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Writer’s block

Topics/tags: Writing

I write. I write a lot. I write email messages to a wide variety of people. I write readings [1], assignments, labs, and more for my classes. I write recommendation letters. I write professional papers. I write daily [2] musings.

Most of the time, writing comes easily. I sit down with ideas at hand. If it’s a longer piece, I sketch an outline. If not, I just begin. I write [3]. I edit. I put it aside [4]. I come back and edit and write and revise. I get feedback [5]. I come back and edit and write and revise some more. When things are going well, I generally don’t need to do significant amounts of work once I’ve gotten the first draft down; while I refer to them as rough drafts, they are often relatively smooth [6].

I have a lot to write. I need to make progress on materials for the new digital humanities class. I have a paper to write for SIGCSE and another paper to rewrite. None of this should be challenging to write, or at least not painful to draft. These are topics I think about regularly and models of writing that I commonly follow.

So why did I having trouble writing?

What do I mean by trouble writing? In part, I mean that for the past three and a half days [7], whenever I sat down to write, I had trouble putting my thoughts in coherent enough order to even record them in writing [8]. In part, I mean that when I did manage to put those thoughts in order and then compared what I was writing to things I’ve written in the past, I would find that my new writing appeared to lack something in the prior efforts. In part, it means that any writing I was able to do seemed to take longer and feel less enjoyable.

I don’t think it’s the stress of having things due. Usually, I do my most productive [9] writing when I’m working at the last minute. Give me a deadline and a page length, and I’m on it. I love the adrenaline that accompanies that context.

But it wasn’t happening. I even found myself struggling to muse about my inability to write.

So I asked myself, What should I do about it? Here are some options that came to mind [10].

  • I could find something else to write about. Perhaps I just need to give my inner writer another thing to write about, and they’ll find the spirit to get moving on other topics. But I tried that earlier today; I wrote half of a musing about some technical issues. It didn’t help me make progress on the things I needed to read.
  • I could do more something closer to the traditional form of free-writing. Maybe if I turned off my inner editor and let things flow, things would flow.
  • I could accept that I’m not going to get things written right now. But I do want to submit at least one paper to SIGCSE. As I’ve said before, I’d like to have my students’ work in a form that it can be submitted. And there’s another paper that I’d like to get off my long-term to-do list.
  • I could push ahead, even though it’s hard, and hope that things get easier as I go.
  • I could introspect in order to figure out why I’m having difficulty.
  • I could read a bit on something related. Maybe I’ve been in produce mode for too long, and I need to go into something more like consume mode.
  • I could employ one of my common paper-related time-wasting activity. That is, I could set up the online writing environment, make sure that I have files and macros and such all prepared, and so on and so forth. Come to think of it, I need to do that anyway, not only for the SIGCSE papers, but also for the broader CSC 151 project [11].
  • I could muse about the issue. However, as I noted, even this musing seems to be a challenge.

Putting together the list helped a bit. Once I finished listing options I sat down to do the trivial stuff; I created a new repository for each paper, I downloaded the new ACM LaTeX template. I prepared the set of files I like to put together for a LaTeX paper for SIGCSE [12]. Then I started filling in the various files. I copied and pasted the abstract. I wrote a new set of keywords. I gathered a few appropriate pieces for the bibliography. Finally, I started in on the outline. The outline, in particular, seemed to get my brain flowing. While I didn’t write anything close to a smooth draft, thinking about the structure of each paper also meant that I thought about what to put in each section. So, for the first paper I started, I was able to get some writing done. That helped me do a bit on the second. What about the previous article that I was trying to edit? I did not have time for that one.

Unfortunately, I spent about five or six hours today on non-productive work. So, even though I worked a relatively long day, I did not make as much progress on my writing as I’d like. I’m now tired enough that I don’t think I’ll write all that well. But at least I’ve broken through my writer’s block. At least I hope I have. I’ll see how much progress I actually make tomorrow.

Fingers crossed!

Postscript: I had originally tagged this musing as short. But it certainly did not end up that way.

[1] Perhaps readings is not the best word. Would narrative technical material or short instructional sections be better? I’ve used readings for a decade or more; I’ll stick with that term for now.

[2] More or less.

[3] More accurately, I engage in my typical model of simultaneously writing and editing. That is, I start trying to do something more akin to free writing. But I tend to stop every few sentences and think about where the sentences belong, about some issues of wording, or whatever. If there’s an outline in place, I tend to jump around a lot, adding different paragraphs in the section that feels right at the time.

[4] Well, I don’t always put things aside, particularly not email and musings.

[5] That happens less frequently than I’d like, but I can pretend.

[6] If you are regularly read my musings, you have some sense of my smooth first draft style. In many cases, the things I post correspond to what I would consider first drafts for a more professional paper. Maybe they’re a bit rougher. On occasion, they’re a bit more polished. Most frequently, though, they correspond to my normal close enough for most situations writing.

[7] Since I finished the abstracts for SIGCSE 2019, more or less.

[8] The same may be said of the sentence.

i9] Although not necessarily my best.

[10] I wrote about them in the present tense because I wrote them while I was stuck. I’ve left them in the present tense, even though I’ve moved much of this musing to the past tense, because remain strategies I can use.

[11] However, the CSC 151 project still needs to wait on my decision about the formatting system(s) to use for that project.

[12] Let’s me see. Since I use multiple files, I generally create a Makefile. The ACM LaTeX format requires ACM-Reference-Format.bst and acmart.cls. I tend to create two master files, one for the version that includes the authors (main.tex) and one for the anonymous version (anonymous.tex) [14]. Each of those files then includes a common abstract (abstract.tex), body (body.tex), list of ACM descriptors (ccsxml.tex), and set of keywords (keywords.tex). They may have separate bibliography files (main.bib and anonymous.bib), since I’m supposed to anonymize references to our own work. They may have separate acknowledgments files (acknowledgments.tex and acknowledgments-anonymous.tex). I think that covers the gamut.

[14] I may not need a version with authors. But something in the back of my head says that I have to submit both an anonymous version and an attributed version.

Version 1.0 released 2018-08-28.

Version 1.0.1 of 2018-09-02.