Helen Sword has done it again: She took the time to perform extensive research on the writing habits of academics and to write a book about it (similar to what she has done for Stylish Academic Writing). Read More
I just wrote a few hundred words, sitting in my favored chair in the living room. I could only do this, because my nine-month old son was taking his early morning nap. Read More
The day begins and you know well what that means: your next writing session, as was planned weeks ago, awaits you. But as in the last few weeks, you convince yourself that you have more pressing tasks to do than write, that you can’t write because of your missing motivation, or any other kind of excuse that keeps you away from your desk. Read More
Throughout his career, French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was overburdened with writing projects, teaching and other work. Although he voiced his complaints, he nevertheless did what he had to do. He was one of those thinkers who dedicated much of his time – even during holidays – to his work.
Derrida woke around 6 a.m., drank a cup of coffee and worked for the next three hours. At 9 a.m. he joined his wife for breakfast. Sometimes he declared to have already done his work, meaning having prepared his seminar. However, he often worked on until lunch, even though the house wasn’t as quite as it had been in the early morning. When he was alone at home, he wore his nightdress. He lost his sense of time and didn’t take breaks to eat.
Derrida had a few peculiar writing habits: After having compiled notes, he would usually write his first drafts in longhand. If the text was important to him, he would use a quill and not an ordinary fountain pen. Only after having written several drafts, would he begin to transfer the text onto his typewriter. The text needed the right tone and perspective, in order to be typed.
Although Derrida worked for three hours in the morning, he didn’t spend them all sitting at his desk immersed in his work. He would write for fifteen to twenty minutes, after which he would get up, walk around or read a book. Derrida said that the more he was interested in something, the sooner he would interrupt his work again. Movement and changing positions influenced his thinking: he took notes after waking from a dream; he took notes while running; and he would use the notes and ideas when sitting at the desk. He knew that being on the move gave him good ideas.
Becoming increasingly famous, Derrida was asked to write texts. These writing occasions, as he liked to call them, almost always came from outside. He rarely wrote a text that he had initiated himself.
Whether due to him being a philosopher or due to his writing strategy, Derrida had a distinct writing style. He used language carefully to analyze and deconstruct an argument, thereby constructing complex and sometimes literary prose. After the publication of the book The Post Card (1980), a journalist complained that it is no longer possible to understand Derrida, even though reading his texts has been difficult all along.
Peeters, Benoît (2012): Derrida: A Biography. Cambridge: Polity.
Sabbatical sounds like the best thing that can happen to researchers: plenty of time to read and write without teaching and administration. Before someone starts a sabbatical, they typically tell me all about how much work they will be able to do and how much they are looking forward to it. After the sabbatical, their enthusiasm may have waned: they didn’t get nearly as much or the right things done or perhaps did nothing at all. They are frustrated and look forward to teaching and administration – or anything else that can take them away from writing.
I’m exaggerating a bit. Nevertheless, I don’t remember hearing from anyone who took a sabbatical and accomplished everything that they had wanted. Having time off or being abroad presents many alternatives to writing.
Just recently a client told me about his year abroad. He had planned to use the time to write his PhD. Big city life sometimes lured him away from his desk, but he also worked a lot. After the year, however, he had to admit that he hadn’t done what he should have. His PhD was nowhere near where it should have been with so much time on his hands. I told him that he was by no means the only one who had had this experience.
What’s the problem? Many writers hope for big chunks of time to write their theses, articles or books. During the semester, with all of their other obligations, they allegedly can’t find the time to write, and so they will tend to wait for the holidays or a sabbatical. But how can they use these big chunks of time when they are not used to writing regularly? How do they think that they will have enough energy or motivation to work for hours, for several weeks, or even months without practice? Would they run a marathon without having trained for it?
Writing takes practice; writers need to cultivate a writing habit. If you already have a writing habit before starting the sabbatical, you will very likely accomplish most of the tasks you plan. If you don’t know what a writing habit is and don’t think that you need one – “I just write whenever I feel like it” –, then you might be in big trouble. Writers without a productive writing habit will try to work as many hours a day as possible, but will soon find out that that might not work after all. Having a writing habit means knowing exactly when and for how long you’re able to write. You know how much work you can do before your energy and motivation disappear. And you know how much work you’re able to produce in a given time. Only by knowing these things can you productively plan your sabbatical and accomplish what you have set out to do. If you don’t have experience with making the most of your time and discover that deficiency during the sabbatical, it might become frustrating. Although it’s never too late to learn about and change your writing habits, it shouldn’t require a sabbatical to discover it.
If you want to use your sabbatical or stay abroad to the fullest, prepare yourself and plan ahead – not only what you will write about, but also when and how. Only then can you focus on getting things done. Then you can enjoy being abroad or having some time off in addition to writing.
Although he wasn’t the typical anthropologist, doing years of fieldwork, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) belongs to the most well known thinkers of his field. He became widely known with the publication of his memoir Tristes Tropiques in the 1950s and his name became synonymous with the structural method applied to kinship and myths.
