Monday, August 08, 2011

The 16-Week Challenge

When people hear my ideas about Writing Process Reengineering, they often ask how best to get started. In response, I normally recommend some version of the 16-Week Challenge, which I issue every semester to the faculty and PhD students of my department and then try to help them meet. For those who aren't tired of hearing about it, then, here, once again, is how it works.

(The following is written with the Danish academic calendar in mind. Adjust as necessary.)

There are 8 working weeks from August 22 to October 14 (when the fall break begins), and then another 8 from October 24 to December 16. If we consider three hours a day to be an "ideal" writing intensity, that gives us 3 hours x 5 days x (8 weeks x 2) = 240 hours of "ideal" writing time. I do of course wish for everyone that the coming semester offers ideal conditions for their writing, but most people will have to make do with less time. Most people who imagine they have more time, however, perhaps because they have a sabatical this semester, are being "idealistic" in the pejorative sense: "unrealistic". In my experience, the best you can hope for in a given 17-week period (two 8-week periods with a one-week break between them) is to use 240 hours effectively towards your writing. You may be able to do a bit better than that, but I'm often sceptical about the efficiency of the extra hours you might devote to your writing. The challenge, therefore, goes to how you are going to spend the first 240 hours you can set aside.

The most important thing is to pass from an entirely vague image of "wanting to get some writing done" this semester, to that much more precise ideal image of your resources, and then on to an equally precise but also realistic image of your time in the weeks to come. Look at your calendar and begin to block in your writing time. For most people, it is easiest to protect writing time when it is put in early in the day, starting as early as 7 o'clock for some, and stopping, in any case, before lunchtime. Take this planning excercise seriously: don't plan to write at times when you know that something is likely to "come up". But do plan a little bit of time where you can, preferrably every day. As little as 30 minutes a day can do a great deal for your writing projects if you stick to it for 16 weeks.

Now, having secured yourself some time to write, decide what you want to get done in those hours. Here, again, be realistic. Choose some projects on which to make a particular amount of progress. Then decide what sorts of writing tasks this requires.

At this point, many people ask me what I mean by writing tasks, and I always begin by emphasizing the importance of appreciating your finitide. I'm interested in (and trying to get you interested in) the time you can spend sitting down at the computer (or a pad of paper, if you prefer) and actually producing or editing the prose that you hope, one day, to publish. I don't mean the time you spend reading, or making stray notes, or even "thought writing" to find out what you mean. I don't mean the time you spend transcribing field notes or interview tapes. I certainly don't mean the time you spend in the archives or in the field collecting data, or online sifting through databases, or searching the literature.

Suppose you discover that, realistically, you have 82 hours to devote to your writing this semester, spread over those 17 weeks from August 22 to December 16. Those 82 hours, then, should be devoted to writing down what you know. And this means you can only plan to use them to express opinions you already know you have. You are free to set aside other time to activities that are intended to help you discover what you think, just as you matter-of-factly set aside time to discover the facts and understand the theories that constitute your field of expertise. My point is only that you need to set aside a particular quantity of hours to tell your peers what you think. And that time is the "writing time" that my challenge is about.

The 16-Week Challenge, then, is an occasion to get the things you already know and have already understood written down and submitted to review by your peers.

In order to make sure you get it done, I encourage you to form groups (of 4-6 people) who meet once a week, on a Friday afternoon, for example, to answer three simple questions honestly and simply:

What/when did you plan to write this week?
What/when did you actually write this week?
What/when do you plan to write next week?

The disciplining effect of these questions, answered in a social context, should not be difficult to imagine. The meeting can be as short as 30 minutes, and should never run longer than an hour. Part of the challenge is to meet 16 times and answer those questions.

So, to summarize: First, get a clear view of the time you have available to write this semester. Second, define a set of realistic goals, focused on producing publishable prose. Third, commit a group of your colleagues to meeting once a week to remind each other what you hoped to accomplish.

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