Friday, 27 February 2009

Don't break the chain!

There is a story attributed to Seinfeld which describes his strategy for writing jokes.  Not very remarkable, one might think, but the point of it is that it's something you need to do little and often.  But such tasks are often the first ones to fall under the table if there's any pressure or lack of time.  Always something more important takes precedence, and a month later you've completely forgotten that you ever used to do this 'writing' thing.

Academic writing is similar.  Due to teaching and admin (and other research) commitments, you rarely have the luxury of a full day free to do nothing but write.  So doing it little and often is really the only way forward.  This then brings us back to the Seinfeld story: how can we make sure to fit the writing in, and not forget about it?

The trick is to introduce some secondary motivation, which is stronger than the motivation required for simply writing something.  In this case you get a big calendar, and every day you do your writing, you mark this on the calendar.  After a few days you start getting a 'chain' of marks on the calendar, and your mission is to keep the chain uninterrupted.  Now the issue is no longer to 'write something', but more like 'don't let the long chain break', and it becomes more and more important the longer the chain is.

You need a clearly defined goal, so that you can be sure when you've done your daily deed.  I set it to at least 200 words; in a week this would give me 1000 words, and roughly 50,000 words in a whole year.  Obviously I won't stop if I can write more than 200, but that is the minimum.  I need to think about how to deal with post-editing, when I basically cut out words, so that should probably be as a period of time, eg half an hour or so.

The next step is to tell everybody.  It's a lot harder to break the chain if people who bump into you on the corridor ask how many links you've got.  And it might give them ideas about trying it themselves!

I started on Monday, and managed to keep up the chain for the whole week (I only count weekdays, not the week-end).  In the process I have produced about 5000 words (not including any blog posts); now where did that time come from?  The answer is, I'm more focused on my work.  Those little periods 'between things' are suddenly no longer wasted, because I always have 'MUST WRITE' at the front of my thoughts.  Just because I don't want to have to tell anybody that I broke the chain.


  1. Thank you so much for this, what a fantastic notion - for the last month or so I've been looking at my writing as a great big mountain to climb and it's really just small steps. So, I'm telling your readers here - my chain begins monday. And I've finally got a use for the wall calendar the local Chinese take-away gave me!

    Afterthought: I thought of creating an online equivalent of the wall calendar through google calendars to increase the socially shared element of the strategy, but it would have meant adding email addresses as permissions to view. Mmm.

  2. No, don't bother with permissions. Proudly show your chain to the world!

  3. I think this is a tremendously good idea -- all the more so for being so brave and open. But OL, is this something that you think would be suitable at all stages of a research project or only at a late stage when you've done the research, assembled the ideas, and have a good idea of what you want to say? Or can writing 200 words or so every day be useful discipline even from the outset of a task?

  4. I was wondering about that. I guess I'd always be able to write at least 200 words on anything, even work in progress. A lot of more 'in advance' writing will probably have to be edited down afterwards, but often I find I get new ideas through writing. My problem has always been finding the time to actually dump something on paper.

    In a book I recently read ("How to write a lot" by Paul Silvia) research time counts towards writing time, but for me that doesn't work. I get bogged down in programming and debugging, and move further and further away from writing.

    Just this morning I was writing stuff that involved a program, and of course I had to try it out and make sure it worked, so I did count that towards writing time, even if my word count wasn't that high then.