally focused at this time. Ideally, I would like to be up and writing by 5:15 am. In practice, this often does not happen- I stay up too late and need the extra sleep in the morning. Between 6:30 and 8:30 am seems to be a productive hotspot. Knowing this and capitalizing on it has helped. In my page-a-day routine, not completing my daily page at this time means procrastinating it until night-time when it can become painfully laborious.

Thomas:  Mornings, especially early mornings, are my best time to write.  I use a week by week timeline that lays out self-imposed deadlines for completing stages of projects.  The deadlines get changed as life intervenes but having a timeline helps me maintain momentum. For me professionalism means doing at least a little writing every day, taking criticism without going defensive, being willing to revise my work, meeting deadlines, treating editors and collaborators with respect.

In closing, we realize that exploring ideas is the purpose of academic writing.  Yet without nurturing self-awareness and discipline, those ideas may never reach publication.  In hopes of bringing more depth and maybe even pleasure to the process of writing, we offer our experience.  Perhaps other scholars at XU will consider writing partnerships like ours.

Some favorite books:

Elbow, Peter.  Writing without Teachers.

Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist

King, Stephen.  On Writing.

Richardson, Peter.  Style.

Zinsser, William.  On Writing Well.

Writer's Digest is a magazine that often has motivational articles.

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Dr. Trudelle Thomas is a professor in the department of English.  Dr. Anas Malik is an assistant professor in the department of political science and sociology.




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