The joy of text
An occasional series on writing a new critical physio book
I recently did an interview with Michael Rowe looking at my daily work routines and the way I get things done (see below), and part of that was about how I work on long-form projects like this book.
If you’ve ever written a thesis you’ll know you have to be systematic, so I thought in this blog post I’d show you what I do.
I once asked an esteemed colleague at my university how he wrote his books. (At that point he’d already written 28). His method was to compile tens of thousands of notes, quotes, and arguments in advance, and only when he had it all together would he actually write his book. Because his preparations were so detailed he only needed to write the book once and it needed minimal editing.
My approach is similar to this, but perhaps not as brutal. He’s known to have a capacious memory, so can hold all of his arguments in tension as he writes. I don’t, and I often find I still don’t know what I want to say until I actually write it.
But, like him, I do start writing a book by taking copious notes.
I’ve found over the years that I absorb ideas much better when I write them out by hand. So as I’m reading through texts I know will be important, I write out everything I find and think about.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m currently working on the idea of therapeutic touch both for the new book and for an upcoming special issue. Well, here are some of the notes I’ve taken so far.
This first set was written this morning, working through the excellent recent paper on phenomenology in physiotherapy from Jan Halák and Petr Kříž.
I’ll add these to the growing pile of notes I’ve written for the touch project so far.
For long projects, like a detailed reading of a book, I write the notes in a journal, like these notes on Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter.
For a book or a long project, I find that after about three weeks of note-taking I’ve forgotten where I’ve been. So need to backtrack to collate the ideas and map them in such a way that I can find key themes, connections, and gaps. I do this with a hand-drawn mind-map.
This one relates to a single book — Manuel de Landa and Graham Harman’s book The Rise of Realism — but I’ve also done them for the work of a particular writer or even a single concept.
Notice on the mindmap that there are numbers like “7/117” and “8/3” beneath each of the words or phrases. These refer to the journal and page number where I can find my original notes. So once you get to the mindmap stage it’s easy to find all of the places where that idea is mentioned and get a sense of the idea as a whole.
At the moment I’m working on material that feels like it will be key to this new book. Some of it is deeply philosophical so I need a system like this to help me understand the ideas. I’m sure if I’d been trained as a philosopher it would be easier and quicker, but I’m not, so this labour-intensive, immersive process is how I manage.
And yet I never find it dull or tedious. In fact, I really love it. I only annotate work that really fires me up, and almost every day I have “Ahah!” moments when I come across something new or glean something that had been opaque before.
You also don’t get the pressure of having to formulate your thinking and construct what you hope will be clear consistent sentences. It’s like free play with no pressure.
If a book takes me four years to write, at least half of that time will be spent on this kind of note-taking.
But at some point, the hand-written note-taking has to take a back seat, and you have to start forming a linear argument from this mass of material. For that, there is no better tool than a computer.
But more on that next time.
Bennett, J. (2009). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.
Halák, J., & Kříž, P. (2022). Phenomenological physiotherapy: extending the concept of bodily intentionality. Med Humanit, medhum-2021. https://doi.org/10.1136/medhum-2021-012300
DeLanda, M., & Harman, G. (2017). The Rise of Realism. John Wiley & Sons.