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BUREAU OF STUDY COUNSEL
CENTER FOR ACADEMIC AND PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
A Procrastinator’s Guide to Writing
Reconsidering Beliefs That Keep Us from
Engaging with Our Work
by Sheila M. Reindl, Ed.D. Copyright © 1989, 2004, 2011, 2012, 2015 by Sheila M. Reindl1
Below are twelve beliefs that can limit our ability to engage in the process of writing and creating:
#1. "I don't know what I want to say, so I can't start writing."
#2 "I have to read more before I can start writing."
#3 "I should be able to write a paper in one draft."
#4."I don't know how to write a good paper."
#5."I have to come up with some magnificently original idea and then prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt."
#6. "Stuckness is bad. If I'm stuck, I'm doomed."
#7. "Writing is a long, slow, lonely, painful activity."
#8. "I'm sad/lonely/upset/tired/bored/busy/confused, so I can't work."
#9."Nothing can help me start working. I am just lazy."
#10. "I have to do the assignment I was given. I can't do what interests me."
#11. "I have to start by making an outline."
#12. "I am more focused/creative/productive when I work at the last minute.” What follows is a consideration of each of those beliefs in the form of alternative beliefs or assumptions and new approaches that follow from those alternative assumptions.
LIMITING BELIEF #1: "I don't know what I want to say, so I can't start writing."
1. We never feel we know enough to start writing, and it is precisely because we don't know that we need to write. We can write to discover what we know, what we don't know, what we want to understand more fully.
2. Writing is not just a process of encoding something we've already figured out. If that were the case, it wouldn't be so hard or scary.
3. We know more than we think we know.
The author grants permission for use of this handout to the Bureau of Study Counsel, Harvard University. Note: Parts of this handout are taken directly from “Twenty Tips for Senior Thesis Writers (and other writers, too),” written by Sheila M. Reindl and available at the Bureau of Study Counsel and at bsc.harvard.edu.
Bureau of Study Counsel, Harvard University, 5 Linden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 617-495-2581 bsc.harvard.edu
1. Trust that beginning with what you don’t know, with something that is unresolved for you, is exactly the right starting place for a writing project. In a course she once taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Carol Gilligan talked about the imperative to orient your inquiry toward “a real question,” which she defines as a question to which you don’t already know the answer and to which it matters to you to know the answer.
2. Freewrite. Simply follow a thought for as long as you can; let it take you as far as it will. Just write. Don't censor for sense or grammar or spelling or anything. Just keep writing. (If you can’t think of what to write next, repeat the last words you just wrote, or write, “I don’t know what to say next.”) Our minds work by an associative process, by letting one thought lead to another. Freewriting respects the meandering, associative nature of creative thinking. Think of this uncensored writing as playing around in the muck that will nurture an idea rather than as putting down the sentences and paragraphs that will actually comprise the final product – that is, as soil, not seed (this idea comes from writer David Wright, who was a peer consultant at the Harvard Writing Center in the early 1980s). (For more thoughts about how freewriting works, see Writing without Teachers, by Peter Elbow, and the handout “Writing Things Down Before Writing Things Up,” written by Sheila M. Reindl and available at the Bureau of Study Counsel of Harvard University and at bsc.harvard.edu.)
3. Do some prompted freewriting in which you are given the first part of a sentence as a prompt and you freewrite from there (see the last two pages of this handout for a list of prompts; or, generate your own).
Prompted freewriting is based on the assumption that the mind works associatively – give it a prompt, and it generates its own associations and then associations to those associations and so on. Creative and generative thinking is messy. As I have said, it is the soil that nurtures an idea rather than the perfectly formed seed that sprouts a perfectly whole seedling of thought. Let your mind wander. Make note of whatever comes to mind, however far-fetched and weird it might seem. Use arrows, circles, whatever best helps you follow a thought.
4. Trust that freewriting is not a waste of time. If you're thinking, "But I'm already behind. Why would I want to waste my time writing stuff that won't even go in the paper?” consider this: while freewriting probably won't mean less time-on-task for the project overall, it will mean that the time you do spend is more fun and more productive. It is agonizing to spend a lot of time feeling you should engage, knowing that sooner or later you have to engage, and yet not being able to engage. Rather than spending your time procrastinating and worrying and battling with yourself in your struggle to write one good draft, why not spend your time letting your mind play with ideas, even if that effort takes several drafts and is messy? Engagement feels better than non-engagement.
As Peter Elbow says about freewriting, "Much or most of it will be far inferior to what you can produce through care and rewriting. But the good bits will be much better than anything else you can produce by any other method" (Writing without Teachers, p. 9).
5. Keep track of what you already know, what you can already say, by any means that suits you. Make an inventory or list of your thoughts; freewrite; trace the line of thinking that led you to your topic, or trace the development of the interest that led you to take the course. Jot down your hunches, prejudices, biases, inklings, and gripes. One person I know writes brief memos to herself that start out "Today, one of the things that stands out to me about this whole topic is _______."
6. Keep track of what you don't know. Write down the questions you have, the things you wish you knew.
Write down what you hope to learn. Taking an inventory of the things you don’t know is every bit as valuable as acknowledging the things you already do know.
