Writing – a matter of planning and hunting



By its nature, thinking twists and turns, drifts and meanders. A hunter who followed a bee-line from a point of departure to a predetermined destination would never catch prey. To hunt you have to be alert for clues and ready to follow trails wherever they may lead. Thoughtful writers need to be good hunters. Tim Ingold

I’m very fond of this quote from Tim Ingold. This might surprise people who know that I am a planner. I am not one of those people who begins a paper by just writing, writing anything at all, writing something that I hope I can later use to carve out a core idea and an argument. No, I don’t just sit down and write. I have my plan sorted before I take to the keyboard in earnest. I never begin to write without either a Tiny Text or an outline.

So how is this compulsion to plan compatible with hunting, I hear you ask. Surely planning and hunting are diametrically opposed to each other?

Well. At the risk of being altogether too confused and confusing, let me introduce another metaphor. Forget hunting just for a moment.

I like to think of writing a paper as rather like cooking. I never ever start cooking without having an idea about what I’m going to make. I generally try to accumulate, and then process, all of the necessary ingredients before I turn on and turn up the heat. This means I’m not left chopping the garlic while the onions burn to a crisp.

When I write, I have a parallel process. I first of all accumulate all of the books, quotes and references I want to work with. Next I make a working document cutting and pasting together the various bits and pieces I’m going to draw on ) at this point I often make notes. Then I make the Tiny Text or outline. These three steps – accumulate, aggregate, plan – are my writing equivalent of getting and chopping the ingredients.

But how do I get the books and the various bits and pieces together at the start, how do I accumulate? Well, that’s where the hunting comes in. My initial pre-writing stage – the one that comes before aggregation and before the Tiny Text or the outline – might be likened to foraging for the ingredients I’m going to prepare and then cook. And in cooking this accumulation stage could literally be hunting… As those old recipe books say, first of all catch and pluck your chicken, shoot and skin your rabbit … (Apols to the veges out there, I am talking history here.)

Hunting is my very favorite part of the writing process. There’s something very satisfying, I find, about rummaging around in the journals, on the bookshelf, and through Endnote to find the relevant ‘stuff’, the raw materials that are to be drafted and crafted into a coherent paper.

When I’m in hunting mode I’m always ready to come across something interesting. I’m disposed if you like, in the Bourdieusian sense, to find the academic equivalent of the out-of-season ripe tomato, the first shoots of wild garlic, the mint that has self-seeded behind the stack of empty terracotta pots. Thus, when I’m in the hunting stage of writing, I almost always come across something I hadn’t thought about, something forgotten, something surprising.

But I don’t just hunt about when I have a piece of writing due. I hunt around at other times too, in order to get ideas for things to write about. A quotation, a theory, an argument that is online or in a printed text might leap out at me and demand my attention. This often happens when I am, as Ingold suggests, meandering and drifting, idly skimming pages. Sometimes the quarry stays with me till I find a use for it, or until I find the time to engage with it. I’ve been hanging onto the Ingold quote at the start of this post for quite some time!

I want to say out loud and clear that hunting feeds writing and that hunting is not antithetical to planning. Hunting nourishes planners. And hunting is never wasted time for any writers, even if that’s how it might look to outsiders. Yes, indeed, hunting is writing.

Author Bio: Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham.