Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Writing Process: Little White Lies

Profacero has a post up about writing and time. While I agree with most of what she says, I can't completely go the distance on this one: "One, as I have said before, you must allow yourself to estimate time realistically. Perhaps it really will take 120 hours total to write that piece. If so, it is of no use to try to force yourself to take less time; you have to plan to free up all of the 120 hours."

Yes, if it really will take 120 hours, you have to plan for that at one level of your mind, the Rational Writing Brain. RWB allows you to estimate how long certain kinds of writing will take.

But to the Primitive Writing Brain, that 120 hours is an invitation not to start. PWB would say "120 hours? Okay, I'm out of here. No way am I sitting in that chair for 120 hours."

So RWB has to set to work and coax PWB with the Five Stages of Writing every day:

Denial: "Naw, it won't take 120 hours. Why, I'll bet that if you sit down today, you can get 5 pages done! Remember when you wrote X piece so fast? I'll bet it'll be just like that."

Anger: "Yes, it's lousy right now, and it's going to stay lousy unless you get to work and fix it. Get moving!"

Bargaining: "If you just write for the next 20 minutes/200 words, you can get out of the house for a while."

Cheerleading: "See, you're almost finished with this part! You really can do this."

Acceptance: "It's not so bad, after all, and this part is pretty good. You won't have to revise this again tomorrow."

See all the little white lies? Of course it will take 120 hours. Of course it has to be revised tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, but if RWB said that to PWB, PWB would never let the writing alone for the day, let alone pick it up again the next day.

Writing's like making bread. No matter how diligent you are about kneading it, if you don't let it rise or rest at all, you'll never be able to do anything with it.

22 comments:

Jonathan said...

You should be able to write 6 sentences in an hour, or about 500 words in three hours. To write 6,000 words then you need 36 hours. Even doubling that (36 more hours of revision) and rounding up, there is no way a twenty-page article should take more than 80 hours.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Undine, I loved this, especially the 5 stages. Jonathan, are you considering only writing, or writing plus research? Reading and researching can take a long time, especially for those of us who work interdisciplinarily in older fields. I have about 150 years of criticism to deal with on anything I write, which I think is not the case for you. And I research and write simultaneously; they aren't really separate processes. On the other hand, looking at your numbers, I could probably do a lot of reading as well as the 500 words in 3 hours.

Captcha: lutsmo. Luts mo' writing for all!

Jonathan said...

Just writing. But that's the part that is hard for people to get done, in my experience. I'm assuming that research is an ongoing process and that not every article is researched from scratch.

P said...

I love this post. Thank you. It's those little white lies that get me through the work that we do. (Also, that book? How to Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day? Exactly. That lie worked wonders.

undine said...

Jonathan, that's good to know. I haven't seen this laid out so exactly before. I wonder if this varies by writer and project. Some have gotten done faster than this, but over time this sounds right.

Thanks, Dame Eleanor. I think if I am reading as well as writing, this is probably pretty close.

P, that's what I've heard about that book! It offers a system, but the system depends on sitting down to write, doesn't it?

Ink said...

Hmmmm. I can write WAY more than six sentences in an hour but the last 20-page chapter I wrote took 1.5 years. (To get it right, that is. Kept changing directions and basically starting new drafts until I found the thread that brought parts of them all together...)

I envy the person who can sit down and write in a linear fashion. Not how my brain works...

Jonathan said...

Well yeah, anyone can write more than 6 sentences an hour, but I was talking about sentences that would more or less be "keepers." I am not linear in writing either; I'm just taking about averages.

profacero said...

Yes - things like what Jonathan says are what I've always been told and I think they are pointless.

The most obvious case was my dissertation. My major professor and dissertation group were convinced I should write 7 pages a day. I said 7 pages a week and they all jeered at me. The derision was hard to take and to protect myself I moved in with the one person I knew who also *really* wanted to get his dissertation done.

At the end of the year I had a finished manuscript and the rest of my dissertation group was still stewing. The professor was flabbergasted: "It reads like a book, how did you do it, you said you would only write one page a day and now you have over 300 in less than a year, it does not add up, how did you do it?"

F***ers who don't know how to work is all I can say about such people.

Jonathan said...

A page a day is pretty much what my calculations give you. I guess some people are math-challenged, if they don't realize that a page a day gives you more than 300 pages a year!

profacero said...

Jonathan - yes, our calculations do come out exactly the same in the end!

I don't do well with any form of manipulation, much less self manipulation, so I wouldn't try Undine's plan.