7. You can also write down things you can't say. Peter Elbow, in Writing with Power, encourages writers to
record even outlandish lies and fantasies:
The French Revolution wasn't started by the Wobblies in Seattle, or by Lenin, or by Marx, or by the Marx Brothers. It wasn't part of the women's movement. It didn't last forty days and nights, it isn't in the Bible, they didn't get the enemy drunk and slide them into the sea. (p. 72)
He goes on to say how writing fantasies and lies helps:
Bureau of Study Counsel, Harvard University, 5 Linden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 617-495-2581 bsc.harvard.edu If you let the nonsense roll effortlessly for ten or fifteen minutes – spelling out some of the fantasies at more length, too – you can discover some ideas that will help your thinking even if they are not true. (And they might be true. Could the French Revolution have been part of the women's movement?) Writing down as many lies as you can as quickly as you can gives you glimpses of your unconscious mind.... [E]ven if you cannot draw any conclusions from reading back over the nonsense you have written, the process of writing it all down serves to clear some of the fog in your mind that was confusing or slowing down your thinking. You often end up with renewed energy. (pp. 72-73)
9. Keep track of what you think readers of your piece will be curious to know. Jot down a list of questions you think a reader would want your piece to address.
8. Write down what you would say if things were as neat and tidy as you'd like them to be.
10. Remember, as writing instructor Ann Berthoff says in The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Maxims and Models for Writing Teachers, "Meanings don't come out of the air; we make them out of a chaos of images, half-truths, remembrances, syntactic fragments, from the mysterious and the informed" (pp. 69-70). Honor that chaos by writing it down. You might even want to keep a journal or logbook (on your computer or in hard copy or both), some place to record what you think, do, read, wonder about, have insight into, or question or any given day.
Refer back to your journal when you need something to get you started with your writing.
11. As you take notes in lecture and from your reading, record not only what is being said but what you yourself think about what is being said. You might even draw a line down your notebook page to designate a separate space for you to record thoughts such as "Doesn't this sound like what she said in class last time?" or "But Chapter Two contradicts this idea" or "Downright confusing. Is it really as confusing as he's making it seem?" or "Ah ha.
Maybe this relates to those experiments that show that ______."
11. Keep track of others’ ideas. In your notes (and in the final product), make clear which words and ideas and lines of reasoning are yours and which need to be attributed to someone else. When you are noting someone else’s words or thinking, write down the information you will need to accurately cite the source in the future or to return to it again down the road.
12. Have someone interview you, ask you questions aimed at helping you discover what you know and how you yourself are connecting the various things you know. You could even have this person take notes as you talk, or you could record the conversation, so that you are free to think without having to note your thoughts. Experience tells me that the interviewee doesn't always hear his or her thoughts as clearly as the interviewer and that the interviewee might overlook and lose a potentially useful idea if no one takes note of his or her words.
LIMITING BELIEF #2: "I have to read more before I can start writing."
1. Sometimes we use reading as a way of procrastinating on writing. It is harder to generate our own words and ideas than to read and assimilate others' words and ideas.
2. Our reading and writing are best woven together, not kept as two separate and sequential steps. We need to try to put what we are learning in our own words. Only then do we truly know what we know and what we still want to learn.
1. See New Approaches under Limiting Beliefs #1 and #6.
Bureau of Study Counsel, Harvard University, 5 Linden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 617-495-2581 bsc.harvard.edu
2. Just as you need to save often when you're working on a computer, you need to save often (in your brain) when you're reading and thinking about your paper. The way to save your thoughts is to jot them down.
Otherwise, your ideas might get deleted or diffused and lost forever. Jot down notes about what is standing out to you, puzzling you today/this week as you read. Complete the sentence "What stands out to me about my topic this week is this matter of... " and freewrite from there.
LIMITING BELIEF #3: "I should be able to write a paper – a good paper, or even a perfect paper – in one draft."
1. No doubt there are some gifted few who manage to produce beautiful writing in one shot – at least some of the time. Most of us mortals, however, must resort to drafts and revisions. We need to give ourselves permission to be imperfect, especially at the beginning when we don’t yet know what we want to say or how we want to say it or even how exactly we want to pose the question or problem.
2. We must write from abundance and assume that much of what we write will not, need not, find its way into the final product.
3. The process itself is much messier than the product.
4. With other kinds of performances – on a piano or on ice or on a balance beam or on the stage – we take for granted the necessity of practice and rehearsal. A performer must rehearse not only in some regular, on-going way but in particular for each new performance. But somehow we don't allow ourselves, as writers, ample and quality practice and rehearsal time – replete with falls, flubs, and false starts.
5. We have within us both a creator and a critic. The creator works with wild abandon, clutter and chaos; the critic insists on perfection and neatness. If the creator is going to get anything much accomplished, we're going to need to keep the critic out of the creator’s way, at least for a time. If we let them work at the same time with the same intensity, the creator will probably give up and retreat to some corner of our mind and sulk in shame and silence.
6. We don’t need to write the parts of a paper in the same order in which they will appear in the final form.