how i draft a chapter
From this article on BAM’s Next Wave.
(I feel like this could also be a Mr. Show sketch?)
BREAKING: A chapter is in the midst of being drafted. Progress has been made. This is, as a reminder and for those just tuning in, Chapter 6, the book’s penultimate chapter (not including my conclusion), which discusses Bang on a Can’s concerts at Lincoln Center between 1994 and 1998. It is also the final body chapter to write. Once this is done, I tackle the intro and conclusion chapters, and then do a lot of revising.
Let’s talk about process for a minute. I’ve drafted this chapter in the same way that I’ve drafted the last few , which has settled into a workable system for me. I don’t know if it will be a workable system for you—it probably won’t. Everyone needs to find their own method towards longform academic writing (or, really, any form of writing, or any form of anything), and I genuinely believe that all we can do is exchange strategies and tips and tricks and hope that one or two small ideas might help every writer in the world with their intense fear and dislike of writing.
(I should admit a secret up-front, though, which makes me weird: I actually like writing, and find the process mostly enjoyable. A couple components of my working process make this so, I think.)
So here’s what I did for this chapter, and for the last few as well.
Writing Step #0: Gather all the notes into one place.
I talked about this earlier, which is that, as I do my research/take notes, I dump all relevant material into a Scrivener folder devoted to each chapter, with text files devoted to different aspects of the chapter. That material is usually a combination of my reading/listening notes, quotes from interviews/newspapers/whatever, and other miscellaneous stuff. A lot of the material ends up duplicating itself, which is fine, because Scrivener feels capacious in a good way (unlike Word) and when things repeat, I can remember them better. When that’s totally complete—all the research is in one place—then I move onto what is the first step in the writing process.
Writing Step #1: Organize the notes into potential chapter sections.
So that things end up looking like this:
The top folder — LC notes examined — contained all my research notes. The bottom folder, “sectioned notes,” is me sorting all of the notes into the actual potential sections of the chapter. Scrivener’s split-screen function makes this super easy: I can have one file of my research notes in the top half of the screen, and constantly change the sectioned notes file in the bottom half as I copy and paste material into these sorted sections. Now I have some semblance of organization to my notes that is designed to build outwards into actual writing.
Writing Step #2: “Writing” in Scrivener.
The first part of my actual writing process, as well as the second, third, and fourth parts, looks extremely bad on the page. Again, it’s a split-screen process. An example:
Lots of horrible typos (not sure what i meant by “repent” there), lots of “___” when I can’t think of the word or phrase or am missing information. The writing isn’t even really correct, I’m just spitballing before I have all the information I need. I’ll show you a better version of that paragraph later.
I have the “writing” open on the top and the sectioned notes/quotes open on the bottom. The idea, basically, is to turn the sectioned notes into sectioned writing, by any means possible. Take a quotation I want to use and surround it with prose. Make a hasty note into a sentence. Sometimes I’m just copying things over from the bottom to the top to work on refining later, sometimes I’m realizing that the note isn’t relevant anymore and so not moving it into the writing. But the goal is to get most of everything that’s in “note” form into “writing” form, while paying the least possible attention to the quality of the prose. This is phase 1 of the two or three phases I call “word vomit.” (I highly doubt I coined this idea, but I’m not sure where I got it from.) At some point in this process I’ll usually get tired and just start copying/pasting notes, rather than turning them into prose, to deal with in the next step.
Writing Step #3: Move it to Word
I strongly prefer to do actual writing in Word, as that’s what I’m used to. Scrivener is by far a superior platform, but I like being able to see the format that I’ve been writing with for a long time. (I’ve only been using Scrivener since 2017.) So once every potential-section-of-a-chapter is transformed from note form to “writing,” I compile them all into one big file and export it into word. This is an incredibly messy, massive, embarrassing document (usually 40–60 pages single-spaced), but what it has going for it is that most if it is in “writing,” it is theoretically organized into sections, and it’s all in one place. I can now tell my friends, theoretically, that I have a “draft of my new chapter,” even though I generally don’t like to call it a draft until Step #4, so I really just tell that to Georgia.
Writing Step #4: Bad draft in Word.
I now go through the document slowly and try to add in all of the missing information, reorganize material as I realize how it works/doesn’t work on the page, and actually imagine what a chapter should look like. I often condense and re-organize entire sections. This is where most of the real heavy-lifting as far as content writing goes, and also much of my analytical thinking: making ideas, and drawing conclusions, from my notes. Most of my footnotes are there, but they’re unformatted. (FYI, I don’t use citation software even though I know I absolutely should.) The writing is still lousy.
Writing Step #5: Better draft in Word.
This is the stage I’m at now, and it’s about 3/4ths done, so coming along quite well! I’m now trying to turn all of the bad prose into good-ish prose, adding in any still-missing information, fixing up my footnotes so they’re tidy, and feeling good about myself because, well, remember how rough this chapter was a week ago?
That paragraph about Lincoln Center that had sketchy information and poor sentences? Now it’s this, and I like it a lot more! (I don’t love it yet.)
The system I’ve set up for myself—which, again, might only work for me—allows for me to feel like things are constantly improving, so even if a chapter has a long way to go, I’m generally enjoying it by this point. And I am! This is also where placeholder theses and conclusions become real ones — in this case, I know what my Lincoln Center chapter is about, but I’m not 100% sure what the central claim is. Once I’ve finished cleaning up the body sections, I’m going to tackle the chapter’s intro and conclusion and figure out what it is (I have a hunch). Sometimes theses need to be reverse-engineered.
Writing Step #6,7,8,9,10,11, etc: Revising and editing.
Once Step #5 is done, I will do my big reveal: making the single-spaced document double-spaced. Now I’m thinking about it as a complete-ish chapter, and also starting to think more specifically about length, as I start to revise and edit. (Each of my chapters thus far tend to be 40–50 pages, double-spaced.)
In a way, steps #3–5 are editing too, which is why I like the word vomit approach: you’re in a constant state of making your writing better, rather than trying to make magic happen on a blank page. I always tell students to never start with a blank page: it’s a research paper, not creative writing, so you might as well move some notes into your Word processor and start moving them around. Take a quote and surround it with prose, take a note and make it into a sentence. After that, it’s all editing, which I tend to enjoy, too. Everything becomes a process of refining and tweaking and improving rather than desperately trying to write a good sentence. All sentences are bad until they’re good, and sometimes that's more about moving words around than having a writing epiphany. (I usually have those epiphanies away from my computer, anyway, which is why I use Voice Memos a lot.)
No process is fully replicable, and this one likely won’t work for you. My process works because of who I am, but also because my writing in this project tends to be more narrative than analytical: I don’t think this would work if my book were, for example, concerned with analyzing 6 major musical works over six chapters, or if I were doing an empirical study revolving around a set of data.
I don’t have any good archival finds for you this week, but I did stumble across this massive New York Magazine feature on BAM’s Next Wave from 1987 , with lots of fascinating stuff. (Sasha Metcalf has you covered on BAM history, FYI.) Like this:
Three of my favorite musicologists are organizing an awesome conference on music festivals at MIT. I’m definitely submitting an abstract, and you should too. The conference is mid-March, and CFP deadline is October 15: https://musicfestivalstudies.com/
Also, read my buddy Ryan Ebright on The Black Clown in the Times!
That’s it, folks! If you find aspects of this newsletter baffling, please let me know. Or if you like it, let me know too. Or if you think my writing process is totally BS and I would save a lot of time by doing XYZ let me know too. (Yes, I should probably start using Zotero. OK, I downloaded it.)