All posts by Writing Matters Editor

Respecting the Process, Respecting the Writer

by Joanne Paul

Dr Joanne Paul lectures in the History of Ideas at the New College of the Humanities in London.  She blogs about history and feminism at Past the PhD.  You can follow her on Twitter @Joanne_Paul_.

Tortured Writer in an empty pub

Ah, the tortured writer. It’s a classic image – hunched over a scribbled page, crumpled, discarded papers surround the desk, frail, undernourished, pale from lack of sunlight, at last this tortured writer, in the middle of the night, produces a flood of genius! This idea, odd and romantic as it may seem, does seem to persist amongst writers, even in universities, today. There is, what I like to call, a strange ‘academic asceticism’ that persists, that tells us to produce good work, we have to pull all-nighters, eat nothing but junk food (or nothing at all), caffeinate like crazy, lock ourselves in our rooms, in libraries, and barely sleep. It is only through restriction and gargantuan effort can we produce genius – like Athena birthed through the head of Zeus.

Birth of AthenaI once had a friend, working on a dissertation, who locked herself in a bathroom for three days with candy and diet coke. I myself have worked 14+ hour days on my own dissertation, not leaving the house for days on end. Does this work? More or less… you might be able to get something written. And it might work for a short sprint, a single essay or dissertation, as long as you have nothing else on the go (or things like friends, loved ones, pets, house plants, etc). But for anyone who needs to make a life out of writing (and would like to have a life outside of writing), this will not work. The tortured writer, ‘academic asceticism’ all of these are myths – substantiated by the rare few who made it ‘work’ (while making vast and really unnecessary sacrifices – see above re: loved ones and house plants).

There is a single, irrefutable, incontestable rule if you want to be a good writer (sorry to my fellow bloggers, I’m sure your rules are good too). This golden rule is: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. In other words… Eat. Drink. Be merry. This does not mean blow off your assignment and get sloshed at the pub. It does mean be fair to yourself, give yourself the breaks and space you need, and above all, respect your process.

Everyone’s process is different. For me, I spend (depending on the size of the project) days or weeks compiling notes and research, until I feel I’ve reached the limits of what I am investigating. Then, I sit down to write. And I realise it’s too big. There is too much information here to present in any kind of linear, progressive, rational fashion (more on the frustrating linearity of the academic essay, and ways to escape it, another time). No matter how I try, I can’t seem to produce genius (and we’re back to Athena again). It took several panic attacks, tantrums and ‘I’m just not smart enough’ sob sessions for me to release that this period is always temporary. Because after a day or two of this agony, I would give up on trying to produce brilliance, and I would produce something – I like to call it my ‘brain vomit’ stage. Once something is down, you can work with that. As a great writer once said ‘you can’t edit a blank page’.

Sassy sleeping on keyboardSo I realised my process necessarily required time away from the project to reflect. Absorb. Marinate. Produce. Edit. My best ideas come when I step away. Take a long shower. Do some yoga. Go for a walk. Chat it out with a friend. And they definitely only come if I’ve had enough sleep/food/drink-that-is-not-caffeinated-or-alcoholic. Finding your process means listening more to yourself than to the pressures around you, telling you that you simply aren’t trying hard enough, and a real writer would stay up all night if they had to. A real writer is just a person who communicates their thoughts with eloquence, and that’s a lot harder if you’re falling asleep on a keyboard.

Video Post: Why Write

Words by Thomas Dixon

This week our video posts return with Queen Mary academics reflecting on the reasons they write and on the rewards of writing.  The accompanying post is by guest author Dr Thomas Dixon, Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London.

A couple of years ago, I picked up a book at random while on holiday in a former Priory in Sussex, and found myself captivated. The book was called A Time to Keep Silence. It was published in 1957, and its author was someone I had never heard of called Patrick Leigh Fermor. This writer seemed to me to have an astonishing capacity for both simplicity and richness of expression. I read his effortlessly evocative descriptions of monasteries, their inhabitants, histories, and surrounding landscapes with growing wonder. I thought I had discovered an unknown literary genius of the 1950s. In fact, I soon discovered, Fermor was a celebrated, practically legendary figure, who had died just a few weeks previously, and was considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest travel writers.

