Progress and process

After two months of eating, sleeping and reading, the summer and my little project are finally drawing to an end. What has been done: a large stack of books read wholly and in part (including Lawrence’s absurdly prolix Seven Pillars, which I have read so that others don’t have to) from which there has grown a forest of sticky notes. What remains: one week and 12,000 written words.

It has been an eye-opening experience doing real, serious, research. Fortunately, as this is what I plan to make my career, the experience has been fun as well. There are two reasons for this: 1) the excitement of gradually growing expertise in a relatively obscure field, and 2) the pleasure of reading books that I find genuinely interesting. Another summer research blogger noted the heady feeling of reading a scholarly book or article and finding that one has read most of the books referred to, and at least heard of the rest. It’s rewarding to know a subject inside and out – and to have the sense that, on one small subject at least, one’s opinion really is informed. And I am happy and not a little surprised to find my interest intact after reading so many books about this particular subject. There’s no way to demonstrate dedication to a subject like studying it actually as your job.

So what is my process? This sort of history research (for me) is not very glamorous. The above description of recent months is a fair approximation of my daily schedule. At the start, I tracked down the various books I needed via the library system. I set about reading them at a fairly brisk pace, determining ahead of time which ones I would read in a particular week. I took notes after my own method, which, as I alluded to above, is to place sticky notes on pages containing important quotes, writing on the note the significance of the page. Not for me the stacks of index cards and filled notebooks – unless I know I won’t have access to the book when I’m writing, in which case I’ll type up notes on my laptop. I should mention that my sticky notes are almost always accompanied by some sort of mark in the book itself. I defend this practice on Kantian grounds: I always enjoy finding another’s notes in a book I’m reading. It’s interesting to see what someone else focused on, and even better to read the thoughts they left in the margin. I’d say that kind of marking should be allowed and even encouraged, so long as it doesn’t actually obscure the text.

Those are the essentials of my process. It isn’t very systematic, but it has always done the job. The next step, actually writing, is what I usually consider the easy part. 12,000 words isn’t much more than the average college student writes in a night. With a whole week, there should be ample time for drafts and revisions, at least I hope.