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Satisficing when writing

3 June, 2008

I’m on the lookout for writing lessons I can find in my daily life, i.e., what I’m doing that could be applied to the craft of writing.

Today was easy because I attended the monthly Writers’ and Readers’ Meeting at Varuna Writers’ House. The last segment of each meeting involves a resident writer talking about his or her work.

Today’s speaker, Kathryn Brewer, is a former journalist and now an ESL tutor living in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. She is in the last stages of completing her first novel, which has taken her eight years to write. Her manuscript— long-listed for Varuna’s prestigious Harper-Collins program for manuscript development—tells the story of a man in the Australian Outback who is obsessed with finding a plant that everyone thinks is extinct.

Someone asked her about the problem of becoming bored when writing and rewriting one work over a long period. Her views (paraphrased):

What you first develop in the manuscript of your novel is fueled by your interests and concerns at that time.

Later, it’s tempting to change your material—sometimes substantiallyso that the story reflects your new interests and concerns. But this may not be the best thing to do.

By sticking with your original impetus that started you writing, you retain the general framework you originally developed. This can be helpful because even if you make changes to your work, you’re doing this within a familiar framework, rather than dismantling and changing the lot.

Many people start but become discouraged and never finish a long piece of writing, whether that is a PhD dissertation, a novel or a non-fiction manuscript. One reason some never finish is because they keep changing their ideas, so much so that they never end up with a complete first draft.

When I worked with PhD students, this was a common problem. Some students started enthusiastically. Then, when the going got tough, they decided they had taken the wrong topic and needed a new one. Their enthusiasm would again per up. But when the going got tough again, they looked for a new topic rather than working with what they already had.

A common problem when working on something big—whether it is a dissertation,  non-fiction book or novel—is finding a stopping point in the search for new facts and developments. You can’t shut yourself off completely from influences. But there comes a point when you have to go with what you’ve got.

I wrote about this stopping point in my book on business writing, using a term borrowed from psychology: satisficing. An effective researcher reaches the satisficing point when it’s clear that nothing new or important is turning up. An ineffective researcher stays on the treadmill of looking, I suspect because the investigation is often a lot more fun than the writing. But at the point of satisficing, it’s time to stop searching and get stuck into the writing with the information at hand.

Inevitably, writing suggests new areas where you need information. But by the time this need is uncovered, you may have written enough to keep your new search focused because you have the framework for whatever you’re creating.

Now that Kathryn has a complete draft of her novel, she said she knows the specific searches she needs to undertake, for example, technical details about botany. If she had started out thinking she needed to know everything about botany before she started writing, she wouldn’t be at Varuna this week putting the finishing touches to a novel. Other writers have said the same thing, that they keep writing according to plan, and put notes such as ‘research needed here’ or ‘check this’, signalling where they will find material later. The idea is that if they stop to do research each time a question or gap comes up, they will lose the flow of their writing energy.

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