After my most recent post on writing, I came across this webpage belonging to Stephen Mumford about his academic writing method. Unfortunately I can’t remember which blog pointed me to it so can’t give them credit!
The Mumford method, as it seems to have been dubbed, is quite interesting. You need to read the link to get the benefit of his idea but, essentially, what strikes me is how late the writing-up comes in his process. He claims that this is why his first draft is usually subject to very few subsequent amendments; he also notes that he does not believe that writing which is itself a form of discovery for the writer has much ultimate value to the reader!
When it comes to academic writing, my experience is similar. My first draft takes me ages to write but, once it is on the page, it is rare for me to alter much structurally or in terms of the flow of argumentation. Yet I also often claim that until I put pen to paper I can’t properly articulate my thoughts on a subject, that for me writing is a process of discovery and clarification of my argumentation. As a result, Mumford’s opposition to ‘discovery writing’ got me thinking about my own method. Does writing really do for my thinking what I allege? And could my finished writing product be better if I were to tweak my method?
What follows is personal reflection on my writing methods. I wrote it more for me than for anyone else to read. That’s the beauty of a blog sometimes! Anyway, my point is: you can read the rest if you are interested in how Mumford’s method challenges me – or you can stop now and reflect on how his method might challenge you.
Reflection on my practice leads me to realise that I too have a method when it comes to academic writing. (What you are about to read does not apply to my blogging, by the way. That is far more disorganised – something of a stream of consciousness some days!) My academic writing method involves a lot of writing – and you’ll know that this, for me, means not computer but pen on paper! – but the actual drafting comes very late in my process.
First, I read. Widely. I have been known on many an occasion to shelf-surf. By this I mean that I have stood in front of the relevant section(s) in the college library and pulled off the shelf every single book which looks like it might have a link, however tenuous, to my topic. (Yes, I know, This verges on a little obsessive and explains some of the more random bibliographic sources in my writing!) After I have exorcised my obsessive tendencies in tracking down every reference I possibly can and committed relevant quotations to paper, I have pages and pages of notes. Usually just quotations, on the whole, rather than paragraph-by-paragraph summaries of arguments – unless the latter was complex or particularly significant.
I reread these notes and then the next stage of writing begins as I play around with gathering those quotations and ideas into categories, each of which gets an identifying letter allocated to it. Throughout this process, I am toying with what it is I think I need to say as a result of all that I have read. I’m also looking for places where I can disagree with others in the field. Put that down to my love of arguing!
Once I have some clear categories of ideas, I need to force them into a structure which is going to advance an argument. This crafting stage is the hardest. I am looking to articulate the main idea in only one sentence and then construct a writing outline which constitutes a logical advancement of that thesis and which draws upon the categories already identified. Often I can spend a long time mulling this one over because the outline needs to feel like an obvious, albeit creative, reading of the material, not a forced one. (As an aside, this is why you will never hear alliterated sermon points from me. Yuck!!)
As Mumford has made me realise, I have at this point still not begun drafting, even though the writing process is well underway at this stage. Several scribbly pages and often days later, I have a skeleton outline of the main thesis, the significant supporting arguments and a few bullet points resembling a conclusion. Each of those sections of writing is allocated a number and then I seek to connect the letter-identified categories from earlier with the numbered sections of writing. Each section is next marked with an estimated apportionment of words, whether 500 or 2000 (rarely smaller or bigger).
Then, and only then, do I even think about drafting. And, by that time, it’s like painting-by-numbers. I know how many words I have to write so I can guess how long it will take me to draft. I know where the piece of writing has to fit in the overall flow of argumentation which means that I know where it has to start from and move towards. I know which scholars I want to reference and I already have a copy of the relevant quotations (and citations) to be inserted.
The last stage comes when I have assembled all of my pieces of writing like pieces of a jigsaw. As I put them together finally, I realise that some pieces need a little shaving so they fit, whilst others need adjustment so that they downplay some points and emphasise others. These are minor changes, a kind of polishing with the aim that the finished piece of writing will have a coherence that belies its having been written in small chunks. Other than that, I usually do few major edits at this stage.
Thinking this through forces me to realise that Mumford is right. Good writing depends on a lot of planning. And whilst I do value the practice of ‘discovery writing’, that writing is usually at its best when I have already thought deeply about my main argument and how this particular piece of writing is intended to advance it. Then, the discoveries through writing which I make on this path are exciting, helpful in opening up new ways of seeing without thereby derailing the entire piece of writing and leading the reader down rabbit holes.
I like my writing method. It seems to work for me and, after all, that’s what each of us needs – something which does what we need it to! But reading Mumford’s notes has been helpful to me, not only in forcing me to articulate my method but in challenging me to go further. In particular, Mumford presents his one or two page outline multiple times before he drafts the final paper. Now, as an introvert, that makes me feel slightly horrified. We categorically DO NOT get up in public without a lot of preparation for what we are going to say. (Incidentally, introverts tend apparently to be over-prepared for public speaking whereas extroverts are much happier to get up there with some preparation and a willingness to ‘dance in the moment’.) So, I feel distinctly uncomfortable about presenting my thinking before I have the whole paper fully drafted. The only ‘dancing in the moment’ that I do, whether in church or in the classroom, may look spontaneous but, trust me, there is a lot of thought and preparation gone into it and usually a lot of notes in front of me – even if I am really good at appearing not to be reading from them! Detailed drafting, I have always thought, helps me to do this dance. But what if Mumford’s method is worth a try? What if a really good outline, one marinated in deep reflection and all the usual reading, was enough foundation for me to dare presenting my ideas to others?
I need to think about this some more, how it might change my practice. But what about you, if you write regularly? Do you have a method and is there anything you would now think to incorporate from Mumford’s method?