Monday, December 27, 2010

On the irreversibility of writing: Procrastination and writer's block—Part 3. Solutions

To develop a case theory, legal writers profit from deep thought, which they can't turn on at will. These stages depict it:

1. Immersing in the subject, typically legal research;
2. Thinking concretely at a local level, as necessary to refine the research process but insufficient to attach the writer to a theory formed ahead of its basis;
3. Maintaining a reflective and receptive attitude toward the subject for days (only after completing most research);
4. Conceiving an integrative idea (a deep thought), without its immediate instigation;
5. Attending to the thoughts following (but not by inhibiting potentially relevant competing lines of thought).

Hence, the problem: the busy attorney can’t drop everything when blessed with a breakthrough deep thought that evokes more thoughts. Busy attorneys can note the deep thought, but they can’t follow it when it’s fresh. Nor can they afford maintaining a reflective attitude over a span of days. Because attorneys can’t randomly interrupt their workday, the unstructured lifestyle of a writer is more compatible with deep thought, a reason ghostwriter may produce, all else being equal, work superior to attorney’s.

Deep thought isn’t the only way to stave off premature commitment, although it might be most powerful. In free writing, the writer records every thought, while avoiding preoccupation and premature structure. Free writing is hard, and it may prove impossible for a slow typist. You can combine deep thought and free writing; then deep thought should come first.

Trouble deciding between the alternatives, deep thought and free writing? This correlation might help: personality traits distinguish free writers from deep thinkers. Extraverted personalities, seeking external engagement, do better with free writing; introverts with deep thought. Deep thought has one advantage over free writing: it dedicates more mental resources (such as working memory) to thought rather than—as happens no matter how fast the typist—draining resources by typing.

Bryan Garner (The Winning Brief) proposes another method for avoiding premature theorizing, the "whirlybird," popularly called mind mapping. A mind map is an outline that maximizes the amount of information a page displays. (You can see an example of a mind map.) Aficionados are prone to over-rate mind mapping as a creativity device. Although Garner uses mind mapping in the “madman” phase of the writing cycle, it’s more suited for trolling memory. In Garner’s terms, it best serves the “architect" phase.

If deep thought or free writing have laid the groundwork, the writer will continue to conceive deep thoughts while paragraph writing, which compares favorably with mind mapping in fostering creativity. Nobody has explained why paragraph writing beats outlining as a thinking tool. (Few have even noticed.) I offer this conjecture. Paragraph writing encourages deep thought because in finding the right word, the writer unconsciously generates a lexical selection pool. This goad to the unconscious generation of ideas is the missing ingredient in mind mapping and outlining, which discourage linear thinking for spans sufficient to escalate the unconscious production of alternatives.

Deep thought and free writing are options when the misery of procrastination informs you that you aren’t prepared to write—but always keep in mind, they’re no remedy for shallow research, in legal writing the most common cause of procrastination.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

On the irreversibility of writing: Procrastination and writer's block—Part 2. The unexpected cause

Even without understanding why, writers know that writing's traces, like Internet postings, are often indelible. Knowledge—that writing without enough time or ideation can set you back—is often the immediate source of blockage. Forgetting what you know is, consequently, one way to surmount a procrastination problem. Assigned a difficult project and subsequently experiencing fallow, the writer may profusely thank an advisor bearing the message, "get anything down." The get-anything-down writing panacea won't improve the quality of the project subjected to it, but as permission quieting conscience, it can augment sheer quantity.

Why assume there's a cause of procrastination specific to writing, when procrastination itself isn't? Good question. First, writing as subject of procrastination—sometimes taking a unique form, blockage—differs from most tasks agents procrastinate about, in that most procrastination concerns unpleasant tasks. Second, a generalized version explains generic procrastination, which also occurs because the procrastinator registers the present moment's prematurity, when premature performance would—by error or inefficiency—ultimately cause the work to be inferior. Writing procrastination differs from generic procrastination in that motivation itself, its arousal depending on a deadline's approach, often is the generic procrastinator's missing component.

Despite the explanation's generalizability, I'll continue to focus on forms of procrastination specific to writing, for which I prescribe forethought, the near opposite of "getting anything down." This is not to say that lawyers don't think much. Good lawyers do immense amounts of research before writing briefs, and significant thought occurs in the interstices of cases and statutes, but lawyers seldom prepare by engaging in sustained thinking. The press of business squeezes out deeper thinking, but not in the notorious, direct way, brute lack of time. Lawyers could allocate a few hours for contemplation, compensated by greater fluidity following submersion in thought. Insufficiency of work time isn't necessarily part of deep-thinking deficiencies, since the lawyer is squeezed when time is ample. The problem lies elsewhere. The kind of thinking suffering deficiency doesn't consist of organizing the lawyer's ideas, but inventing new ones; that can't be scheduled, because its onset can't be willed.

Next part: Solutions

Monday, December 13, 2010

On the irreversibility of writing: Procrastination and writer's block—Part 1. Premature composition limits thought and weakens style

"Just get something, anything down," well-wishers advise the blocked writer, but a false assumption grounds this advice. The well-wishers assume that the writing process is reversible, and early beginnings don't drive toward predetermined results. Assuming complete reversibility—what is done can always be undone—seems reasonable due to tacit analogy with some common, reversible physical acts. If I pace across the room, I can return to the starting point. The reasoning applied to pacing is sound because pacing is a reversible process. Any point reachable from point A is reachable from point B, this proven by my ability to return to point A from point B. Analogously, writing anything is held at least as good as nothing. The apparent proof: the option to delete the document and start over. Getting something down is at worst harmless, probably useful; at least some passages are bound to be, and if so, writer approaches goal. Elegant but simplistic: most changes aren't reversible. In complex or nonphysical change, irreversibility is the rule. When Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall, all the kings horses and men couldn't put him back together. Truly. What is thoroughly shattered resists all efforts at reassembly. The same holds for nonphysical change. When judge instructs jury to disregard misconduct, some doubt of success lingers about unringing the bell.

Which model, reversible or irreversible, pacing or unringing, resembles writing? Sometimes the writing process resembles return to a spatial starting point; other times, shattering an egg or unringing the bell, but regardless of practical result, the writer changes by retaining the inexpungible memory of previous work. Forms don't matter: detailed outlining complicates thematic reorganization, no matter how facile the software. Another approach to early writing, composing and combining random snippets, creates a different product than front-to-back composition: the transitions aren't as smooth as in a true first draft; corrections, as fresh.

Recent scientific research explains how premature writing constrains thought. The nonobvious finding: each recollection of an idea strengthens the recaller's belief in its truth. Dwelling on initial ideas by premature composing or outlining increases their attractiveness, decreasing their abandonability. The effect works on the principle that exposure (within limits) induces liking (a finding a bit discouraging about human rationality). As ideas become more familiar, legal writers lose perspective by falling in love with their own substance and style.
Next part: The unexpected cause of procrastination and writer's block