Saturday, November 27, 2010

On writing: dither and blather

Over at The Chronicle, The Shadow Scholar has been getting more than his 15 minutes of fame for cheerfully admitting that he makes a good living at writing papers--nay, theses and dissertations--for students willing to pay his prices. Everyone in the comments is shocked and outraged by his admission and his lack of ethics, but I was sort of struck with awe at this: "It's not implausible to write a 75-page paper in two days. It's just miserable. I don't need much sleep, and when I get cranking, I can churn out four or five pages an hour."

Wow. Is it possible to write 75 pages in two days?

I've concluded that there are really two parts to the actual writing process (not the editing process, which is also part of a larger writing process). These are Getting Started and Keeping At It. Keeping At It is not hard. Getting Started is misery.

When I've asked highly productive colleagues and friends how they get started, sometimes they seem confused ("What is this Getting Started of which you speak?" their expressions say) and sometimes they say, "Well, I get up and start reading things, and then I start writing." None of them mention the Dither Period, which unfortunately seems somehow essential to the Getting Started process for me.

The Dither Period is that time period when you know you should be writing but can't manage it. You sit at the desk and leap up as if you're on a hot stove. You've already cut down all distractions--no internet, no going to the store or seeing friends, no cleaning binges--so on top of everything else, the Dither Period is boring. You think about the work, read a little, wander around the house, sit down, leap up, and wander some more. Finally, you can't stand it any more and you sit down, write the word count on a pad of paper (an ignominious "0," but you have to start somewhere), set the timer for 20 or 30 or 50 minutes, and get going. Now you're in the Getting Started mode.

Actually, you're in Blather mode. You just write things down based on what you know and think, making side notes when you have to. Your quotations look like this: "Put down that quote where he says this--I think it's in X book." When the timer rings, you write down your word count, because in Blather mode, every word does count. Maybe you set little goals for yourself about how much you'll write before the next timer period. And so on.

At the end, you'll have words. They may not be what you want, or they may turn out to be all right after all. The important thing is that you've created something you can work with--a Blather fabric--that you can then cut and stitch into something worthwhile.

But 75 pages over a two-day period? I don't think that even Blather mode could produce that much.


Earnest English said...

I adore this post. This is indeed my process.

michele said...

I agree with Earnest English - I too adore this post!

This sounds so much like my process, but I've never divided this period into Dither and Blather, rather, it feels like I'm doing both at the same time. I call it "Flailing" as in a lot of useless motion, both physically and mentally.

Maybe I'd actually be more productive if I could split the dithering and the blathering into separate stages?

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Yep. Dithered there, blathered that.

Bardiac said...

I don't think I could physically type for 75 pages in two days, even if I were typing random whatevers.

Some folks are calling BS on his math about the salary, too. You'd have to write a LOT even at $25 a page to make $60K a year. I don't know, though.

moria said...

We are kin, dear Undine.

But I have not yet progressed to the level of self-discipline that involves turning off the internet or setting timers. You inspire.

(And those productive people you talk to either {a} are liars or {b} should be kicked in the shins, the bahstids.)

undine said...

Thanks, Earnest English and Dame Eleanor! I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one.

Michele, I'd call it "Flailing" except that that would imply something good, like exercise.

Bardiac, I know I could type it if I were just copying it. The math didn't add up for me, either: $25 a page doesn't sound like that much, even if it does work out to $100-125 an hour for him.

moria--that makes me feel better about their productivity!

Z said...

OK I thought about this, made calculations. I have done on some rare occasions what he seems to do regularly. But the difference is that I did it in field, for myself not for someone else, and so I was prepared for these marathons.


Anonymous said...

OK I just found out something shocking (see the end of this comment for the revelation).

The fastest I ever wrote was 1000 words per hour for 7 hours. It was my PhD exam in English.

I thought about that when I first read this post and then realized I had in fact done it 3 times earlier in school, a full good draft of a seminar paper in one day, and that I did it again one day this semester. These five days - 3 times in school, 1 time on that exam, and one day this semester - have been my five most productive days in the writing life, and what they have in common was that I had already done all the research and I had all my quotations and arguments at the top of my mind. And of course, I let myself get totally immersed in the project (I hadn't set out to do those seminar papers or the current article that fast, it just happened, and I didn't need to write that much on that PhD exam, I just did it because a thorough treatment of the question required it and I had the info/ideas I needed, so I went for it).

ANYWAY I have discovered that this rate, 1,000 words per hour, is EXACTLY the rate TROLLOPE recommended. See Christina Crosby, "Writer's Block, Merit, and the Market: Working in the University of Excellence." College English 65:6 (July 2003): 626-645. See esp. p. 630.


Anonymous said...

P.S. I have come up with a better way to write for money: actually send out short stories, to magazines that pay for them, and to fiction contests. There's one that will pay $6500 if you win, for one story I would have written anyway. We don't have merit raises any more so ... have to write for money in some way.

Another colleague also not officially in Creative Writing has decided to do it, too. I think we are onto a pretty good scheme here.

Anonymous said...

I am just about to start a dither period on a referee report due tomorrow!

It will not be 75 pages long though.

In college I could do about a page an hour if I knew what I was going to say... so yeah, could not do 75 pages in 48 hours. Not without a lot of really long in-text quotations. He must type fast.