I have been thinking a lot lately about what makes writing ‘good’, and how ‘bad’ writing is part of creating good writing. A truism you will see in many memes about writing is that you have to be willing to create bad, and sometimes terrible, writing on the path to writing something well.
This is not as easy at it may sound. It is painful to create bad writing: you have to sit there and type or write, knowing that it all probably sucks and will have to be revised and rewritten later, after you have re-read it yourself and seen the aspects that need revisions, or someone else has given you feedback. It is much more pleasant to create good writing, when you feel that the argument is coming together, and your ideas are good, and your readers will appreciate what you are sharing with them.
But, unless you are willing to get the bad writing out there and onto the page, and sometimes be brave enough to share it and ask for constructive feedback, you are unlikely to create very much of the good writing. This is where pre-writing can be a really useful writing strategy, as part of a recursive or iterative writing process.
We don’t write anything in academia in a linear fashion, where we have an idea, research it, write about it, submit the work and that’s it. It may feel like this for you if you are reading this as a student who writes mainly for assessment and marks, and never really thinks about what you have written once the paper has been handed back, marked and done. Even where your assignments don’t have a drafting and feedback stage built-in to the process, your lecturers are expecting that you will treat every assignment as a learning process, and that you will use the feedback you get to do the next piece of writing with more knowledge and insight. They are expecting you to see writing as a practice, as part of the whole learning process and path you are on, and not as a series of disconnected products or pieces of work for marks. This means that we move back and forth between drafting, getting feedback, revising, and also learning from past mistakes and poor writing. This makes writing an iterative process.
But, if you only write when there is a formal assignment to be completed – a paper or a test or a research project/thesis – it is quite likely that you will find this process difficult, frustrating, anxiety-provoking and hard to manage. This is because your writing muscles are weaker than they should be. Writing is like being fit: if you want to be fit, you have to work out regularly. Let it slide and your fitness level will decline. If you want to write well and enjoy the writing process, you need to write often, in different formats and ways, to work on your writing ‘fitness’. Pre-writing, or writing for yourself, is kind of like a writing ‘gym’, where you can work on your ideas, arguments and so on, figuring out what you want to write about and say before you share it with others for feedback, or for assessment.
There are a few ways in which you can write for yourself, or make pre-writing part of your daily life as a student or academic:
- Keep a reading and research journal. For every paper you read, there should be a piece of writing that helps you work out the main point of the reading, the argument it makes and how it relates to your own research (this is the reading journal). A research journal can be used to work out lines of argument, or new ideas, or to scribble down insights gleaned from conversations with peers and supervisors, and so on. This is a low-key, but incredibly powerful, way of writing to and for yourself about your research.
- Freewrite. In your research journal, you can do timed, focused freewrites, which are like mini brainstorming sessions designed to help you get all your ideas out of your head and onto the page, where you can look at them from a different angle, and start developing your ideas in a more coherent and connected manner.
- Mindmap. Mind-mapping, or its more complex cousin concept-mapping, can be a really helpful way of working out not only what your ideas and emerging arguments are, but also where the links between parts of the argument are, and how to organise your thoughts into a logical, sensible structure for a paper, or thesis chapter.
There are other ways of pre-writing for yourself – here and here are some nice examples to add to these ones I have listed. The point, regardless of the mode you choose to do it in, is to make time for some kind of writing every day. Working at your writing like this won’t mean that you stop doing bad writing. But, it will mean that the bad writing may bother you less because you know it is part of creating something good that you are proud of, want to share, and really want other people to read.