He wrote his PhD in New York during the Second World War. Each morning, he went to the New York Public Library to read all he could about anthropology. He would leave at lunch time, ate and went home to write. As a cultural attaché after the war, he spent the mornings in the office and the afternoons at home writing. With this schedule, he managed to finish his thesis. It helped, that his office was in the same building as his apartment.
Years later, back in France, he used a different writing schedule in order to work on his four-volume Mythologica. Between 1964 and 1971, Lévi-Strauss rose between five and six in the morning and worked the entire day. He didn’t rest on weekends or take holidays. He worked that hard in order to not lose touch with the hundreds of myths he analyzed. A team of researchers provided the myths, read and proofread his drafts and transcribed his lectures. Even his wife helped with the work.
Working on his memoire, as well as with the myth project later, Lévi-Strauss had a fast writing pace. In the former case, he wrote the book in a few months, simply writing down whatever came to mind. The first edition, however, gave evidence of that, because there were many misspelled words. In the case of the myth project, Lévi-Strauss wrote several hundred pages a year, because he wanted to be done with the books before his death. While writing, Lévi-Strauss listened to classical music. He said that listening helped him think.
You might think that someone like Lévi-Strauss must have loved writing. Otherwise, how could he have spent years of non-stop work on thick volumes? Didier Eribon, who interviewed him, asked, whether he felt joy and satisfaction when finishing a book. Lévi-Strauss answered, that he felt satisfaction, but that writing wasn’t associated with joy for him. Instead, it was connected to anxiety and revulsion. He was no stranger to having the empty page in front of him: he needed several days in order to find the first sentence. Even when he had felt satisfied, a finished book became a foreign, dead object to him. There was only one case when Lévi-Strauss enjoyed writing a book (the small myth-volume The Jealous Potter). In general, he didn’t consider working more fun than not working. However, time went by without him noticing.
Lévi-Strauss’ writing strategy differs from those of other famous researchers. Having used the strategy during his time in New York, Lévi-Strauss used his lectures at the Collège de France to test his ideas. After giving a lecture based on an outline, he would transform the material and insights into a text.
Lévi-Strauss admitted to having been more of a desk than a fieldwork anthropologist. But because of his broad interest in ethnographic material from all around the world and his perseverance while sifting through hundreds of myths, he contributed some of the most influential and controversial insights to 20th century social science.
Eribon, Didier (1991): Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Wilcken, Patrick (2010): Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Poet in the Laboratory. London: Bloomsbury.
Famous for his unrelenting effort to develop sociological systems theory and the theory of society, Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) produced several dozens of books and many more articles in his career. While that in itself was impressive, he was that prolific despite being a single parent of three after his wife died.
Although Luhmann complained about the lack of time in general, he still managed to use his available hours to the fullest. In an interview, Luhmann explained his writing habits. He obviously didn’t have a regular writing schedule. However, when he was home and didn’t have anything else to do, he was writing all day: 8:30 a.m. until lunch time; 2 p.m. until 4 p.m.; and in the evening until 11 p.m. Between the writing sessions he walked his dog, took a nap in the afternoon or did other things. While working for so many hours, Luhmann never forced himself to do anything he didn’t like. He preferred to work on things that were easy for him. As soon as he didn’t know how to proceed, he changed the task. At this point, the interviewers were curious, because it seemed that Luhmann was talking about doing things unrelated to writing. But they couldn’t be more wrong: when coming to a standstill with one text, he just switched to another one, even if that meant to beginning a new book.
Luhmann understood his strategy, which we can call patchwork writing, well. It allowed him to work on different texts in parallel, while avoiding being blocked. Although patchwork writing might not sound that organized, Luhmann knew what he was doing. Since he worked with his famous Zettelkasten (a card system or slip box), he only needed a plan for a text and to find the required cards and then write. He stated that organizing the card system and retrieving the required cards took the most amount of time; writing a book took him less. After finishing a manuscript, he usually didn’t revise it. So most of his time went into organizing the content of a text and then writing and not, as in the case of other researchers presented here, into revising a manuscript several times.
Using the patchwork writing strategy and leaving aside the revision phase might be one reason that many students and researchers have trouble reading his texts. As Hans-Georg Moeller put it, Luhmann’s texts are “extremely dry, unnecessarily convoluted, poorly structured, highly repetitive, overly long, and aesthetically unpleasing” (p. 10). As I will indicate for other researchers as well, the writing strategy of a researcher can have an effect on the writing style.
Luhmann represents a writer who didn’t try to seek the perfect text, as he himself said. He instead kept on writing and refining his ideas from text to text. He seemed to have understood his own habits and used them to his advantage. Writing was not a chore, he said, but rather a need to let out all his ideas. He would even have preferred to work on different things at the same time, with 30 hours a day on hand.
Luhmann, Niklas (2002): Biographie, Attitüden, Zettelkasten. Interview. In: Luhmann, Niklas: Short Cuts. Frankfurt a. M.: Zweitausendeins. 7-40.
Moeller, Hans-Georg (2012): The Radical Luhmann. New York: Columbia University Press.