Solving writing problems by physically pushing through and letting yourself go

I don’t know if this is just me, but I find that certain writing problems (such as difficult conceptual problems that produce a writer’s block because they prevent you from progressing and altogether are putting you off the writing process) can only be solved by physically pushing through, by which I mean pushing your body (and mind) substantially beyond its comfortable limits.

I am something of a health fanatic. I’m careful about what I eat, I monitor my weight, and I exercise daily. But I find that when it’s crunch time, and I need to deliver the goods (which means coming up with a new contribution to knowledge as an academic, i.e. as a professional writer), the solving of some problems (and the meeting of my deadlines while producing a piece of work that is of sufficient quality to be accepted as an internationally competitive piece of research, as defined and required by my particular academic community), necessitates the abandoning of my healthy habits.

I end up having to work longer hours, exercise less, eat food that I otherwise wouldn’t touch, and put my body and mind under substantial strain (by sitting behind a desk far too long, staying up far too late, drinking far too much caffeine, eating far too many carbs), until I finally have an epiphany about how to solve the conceptual or practical problem, after which writing suddenly becomes a lot easier.

I feel this is a process of “letting go” of some things and liberating my mind to be open to some other things. It feels like achieving a moment of selflessness. Unfortunately this “letting go” is not just of the wholesome spiritual kind but also a “letting myself go” that quite quickly translates into additional inches to my waistline.

Maybe I just have to accept that the production of word count correlates with the production of body fat, and my goal should be to achieve a reasonably healthy balance between periods of productivity and periods of fitness across the year, so the latter can support the former, and that the former do not entirely overwhelm the latter.

What is particularly ironic about this situation is that the “physical” aspects of pushing through, and the resulting physical pain and after-effects in terms of weight gain, are due to the extreme reduction of physical activity (resulting from being stuck in the same position behind my desk for prolonged periods of time).

Academic writer’s block cure

In my previous post I discussed how I turned to writing as a way to put a stop to my obsessive-compulsive outlining behaviour. Outlining is certainly an important part of preparing for writing, but not if outlines keep on begetting further outlines and there is no end in sight to the proliferation of outlines. The white space of the empty Word document acted as a laboratory or workshop where I could cobble together the various conceptual threads, while still keeping a reverse outline to monitor the emerging shape of the argument. This strategy worked fairly well for a while, and I ended up with about 3000 words that I’m reasonably happy with.

Then I got stuck. Now, I’m sure lots of things have been written about the writer’s block, and I don’t have time to read any of it. So apologies if I’m stating the obvious. But I’ve been finding that there are usually two reasons why I get stuck: either I haven’t worked out the content of what I’m going to say (the conceptual point) or I haven’t worked out in sufficient detail the practical steps (workflow) that I need to take. The two reasons are closely interrelated because usually I need to work out the practical steps to be able to develop the conceptual points.

At this stage of the game however I couldn’t fathom developing yet another linear outline in a traditional one-pane or two-pane outliner to work out the next steps. One reason why I’m finding linear outlines less helpful towards the end of my project is that this stage requires synthesis, which is about putting things back together, rather than laying them out in a line (out-line). Synthesis requires matrix-type tools, as there are at least two “dimensions” that need to be brought together (if we consider a linear outliner a one-dimensional tool).

There are a number of ways to create such a matrix effect. One could just use a table (Word) or a spreadsheet (Excel) or columns in a one- (Bonsai) or two-pane (myInfo) outliner. I particularly like to use TreeSheets for this type of matrix-outlining. However, this time I reached for my favourite concept mapper, VUE, again, as it was a lopsided matrix that I had in mind, where one axis had a lot more content than the other and I needed the ability to visualise the shape of the whole thing, no matter what size it grew to.

I am working on a literature review chapter and I needed to evaluate the work of a major author. I had to review my notes on seven of his works (kept in ConnectedText), extract the main points and organise them into separate outlines in Bonsai, and finally consolidate them into a single outline. It was this last step that I used VUE for. I ended up with a concept map that looks like this:


The matrix is constituted by the analytical lens on the right-hand side (grey nodes), which was applied to evaluating the rest of the nodes. When I started the mapping and review process, I thought I only had three sub-topics to write about. Conceptual development occurred as part of this mapping process, and I ended up discovering that I had three more important things to say. Finally at the bottom I drew some conclusions from the material.

The advantage of doing this in VUE (as opposed to a traditional one- or two-pane outliner) was that I didn’t need to worry too much about an overall hierarchy initially. Any node can be linked to any other node, and while there is a certain hierarchy here (the overall argument flows from top to bottom, and section arguments flow from left to right and down), working in a concept map feels more fluid and free than in a linear outline. It is just a matter of different visualisation, as all of this could have been done in an adequately equipped one-pane outliner as well.

