Natalie Houston, who teaches English at the University of Houston, likes productivity systems so much that she has to discipline herself to stop building systems and start doing the work.
Her first rule is “separate deciding from doing.” Houston identifies her priorities before she schedules her time. Then, when she’s ready to start working on her task list, she can plunge right in.
The principle of separation benefits writers as well. Productive writers plan before they draft and draft before they edit. An efficient allocation of 60 minutes of writing time, according to Kenneth W. Davis, would be up to 20 minutes planning, about 5 minutes for a “quick and dirty” draft, and 25 minutes for a revision. Davis also suggests that writers take a 5-minute break before they revise so they can make changes from the reader’s point of view.
Davis’s numbers have no inherent magic. They illustrate a principle: expert writers draft quickly and invest most of their time in planning and revising.
Writers who use the time management practices recommended by Houston and Davis are more productive when time is scarce or tasks are routine. However, no rule covers every circumstance, and in one situation writers can productively ignore the advice to separate planning and drafting.
Sometimes writing is not a task, but a discovery. William Zinsser, author of Writing to Learn, says that “writing is thinking on paper.” When you’re writing to explore an idea, plunge right in and follow the flow of thoughts and images wherever it takes you.
Does this take longer? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes, if you want to develop new ideas or find a fresh approach to a problem. Going with the flow is also worth it if you want to indulge in the fun of bringing order out of chaos.
I remember a paper written for my introductory literary criticism class, several decades ago. The name of the story we were assigned to critique escapes me, but the experience of writing the paper is still vivid. I had drafted five pages proving that the way a character treated his ward showed him to be a detestable, egotistical, insensitive jerk, despite his gentlemanly airs. As a final flourish, I typed, “It could be argued that this treatment was inspired, not by a defect of character, but by the guardian’s desire to cure his ward’s indolence and self-centeredness.” A few more sentences about why that argument was mistaken would have finished the paper. But suddenly I knew that this sentence was more true than anything else I had written.
My draft was no longer an almost-completed assignment; it was now a candidate for a major rewrite. I revised the assignment, turning every piece of evidence on its head to support the new thesis. The revision cost me some sleep, but I’ve seldom enjoyed writing more. As the new argument took shape, I had the exhilarating feeling that a new idea was being born from my wrestling with words.
When you’re writing to do, be disciplined in the way you use your time. When you’re writing to learn, let your words go and see where they take you.
Natalie Houston’s post on “My Productivity Rules” is available on GradHacker: http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/my-productivity-rules She also blogs at nmhouston.com
Kenneth W. Davis shares his advice on writing productivity in Manage Your Writing 3.0, available at prosperosbooks.typepad.com/manageyourwriting/ManageYourWriting3_0.pdf and his blog: http://www.manageyourwriting.com
Browse inside William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn at http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780062720405
Read more about why writers should befriend chaos in this excerpt from Write More, Stress Less: https://writebetteratwork.com/downloads/Write_More_Stress_Less_excerpt.pdf