Education

What advice about graduate writing gets wrong (opinion)

If you open up a Twitter thread or an advice column for graduate writing, you’ll probably see advice such as “Just write.” “You can’t edit a blank page.” “Put words on paper—even if they’re terrible, you can go back and fix them later.”

That advice can certainly be helpful for folks paralyzed by perfectionism, those who are hamstrung by the spiraling guilt of needing to write but finding themselves unable to do so. Sometimes the tyranny of the blank page can be all-encompassing. Graduate students who need to write a thesis, a dissertation or a journal article can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of written words needed to finish.

But such well-intentioned advice works best for just one type of writer: the swooper. This term come from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Timequake. He writes that swoopers “write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work.”

The swooper’s foil is the basher. “Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done, they’re done,” Vonnegut says. You can see how graduate swoopers might benefit from the standard writing advice, while bashers could find such advice utterly inapplicable to their writing practice.

Personally, I am a swooper with intermittent basher tendencies. On good days, when the writing energy is flowing, I can crank out a good—or at least serviceable—first draft almost as quickly as I can think it. My writing and argumentation might not be gorgeous or eloquent, but they’re there. The first draft of this piece was written on a swooper day.

Some days, however, are basher days. I do not want to write. But in accordance with the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity’s advice for productive scholarship, I write at least 30 minutes every workday. When I don’t want to write and have run out of writing-adjacent tasks, like reformatting citations or reducing my to-read list, I become a reluctant basher.

I have found that my basher writing days—when each sentence is a struggle and I can’t read or write my sentences without hating them—can actually lead to writing that needs less editing in the future. I save heartache on swooper days but save editing time on basher days. The total amount of work to get a piece publication-ready is the same, but it’s apportioned differently.

Given the prevalence of swooper-centric writing advice, it’s easy for bashers to feel guilty about their practice. A swooper might quickly produce a 300-page draft of their dissertation requiring many hours of later editing, while a basher can take more time to have a 250-page completed text requiring very little additional work. My spouse is a dyed-in-the-wool basher and struggled with feeling behind compared to swooper colleagues when dissertating. You may find yourself feeling the same way.

But for graduate students undertaking what is likely their first major solo writing effort, I suggest some introspection about your own writing styles and practices. Like any other practices endeavoring to become habits, the most successful writing practices are those that can fit with your current instincts and styles rather force you to try to make a radical, difficult-to-continue change.

What are your most productive times? When do you feel like writing—or feel like you can stomach it? For me, it’s the 10 a.m.–to–1 p.m. block. Any writing that I do at 3 p.m. will just make me miserable, although I get an energy boost around 4:30 p.m. For you, maybe it’s 11 p.m. To the best of your ability, protect that time for yourself.

If you’re a basher, realize that you might write slowly compared to swooper colleagues, but you won’t need as much editing work. If you’re a swooper, recognize that others might not write as quickly as you, but your first draft is going to be substantially different from the finished product. In short, writing is hard—whatever your styles and practices. You should make it as easy on yourself as possible.

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