I’m back in Boston after spending a week in New York. Usually when I’m in NYC, I’m there to collaborate with colleagues or visit friends. This time, I was writing. A friend offered me his apartment for a week while he went on vacation with his family and I decided to take that as an opportunity to get some serious work done on my book.
I like writing and I’m very grateful that my job allows me to spend a fair chunk of writing every day. But even with the incredibly minimal demands on my time as a post doc (as opposed to the demands of teaching, advising and service that come with being junior faculty), I really wanted to push myself to make some serious headway on the book before my travel schedule (and the job market) picks up in September and October. I’m sharing these notes on process not as a pedantic instructional manual but because it’s (1) a way of describing what my weird little academic life is like to people in my network for whom my work is often not very legible and (2) an invitation for others to share their writing process, academic, journalistic, trade or otherwise.
I decided to set a goal of writing 1,000 words every day. Here’s how I did:
Being a qualitative researcher, I find numbers pretty unsatisfying in terms of explanatory power, so let me expand a little.
Setting goals for the day. I’ve always been a little suspicious of the quota system because of its susceptibility to the quantity over quality issue - for example, Wednesday’s low count devalues a day spent reworking some really overwrought chapter sections, the kind of revising that makes me feel like I’m physically wrestling with words. (I don’t want that to read as defensive, I’m pretty content with how I did for the week.) But the word count wound up being a good motivator - it’s easy to give myself an excuse to stop working because I’m tired or because a certain amount of time has passed or because I trick myself into believing I’ll come back to work on a given section later. Usually, instead of the quota system, I use a unit system.
What’s a unit? Some of my colleagues (lightheartedly, I think?) make fun of me for this, but I regularly talk about writing in terms of units. A unit is two to four hours of sitting down with your text and making it better. The amount of time, for me, is based on the type of writing. Converting notes into actual prose is how I think of the heavy lifting of writing, and I’m usually wiped out after two hours. Revision is where I spend the bulk of my writing time and I can usually do it for periods of three to four hours. During the last week, I tried to spend mornings doing the initial writing and afternoons doing revisions. I am a very iterative writer, so I generally assume that a paper or chapter will take around a dozen rounds of revision. I *love* revising, so I tend to experience this as pleasurably intellectual rather than monotonous or tiring.
You have to know where you write best. I have a very difficult time writing at home because I get distracted. I’ll think to myself, “if I just had an oatmeal cookie, I could totally write better.” Then I’ll make cookies but have a dirty kitchen. So I’ll clean the kitchen, but at that point, why not also clean the bathroom? And then I’ll realize that all my towels are dirty, so I’d better do laundry. I wind up with an apartment that’s spotless and an untouched document. I write best in coffee shops and libraries, although I managed to get a fair amount of writing done at my friend’s apartment, probably because I’m incredibly unlikely to clean someone else’s house as a distraction.
You have to know how you write best. When I revise, it is always on paper. If someone asked me to revise on screen, I would find it utterly paralyzing. Other tactics I’ve developed for managing my own idiosyncrasies: If I’m typing up revisions in a non-home location, I will sometimes force myself to work faster by deliberately leaving my power cable at home. You’re far less likely to go down the reddit rabbit hole if you know you only have 22% power left and eight pages of hand-written revisions to type. Also, bourbon. As in, making sure I have some back home to drink when I’m typing up revisions.