How I Write: Tim Johnson – Professor of English
Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.
Our featured writer this week is Professor Tim Johnson. Dr. Johnson is new to the University of Louisville’s English Department, having just finished his Doctorate in English-Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He teaches rhetoric and writing courses and researches the intersections of rhetoric, writing, and the economy.
Location: Bingham Hall, Louisville, Kentucky
Current project: An article for the journal Rhetoric and Public Affairs concerned with Ford Motor Company’s films during and after World War II
Currently reading: Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, March by Geraldine Brooks
1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?
I’ve been doing a lot of proposal writing lately: an abstract for an edited collection on technical writing, a presentation proposal for an upcoming conference. I like writing these brief statements because they force me to be brief and figure out the gist of what I’m working on. Beyond that, I work on a pretty steady queue of journal articles, potential book chapters, emails, and classroom materials.
Generally, I like to be in a few different “stages” of the writing process on a handful of projects all at one time—planning one, compiling research for another, doing the actual writing for a third, and revising a fourth. While this isn’t always the most efficient practice (I start more than I finish), I have found that it keeps me from getting so fixated on any one piece of writing that I become unproductive. This rotation also makes working on one project feel like taking a break from another and that mental shift can make all the difference; plus, I have found there is a certain degree of serendipity in having multiple projects (I’ll find a great source for one while researching for another, or the phrasing I spent an afternoon trying to get right comes to me when revising another project).
2. When/where/how do you write?
Right now my work consists of writing, teaching writing, and teaching the teaching of writing—so, essentially, most of my day is filled up with writing-related activity. I very much enjoy this…though it doesn’t make me much fun at dinner parties. When really getting down to the business of writing, though, I try to have at least an hour on my hands to devote to the project without an interruption.
In terms of place, I’ve been writing at my home desk or in my office on campus. Now that it has cooled off a bit, I take to my porch as well. I like to have a window to look out of and the occasional excuse to get up and take a stroll. I’m constantly trying to update and change my process, but lately it has been pretty uniform: I begin by reading something (usually from the same genre that I will be writing). I find that it helps to see another writer in action as this can spark ideas and cause my own writerly voice to come out. Once comfortable, I will start reading my work from the top. On a good day, I’ll get to the part of the work that I was planning to expand and proceed writing. More often than I’d like, though, somewhere along the way I’ll decide the order is wrong, change the organization, realize this wasn’t the problem, and then finally get to the writing I meant to start with.
3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?
A computer and a pair of headphones. If I’m in the revision process, I rely a lot on my computer’s text-to-speech function. There’s something about a pseudo-mechanical voice reading my writing aloud that makes me more aware of what needs adjusting. At this point, it has become an essential part of my process.
4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?
Seek feedback, or just someone to talk to about what you’re up to. Do this during the process of writing, not just once the work is finished. I find that, when left to my own devices, getting a piece of writing to come out right can involve going around in circles. However, if I can get someone to read and talk with me about my work, something magical happens and I can suddenly write again. Apparently, there is some kind of Center that will do this for free on campus.
5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
Think in sections. Trying to wrestle with the entirety of a piece in any one sitting is not only exhausting, but largely inefficient. Learning to break a project into a set of shorter, more manageable tasks made both writing and revision easier.
“Let it go.” This came from a mentor who noticed my refusal to send anything to them unless it was just right. Again, sharing my work was a real breakthrough and sometimes my biggest challenge as a writer has been good, old-fashioned self-doubt.