Thursday, April 28, 2016

Writing Process

Is there a single most efficient way to write? Almost certainly not, but for each individual, there’s likely a more efficient way than what they’re currently doing. The following post will be primarily on my own writing process, but perhaps some of this may be relatable or instructive. My current process can be broken down into four common parts: choosing a topic, deliberating on that topic, writing, and editing.

Choosing a topic is something I might go into more detail on another day, but for now, the basics. My better ideas and “Aha” moments come into existence when I’m not trying so hard to think of a topic. That can be when I’m doing some low-effort task such as cooking, traveling, or any number of relaxation-based activities. Reading is particularly useful since it sometimes leads to what I’ll call the “I never thought of it like that” experience and subsequent questions that arise from it. Another way I come up with topics is through collaboration and discussion which has been the case for the last several posts.

Deliberation on a topic, unlike selecting one, is more productive when I actively focused on it. Otherwise, this step can easily take up long lengths of time. It tends to expand and contract in length between topic-discovery and, if I let it, the deadline. This doesn’t mean more thinking. It means the same amount of thinking spread out over a longer time period.

Writing begins when I’ve exhausted all possible excuses for delaying the process. I sit down in my desk chair, open up a new document rather than working directly in Blogger (Just a preference; I do the same for professional emails), and begin with the first body paragraph. I skip writing the introduction until later. If I run into an issue while writing, I make sure to mark the problematic section for later editing. Admittedly, I try to finish the rough draft as quickly as possible, but it’s not always a bad thing. When I work quickly, I become immersed. I become focused on what I’m writing. It’s when I sit back to smell the roses that my mind wanders off the task.

The editing process is where my work really starts to take shape. I reread the sections that I previously struggled with, I shift things around, I look for grammatical errors, and I take another look at the issues I’ve marked. Once I’ve taken care of these major issues, I go to the beginning and start reading. Every time I reach an issue, such as something that doesn’t flow very well or something that doesn’t work in the big picture, I change it. Then I reread the paragraph and make any more necessary changes. If I finish the paragraph without any more issues, I move on to the next one. When I finish the first run through the post, assuming I’ve made a few errors, I go back to the top of the post and start the whole process over. It’s not until I can read the entire piece without issue that I consider my work done. I honestly find this to be a tedious thing to do, especially for longer work, but it’s effective for me.

On the other hand, my ideal process can be broken down into five common parts: choosing a topic, deliberating on that topic, prewriting, writing, and editing.

I’m not entirely satisfied with my current writing strategy. It’s served me well through college, but now it’s time to find a better, more consistent way. You may have noticed that prewriting wasn’t included in my current process. In the past, I’ve utilized the tried-and-true outlining method countless times as often required for class essays. For something so common and obvious, you’d think I’d already be doing this for blogging. I’m not. At first glance, it doesn’t take much to explain why; four steps to my process is less than five.

Of course, that’s hardly a sufficient reason, but here’s the problem. In the past, when an assignment called for an outline, I would obviously do it and even overdo it. I’d format, underline, italicize, write in bold, and line up all the bullet points. I’d use all the recommended sections and follow essentially the right formula, but then I’d start the writing step and the whole process would fall apart. For me, outlines would end in only one of two ways: either I would end up ignoring my own outline throughout the writing process, or I would follow through but see negligible changes in quality and time spent. Perhaps the problem is that I haven’t committed enough to improving my prewriting skills. Eventually, proper prewriting will likely save time. It may make the five-step approach easier and faster than the four-step process.

I’m a little more okay with the other steps of my process. I’d like to further explore choosing a topic. The inclusion of prewriting may radically change my writing process, but I’m pretty comfortable with my editing process. A few tweaks might help, though.

As it turns out, my attempt at prewriting for this very blog post was, in a lot of ways, a failure. I fell into my first result category of outlining: prewriting occurred, but I had trouble utilizing my own outline once writing began. It wasn’t a total loss, though, because I stuck to certain elements of my outline. Therefore, next week, I am committing to prewriting.