A Time to Keep Silence

Reading a little more, including reviews of the recent biography of Fermor by Artemis Cooper, it became clear that this apparently effortless prose was the product of an arduous, sometimes agonised, and for long periods utterly fruitless process. The final part of Fermor’s great trilogy describing his journey on foot from the Netherlands to Constantinople in the 1930s, was only published posthumously. When he died at the age of ninety-six, Fermor had still not found the words he wanted to complete his account of a journey he had started when he was only eighteen. The unfinished manuscript he left behind was edited and published as The Broken Road  earlier this year.

I imagine that Fermor might quite frequently have asked himself ‘Why write?’ Why am I putting myself through this? Why can’t I find the words? Why am I trying? I don’t know for sure what Fermor’s answer would have been, although I suspect it would have had a strong element of the aesthetic about it. An answer in this vein that I would recommend myself is inspired by another moment of my own reading that has stuck with me.

I was sitting by a lavender-bordered swimming pool in France when I first read The Elements of Drawing (1857) by the prolific Victorian art critic and social reformer John Ruskin.  I was reading Ruskin in preparation for teaching a new course I was hurriedly putting together on ‘Victorian Values’. The idea of Ruskin’s that stuck with me was that the main point of learning to draw was so as to see better. In the Preface to  The Elements of Drawing, Ruskin wrote, ‘I am nearly convinced that, when once we see keenly enough, there is very little difficulty in drawing what we see; but, even supposing that this difficulty be still great, I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw.’

Some things you read stick with you. And this idea of Ruskin’s about drawing seems to me applicable also to writing. Why write? So as to look more carefully and see more keenly. In the act of collecting together, brushing down, shaping up, and rearranging words, we perceive things afresh. In writing we see better. This applies to external realities, but especially to the contents of our own minds. For me, at least, one of the main points of writing is to discover what I think. And one of the main obstacles to writing is not being able to see what I think.

When it goes really well, writing produces not only creativity, insight and improved powers of perception, but also memorable moments of holiday reading for future generations.

Thomas Dixon is the author of a book about study skills and writing called How to Get a First. You can follow him on Twitter @ThomasDixon2013

I Write

by Katherine Angel

Katherine Angel, this week’s guest author, is finishing a book on ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’ in American psychiatry, and holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Queen Mary, researching the history of psychiatric classification in the US and Europe. She is the author of Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult To Tell, published in the UK, the US, Germany and Holland. 

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive, Ryan Gosling responds to his neighbour asking him what he does by maintaining an uncomfortably long silence, watching her carefully, and eventually saying: I Drive. When people ask me what I do, I have begun adopting this active yet evasive formulation. I Write, I say, remolding The Driver’s deliberately gnomic statement, if not his toothpick and his sideline in getaway driving.

I write. I’m a writer. Writers write because they need to write, because they have to write, because they have no choice. Marilynne Robinson once said that what writers have in common is a frustration with the ‘thinness and inadequacy of ordinary speech’. And Tom McCarthy has said that ‘If there’s one thing writing isn’t, it’s straight-up talking.’

I write in order to ask questions that I don’t think can ever be fully answered, even if we must continually seek to answer them. Is it possible to tell a historical story – a narrative – about anything, and especially about the self, given its instability, its fragmentation? Stories – true stories – are also always in some sense false, because we can’t ever tell the whole story. As soon as we start to say anything, we are omitting something else, we are leaning on one part of the world, and ignoring another. And, as Wittengstein said, ‘an explanation must end somewhere’.

