I wrote this post over ten years ago for Jonathan Mayhew’s blog Stupid Motivational Tricks. I had been using a clip from Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot to introduce a talk to undergraduates about how to write a first draft, “de-allegorizing” it as being really about how to write the first draft of an academic paper. I liked it a lot back then, and rereading it now, I still do, though I don’t think I would use the same violent imagery today to talk to students. (If you’re a student, you’ve been warned!) The post is organized as a nine-step program for dealing with the predicament of “having an idea” / “getting an assignment”.
(Note: I wasn’t able to find the whole ten minute sequence in the film in a properly licensed version. But I’ve inserted two clips of the relevant scenes and below. You can of course also just find the film on a streaming service yourself and watch the whole thing. It think the post works even without the clips, but it was fun to make the allusions, so I hope you read the text at some point with an awareness of the film just to see what I was trying to do.)
Thoughts do not come to us like friends from afar, like welcome guests. Thoughts, real thoughts that is, which are always a palpable demand that we write, come into our lives like invading armies. Before we have been forced to think, our lives are quiet. Our ideas are with us in a familiar way, like beloved children or valued employees. We let them play sometimes and sometimes we try to improve them (we teach them what we know). Each of us is also ultimately an idea, an idea of ourselves, an “I”, stable and serene. It is when we start thinking that the trouble starts.
(When I told this story to students I made sure to tell them that the inconvenience of this kind of “thought” in the head of the scholar is nicely simulated by being given a school assignment. Though the pressure is internal in the case of the working scholar, the disruption is comparable.)
Step 1: Hold Back Your Ideas
A thought, when it is a serious thought, i.e., when it demands to be articulated in writing, is neither simple nor nebulous. It is a marshaling of particular forces against you (against an idea of yourself); it is itself a collection of ideas under the command of a far-off general (a much more general idea, and one that you will engage only by proxy in the particular case). The “general” has sent out a platoon of ideas, under the command of a lieutenant, to bring you into line. Their mission is to take one of your existing ideas, one of your familiar thoughts, prisoner. As this happens there is nothing you can do; the thought is simply too strong to resist.
But ideas are neither isolated from nor indifferent to each other. Nor are you (again, the idea of yourself as a scholar) indifferent to the ideas you have. Seeing one of them bound and taken away hurts you deeply. And it hurts your other ideas as well, who love the prisoner as you do. Sometimes ideas are rash and do not understand the predicament they are in. They think they are invincible (because you have held them in your arms with such conviction in the past) and they don’t know how serious the invading thought is about its business. Disappointed in your inaction (which is really hard-won composure) an idea, then, may rush at the invading thoughts. This darling is immediately killed.
It was a “stupid” idea, not in its substance but in its impatience. It did not recognize its limits. Don’t let this happen to your most cherished notions. When the thought arrives, let it take its prisoner. Stay calm. Hold your other ideas back.
Step 2: Gather Your Thoughts and Follow the Argument
It was not enough to take the prisoner. The thought now burns down your house and shoots your livestock and your pets. After it leaves, after you have said your last good-bye (to the latest but not the last darling you’ll see killed in your career as a scholar), you must run back into this burning life (of the mind) and retrieve a few things (some guns, a tomahawk, that sort of thing). Then you must select from among your ideas the ones that are relevant (the ones that can shoot) and send the others off into hiding. You give them a back-up plan, somewhere they can go if this idea of yourself (this authorial persona) fails.
Since you know where the general is, you know where the disruptive thought is going. Though strong, it is a big and cumbersome organization. It moves slowly, if resolutely. You can run through the woods and prepare an ambush. You find a good place along the road to set it up. Then you bring your trusted (if frightened) ideas close and begin to outline the paper.
Step 3: Identify the Main Ideas (Officers)
The argument that has burned down your house is not just a collection of ideas; it is organized around some central themes or principles. What are those principles? They are easy to identify (by their uniforms and their horses) and will not be hard to hit. In a piece of academic writing there will always be a substantial amount of “general” claims, i.e., claims that are shared by most readers (and the writer) and which are “responsible”, as it were, to the more specific, more empirical, claims you are making. Their “power” depends on the obedience of those lesser facts “on the ground”. Identify the officers (up on their horses) first. Once you’ve got them, the rest will be much easier.
Step 4: Focus (i.e., Pray)
There should always be a moment of silence before you actually begin to write. “Lord make me fast and accurate,” is a great prayer if you like that sort of thing. Ideally, you’ll want to work through the 20 to 40 claims that your paper will make quite quickly but also with some precision. You should devote a half-hour to each paragraph on each run through. That is, it should take you 10 to 20 hours to hit each claim with a well-focused but roughly drafted paragraph. Then another 10 to 20 hours to work through each paragraph again. Speed and accuracy is not just for marksmen.
Step 5: Aim Small
For each major claim you need a nice, tightly-written, focused sentence that makes the claim but does not attempt to support it. Such a sentence will serve as the “key sentence” for each prose paragraph in the paper. You will be writing to such a sentence for 30 minutes at a time, producing about 6 sentences of argument (support) for it. So keep the claim small enough to make that task realistic: one claim, 6 sentences, 30 minutes.
(Step 5 and 6 restate a slogan familiar to marksmen and golfers. “Aim Small, Miss Small.” As Mark Barker, Mel Gibson’s technical advisor, told him: “If you aim at a man and miss, you miss the man, while if you aim at a button and miss, you still hit the man.”)
Step 6: Miss Small
You can never know for sure whether you have hit the idea you are writing about completely and fully, though you’ll develop a pretty good sense of whether you’ve hit it squarely by how it reacts. Be content with getting your shot off and then crouch down to reload. (If you look too long at the target to see if you really “got it”, you’ll get shot.) Aim, shoot, reload. There’ll be time (hopefully) to go back and see what you’ve accomplished. In the moment, just do the best you can. If you’re aiming small, trust also that you’re missing small. You won’t get anything out of obsessing about each paragraph as you go.
Step 7: Rescue Your Darling (or Kill It)
You can write probably about half your paragraphs very easily, from a distance as it were. (These include the officers, but also some of the easier ground troops, i.e., background claims about your topic and intellectual context.) But at some point you’re going to have to put the gun down and get into some close-quarters writing. Here you will have greater difficulty focusing on one idea at time. It’s messy at this range. But you must try to deal with each claim or idea individually. Sometimes you’ll even get lucky and take out two ideas with one argument.
But then you face the climactic moment of extricating the prisoner (your idea, which was taken away from you by the thought the paper will try to express) from the immediate hold that some part of the argument has on it. There is a risk here that you’ll kill your darling rather than the claim that holds it prisoner. Steady now.
Step 8: Deal With Objections
Even if you succeed, there’ll be some loose ends to tie up. Don’t let your success at step 7 get you to let your guard down. Here they come!
Step 9: For God’s Sake, Stop!
Once you’ve gotten the last guy, stop. Hacking one last objection to pieces is unseemly after you have won the argument. It does, to be sure, leave a certain impression on the ideas that you originally brought with you. Your rage may be quite awesome. But as you are hacking away uselessly at an already dead issue, some only half-dead counter-argument may be escaping your attention.
This is not exactly how I would put it today. I’ve mellowed a little over these past ten years and I’m not sure the analogy holds completely. There’s even some outright bad advice in this post (can you spot it?). But I remember enjoying writing this post and I hope you found it entertaining to read. Writing isn’t always like this, of course. But maybe you’ve had an experience that is similar and will find this useful. I’m happy to hear what you in the comments.