I hope readers can identify with what I’ve written here and analyze their own process. Maybe it’s better than mine (in fact, I’m confident it is), but one of the things I’ve learned lately is that everything in life, not just writing, is a process. Regardless of where you’re at or where you started, you can always end up at a far higher level of performance through practice. That being said, I’ll try and update my writing strategy. It could use some work.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Immersion in Writing

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been losing one battle after another against procrastination. For the first few posts that I wrote, one of them being on procrastination itself, I perhaps had better, but otherwise useless, excuses. Post #1 was late because I was new to this format of blogging. Post #2 was late because the responsibility for me to post weekly wasn’t immediately established. The next few posts were late because of writer’s block and finding the right topic slowed me down considerably. My reasons for posting late eventually ran out, yet the results remain the same. I’m forcing myself to write this post today, but I’m far from convinced this will put an end to Thursday night blogging.

Whenever I blog, I find it hard to focus on my topic. I look around the room again and again, I think about other things I might be doing, and I stare out the window. I’m fully aware of my surroundings and not fully aware of what I’m writing. Believe me, I try to hold my attention to my work, but it rarely seems to work out the way I want it to. This is not immersion.

That isn’t to say I don’t know what immersion in writing feels like. Occasionally, when everything is going exactly right (the topic is relatable, I have plenty to say on the particular subject, and I'm not being distracted by the train rumbling and screeching passed my building for the hundredth time today, etc.), I’ll become completely focused, the flow of ideas entering my mind outrun the speed I can type, writing temporarily ceases to be difficult, and before I know it, I’ve written a thousand or more words and I’ve lost all track of the time.

When I used to write for fun, which historically was during the summer when I had the time, I’d become immersed enough that I could write several pages before slowing down. That’s probably why my first story grew into the longest writing project I’ve ever done; it was at least three times as long as anything else I’ve ever written (I never finished it, but I’d gladly get back to it someday). It never felt like work. I could write for hours without even realizing I was doing so. While in this intense state of immersion, writing became immensely enjoyable.

Since then, I’ve been trying to induce this immersion in other things I’ve written. In my personal writing, when I’m only trying to get my thoughts out, I have no trouble achieving just that. It becomes the speed of typing, and not the flow of ideas, that prevents me from writing faster. It can almost become frustrating that my hands can’t keep up with my mind; by the time I get to each idea, many others have already been forgotten. Nevertheless, the more immersed I am in what I’m writing, the more enjoyable it becomes. That being said, it’d be helpful to explore how this level of focus can be achieved so I may improve my results in blogging and elsewhere.

The following are some of the factors that may be responsible for immersion in writing: firstly, it has to be personal. Writing style tends to appear most clearly when what’s being written is from the heart, so to speak. Writing by-the-numbers does not make for an enjoyable process or an individualized result. The more rules for content I have to follow, the more writing moves into the work category. Of course, this isn’t always up to the writer and sometimes you have to write what you have to write, but true immersion is less likely to occur under these circumstances.

Second, which relates to first, is the allowance of creativity. This doesn’t have to be an absolute; the lack of guidelines can lead to writer’s block as often as it prevents it. Having a direction is a good thing, but rigidity stifles the process. Being able to address issues in your own way rather than someone else's allows for work you can be proud of and a great sense of accomplishment when everything turns out right.

Lastly, I write best and most productively when I’m not over-thinking the rough draft. The harder I try to perfect my work in this early stage, the more progress begins to stagnate. Self-induced negativity ruins the fun aspects of writing and makes immersion unattainable. It forces a more fixed mindset and raises defensiveness. You may decide early on that the work isn’t at a satisfactory level before anyone, even yourself, sees the end product. At that point, what’s the use of feedback when you’ve already declared your project to be unacceptable? It's difficult to accept input from others when you don't want your work to be criticized. Anyway, that’s just my take on the immersion process.

