Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Writing on spec

In a fit of deadline-produced procrastination, I was looking up the word 'spec' yesterday. Interestingly, it has some conflicting meanings in idiomatic use. "Spec" sometimes means "to specification," as in "the contractor built the new porch to spec." This meaning describes something planned and agreed in advance, contractual. Another meaning, though, arises in common usage: to do work "on spec" means, "on speculation"--to produce something complete and for a particular purpose without being contracted to do so, and hope to be paid. Both kinds of spec apply to academic research writing, I think.


Here's a question for you: which of the two following scenarios prompts your best work? Please circle your answer below:

A) To specification: You commit in advance to a project / abstract / topic / argument / idea to be submitted in advance of a real deadline for inclusion in a conference / proceedings / special issue / book / collection.

B) On spec: An idea somehow comes to you, unprompted, and you follow it up with research and writing until such time (whenever such time might eventually come) you decide it's well and truly Done, and you seek out a venue to which to submit it, and hope someone will take it.

This is really a vexed question for me. Like all undergraduates, I used to think I did my best work under very heavy deadline pressure: after all, all my essays were prepared the night before they were due, and I got A+ on everything, so that means it was the right way, right? That I need strong deadlines? Err, maybe not. Often, I was three-quarters through something (at 3am) and realized my main idea was wrong. I was, of course, unable to go back and start over, seeing as the paper would be at that point mostly written and due very soon. And the library would be closed. So I'd make the sentences nicer around a stinker of an idea.

The funny thing is, I have often thought as a tenure-review-fearing faculty member that deadlines might produce my best work. I would tell myself that if I committed to a conference paper on Topic X, I would surely be motivated to create something awesome. Or at least get my literature review done. But it turns out the same thing would happen as in my undergrad: I would back-end load a lot of the work, particularly during a teaching term. And worse, if I'd submitted a really detailed proposal or abstract, outlining my conclusions in advance, I was sort of committed to those conclusions, even if the research, as it advanced, was pulling me in a different, sometimes contrary direction. So ... B?

Then again, in the year or so before I went up for tenure, those deadlines, some sought out by me and some being the result of direct invitations, actually lit a kind of productive fire under my rear end. I produced more and better work than I had managed before. So maybe those obligations, those firm external deadlines, made me do more than I would have made myself do otherwise. And maybe I thrived. Like how sometimes a yoga teacher can make you do a one-minute plank, or 15 sun salutations in a row, that you would never push yourself to do at home, and you discover your own strength? Hm. Maybe ... A?

When I finally handed in my dissertation, I swore I was going to let my research breathe, give it air, let it take the time it took, until it was fully cooked. My discretion, my meandering scholarly path, my digressions and side projects, my integrity. I would let the ideas lead me. It would be great, organic, natural. Except my productivity slowed, and I procrastinated a lot, usually out of terror either that my ideas were terrible or that they were good. Yeah. Definitely ... A.

Only, sometimes when I commit to something in advance, I change my mind on the whole fundamental idea, or the topic, or the theory, or my conclusion contradicts my initial aims. Sometimes, I just can't get it done on time, and the guilt and panic prompt sleeplessness for months. Or maybe I can get it done but I really think it needs six more months and a different venue. I send it off and see it in print and think ... no, that's not quite right yet ... so, B?

I think maybe that this last couple of years, with all of its B-prompted writing, I have seen how much I can get done when I apply myself. I've maybe learned not to be so afraid of my own ideas or my own inadequacies: with application, the work gets done and it's usually pretty good. So maybe, left to the whims of A-prompts, I might not procrastinate so endlessly, revealing in the potential of something rather than the execution or completion of it.

Do I need hard deadlines to make me work to potential? I'm not sure. Do you? Do you write best on spec? Or to specification? Do tell.


  1. Oh Aimee, what a great, great post. I too have been an A-type (snork!) dreaming of being a B. I'm currently teaching four courses, doing graduate supervision for the first time, and have a research profile to keep up if I want to stay active and competitive for the job I've definitely been writing to spec with hard deadlines and long, sleepless nights, and a really understanding partner. That said, I have had stretches of unemployment in the summer (contract, remember?) that I feel should have been for that open, slow, speculative thinking. Thing is, it hasn't really worked that way. I tend to get bogged down, feel exhausted, or get caught up in the (omg!) process of having a life in addition to academic production.

    I've been finding lately that the best kind of middle ground--A/B?--happens for me when I am in regular communication with people about specific pieces of writing/work. Writing groups, a few close collaborators with whom I may or may not actually be writing anything, but who are making time once a month to talk about my work (& I in turn theirs), this is the kind of deadline meets speculation that is most productive for me.

  2. Erin! Writing groups are a great middle ground. [Performs head smack.] I can't believe I didn't think of that!

    Perhaps it's not that you can't really do B type writing: maybe it's that your Fall/Winter of A type panic production means you're legitimately burnt out by spring. No one can be creative or productive when completely exhausted, right?

  3. Aimée ... I think you want an "and" instead of an "or" in the last sentence of your comment. The possibility of being productive (but not creative) when completely exhausted explains a lot about academic administration.

  4. We would have gotten along fantastically as undergrads/grad students/writers. This describes me perfectly. I still need to submit abstracts to CFP if I ever hope to write something. The only exception to that rule is my blogging which is totally type B. I'm not even sure a writing group would help. I'd blow it off to blog, sadly.

  5. I only ever write to spec, but I try to personalize it according to my own interests. As an RA and as a Grad Student to spec was really the only way to go. But I suppose my single authored publications are on spec, developed from to spec papers for courses. I like clear deadlines--the panic to make it in on time gives me a rush lol.


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