October 25, 2010

The Birth of a Paper

After a whirlwind weekend of just-enough-could-have-been-too-much, I am back and banging out the work like nobody’s business.

This past weekend was the NEPCA 2010 conference at which I finally gave the ill-fated vampire paper (ill-fated due to its previous fledgling attempts at coming into the world which involved a volcano thwarting my conference-going experience).  The paper was well received and despite feeling slightly out-classed by the insane lunch-time ballroom of awesome in which we were wined and dined, I managed to keep things together and deliver a pretty solid presentation. 

Now that I’m back in New Jersey, I’ve hit the ground running this week.  I have a pile of grading, the Austen midterm looming, and PhD applications to roll out.  If I emerge from this month with my sanity, I will count myself lucky.

I’ve had several people ask about my drafting process for a paper.  How do you go from concept to product, what steps do you take, and how does this all come together?  As I’m currently in the throes of such a process, there’s no time like the present to take you through this.  Thanks to my handy dandy iPhone, it will be a multi-media presentation.

So, here it is.  Papers like a pro in five easy, simple, arduous and time-consuming, hellish, easy-to-follow steps.

Step One: Research

Honestly, it’s a toss-up whether step one is research or paper conception.  Sometimes I have an idea and know just what I want to write about.  Sometimes it’s a little more amorphous.  Either way, early in the process I hit the stacks.  This is good old Dana library:



Don’t let her measly exterior fool you.  She may be small, but she be fierce… and she has mad ILL connections, yo.  I order books and articles which I then take back to my lair (sometimes after bashing them over the head and dragging them).



This is my reading corner/bookshelf.  Please ignore the mess, eccentric genius at work.



As I have previously mentioned, I compile my research into a word document.  Single-spaced, times new roman, size twelve font.  All the citations I need and all the quotes I may or may not want go into this document.  When the single-spaced document is the approximate length of my double-spaced paper, I know it’s time to move on.

Step Two: “Pile it up”

I’m a kinesthetic learner.  This does not mesh well with English lit.  Since I am so tactile, I really have to be able to touch the way my argument is shaped before I make it.  In order to contend with this, I have developed the following tactic.

I print out my word document and cut up the research into little bits.  I label each bit with a number corresponding to the citation where it came from.  Then I literally pile the bits into “concepts”.  I put the things that feel like they go together in their own piles.  I label the piles with post-its and take notes on my thoughts/ideas as they occur to me.  The entire process looks like this:



It does take a great deal of space, so I usually use my floor rather than any civilized table.  Sitting on the ground with my research arrayed around me makes it feel more visceral, more real, a rush and tumult of ideas and notions right there at my fingertips.  Writing papers this way means literally getting down and dirty with the text.

I re-arrange the piles to correspond with how the argument will lay out.  Basically, my floor becomes a soundboard for the paper.  By the time I’m done with this, I’m usually pretty burnt out so it’s time for step three…

Step Three: A Shower

No, really, I leave my research in piles on the floor, and go take a shower.  It gives me time to clear my head, it helps me put my thoughts in order, and for whatever reason I always have my best ideas in the shower.

This step is sometimes repeated if I get stuck against a brick wall.  Something about hot water and nice-smelling soap just makes my brain work better.  You can tell how much trouble a paper is giving me by how nice I smell.

….no pictures for this one, sorry.

Step Four: Preliminary Vomit Draft

Once thoroughly clean, I make a pot of tea and prepare for the long haul.  This is my least favorite step in the drafting process.  I pre-format my headers and footers, I insert a place-marker for my title (usually “better title to follow”), and I make myself write.  Usually this is little more than me inserting quotes in an order which makes sense to me with nominal input from my own thinking.  This input is no more than a sentence here or there as to what my argument is, where it’s going, etc. 



Generally, this draft is awful.  The important thing about it is that it exists.  It gets me past the blank-screen-blinking-cursor-of-doom, and it gets me really mulling through my paper.  Most importantly, it gets me to my favorite part of the entire process…

Step Five: Drafting

There is nothing more satisfying to me than a good red-penning.  Nothing.  The rush of crossing things out.  The flourish of adding new writing.  The excitement of shifting paragraphs.

Contemporary pedagogical theory says that we, as writing teachers, should never red-pen our students’ work.  We should keep our markings on their papers to a minimum, and probably in pencil rather than anything else.  But it’s so niggling to know that something is wrong and you can’t just fix it… so upsetting to have this inkling that a swoosh of ink would make it just fine…

But with my own work, I can tell myself I’m wrong as much as I want without harming my ego!





More importantly, this is where the real writing takes place.  This is where my ideas are honed, crafted, added, revisited, and overall made smart.  In general, it takes me six to eight drafts to produce a solid ten to twenty page paper.  The progression of the drafts is as such:

Draft One: vomit draft, nobody look, let’s pretend this never happened.

Draft Two: this will never be done on time, why can’t I write anything, god I’m an awful human being and can’t formulate a smart thought to save my life.

Draft Three: this… wasn’t as bad as I had thought.  I mean, it still needs work, but it’s got some potential.  This may just be pretty good when it’s all done…

Draft Four: I say some pretty smart things in here.  Not sure I’m ready to turn it in, but I’d consider letting someone I trust maybe have a look at this…

Draft Five: Not bad, not bad if I do say so myself.  Gotta double-check for typos.

Draft Six: Oh bloody hell, this part doesn’t belong at all, why did I let myself write a paragraph that has nothing to do with anything and…. Well maybe I’ll just take it out.

Draft Seven: I think this is done.  I hope this is done.  Typo on page seven.  Gotta re-print.

Draft Eight: Okay, putting this on the prof’s desk whether it’s done or not.  I can’t stand to look at this anymore.  …maybe if I just add this bit of criticism it’ll be perfect and… no.  We’re turning it in.

Of course, no writing is ever finished.  I could draft until the world burns doomsday.  Like starting a piece, “finishing” is sometimes just a matter of “put the paper down and step away from the keyboard”. 

In any case, the Austen paper is currently hovering above draft three.  I’m not sure if it’ll make it to eight on time…. But right now, I’m feeling pretty accomplished.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love it