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

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