In this week’s installment of Take 5 Friday, we’re chatting with Cate Creede, a consultant and Partner with The Potential Group (Toronto, Canada), and Samantha Brennan, Professor at the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada.)
Samantha and Cate both have great insights into how they can consistently do their best writing. I think their insights will give you a good mix of familiar advice (from a different perspective) and some new ideas about how you can approach your writing projects.
1) Tell me a little about your work and about the kind of writing it requires.
Cate: In my consulting work, I write four kinds of things — new business proposals (long and involved and often with picky, picky, picky rules about length, where things go, weird framing, etc.); short pithy communications to keep engagement moving along; process design; and many iterations of strategies that are the synthesis of many many conversations.
In the rest of my life, I write fundraising materials for a project I run, weekly blog posts and I’m working on a book about the project.
Samantha: I write a lot of administrative materials plus I have projects related to my graduate students, and projects of my own, for different things that I’m working on.
They range from blog posts to administrative documents, to survey articles, to books and book ideas and book chapters.
So, I have a full gamut of things to procrastinate about – I do my best work by procrastinating on one by working on another.
2) How do you organize your writing projects?
Cate: I use a real-world bullet journal for week-at-a-time organization, which keeps me tracking all of the deadlines. I usually carry forward a longer-term set of non-deadline things in a special bubble in my weekly two page spread.
In terms of how I manage the content for individual projects, I really rely on having a very, very big screen on my desktop computer, so I can track all of the windows with content in one place. When I have something “big” to write (anything I know will take more than 2 hours) I have to set aside an uninterruptible chunk of time — it usually ends up being a weekend so I know I won’t get pulled into something else. I can’t do a complex piece of writing when I know there are going to be interruptions.
For more creative writing (like the book or fiction), I use a “focused daily practice” approach with a notebook where I use some kind of prompt to write uninterrupted for a short set period of time (10 – 30 minutes) and scribble without structure to do the “connection through writing’ thing that works better with a pen for me. That becomes the base for the next draft.
Samantha: My favorite type of writing is writing with a co-author, because I am the “excellent at first drafts person.” Ah, I am the person on a team who can spit out the horrible first draft and I have no shame about bad first drafts.
I have a very hard time producing polished work, so I almost always need somebody who’s more perfectionist than me (that could be almost anybody) to take on the finishing of it. Then I pay an editor on the other end to produce the final version.
I find I get some writing done, most days, whether it’s just blog posts or whether it’s bits and pieces of things I’m working on. I have one day a week that’s more my research day, more my writing day than other days. And on that day I tend to have some more ambitious goals. But I’m always behind, like I’m always way behind.
I have no angst associated with being behind, I have no bad feelings associated with being behind. I’m a happily-behind person.
I acclimatized to this with academic writing, because I used to rush and rush and rush and then I would be the first person with the thing in. Now I’m the person that everyone else is finished and they’re waiting on me. But I’ve always done administrative work alongside the research and writing some people kind of have understood why I’m extra busy. And other people are happy to keep working with me, so…
3) How do you know when you have done enough research?
Cate: When the connections I’m making in the text feel graceful or when the deadline is looming :-).
Samantha: Usually I start out doing a draft. So I know enough to get started then I do some more research and then do a bit more writing.
So, I have read enough to have my own ideas, where my ideas fit into the scheme of things, and then I do more close reading of other people’s work as I’m getting closer to being finished.
It’s always not all research and then writing. It’s research a bit, start writing, research a bit more and then write more.
Otherwise, with academic work, you end up just knowing too much about other people’s work and not enough about your own ideas.
4) How do you get started in any given writing session? What do you do if you get stuck?
Cate: See my “focused daily practice” comment above. I sometimes use Sarah Selecky’s prompts, even if they don’t seem at all related, because it just gets me started. I will use one of her creative writing prompts even if they seem absolutely bonkers just to get me started even on a more formal project. (Like today’s was ” write about someone with a distinct scent, pleasant or unpleasant” — for a blog post I might just start writing about someone scent and it will lead me somewhere else entirely).
Also, I’m lucky enough in my work life to have a team, so sometimes I ask them to make a first draft because building on that is helpful.
I’m not great at outlines — a lot of my writing insight comes from actual writing — but I do outlines as a placeholder if I need to make sure I don’t forget sections.
Samantha: I don’t care that much about fancy writing or about making it beautiful, I just start. If I’m writing a book review. I start by describing what the book is about. Likewise, for academic journal articles I tend to do a ‘Here’s what I’m going to be talking about. Here’s my plan for the paper.” but I’m much more colloquial in my speech in a first draft. And in fact, sometimes if I’m really stuck… I’m really good at lecturing so if I can’t write, I’ll just voice dictation. I’ll just use Google Docs and do a draft that way because I can always give a lecture about the subject and I often find materials there for the beginning of the written draft.
I don’t let myself be stuck for too long. I stop and do something else. Taking my dog for a walk, working on something else for a little bit.
There’s no point in staring at a screen and getting really angry at yourself or angry with a project. I’m pretty good at finding another thing to work on and coming back to the thing.
But I try not to leave things at the stuck point. I’m better off leaving them when I still have lots to say, because then when I come back to it next, I still have something to do.
5) Do you have any advice for other writers?
Cate: I echo the usual advice to “just write” — I found doing Sarah Selecky’s 12 week program for creative writing very worth the money because it forced me to show up week after week and it really made me believe in my writing.
I’m also a big believer in the fact that you discover something to say once you start writing — trust that it’s there. I can’t preplan from my brain, creativity comes in the doing.
Samantha: I can give advice like I give my graduate students, which is to do the ‘sucky first draft.’ Something written is better than nothing and you’re always a better editor than you think you are. And, learn to work in small chunks. Don’t be a person who says ‘I need six hours.’ You’re never going to get six hours, so just stop it. Your whole life is going to be small chunks so just get used to working in them if you can.
I tell people to work to a clock so they end at a certain time instead of when they’re done. If they finish when the time is up instead of when they’re done with what they have to say, then that’s easier to go back to.
There are different kinds of advice for different kinds of writing tasks, of course. But for me, it’s mostly academic writing, so the other kinds of writing feel like fun. Tracy and I found our book a delight to write because we weren’t writing for an academic audience. Writing for an academic audience is a bit stressful.
I just really kind of work on getting ideas to paper, having a document to work on, and then I work on editing.
Thank you to both Cate Creede and Samantha Brennan for their time and for their insights for this post.