One of my goals for the short time I have left in this body is to persuade you to avoid ghostwriters. (See this and this). My motto: Write your own stuff. With this goal in mind, I offer ways to reduce or eliminate pain points in the writing process.
One of these pain points is the transition from doing research to actually getting some writing done. You can ease this transition by seeing writing as an act of transformation rather than creation.
More specifically, you can approach research and writing as a process of:
- Collecting sources (what’s already been written and said about your chosen topic)
- Extracting juicy quotes from those sources
- Revising those quotes
The beauty of this process is that at no point do you face a blank page or screen. The act of “writing” is simply taking the quotes you’ve already collected, rearranging them, rewording them, and adding your own ideas.
There are successful writers who use this method. Consider two: Steven Berlin Johnson and Cal Newport.
Steven Berlin Johnson on how to write a book
Steven Berlin Johnson is a science writer and author of several books, including Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. In a masterful post about how to write a book, he almost makes the process sound fun. Essentially, he:
- Reads widely about whatever interests him.
- Grabs interesting “snippets” from his reading—quotes from web pages, digital books, and printed books (making sure to note the source of each quote).
- Throws these quotes into one big document with no hint of organization.
Then, when it’s time to write, Steven reads through his collection of snippets and groups them into separate chapters for a possible book. He describes this as working with “pieces of a puzzle that’s coming together”:
Instead of confronting a terrifying blank page, I’m looking at a document filled with quotes: from letters, from primary sources, from scholarly papers, sometimes even my own notes. It’s a great technique for warding off the siren song of procrastination. Before I hit on this approach, I used to lose weeks stalling before each new chapter, because it was just a big empty sea of nothingness. Now each chapter starts life as a kind of archipelago of inspiring quotes, which makes it seem far less daunting. All I have to do is build bridges between the islands.
Cal Newport on writing from a flat outline
Cal writes the fascinating Study Hacks Blog and has several books to his credit. One of Cal’s posts is about avoiding traditional multi-level outlines when writing a research paper. As an alternative, he recommends that you simply:
- Create a list of topics that you want to cover.
- Arrange those topics in a logical order.
- Gather quotes related to each topic.
- Arrange those quotes to follow your list of topics.
The result is a “topic level outline.” Then, when it’s time to write:
… don’t start from a blank document. Instead, make a copy of your topic-level outline and transform it into the finished paper. For each topic, begin writing, right under the topic header, grabbing the quotes you need as you move along. Remember, these quotes are right below you in the document and are immediately accessible.
This is essentially the same process as Steven Johnson’s: gather interesting quotes, rearrange them, and transform them into something that’s uniquely your own.
Have you ever done something like this? How did it work?