So what are the next steps? Now that I know what I want to say in this part of my chapter, I can write an introduction that will state what is going to be said, with a thesis sentence that combines the topic sentences of the six sections and points towards the contributions that will be summarised in the conclusions. My plan is to keep this concept map open in my second monitor and use it as a guide while I dictate my text into Word with Dragon.

Modelling process workflow for thesis writing

Recently I’ve been finding that whenever I’m stuck in my odyssey towards writing up my dissertation, modelling my process flow in a concept-mapping software (such as VUE) usually helps. In this (hopefully) final stage of my PhD project there are so many resources scattered around in various software and folders on my computer that I need a formal “concept map” (if that’s the right term) to pull them all together and work out the relationships and interactions between them.

Here is for example my last concept map that I’ve knocked up when I was unsure how to proceed with writing up the first four chapters of my dissertation. There is nothing particularly scientific about this map and it probably doesn’t follow any of the conventions of process workflow modelling. But who cares: it did the trick and allowed me to plan out the next stages of what I need to do.

Actually at least 2 or 3 days of deliberation are captured in this chart. First, I needed to decide whether I was going to use ConnectedText or something else for doing the actual writing. Through trial and error I established that it’s better to use another software because however much I love working in CT, it does have some limitations. One of them is that you can only have one instance of CT running and only one edit/view window open. Since I’ve decided to use CT as my database for my reading notes, I need to use another software, so I can be writing in one software in one monitor, while referring to the CT notes in the other. Also, there isn’t an easy way to track the word count of your document while writing in CT.

I had considered WhizFolders briefly as an alternative, but I find its interface too busy to be able to concentrate on the actual writing. So I settled on Scrivener for Windows, which works well both as a two-pane outliner and as a writing tool with decent word-count tracking.

As the sequence of the process flow is not apparent from the chart, let me describe it briefly. I start with importing my master outline with inline notes from Outline 4D (via Word). The reason I created my outline in Outline 4D is because it is a single-pane outliner that allows you to have inline notes, which you can also view in an index card view on a corkboard. Then I use Scrivener to break up the imported document into a 2-pane outline using Scrivener’s handy “Split with Selection as Title” command. As I start writing the actual text (I’m working on the first 4 chapters of my thesis, which need to be contextualised within their respective literatures, namely the Introduction, the Literature Review, the Conceptual Framework, and the Methodology), I begin to review my existing reading notes.

Over the years I have read all kinds of things that are no longer relevant. Therefore I need to deploy some kind of a filtering process to select the most important notes, as well as any new reading that still needs to be done. To consolidate my final reading list (a list of bibliographic references), I use a Natara Bonsai outline. First I import into Bonsai an existing outline document that contains some of my selected references that I have kept on my iPod/iPad in CarbonFin Outliner. Then I go through my old conference papers and other writings to extract references that are still relevant and which are kept in Word files and an old Scrivener project.

Simultaneously to this process I have also designed a ConnectedText project for keeping my final reading notes and quotes, using a similar model to the one I have developed for my empirical analysis. As my old reading notes and quotes are kept in a WhizFolders database, I will need to review those and transfer them one-by-one to the CT database (I deliberately don’t want to import them en mass, as I need to separate the wheat from the chaff). I will also use the CT project for recording any new reading I still need to do. I am designing this CT database not simply just for this writing project. Very likely it will become my main database for all my future readings for years to come. This is just an opportune moment to get started with it, as I no longer want to use WhizFolders for this.

Getting back to the chart, there are basically two important elements to it: 1) the big blue Scrivener rectangle which represents my writing, and 2) the big green rectangle below it which represents the CT reading notes database. If we look at the arrows pointing to the latter, we see mostly the data that needs to be transferred (by carefully sifting through) from my old files, as well as new reading notes that will be created in iPad.

As for the arrows coming in or out of the Scrivener project, those have to do mostly with referring to external sources. In the end I won’t need Excel for planning the word count because Scrivener has good enough tools for that. I will also use Dragon NaturallySpeaking for dictating, whenever I feel the need. Sometimes it’s easier to write without it, other times it speeds things up. As for EndNote, it is simply the central database for my references, which are linked to the PDFs that may need to be read for the first time or reviewed.

But my main point here is that it was the creating of this concept map that was crucial for getting me started with the whole writing stage. Without it I would have probably sat in front of a blank page with a writer’s block for days. Now I feel fairly confident that I know what I need to do next.