The curious thing about writing is the shift of gears, after publication, from writing to speech – to Tom McCarthy’s straight-up talking. People ask you to explain what you have written; to re-cast it in ordinary spoken language. Which, in one sense, is kind of nice, and very lucky indeed. And in another is profoundly challenging. Because if I were really able to say what I had to say through speech, I wouldn’t need to write. Writing, for me, is a wrestling with the language that we have, over-determined and saturated as it is – particularly around women and sexuality – in order to try to undo that language. Writing is a way to use language in order to dismantle it; an attempt to use our shared language in order to resist the sometimes coercive, dulling effects of that language. It’s a search for language, given the frustrations of language. Just as we are creatures who desire not to desire, and to get beyond our desire, so we are creatures who want to use language to get beyond language. And we are, then, of course, doomed to fail  – though what a privilege and a pleasure to make the attempt.

Years ago, I heard Will Self say, on some radio programme or other: ‘In the economy of ideas, nothing is wasted.’ I have drafts and drafts of chapters, articles, talks, fragments – many of which bear a trace in things I have published. Sometimes a visible trace, sometimes a less visible one. It can take a long time for me to work out what form, and what voice, is the right one for the thoughts that I have. Working out how to say the thing you want to say is part of working out what it is that you want to say. It can be arduous, and it can be confusing. It’s a curious pleasure, one I don’t feel entirely in control of – which is, I think, part of its pleasure.

Two things are, I think, crucial to writing. Both involve not fighting yourself. The first is an awareness of the scale that suits your way of thinking. Twyla Tharp talks about this in her book The Creative Habit, from which, about six years ago, the phrase ‘close focal distance’ jumped out at me, and released me from some illusions. I am able to think and to write if I start off examining something up close; zooming in and trying to capture the detailed texture of it, and then, thinking from that place, moving back outwards. If I try to resist this, it’s agony, and I get nowhere but frustration. The second thing is refusing to be convinced that anything is beneath your notice.  If I have any advice for anyone writing, it’s this: pay attention to what intrigues you. Don’t be a snob about your interests. Everything is relevant – and will yield something. Maybe not in this book, in this thesis, in this essay; but at some point, it will rear its head – if it matters. So: write everything down; capture everything that strikes you, no matter how fragmentary or fleeting it might seen. Be generous with your own curiosity. On the other hand: don’t worry about writing everything down or capturing it all. Trust yourself. If you need to write about something, it’ll insist on being written about. It’ll come back, and make you write it.

Getting Things Front to Back

by Ruth Irwin

This week’s guest author, Ruth Irwin, is a final year English and History undergraduate at QMUL and editor of the Queen Mary Undergraduate History Journal (who are also on Twitter).

Writing a coursework essay can be a scary prospect. I often find it hard to get started. If you’re anything like me, then you will begin by obsessively working out exactly how much of your module, year and degree this assignment counts for. Then you’ll go and stare numbly at the lengthy recommended reading list, before noticing the even longer further reading list and starting to feel a bit sick. For me, the first way to make the beginning of this process less daunting is to start early. Then you can smugly acquire all the right books before others have swept the library bare; this avoids that horrendous week-before scrabble to find a relevant article online. Every student’s been there and it’s never fun. It’s then well worth spending a morning getting down and dirty with the post-it notes, marking up all the useful-looking pages and sections you can find. After that, the whole process gets less endless; you now know exactly how much you have to read, and can plan your time accordingly.

Once the reading’s done, though, there’s really no getting away from that blank Word Document. Introductions are tricky things. As an editor of the undergrad Queen Mary History Journal (and never one to look a plug-horse in the mouth) I’ve read a lot of essays recently, trying to decide which should go in the journal and which shouldn’t. Though an interesting process, this has given me strong feelings of sympathy towards academics. So many essays start with a shaky introduction, laden with references and lacking in direction or argument. Many of the essays I read then warmed up into interesting pieces of writing, but the best were those that began with a bang, a statement of intent. Like me, I think most of my fellow undergraduates feel daunted by the prospect of having to express informed opinions on subjects that the essay marker has usually dedicated years of their life to studying. Who am I to tell Tom Asbridge how to think about the Third Crusade? What if he disagrees with me, will I get marked down? The most exciting essays we read whilst compiling the journal, though, are pieces of work where the authors have a strong, immediately stated (and evidence-supported) opinion and stick to it.

