Allan Johnson is Assistant Professor in English Literature at City University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst. You can find ot more about Allan at his website: http://thisisallan.com, and follow him on Twitter @thisisallan. Below is his reflection of writing process.
I was fairly certain that my second book would be rather a lot more straightforward than my first. My first book, based largely on my doctoral thesis, began life during three chaotic postgraduate years throughout which I seemed to be writing every moment of the day, was next completely reshaped once I began my first academic job, and then finally went through several more revisions while working with editors and readers at Palgrave Macmillian. It was nearly six years of false starts, abandoned topics, and the sort of writerly malaise that frequently besets persons of the tweed.
Surely the second book was going to be an easier undertaking…
For AcWriMo 2015 I have committed to finishing my second book, which, after nearly two years of flat-out work, is now nearly complete. I began the project certain that I had learned from my previous mistakes and knew how to independently manage a book project. When I was writing my first book I became obsessed with time management strategies, and read nearly every book on the topic (David Allen’s Getting Things Done is still a classic, and should probably be required reading for every new postgraduate student). I learned how to manage goals, track progress, and plan my time, and with the constant, supportive motivation from my supervisor and the rest of my PhD cohort I was able to achieve what I had set out to do. But when it came time to begin my second book, I realised that the core support network surrounding research student was no longer there, that no one would be pushing me to finish, and that suddenly I had to apply a very different type of energy to the project.
After several months of settling into a new city and trying somewhat unsuccessful to get to work on my second book, I began to read about the difference between time management and energy management, a theory developed by business writer Tony Schwartz. If my second book was ever going to see the light of day, I needed to understand how to manage the energy required for the project, and, indeed, figure out what that energy even was.
Wisdom abounds about the difference between the drafting and rewriting stages of the writing process—it’s one of first things that composition students learn about—but to my mind, and especially when considered in the context of long-form writing, the vital difference between drafting and rewriting is the nature of energy involved. Each stage relies on radically different forms of thinking, focus, and commitment, and taxes your intellectual and emotional reserves in rather distinctive ways.
|Creative exuberance||Analytical precision|
|‘Right-brain’ invention||‘Left-brain’ evaluation|
|Finding the connections||Shaping the argument|
|Imagining the big picture||Focusing on the details|
|Writing to think||Writing to be understood|
It’s a rare, perhaps completely imaginary, academic who can spend six uninterrupted hours committing words to the page in a first draft; equally as rare is someone willing to spend the same length of time revising and editing an early draft. We’ve all managed to do that a few times with a looming deadline or a conference presentation the next morning, but ultimately it is not sustainable.
What is sustainable, however, is managing energy in a way which allows for these two processes to be interwoven. With a bit of focus, it’s not too difficult to spend three hours drafting in the morning and then three hours rewriting something else later in the afternoon. The schedule that I set for myself took this into account, and tried to make best use of my energy resources by dovetailing these two distinct aspects of the process.
Dovetailing the Writing Process (The Plan)
The schedule I set for myself broke down the year into quarters, and aimed to allow time for the creative exuberance of drafting alongside the analytical precision required of rewriting without burning out. Managing my energy by dividing my attention between these two unique taxing stages of writing meant that I could produce three chapters each year, and, ideally, a full manuscript in two years. In practice the process was a bit less orderly.
Dovetailing the Writing Process (The Reality)
I have kept an Evernote note to organise and record progress on my research since I began my job at City University of Hong Kong. For three years I have reviewed and updated the table at the end of each month. While the table reminds me that I am very close to finishing the second book, it also doesn’t allow me to forget that my writing in 2013 moved around chaotically between several different projects. There was no clear strategy. Two of the articles in which I invested some considerable time (referred to here vaguely as ‘Gatiss’ and ‘Joyce’, and about which no more shall ever be said) ultimately had to be abandoned. I became quickly dazed during drafting and, with no clear sense of how to proceed with the work, left them behind.
But in January 2014 I began my first attempt at dovetailing the writing process in order to better manage my energy and avoid sacrificing any more writing. Although my final record of work isn’t quite as orderly as my initial plans, I did manage to largely achieve what I had set out to do, and (if my AcWriMo goal is achieved) do it with one month to spare. By managing my energy rather than my time, I was able to produce considerably more work of publishable quality than I did during the wholly discouraging year before I began the second book.