Recently, I have been speaking to colleagues to try and understand how they write. I was concerned at the inordinate amount of time it seems to take me to gather resources, make notes, mind-map, structure, draft and edit each piece of writing. The answers varied naturally depending on the nature of the colleague’s workload. Of the ones who are primarily researchers, it takes apparently between 3 to 4 weeks to produce something from scratch and one colleague does her research during the writing rather than before. Another colleague who has a teaching position spends about 1 to 2 days per week writing and doesn’t take more than 3 to 4 weeks. That makes it about 8 full days at the most, though she does concede there to be plenty of rewriting after reviews. So I thought…hmmm…the first is a pressure-cooker, intense and effective; the second is more stir-fry style, high flame, quick strokes and out with the dish [you’d not be surprised to hear that, being Cantonese, stir fries are a perennial takeaway favourite in my household].
Somewhat silly metaphors I know but it did make me think. Up until then I always aimed to get a piece of writing whether it is a book chapter, journal article or conference paper done before the deadline because I am deadline-driven. I’ve worked to deadlines for a long time in previous careers and thought it best. Having two chapters to complete in short order on (thankfully) related areas I decided to experiment by seeing if I could do my research in a bunch and then mind-map separately and then write one after the other. I also aimed to allocate no more than three weeks for each chapter, interspersed as usual with teaching and other duties.
I did manage to produce two chapters in about 6 to 7 weeks but only time and the reviews will tell if the writing is any good in either. Overall, I learnt that it is possible to work faster but 1) there are limits based on my learning (thinking) style and 2) there is a cost to working with such intensity and 3) that such reviews every now and then helps us to be mindful of the way we sometimes get into bad habits.
Overall, the exercise was halfway successful because it made me realise how I process information. I am a slow-cooker type of writer. I need all the ingredients to be thrown in, left for a long time to slowly be brought to boil and then cooked tenderly, totally immersed before I can present my writing. Sometimes that means there are less amendments, other times it means it is so much harder to rethink the work after reviews and most times, it is a mix of both.
The other realization I had was that my preferred way of working is akin to the ‘one-pot wonder’ style of cooking. Instead of discrete dishes my writing borrows from and plays with ideas and theories from multiple influences and disciplines to produce my own way of making sense of what is happening around me. I don’t think that will ever change and to be truthful, I’m not sure I’d want to alter the syncretism of my work. That seeing of links is probably the most enjoyable part of what I do from day to day as I read, think, read, write, read, despair and then, edit, edit, edit. What is your writing process like?