I have some interesting quirks when it comes to writing. For one thing, I don’t like re-reading my own work. I mean, really, really don’t like it. But luckily, I’ve discovered I write a pretty mean first draft. But in an academic world of “Outline → Draft → Edit → Draft → Final,” this left me in an interesting position. I found I could wait until the last minute, crank out an essay the night (or weekend) before it was due, and end up getting good marks on whatever I turned in.
Definitely a case of “I’m learning a lesson, but I’m not sure it’s the one you want me to.”
As I mentioned previously, I was something of an overachiever in middle and high school. The coursework was fairly easy, so my family and I found ways to keep me challenged, including skipping grades (long story short, I went to college a year early). However, things changed when I reached college, as I imagine it does for many overachievers. There was suddenly a level of challenge I was not prepared for, and that, combined with the fact that I started out with an overloaded first semester at seventeen, led to a severe case of burnout. But that’s a topic for a different time.
I think this is likely where (and why) my writing habits started co coalesce. Like I said, I write a good first draft, as what readers I have can likely attest. I tend to edit as I go, shifting phrases around in my head (or sometimes moving them to a scratch sheet for later). Maybe I’m just lucky in that I can formulate my thoughts in such a way that makes sense on paper on the (more or less) first try. This is good, since I can’t stand to re-read my own writing. Whether that’s because I think it’s utter crap (most of the time) or because I’m just too pressed for time (part of the process at this point, I would argue), the less times I have to go over something, the better.
That’s not to say I go in wholly unprepared. In school, I discovered that a rule of thumb to help me budget my time: one hour per page. Now that one hour need not be all writing: it also included brainstorming, documentation, and the finding of quotes. When writing a research paper, I would often head to the library and go for a “shotgun” approach, where I would find as many books as possible that looked even remotely helpful (it also helps that I’m a fast reader). I would then start writing, usually coming up with talking points and then finding quotes or additional sources to support them.
I also discovered I hate writing transitions. You know how in your typical 5-paragraph essay each section is supposed to naturally flow into the other one? Yeah, it always felt trite and contrived when I attempted it. But I found a solution, thanks to the expanding length of collegiate papers (relative to K-12): section headings! I could just as easily make each subject its own section, with a handy title (and post-colon modifier, of course), and suddenly I wouldn’t have to finagle a connection between sections.
This also allowed me to implement another strategy to speed things up and keep them cohesive. I found that if I wrote straight from beginning to end (introduction, point n, point n+1, …, conclusion), I often ended up in a different place than I thought I would when I wrote the introduction. One of the joys of writing without a formal outline is you can spontaneously add and subtract talking points. The downside is that you may finish a very different essay than you started. But writing in sections helped me in that I could easily skip around, writing about what most held my fancy at the time, and not worry about stitching the bits together. I would often write the middle sections, and then once I figured out what I was talking about, I would tack on an intro/conclusion framework. It’s almost as if the act of writing helps me organize my ideas, and helps me figure out what I actually think about a given subject matter.
The Ur-example of this process that stands out most clearly for me right now is from grad school. I had to do a literature review for a history class, where we were to choose a subject, summarize at least 10 sources, then synthesize our findings. It was assigned in such a way as to encourage us to work on it all semester. Once the proposal was done and turned in, however, I let it languish until about a week before it was due. I then went into overdrive, spending hours upon hours in the library skimming books and journal articles for quick summary. These completed, I then set about distilling the distillations even further, summarizing the summaries. By the time I finished (with not much more than a few sleeping hours to spare), I was convinced that what I had was terrible. I actually started factoring how drastically my grade would be affected if I bombed this project. Luckily by this point I was getting too tired to care; I just wanted to be done. So I turned it in. Next thing I know, this piece of dreck has received one of the highest grades in the class, and the professor has asked for a copy for future reference.
I’ve learned a lesson, but I don’t think it’s the one you wanted me to learn.