The pattern of indecision I’d seen in other people’s work made me question my own; I went back and read some of my coursework from last year. Normally I proof-read an essay right before handing it in and then attempt to forget about it immediately, never looking at it again. Upon properly reading my own work, I discovered that I too was horribly guilty of wobbly-introduction-related crimes. I remember going to a poetry-writing workshop once where one of the exercises was to take a poem you had written and turn it upside down, moving the last line to the top and the first line to the bottom. This was a really useful thing to do because, like an essay, the tone of a poem tends to get more confident as it goes along; by the end you’ve decided what you mean, because you’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s a trick I’d heartily recommend for coursework.  I tried it with one of my essays from last year and the conclusion made a much better introduction than the one I had originally submitted. So here’s my post-reading week writing resolution: when in doubt, go inside out!

Marked undergraduate essays on any subject can be submitted to the QMHJ at

A Place for Story-Telling

by Eleanor Betts

This week’s post is from guest author Eleanor Betts, who is currently researching a PhD with the Centre for the History of the Emotions at QMUL.

Writing has always been a big part of my life, even as a child. It was just a few weeks ago that I discovered some old schoolbooks stashed deep at the back of a cupboard. Whereas other kids sketched doodles or graffitied the name of their crush throughout their workbooks, mine were always littered with stories. It seems strange then, that I stopped writing these tales of imagination as soon as I started university. I just assumed that fiction and academia were meant to remain separate. How wrong I was.

I am now entering the third year of my PhD and I have started writing again. I don’t mean academic writing, that kind of writing seems to be a constant presence in my life! In the past few years I have written countless essays, two dissertations, and a number of chapter drafts, all in classic academic style. But I approached these in an almost mechanical way. Academic writing has strict formulas, certain rules, trained methods that get you a First. But I am not a machine, I am human. This attitude to writing was never going to last. I have now ‘seen the light’, as it were, and this post is about how writing fiction has helped, even improved, my work as a historian.

One of the tips that undergraduate and postgraduate students are told is to write a little of something every day. When I first heard this I thought, ‘psh, how am I going to manage to write a bit of an essay each day?’ But this is not what was meant by this handy piece of advice. It is promoting the practice of sitting down in front of a computer screen, or with a pen and paper, transferring thoughts into text. Yet there is no rule that says this writing has to be academic in nature. One of my colleagues writes a personal blog and is always eager to promote how this has helped the process of writing their thesis. Another writes book and film reviews. I write stories. Doing this has taught me methods to tackle periods of writer’s block. Writing no longer seems a huge hurdle to jump over. It no longer seems like this inconceivable project with a looming deadline. Writing has now become a habit. Something so natural that I’m sure I could do it in my sleep (not that I’ve tried, or course).

Perhaps the best thing that writing fiction alongside my academic work has given me is a renewed enthusiasm for history. Rather than just reading words on a page or numbers in a table, fiction has reminded me that history is the study of real lives and real people. Every character has their own tale to tell, they experienced the world in their own way. As historians it is our place to step into the shoes of these people and document the story of lives past. History is not only the study of facts and figures, it is history.

Of course, I am careful not to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction writing styles – for there is a distinction that should be maintained. I am cautious not to allow the academic writing techniques I developed in my years at university to become, as was once pointed out by a colleague, ‘flowery’. Like any genre, academic writing does have its rules and methods, but indulging in a bit of story-telling on the side can help the imaginative process that is necessary in all writing.  We are all writers, whatever our profession, and there is no reason why non-fiction should be devoid of imagination.