In his post last week, "Should You Go to Graduate School in Philosophy (Revisited)", Trevor wrote:
Now let’s suppose you answer this first question in the affirmative – you think the grad school experience will be worth it even if things go unfavorably for you sometime during the program or during your time on the job market. The next question to ask – one that I did not consider when I was contemplating whether to go to graduate school – is this: “Do I deeply enjoy writing philosophy?” Like the previous question, if you cannot answer this one with a sincere yes, then I think going to graduate school is unwise.
If you enjoy reading philosophy or talking philosophy, that’s great. But what really matters to your long-term success in graduate school is whether you will write philosophy...
In response to Trevor's post, an anonymous commenter ('O') wrote: "I think the author is exagerating [sic]. How many people do you know who enjoy writing philosophy? I know very few, even among professors." However, my experience--and Trevor's evidently--is very different. Like Trevor, many of the people I know who have done well in the profession appear to be people who sincerely love writing, and do a ton of it. Not only that. Whereas the times that I struggled the most in my career--both during graduate school and during my early career after receiving my PhD--were the times that I didn't get much written because I didn't enjoy it. I only began to publish successfully and do better on the job market once I learned to really enjoy writing philosophy, just like Trevor says. And, make no mistake, I really love it. As I noted in a comment: "I absolutely love writing philosophy. I wake up just about every weekday looking forward to doing it." This is, if anything, an understatement. I'm half-ashamed to admit it, but often enough if I'm having a boring weekend I actually can't wait for Monday around so I can start drafting a new paper! I'm a nerd, I know, but it's true. :)
Anyway, after writing my comment, a few people asked me how I came to love writing. First, Amanda asked:
Marcus, did you always love writing, or did it change once you decided to write about big ideas instead of the stuff others told you to write about? I think I am going to change my writing style (i.e. write about what I enjoy writing about, and in the style I enjoy) after I finish one last round of revisions for the "try to please the authorities" paper. I hope I have more fun.
Then, after responding to Amanda, I received a similar query via email about how to write more efficiently. Because learning to love writing was such an important part of my professional development--and because at least a couple of people were interested in the answers--I thought I might write a short post on these issues. So, here goes!
Step 1: The 3-5 page "free drafting" method
As I recounted several times before (albeit several years ago), the very first step I took toward loving writing came from a most unexpected place. I had gotten nowhere on my dissertation for a few years...when I randomly received a "how to write a dissertation" book in my department mailbox. Because I was pretty desperate, I actually read it and found that it offered a really interesting piece of advice: getting up first thing in the morning (always first thing!) and forcing yourself to free-write 3-5 pages of material with absolutely no pausing or editing, then making yourself stop and move onto other things (revising other papers, etc.). The trick is to force new ideas out of your head as quickly as possible every single day. Why? As I recounted here, the rationale behind the method is really clever: the primary point is not just to "conquer writer's block" or give one daily practice of writing (though my experience is that it is brilliant for both of these things!). The primary point is that by getting 3-5 pages of new material written every day, each day you end the day knowing you "got somewhere." The point is to build a positive daily attitude--where, each day, at the end of the day, you think to yourself, "You know, I got stuff written today. Can't wait for tomorrow!"
In my experience this was exactly right. The very first week I tried the method, I wrote 20 pages of my dissertation. Then, on Saturday, I cleaned it up and found I had five good pages: the first five good pages of my dissertation. My dissertation was done a mere 8 months later! All because of this one trick--that and the "throw up, then clean up" method I described here (which I also learned from the book). And the strategy didn't just work for me, either. I gave the book to another grad student who was struggling to get anywhere...and eight or nine months later she was done too! Finally, I've only expanded the method since then. Nowadays, I average about 2,500-3,000 "free draft" words per day (e.g. 7-10 pages)--basically, about 10-12K words per week during the summer. It's a ton a fun, and leads me to the next lesson I learned...
Step 2: Over-producing
As I explained here, the second great piece of advice I received came from two early-career people I knew who published up a storm. When I asked them what their secret was (independently!), they both gave roughly the same answer: because journal rejection rates are 90+%, they "overproduced", always having something like ten articles under review at journals. As someone who (at the time) only had one paper under review and (at the time) spent forever revising things, that sounded impossible to me! But, I gave it a shot: using the "free drafting" method described above, I started writing quick drafts of every seemingly "half-decent" philosophical idea that popped into my head. I wrote a ton of papers...and just like they said, I started publishing. Not only that, I found that it was a ton of fun! Just think about it for a moment. Here's one way of approaching philosophical writing: slave over one paper for months on end. Here's another: draft a new paper on a new idea every week or two! Which sounds more fun? My experience is that that it's the latter by far. Every week or so I find myself exploring--and writing about--new ideas and arguments. It's simply a ton of fun. And no, a lot of the ideas don't pan out (I have more "dead" drafts around that you can probably fathom). But, part of what makes it so fun is that when you only spend a week or two drafting up a new idea, you don't have that much invested in it. If it doesn't work out, oh well - onto the next idea! Once again, it's fun. Ever since I learned this trick, I draft things up quickly, then see which of the drafts seem to "fly", send them out to conferences, see if others think they're any good--and then, send out the papers that seem most promising to journals! Another cool thing about this approach is that, all too often, you can end up revisiting "dead" drafts years later. On a few separate occasions, I've returned to and ended up publishing articles I had left for dead (here's one)...because years later, the answer to what was wrong with them popped into my head out of nowhere.
Step 3: Writing on "big ideas"
Finally, the third thing that really got me to love writing philosophy was a conscious decision many years ago to start writing on really big, ambitious ideas that represented the kind of philosopher I wanted to be rather than the kind of philosopher I thought I was "supposed" to be. Throughout much of grad school, and then my first year or two after the PhD, I tried to write the kind of articles I thought might get me published--the kind of really narrow "A Counterexample to X's Argument on Y" that people often mention when criticizing philosophy's overprofessionalization. I tried writing these kinds of papers because they are the kinds of papers I saw others publishing. But honestly, I just found it a total drag. It wasn't the kind of philosophy that inspired me, and I wasn't getting much good work done--and so I just remember saying to myself at some point, "You know, if I'm going to fail at this philosophy thing, I might as well fail doing the kind of ambitious work that made me love philosophy in the first place." And so I gave it a shot, writing on and ultimately publishing some big ideas, while having a blast doing it. All of which, once again, made writing philosophy fun!
Anyway, these were the three lessons I learned that made me love writing philosophy: (1) free-writing 3-5 pages every day, (2) drafting up as many new ideas as I can as often as I can, and (3) doing the kind of philosophy that made me want to become a philosopher so many years ago. Who knows - maybe similar steps will work for you too!