Harry F. Wolcott
In late November of 2008 I thought
I had finished everything. The autumn leaves had all fallen, I
had cleaned out the rain gutters for the last time in the season.
I was waiting patiently for the new third edition of my book,
Writing Up Qualitative Research, recently revised for Sage Publications.
I trusted that this would be the last word on writing, or at least
my last word on the topic. As soon as the editors and the printer
finished with the book, I anticipated receiving my first copy, so I
could see how it finally turned out.
Instead I received an email request from
Bob Simpson and Robin Humphrey asking if I would like to contribute
"something" to their cause, an open letter to any graduate students
who wanted a bit of help with their writing. My immediate thought was,
"If they want to know how I go about writing, why don't they just
read my book?" But on second thought I recognized a challenge to try
to distill an essence from my latest effort, in order to provide
the kind of brief reflection that Bob and Robin were seeking, and here
is what I came up with. Of course, if it makes you want to read
the new edition of the book, you would be most welcome, But as I thought
about it, here are two major points that summarize the advice I offer
anyone who needs a bit of help to get the writing started.
I assume that you have done your work
well and you now have something to report. What you most fear
is that what you write will look too much like a report. You would
like to make it more than that, so that it reads well.
My first piece of advice is to work out
the sequence you are going to use to tell your story. Formulating
the sequence will also cause you to figure out who is doing the
telling, as well as the order of the events or facts you have to present.
There are innumerable ways to approach the problem of sequence in addition
to talking about what happened in the exact order in which it occurred.
You might begin with how you became engaged with the problem or begin
with the problem's own history, if you choose not to get personally
involved. Or you can turn the calendar backwards, starting with
where we are now and then telling how we got here.
With the sequence clearly in mind, simply
begin writing. No matter if you don't feel you are doing a great job
of it. Most people don't. I covet the advice rendered by a successful
American author, Anne Lamott, who states simply, "The only way I can
get anything written at all is to write really, really, shitty
first drafts" But she has already revealed the consequences, "All
good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts
and terrific third drafts " (Lamott 1994: 21-22). Denise Crockett,
a graduate student at the time, shared similar advice she received,
but condensed it succinctly to state : " If you can't write
well, write shittily."
The point is that what you write at first
does not really affect the world, but you must have something
written before you can begin to edit it. Surely you don't need
to be reminded that no one in the world ever needs to see your first
draft, and you make that plural, to read "early drafts," because,
as others have observed, the only draft that matters is the final one.
Those are the two most powerful
ideas I have about writing. You must think through how you plan to reveal
your story-the sequence you will follow-and you must have
something down on the paper before you will ever have an opportunity
to work with it. I do not mean to make this seem simple, but neither
do I see it as an obstacle that cannot be overcome. There are many alternatives
to guide you as how to approach your topic, and there is always
the obvious one to ‘tell it like it happened." If beginning to write
the whole piece (article, book?) appears an impossible task, begin
with some smaller and easier part. Later you can figure
out where to place it. And you certainly don't need a special pen
to write shittily -that comes easily to most of us. You may
even find that you are being too hard on yourself in your earlier attempts-it
probably isn't as a bad as you feared. So be patient and keep
plugging (i.e. editing) away.
1994 Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon Books
Wolcott, Harry F.
2009 Writing Up Qualitative Research. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.