To all the prescriptive linguists and English teachers out there: take some deep breaths. You’ll see where I’m coming from in a minute…
I’ve said it many times, so once more won’t hurt: writing is tough. Not only do you have to put pen to paper or hands to keys in the first place, but there’s usually a reason for you taking the time to put characters on a screen or marks on a page. More often than not, you want to get something that’s residing in your brain to go through your arm and your fingers, through to some kind of writing device and onto a place where it can be recorded. Simple (I suppose?) in theory, but difficult in practice. Even as a Ph.D student, whose thoughts tend to flip between “you should be reading” and “you should be writing,” I found it tricky to sit myself down and perform this task that I’ve been doing on and off for the past 26 or so years.
We don’t think like we write. I’m no psycholinguist, but as anyone who has either tried to write extensively, or perhaps those who speak multiple languages, the way that you think about things compared to the way that you express them is extremely different. Not only this, but if you find yourself reading lots of literature – articles, papers, books, poetry, elaborate directions around a supermarket to pick up milk, prose, – then you start to compare your initial scribbles with the finished work of others. To paraphrase a friend of mine (who also too the crazy decision to do a Ph.D), we tend to compare someone else’s highlight reel to our auditioning tapes.
All of this leads to things like “writers block” or similarly coined terms. What’s up in our brains can’t get onto the page in the way that our brains want it to, thus acting as the thing that impedes, assists, and then critiques its own work. In modern meme culture, this is referred to as the “scumbag brain,” which includes other seemingly paradoxical brain events, such as:
So how do you get around this? A recent set of seminars I attended to assist my transition into the world of research (which, if anyone from the University Research Development team are reading, are really working!) suggested that you start off by writing poorly. This doesn’t mean that you forget what syntax is or create a word like “Plurmsflip” and hope that you understand it in three weeks time, but instead you get what is in your brain onto the page in the simplest way possible.
Imagine you had to explain how a lightbulb works for an academic article. Reading similar articles you would find that there is a certain depth of detail that needs to be adhered to, along with a logical structure and various words often only reserved for academic articles. In trying to write this out, sentence by sentence, and going over each sentence to ensure that it has these academic traits, you’ll get no-where fast. But if we took it in stages, it might look something like this:
– Light switch flicks on, electricity flows through cables to the light, filament gets hot/glows, light is on
– When the light switch is turned into the on position, a flow of electricity travels along cables and into the lightbulb itself. The filament within the lightbulb glows, producing light.
– Firstly, the light switch must be moved from the ‘off’ to the ‘on’ position. In doing so, the previously impeded flow of electricity is allowed to travel through to the light, in which electrons travel through a thin, wire filament in the centre of the bulb. Then, when more energy passes through, the filament begins to increase in temperature and glow, thus producing light.
While this isn’t the most detailed that it could be, hopefully it demonstrates how getting the basic bulk of information from your head onto paper allows your brain to deal with what it has in front of it. Rather than having these amazing and complex thoughts that seem to link in your mind perfectly – only to have them make no sense at all when they’re written down – you start at the bottom and build up.
Of course, you could always go back after a few days/weeks and then reaffirm that your writing has made sense. You could even polish it up a bit more, but be wary of getting stuck in the perfectionist loop: all things can be improved, so you have to know when enough is enough.
So go! Go write, and write poorly, so that you may very soon after write incredibly!