If I stop to think about it, these factors could be true in a variety of situations. Whenever immersion is desired, you have to make your own choices, reach your own conclusions, look at old problems in new ways, and above all else, you have to open up to the possibility of failure. The more I sweat the details and the more I get wound up in the right vs. wrong way of doing something, the more I start to question the quality of my work. The more I question the quality of my work, the less likely I am to become immersed in what I’m doing. The less immersed I am, the less fun I’m likely to have and the more an activity begins to feel like work.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Practice and Play

If there’s one thing that I spend a good amount of free time doing, it’s playing video games. As a child, I’d have to say I was addicted. Recently (after reading the Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer’s article on "Deliberate Practice" but before reading "Mindset" by Carol Dweck), when asked if I practiced video games to get better, I initially thought I did not. “Video games are just something I do for fun. I don’t try to get better; it just sort of happens,” I thought.

Upon reflection, I began to question that kind of thinking. When I stopped to consider what I was really doing when playing a game, my thought process change quite a bit. Perhaps as a result of the aforementioned article and book, I stopped seeing practice through real-life experience and instead started viewing it through a different lens; a lens that says practice is, by necessity, a struggle. Is it, though?

To continue briefly with my video game example, I paid little to no notice about improvement. I never thought of what I was doing as practice. However, much of the experience is based around just that. Some games have you fighting for the high score, some have you in competition with other players, and some have the player progressing through increasingly difficult scenarios. Most games require some development of skills, a process that many games even coach you through whether the player realizes it or not. At the same time though, a video game is meant to be a positive experience. Otherwise, it’s not worth playing. In other words, practice and play can be occurring at the same time even without the person realizing it. It doesn’t have to be agonizing.

The question is whether this translates to other tasks. It’s one thing to enjoy practicing something designed for short-term entertainment, but it’s quite different in other areas of work for different lengths of time. Consider the professional musicians and athletes of the world. After years of practicing a musical instrument or playing a sport, burn-out is certainly possible or even likely. Doing something day-in and day-out for ten or twenty years would drive some people crazy or at least ruin the fun of something they once enjoyed. That isn’t to say their work has to be all struggle and effort. There can be enjoyment in it.

Unfortunately, not being at that level in my field yet, I can’t exactly say whether or not practice can be fun or not at extremely high levels of performance. I’d imagine, though, that a professional athlete or other expert-level performer wouldn’t have made it to that level without some intense enjoyment in their work. Managing internal motivation is a big factor, so finding enjoyment in the activity is essential to ongoing deliberate practice.

There are also plenty of people who aren’t practicing to be the next 'great' and are only trying to improve on a particular skill. In these cases, it’s a little more likely that practice can be fun. If not fun, maybe it’ll be tolerable. The first step in achieving this may be with Dweck’s idea of growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. From a fixed mindset, as I said in my last post, practice doesn’t lead to improvement. What’s less fun than practicing something when you believe you’ll never improve? In a growth mindset though, it’s not so bad. In this mindset, you appreciate the learning process.

For example, I recently started reading about accountancy. Nothing too advanced; just the basics. I’m doing this so I might increase my value to potential employers by gaining another new, practical skill. A few years ago, the word accountancy could have put me to sleep, and now I’m going out of my way to learn it.

Part of what changed was my mindset. Now, instead of being overwhelmed and confused by financial terminology and practices, I feel great to be working at it. Every chapter read is a new milestone and another goal accomplished. Somehow, it doesn’t even feel like work. I just sit back in the morning with my book and my coffee and the sun shining through my window. Together, it makes for a pleasurable experience.

So practice can be an enjoyable occurrence. For me at least, it was about finding the right mindset and environment. It was about setting and accomplishing my own personal goals and having a good grasp on what I hope to gain. Being good with financials is a step towards finding better work, and the sense of accomplishment is all I need to keep at it. Other activities might be pleasurable if you make a game out of it. I don’t have a whole lot of advice there since I’m trying to learn that last ability myself, but being able to turn a boring situation into a fun one sounds great. 

Just because it’s practice doesn’t mean it has to be a struggle. It can be fun, too. With the right combination of practice and play, you may not even know you’re doing it.