I just react to your "should." I've always done a lot better planning if I observe what I typically achieve *in fact,* and then go from there rather than work from someone else's formula.

profacero said...

Although re Undine's plan, maybe I should take that back.

I don't have a writing problem per se but I do have a huge guilt issue about taking time for my own work. That means research AND writing, although I feel less guilty if I'm actually writing since I'm creating a product. I feel guilty as h*** about research.

So probably, I should train myself out of that and I should look at some sort of "stages" model to make sure I actually take my research time, at times when I'm feeling fresh, and don't feel guilty about it.

profacero said...

Oooh, and now I am very happy, I will adapt Undine's plan for myself.

I have particularly neurotic reasons about feeling guilty about doing research, but I think a lot of people get blocked because they decide it's harder than it is or because they put unrealistic expectations on themselves.

I'm also big on giving yourself enough time because the students I have who are having trouble all say it is because they don't want to put in the time / can't accept that it will take a whole hour a day (or whatever).

Jonathan said...

That was supposed to be the "should" of probability, not the "should" of obligation, but point well taken in any case.

I'm curious why research should produce guilt? If it's not part of your job description, then I guess it would time taken away from other duties, but even then no college should expect someone to not maintain their scholarly base.

If it is part of the job description, then you are just doing your job even by doing your "own" writing.

undine said...

The hard part of writing is accepting that it is hard and that while effort can equal more pages, which ups your odds of a good result, it can't by itself guarantee a good result.

undine said...

But without effort, without producing any pages, there's no result at all.

profacero said...

Well Jonathan, I've got a lot of guilt / shame / fear about research because I took so much abuse from my family and then also the therapist I engaged when I was in my mid thirties to help me defend myself against them for being a research oriented person.

Also in my first job it had been sinful to be research oriented too, although that wasn't what they said in the interview or in the handbook -- which made it scary when they said they didn't want research from me. It seemed like a diabolical setup, scary.
These are two of the primordial issues I still struggle with.

profacero said...

I know research is just part of my job but I feel as though it were a dangerous indulgence and someone were going to hit me or kill me at any time if I am seen doing it.

I also freak out on lower division teaching because on the one hand, you have to be perfect so as not to have complaints, and on the other, you are not to put time into it because that isn't research time.

So my pain about those two things is excruciating since I've been threatened and yelled at so much about both. I feel guilty about the disability, too, since it makes me slow. I have to fight the triple demons back as I work.

But that is why it takes me 15 minutes to clear my mind and calm those demons, and why if I can't give myself the 15 minutes then I won't really have an option other than to resign the job.

profacero said...

Now using this thread for therapy:

The only parts of the job that doesn't scare me are upper division and graduate teaching and certain kinds of service (i.e. writing external grants for the institution).

Note the characteristic of both of these -- they're pitched to reasonable audiences and they are not activities for or about me or my ideas, they're serving the development of others in a way sure to be useful.

profacero said...

But with research I feel guilty since I think my ideas are an imposition, not a contribution, and with lower division teaching I feel guilty because I was told so many times, starting very early on
how dangerous it was to do a good job of it. (When I was 3 there was a big incident about this, and again when I was 7 and my father came up for tenure).

This all got activated when I found out, in my first job, that research was not appreciated. I'm not over it but as you can see these are two areas where I do not feel like an adult and do not feel in any kind of control. It is, again, why I need 15 minutes to clear my head of these demons.

Ho detto.

profacero said...

And now that everyone knows how incredibly and irrationally neurotic I am, gripped at all times by childhood fears I wish I were over, I'll get back to topic.

Undine: "The hard part of writing is accepting that it is hard and that while effort can equal more pages, which ups your odds of a good result, it can't by itself guarantee a good result."

That's hardest for me with creative writing. With academic writing I have a technique: whatever I cut, I promise myself I can use for something else. Maybe I can say that to myself about creative writing, too ... !!! ... it might be a "white lie" but maybe it will help. :-)

sptc said...

OK, and back to the post -- I see. My primitive writing brain isn't afraid of an 80 or a 120 hour job at all. It is afraid of other things.

I am hogging this thread and so I am going to take the discussion to my secret blog.

sptc said...

OK, I've done the post and this is it: http://sptc.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/on-dedicating-time-to-work/

It was amazingly therapeutic so thanks for starting it with this post and thanks Jonathan for your questions.

I still have a question. HOW do people do college and graduate school and still not know how to manage time, and think they "need large blocs of time" to work? I really, really want to know.