A two week book chapter – a.k.a. down the writing burrow




I’ve just written a book chapter in two weeks. This is a long time for me, and it was hard work.

I’m usually someone who plans their writing quite carefully. I begin with an abstract and then flesh it out by adding bullet points. I don’t do pomodoros, or any other form of speed writing. I know this strategy really helps a lot of people, but it doesn’t suit me. I don’t have trouble generating text and that’s in part because I’m an experienced writer and I’m also not precious about words.

Sometimes I start more loosely. This was the case here.

A chapter is a more flexible genre than a journal article. I like writing chapters for this reason. However, this chapter was based on a conference paper I’d written a long time ago. There was already an abstract which went in when the book proposal was submitted. But it was now sadly out of date. I’d fretted over the prospect of writing something I didn’t think was particularly relevant and had missed the due date for first submissions. Fortunately, the book’s editors gave me a bit more time to submit (thanks Jane, Scott and Richard) and I had partially formulated a new argument which still addressed the book’s focus.

I could also see that working on this new material could help me get my head around an aspect of the single authored book I’m currently preparing. The book won’t repeat what’s in the chapter, but the chapter allows me to deal with some new literatures and some ‘factual’ detail about the state of things in England at present. I’m collecting media clips for the book project, and it just happened that two very pertinent pieces were published last week, just as I was preparing myself for the chapter. These  provided a neat introduction.

So how did my two week chapter go? Well, bear in mind that I roughly knew the argument I wanted to make and I’d read a fair bit of the literature. So the time went like this.

Day One:

The Introduction. This was about 700 words and included my two media clips. It also set out the shape of the chapter. I developed headings for the rest of the paper. I read about twelve new papers and put them into endnote. I bullet pointed what was to go into the next section. This took about three hours.

Day Two – Four:

The current context. This was about 2000 words and required me to put together material from government reports, blogs and scholarly literatures. Each day, at the end of writing text, I spent time bulleting the points for the next section and cutting and pasting in a couple of quotations. However, I also did additional readin, searching around the journals and on my book shelf. I keep adding and refining the bullet points for the writing ahead.

Day Five- Ten:

The major argument. As I already had quite a bit of the material in bullets this should  have been simple but it wasn’t.  It was another slowish 3500 words or so. And it was a hard think. I spent two whole mornings just going through journal articles and re-reading bits from books. This writing was in three sections and I wrote each section in one sitting. I also spent time bulleting after I’d finished writing.

Day Eleven and Twelve:

The concluding sections. This required a small new move in the argument and it was about another 1000 words. I then spent a fair but of time fiddling around with getting the right indicative references. So it was another long couple of days writing.

Then it was revision. And revision. And revision. Another two days.

At the end of these two weeks I had a full draft which I have sent off to the Editors.

Now why I have I bothered to tell you this? Well I want to suggest that writing in big long chunks of time is not always A Bad Thing. It isn’t the only way to write, of course. It doesn’t suit the people who struggle to crank out text. And not everyone has lots of mornings that they can put into writing. (I do have that luxury, although my mornings aren’t always consecutive. I lucked out this time.) And some people do prefer to work on multiple writing projects at once. I don’t. I like to concentrate on one piece at a time.

And I have to say that I don’t always write like this. Sometimes I write papers in short bursts over a much longer period of time. And sometimes it takes me only a day or so to write an entire piece. But I VERY often do an intensive ‘down the writing burrow’, particularly when something is overdue or when I am writing a very long text where the flow of the argument is both important and new.

But my two week chapter is A way to write. It’s not The Way. It’s what some people would call binge writing – a term that I dislike a lot.

It can of course be really counter-productive to believe that you have to sit down and write a lot at once if you don’t know how to do that. You inevitably up sitting looking at the blank screen feeling inadequate. And developing a daily writing habit is a very good antidote to that particular problem. But that doesn’t mean that writing intensively is always bad for you. It’s perfectly possible to write a lot in a few days or a couple of weeks and emerge unscathed.

I want to shout actually, quite loudly, that there is NO The Way to write. Rather, we all learn ways to write that help us get done what we need to do. If we don’t, we fail. As I am old, and have been writing for a long time as well as teaching people how to write, I have a range of writing strategies to draw on.  These change. I don’t always do the same thing. But I do write most days. Some of this is blogging, some is papers and books, sometimes notes.

So I ‘write short’ regularly. But I also write long.

It’s the binary thinking and perjorative language that’s the problem. Snacking good, binging bad. Oh please. Get over it. Some of us WRITE SHORT and WRITE LONG. This is not the same as snacking and binging.

My writing strategies are contingent – they depend on how much time I have and what the task is. I have a repertoire of strategies. This seems to me to be the most productive way to think about academic writing. It’s having an #acwri repertoire that matters.

Becoming an academic writer is always about learning how to get the writing done – and perhaps being helped to learn if you find the actual process of writing difficult. You can learn from how other people write, and from being coached, taught and mentored. Working with someone else is often very helpful and can shift you from a habit that is very unproductive and self-defeating  to something almost miraculously generative of words.

But once you have got a strategy that works for you, this is not the end. You can still learn more. Always more strategies. You can always learn more about writing. And without unhelpful either-or thinking.