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Monday Master Class: The Paperback Writer Method

September 8th, 2008 · 9 comments

The Writing LifeThe Paperback Writer

As most first-time authors will admit, writing a book can be daunting. The scale is so massive that it cannot be thought of as a single task; it’s not something that could be completed in one big gnarly push. At first, this induces panic. But as the process continues, the author falls into a more comfortable job-like routine. Day after day, he returns to the manuscript — a little editing here, a little research there — and soon loses touch with the big, scary, massive concept known as “writing a book.”

Months pass.

Then one day, a deadline arrives, and the author steps back to see the results of his longterm efforts; something that looks, strangely enough, quite a bit like a real book. There is no hard finish point. He could keep tweaking or editing or polishing ad infinitum, and he probably secretly wants to. But the deadline seems as good a place as any to stop, and the current draft gets sent off.

This probably sounds nothing like the frenzied last minute pushes that define your own stressful student paper writing adventures, which is exactly why I’m telling you about it. For, you see, this post presents a simple yet outlandish idea: You should consider writing your student papers like authors write massive books.

As always, allow me to explain…

The Paperback Writer Method

To write a student paper like a book means the following:

  1. Start work on the paper immediately.
  2. Make progress in small batches: 1 – 2 hours at a time, on at least 2 – 3 days out of each week.
  3. Finish a full draft of the paper well before the deadline. (It’s okay if these are really terrible, you’ll knock it into shape over time.)
  4. Keep tweaking and editing and polishing, in little batches, until the deadline arrives.
  5. Spend a lot of this time not just writing, but also thinking — thinking hard about what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, and what would be better to say instead.

I started following this method in the spring of my senior year. Not surprisingly, this was the first semester after I finished writing my first (paperback) book. It changed my student life.

Let’s explore why…

Living the Paperback Writer Lifestyle

Here’s the thing about this method: it requires more hours than doing the work in one long push right before the deadline. I admit this. But at the same time this work is a lot less painful. Like the professional author, it’s not about the big scary capital-P “Paper.” It is, instead, about little daily pushes.

The biggest advantage, of course, is that the papers it produces are significantly better than those written the day before. If you use the paperback writer method — and take it seriously, especially the part about putting aside time to think — you’ll score an ‘A’ on every single paper.

The alert reader might wonder how this method fits with my existing paper advice; e.g., flat outlines and the three-pass editing method. Think of these strategies as weapons in the arsenal of the paperback writer practitioner. As you work in small batches over a long period of time, you can use, for example, a flat outline to organize your thoughts and the three editing types of the three-pass method to keep sections tamed.

A Simple Experiment

I know this method is asking a lot, and it might not fit with all types of student personalities. But if something about this pain-free approach resonates, let me invite you to try a simple experiment. Take one paper — a small one — and apply this method. Go from assignment to submission without ever working more than an hour or two at at time. Hand in a manuscript that you thought about and tweaked and polished for weeks. Experience the reaction you get from the professor.

If you get this far, I have a suspicion that, like me, you’ll never look at paper writing the same way again.

(Photo by jefield)

9 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: The Paperback Writer Method

  1. Stephanie says:

    Just wanted to write a quick note of endorsement for this method. As an English PhD student, writing two or three 20 page papers per semester is not uncommon, so strategy must take over. I begin writing 4 weeks before the deadline, but only 2 or 3 pages per day, which means only about 45 minutes of writing. This leaves me with a week or two to edit at the end of the draft.
    Other helpful strategies (in addition to the ones you’ll find here) include the purge method – after reading and researching, dump all the ideas you have floating around in your head onto the page – you’ll feel like you have accomplished something because there will be words on the page, and then you can sort out what you like from what doesn’t work. The other method would be helpful at this point – the reverse outline. After you have a draft on the screen, go back and make an outline, not based on what you think the paper should be, but what is actually there – subtitle each paragraph. Does the order make sense? Are details missing? Then you can rearrange and fill in where necessary.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    The other method would be helpful at this point – the reverse outline.

    Cool technique; thanks for sharing!

  3. Nate says:

    Paper back writer (paperback writer)
    Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
    It took me years to write, will you take a look?
    It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear
    And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer,
    Paperback writer.

    It’s the dirty story of a dirty man
    And his clinging wife doesn’t understand.
    His son is working for the Daily Mail,
    It’s a steady job but he wants to be a paperback writer,
    Paperback writer.

    Paperback writer (paperback writer)

    It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few,
    I’ll be writing more in a week or two.
    I can make it longer if you like the style,
    I can change it round and I want to be a paperback writer,
    Paperback writer.

    If you really like it you can have the rights,
    It could make a million for you overnight.
    If you must return it, you can send it here
    But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer,
    Paperback writer.

  4. Study Hacks says:

    Paper back writer (paperback writer)
    Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
    It took me years to write, will you take a look

    It was impossible to write this post without the Beatles playing in my head.

  5. Liz says:

    This is an interesting approach! Mac users might like to check out “Scrivener”… it’s an research note management, outlining and drafting tool designed by a writer for novelists and academics. It’s probably a bit more than one needs for small assignments, but I’ve been using it to draft and manage my research for a journal article size assignment and think it’s just fantastic.

  6. Nicole says:

    Love the idea! But when you say start the paper immediately, do you mean the day it is assigned? Because my final paper for my cultures class was given in the syllabus on the first day of class. Should I start researching now or wait until a month ahead of the deadline?

  7. Study Hacks says:

    Love the idea! But when you say start the paper immediately, do you mean the day it is assigned?

    More or less. Maybe within a week or so. For the cultures class you mention that means that there’s nothing stopping you starting to think about it, and gather some ideas, and write down some info right now!

  8. avp says:

    I started doing this in my 3rd year at university and as you said, it made things a lot easier. While it may require more time, it felt like a lot less time than those all-nighters. I even started handing my papers in early. Highly recommended!

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