Writing and Studying, Writing to Study

Mar 26, 2012 | Workflow

Jay Dolmage’s (relatively) recent blog post about Learning by Writing seemed to me quite on the mark, especially with regards to some of ways in which I’ve been toying around with my own study habits.

I’m studying for my reading exams right now, and I’ve been finding it more and more helpful, for study purposes, to just write finished products of some sort. By “finished product” I basically mean “mini essay,” or really, “just about anything that is coherent and organized around something.” It doesn’t matter if a given finished product won’t ever see the light of day, but the act of writing—i.e., having to formulate your thoughts coherently and logically, putting those thoughts to paper or screen, and then reading back those thoughts to yourself—is obviously going to force your mind to organize and re-organize itself.

I recently came upon the term “Commonplace book” (Wikipedia link) and I think that’s probably about the best term to describe the method I’ve been using (or trying to use). Instead of using physical books like a Moleskin or something, I’ve been using an app called Scrivener. Scrivener is a word processor app that is excellent for organizing your writing if you intend to keep it in a traditional format (linear, mostly text-based one, etc.).

The app is designed for fiction writing, but it’s useful for any type of lengthy writing in which order and structure matter, but you’re not necessarily writing it start to finish or beginning to end. Sometimes it’s useful or easier to start in the middle. Scrivener lets you visualize your text as a whole, and move around sections of it in any way you see fit. You can have sections and subsections, and you can view the sections as nested folders or as index cards. This makes it easy to rearrange things after you’ve put your thoughts to the screen and you begin to start identifying possible structures or patterns.

That said, if you want fancy highlighting and formatting, bullet points or lots of visual play, it’s… not so good. In other words, it’s not very good for rough notes if you’re a visually inclined person who uses lots of colours and diagrams.

But this is actually a good thing. Well, for my purposes, at least. It forces me to take my rough notes in Microsoft Word, where I can play around with all sorts of fancy formatting. I can highlight things, add text boxes here and there, add arrows or shapes, and place things in weird visual relations to each other to help me understand difficult concepts. If I really need the extra freedom, I’ll sketch something on a piece of paper, take a photo of that, and then just stick the image into the Word document – a bit messy, granted, but it works. They’re just rough notes, after all.

Scrivener, then, becomes something of a “stage two” thing. (I originally started this paragraph by writing, “Scrivener, then, is for completed thoughts only,” but that’s not quite accurate.) I only use Scrivener after I’ve taken my initial notes. Admittedly, I didn’t always do this at first, so now I have a few notes that are a bit of a mess. My notes for Jameson’s The Political Unconscious are all over the place right now. The trick, for my use of Scrivener, is to argue something, or explain something in my own words and my own metaphors, even if it’s all pretty basic. And that means the trick is to just start writing.

An example of something I wrote this morning links Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of the co-existence of discourses in the novel form with Roman Jakobson’s discussion of the co-existence of styles from different time periods (modern vs. archaic, etc.) in a synchronic verbal system. I’m probably never going to show this to anyone or anything like that, because it isn’t really all that insightful – I’m just pointing out pretty obvious links between some stuff I happened to read. Maybe I’ll come back to what I’ve written in a few months or years. I don’t know. I am hoping that in a few months I’ll have a pretty decent body of arguments that I can use for something. But what I’m really doing, as I’m writing these random things, is formulating and organizing various possible arguments that I will be able to at least partially reproduce later for my discourse and text analysis field exam.

Another advantage to this is I’ve found that I can actually speed up my overall exam reading speed if I take less rough notes in Microsoft Word, take a few more notes in the margins my books (admittedly this is harder to do if it’s a library book), and then immediately after I finish a reading I construct a few coherent paragraphs about what I just read and how it relates to various other things I’ve just read. In other words I write a mini-essay or two. Sometimes the mini-essay stands on its own, other times I try to slot it in somewhere, in relation to something else I’ve written.

This method forces me to be a bit more mentally disciplined while I’m reading. If I just take notes, it can be easy to jot things down without really understanding what I’ve written. It’s pretty easy, mentally, to identify an important concept in a text, identify where that concept is defined, and then basically write out the text’s own definition of the concept in my notes without fully understanding it. It’s pretty much impossible to use a concept I don’t fully understand in a mini-essay of some sort, or to explain the concept from a weird angle using my own metaphor if I don’t yet understand it.

I’m still debating how I’m going to use some of these in the future, since I am hoping that at some point they’ll be of use. Some of the things I write are just pure explanation and explication, but sometimes I’ll think, “Oh! This concept relates to this other thing that I actually want to write more about!” and so the written produce I then produce is actually (to my mind) worth keeping and integrating and eventually showing someone. But right now these snippets remain fairly unorganized.