Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Writer's Lab: Why writing is (not) like sculpting

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Koen Van den Eeckhout for a guest post in the Writers' Lab. Koen has recently obtained his PhD in physics at Ghent University, on the subject of glow-in-the-dark materials. In the following years he will be focusing on how to improve the currently available LED lighting.

Besides science, he's curious about everything related to scientific communication, personal development, graphic design and photography. 

He only recently entered the world of social media, you can find out more on his blog or follow him on twitter: @Koen_VdE.

I was not born a writer. When I was younger, I had to struggle a lot to get my ideas onto paper. Not that I did not know what I wanted to say, but after a few sentences, or even a few words, I would get stuck and start doubting my word choice, or the structure of the sentence I just wrote down. Obviously, this frightened me at the start of my PhD, since I knew I would have to write reports, papers, and ultimately my thesis. Indeed, writing is the most important skill of a PhD student. How would I ever manage to finish all that writing?

Things changed in November 2011, when I decided to step out of my comfort zone and subscribed for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge. Despite its name, NaNoWriMo is an international project open to anyone. The goal? Writing a novel of at least 50,000 words in a period of 30 days, from November 1 until November 30. This means that I would have to write on average 1,667 words a day, the equivalent of 3 A4 pages.

During the process, and thanks to the motivation of the large community behind the NaNoWriMo project, I quickly learned an important lesson. I used to think of writing as an art comparable to sculpting, where every word, every sentence is a small touch of the hammer, chipping away small pieces of stone until a masterpiece emerges. I learned that I was wrong, and I realized why - up to then - I never managed to transform my ideas into a piece of text. The first phase of sculpting is not grabbing your hammer, it's collecting your raw material, choosing the right stone with the size and shape you need. Similarly, the first phase of writing is not the crafting of beautiful words and amazing sentences. It's about writing down your ideas the way they are popping up in your head, without worrying about your words. Don't worry if the grammar of the sentence you just wrote is not entirely right. Don't worry if you know there is a better word for what you want to describe, but can't find it just yet. Just continue writing. All your doubts will be dealt with during the editing process.

I successfully finished the NaNoWriMo challenge, and at the end of the month I had a manuscript of 50,051 words (which to me felt as a massive amount of text). But I didn't have the start of a good novel. What I wrote down lacked a story, and did not have structure. Not even all the editing in the world could ever transform my text into a best-seller. Which immediately made me realize a second important lesson. I was wrong - yet again - about the first phase of writing. It's not about getting words on paper, it's about sitting down and sketching the sequence of ideas you want to explain, developing the structure of the text you are about to write. What will you discuss first, what is your final conclusion, and which path will you take to get from one to the other? Personally, I start writing by choosing which figures I want to discuss and in which order, and describing them by an accurate caption. This gives me a list of ideas, like a pathway leading from conception to conclusion. That is the real first phase of writing.

Only when the structure of your text is clear, you can start writing it down and gathering your raw material. And finally, you can start editing to turn your raw material into a piece of art. Since my NaNoWriMo experience, I no longer have problems to write proposals or papers. I have learned that it is okay to ignore my nagging sense of unhappiness with my sentence structure or word choice, and deal with it later during the editing phase. It has even given me the self-confidence to finish the 200 pages of my PhD thesis in only a few weeks' time. That's something my young self, struggling with even the smallest writing assignment, could never have imagined...

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