Hmm, what’s my process? Funny, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that before. I don’t really have a “process,” per se, just a simple routine that I meticulously follow every day like a disciplined genius robot.
I usually wake up around 5 or 5:05 A.M., and get out of bed immediately. I do not press snooze. I do not start scrolling through Twitter so that the brightness of my phone’s L.E.D. screen will force my eyes into awakeness, but then continue reading tweets for so long that my eyes adjust to the brightness and I get sleepy again.
I meditate first thing in the morning. I do this sitting down on a meditation pillow (which is not painful, because I have naturally good posture). I do not use a meditation app, because I am not a baby. I just set a timer to emit a gentle gong sound after an hour, and I empty my mind. When thoughts do arise, they are usually really smart thoughts about my writing, but I do not hold on to them in a panic, because I have enough faith in myself to know that they will return when it is time.
Then I run ten miles and make a smoothie. I don’t drink coffee, because that would probably just lead to hours of wondering if maybe I haven’t had enough coffee but being unwilling to drink more because I don’t want to get addicted and need more and more coffee every day just to be able to function. The smoothie usually has coconut oil in it—yum!
Finally, it’s time to write.
My desk is a clean, uncluttered expanse that I use solely for writing, and certainly not as a dumping ground for wedding invitations, gum wrappers, and grocery-store receipts that I’m afraid to throw away in case I need them for “tax purposes.” On the wall above my computer, I have taped up an index card with a quote from Kafka or Don DeLillo or some other cool writer, which inspires me anew each time I look at it. You’d think that I would become blind to it after a while, or that I might occasionally feel embarrassed by its pretentiousness when guests come over, but nope! It’s just constantly inspirational and not embarrassing.
I remain seated at my desk for the entirety of my writing session. (I do not attempt to convince myself that I could be just as productive if I were writing in bed, and that it would be kind of fun and “like college.”)
I don’t need to disable my Internet connection, because—honestly?—I’m not even tempted. I understand that social media does not hold the answers I seek, and that looking at it will only make me feel terrible. And, what’s more, my understanding of this fact translates seamlessly into my actual behavior.
I have a friendly relationship with the mysterious forces that govern my creative inspiration—my muses, if you will. When they visit me, a soft smile alights on my lips. “Hello, old friends,” I murmur fondly. My experience of writing is a giddy, pleasurable one, and does not feel like being trapped inside a cage that is on fire.
When I write, I let my characters speak through me—I am but a vessel for their words. I shut out all distractions and turn off my phone, because I definitely don’t worry that if I take too long to text people back they’ll decide they hate me and never text me again.
In the afternoon, I typically take a long walk. I do not listen to podcasts. Why would I? The music of the natural world is podcast enough. As you may have noticed, a running theme in my process is that I am not afraid to be alone with my thoughts. Not at all.
Of course, some days the muses may not visit me. When this occurs, I accept the situation with equanimity and give myself permission to write a clumsy first draft and vigorously edit it later. This approach is possible because I understand that my intrinsic self-worth is separate from my talent and my productivity, and because I know that I am deserving of love even if my writing is not very good. This gives me the freedom to take risks, which, in turn, actually makes my writing very good. Funny, right?
If I am truly stuck, I read a book. I do not watch a twenty-two-minute sitcom as a “break” from the immense stress of waking up and sitting down at a desk. Not even if there is a new episode on Hulu of a show I don’t particularly like but have seen every previous episode of.
Anyway, I guess that’s my process. It’s all about repetition, really—doing the same thing every single day. No one else in the world cares at all, yet I still do it! Because I, a human being, have the self-control to maintain this routine in a complete vacuum of social interaction or any positive reinforcement.
Oh, and I almost forgot—I go to bed super early. ♦
As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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