First, let me preface everything with a caveat that writing, as a rule, is not easy. Writing is work. It’s not some fun-time vacation-land in which the words just come forth like magic in a perfect and awesome state. Not so. Not ever.
But I do believe that it’s true, and actually, I suspect it’s been true for some time, that writing an article is no longer the slog that it was for me when I was writing, say, my first few articles. I am comfortable in saying now that I think, 9 years after defending my dissertation, that I know how to write an article. And the thing that I think I find most hard about it now is that since I know how to write an article, going through the paces to get it to the point that it is an article isn’t quite so interesting as it once was.
[Oh, I suppose I should insert another caveat: I'm totally only writing from my disciplinary perspective here. I have no idea how the article-writing goes for others outside of English lit, though I do imagine that some of what I say here might be true for you all, too. Oh, and caveat #3: I do know that not all of the items I'm about to list below will be true for every article I might ever write, because part of the ease of this one has to do with some things that won't be true in all cases in my future, I imagine.]
What makes writing an article easy?
- You’ve written some articles. Basically, once you’ve written some articles and published them, you know what the shape of an article is. You have certain tricks that you use – for structure, for analysis, for connecting the dots, and you can use those over and over again. This is not to say that you don’t have to work to get to those in each new article – you do – but much like, I don’t know, making beautiful roasted chicken, once you’ve roasted a few chickens, even if you are using a new combination of herbs and spices, or olive oil instead of butter, or whatever, you’re still roasting a chicken. Basically, you know what temperature the oven should be and how long you need to cook the bird in order for it to come out with crispy skin and juicy insides. Same thing with writing an article, once you’ve written some articles.
- You’ve served as a peer reviewer for some articles. This, of course, won’t happen until you’ve published some stuff yourself. And also: much of what you review you will reject, so it’s not like you’re typically learning how to write an article from the articles that you peer review. BUT. There is something about reading what other people “think” is an article, after you’ve written a couple, that shows you more clearly what an article is. Just as it’s valuable for the strongest students in a class to do peer review in composition, because reading other people’s stuff teaches them what’s good about their stuff, so it is it good to review articles that you recommend to reject. Reading stuff that’s not good enough confirms for you what is good enough.
- You’ve read a shit-ton of student writing, and you’ve talked to an ass-load of students about their writing. I know. You can’t believe this is one of my things. But I truly believe that in teaching students what makes good writing, I’ve become a better writer myself. Being forced to talk to them about the nuts and bolts about the writing process reminds me of the tools and the steps that produce good writing in me. Seriously: I’m never a better writer than when I’m teaching (or have very recently taught) composition. I did a reverse outline of my article today, because I knew the structure was wonky. Would I have done that if I hadn’t forced my students through that exercise recently? Probably not. And I’d be the worse off for it. (Let’s note: one of the most cutting comments I ever received on a seminar paper was that my structure was “baroque.” That was not a compliment.)
- You’ve written enough articles and conference papers on an author that you no longer actually have to do major amounts of research to understand the critical conversation. Indeed, a new article might mean reading a book or two and three new articles. (This is a field-specific thing, but it’s got to be true in other fields that at a certain point you’re not starting from scratch each time.) For what it’s worth, this is exactly the reason that it pays to be a consistent, if not prolific, writer-for-publication, and why it’s good not to radically shift gears from one project to the next. Writing a publishable article is infinitely harder if you are trying to write on something totally motherfucking alien to you. New concept with an author with whom you’re very well-versed? GREAT. New author but with an idea that you’ve explored previously? FINE. But dude. Why make life harder than it has to be? Creative writers always say that the best creative writing comes from “writing what you know.” Writing articles is no different. But again, consistency is the key: if you (like some of my colleagues) don’t do shit for 10-15 years and then you try to jump back in, you’re screwed.
- You have, whenever possible, taught shit that you might write about. Then even when you’re not working on research (as I am not always doing because I teach four fucking classes each semester) you’re still thinking, at least in a rudimentary and tangential way, about shit that you might write about.
I ended last summer with like 10 super-rough pages of what will ultimately be a chapter in my book. Because of ADM and Notorious’s fall writing group, I got that up to about 15 lame pages (which is pretty amazing given the circumstances of my fall). In the spring, the grad students invited me to give the keynote at their annual colloquium, and this forced me to revise that lame 15 pages. In the past two days, writing maybe 4 hours per day, I’ve arrived at all but the conclusion of what will be the article that I’ll submit, I suspect Monday. Now, it may well get rejected to where I submit it, but I’ve got less exclusive options lined up for resubmission, and rejection is part of the game. But this also means that I have the scaffold of the chapter that this will become, so even if things don’t work out with the article, I’ll have a complete chapter draft done in the next two weeks. And regardless of whether the article-version is outright rejected or gets a revise and resubmit or even is accepted in some fashion, I know that it’s not a total piece of shit, and I know that the chapter is not a total piece of shit.
In sum: writing an article is a hell of a lot easier when you know how to write one. And it’s also easier when you’ve been consistently writing and when you read other people’s submissions to journals with some regularity. And it’s easier when you really attend to teaching students how to write, and when you teach shit that you want to write about.
But basically: writing an article is never as hard as when you’re trying to write your first article, or your second or third, and you don’t really know what the fuck you’re doing.