Writing with Purpose

No matter the topic or length of assignment, in the back of my mind I’m always conscious of that magic word count that signals I’ve finished. I tend to be most acutely aware of the desired word count when I’m just getting started. In the early days of working on my thesis – sitting in front of my computer, the blank page staring silently back at me – 100,000 words felt like a herculean task.

It is fairly intuitive that a thesis gets written in stages: one chapter at a time, though not necessarily in chronological order. Bearing this in mind, one can safely banish the menacing thought of 100,000 words (for a short while, anyway) and concentrate instead on the more manageable target of 10-15,000 words required for a single chapter.

Though good for morale, rationalising my word count down in this way has little lasting significance. I’m still staring at a blank word document with an imaginary tickertape running across the bottom; only now it now reads 10,000 WORDS…10,000 WORDS…10,000 WORDS… instead of 100,000 WORDS…100,000 WORDS…100,000 WORDS… After 10 minutes in this frame of mind, I hardly notice the missing ‘0’.

At this point, I usually get up to make a cup of tea. Decide that making a shopping list while the kettle comes to a boil is a productive use of my time. Invariably notice a hangnail on my right thumb that really can’t be ignored another minute…

…Two cups of tea and an hour later, I’m back in front of the blank page.

Writing with purpose can mean different things at different stages of the writing process. At the end of the day, however, in order to write with purpose you have to write something.

For me, some days writing with purpose can simply mean writing something, anything, as long as I have several pages of new text by the end of the day. This is generally the conclusion I come to after making my grocery list, filing my nails, and realizing that I’ve just used the last teabag. In other words, I gradually come around to the idea that writing something mediocre is significantly better than writing nothing at all. This is also a good time to remind myself that every chapter will go through several drafts. What I write today doesn’t have to be perfect – or even that good – just good enough so that I have something to edit and rework tomorrow.

I’ve never been one for writing to an outline; nonetheless, I do believe that outlines can be very helpful when it comes to writing with purpose. A well thought out outline can provide direction like a string of trail markers. You have to make your own way between the guideposts, but you know where you’ve been, where you’re going, and can generally calculate roughly how long it will take you to get there. It may sound strange, but it can be incredibly useful to make a paragraph-by-paragraph outline of your chapter after you’ve finished drafting it to make sure that your argument hangs together in a logical way. Making an outline at this stage can help you write with greater purpose when you sit-down to re-write at a later date.

By my third year, I had managed to find the off switch for the imaginary word-count-tickertape. Instead of fearing that I would never manage to reach 100,000 words, I started to seriously worry that 100,000 words wouldn’t be enough.

Writing with purpose now meant making sure that every word contributed to my argument. I eventually came to think of analytical writing as akin to translating my research in all of its richness and complexity. As with a literary translation, the product of purposeful analysis is a provisional solution for making something previously indecipherable or foreign newly comprehensible. The result is an independent interpretation that, if done well, accurately echoes the original. My new purpose was to write as succinctly as possible while preserving the essence of what I had discovered.

So, my top tips for writing with purpose are:

  1. Write. Some days this will come easily, and you can have loftier purposes. Other times each keystroke will be like pulling a tooth. On frustrating days, the act of writing itself can be purpose enough.
  2. Plan. Whether you like making neat, crisp outlines or prefer laying all of your notes out in a wild mosaic on the floor, have a plan for what you want to say and how you are going to go about saying it. Not only will this make the writing (and re-writing) process easier, it will probably help clarify your argument as well.
  3. Don’t transcribe, translate. Scientific writing does not have to be sterile, particularly if you are working in the social sciences. What does your research mean and why? More importantly, how can you best convey this meaning to people who have not had the benefit of sharing your research experience? More than a mere conversion of languages, translation entails interpreting the essence of your research in such a way that it becomes recognisable and relevant to a new audience.

If you still find yourself ‘searching for journal articles’ but really surfing the internet, perhaps consider meandering over to your library search engine or favorite online bookseller and pulling up the titles Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Fabrication by Susan Neville. The first is an excellent (and humorous) book about writing by an author for authors. It kindly escorts you through the writing process, from sitting down to write ‘shitty first drafts’ through to publication. The second is a collection of essays that brilliantly demonstrates the potency of research and writing as processes of translation. It may be just the inspiration you need to start thinking – and writing – about your own research in a similar spirit.

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