Like many, I found term papers in college a grim business. Despite any amount of planning, they were always a rush at the end, and despite my characteristic glibness, and being a fast writer, they were usually a mess and busted as such by faculty.
I assumed the deficits were all on my side, and mostly moral failings at buckling down to do the work, so it was odd to discover a few years later when I was writing for a daily newspaper as a stringer that I never missed a deadline, and mostly enjoyed the experience of getting a piece written and filed. I also thrived in the culture of a daily newsroom, finding a natural place within the shared rhythm that grows out of the collective imperative of getting the paper out on time. (The wonderful term “putting the paper to bed” like muskox, a nice bit of journalistic jargon now lost, gives a sense of how it feels when the paper has finally gone to press.)
In talking with my mother about this phenomena, she reflected on her journalism career in newspapers and magazines, saying, “well, it always seemed that working on a daily was easier than working on a weekly, much less a monthly or quarterly. The deadline shaped the work and you got it done.” A daily deadline means a workflow, helps you make sense of what you have to do that day, creates a system if only by default.
By that measure, annuals, and “occasionals” would be hard, and one-time productions, like a Ph.D. dissertation or magnum opus, would be most difficult of all. In those contexts, external factors likely don’t help, except perhaps to create neurotic and corrosive pressure, “when are you going to finish?” or worse, “when are you really going to start?”
Thus it surprised me then, and still does today, that we expect college students, and to some extent, high school students, to figure out how to cope with these long timelines, pulling together materials for a coherent term paper on their own without the guidance a workflow might give. It certainly was never any fun for me–nor, as nearly as I can tell, particularly edifying. I finally wrote a satisfactory term paper in grad school (no doubt in part because I had the confidence of having written for a newspaper under my belt). Perhaps all the botched attempts earlier did add up to some kind of embedded wisdom, at least of the “here’s what not to do” variety. But it really did seem a waste of writing and reading time all around.
Now of course I write every day, and it makes me pause to wonder if I had committed to writing every day on a term paper whether that would have been the ticket. (I doubt it.) People do sort of write a newspaper every day in their collective FB, Twitter, txt, email and other constant streams of content. This seems to bring up the inverse of the problem with the long lead time for a term paper, the constant deadline of “now,” that is, of no deadline, means that while the means to writing has never been easier–simple as pressing “post”– the rhythm is just a constant beating chaos of “update me” no putting it to bed, not much shared pulling together to get something done, just sort of a “feed me” 24/7 editorial maw. I wonder how newspapers–which I am long out of–even begin to cope.