Monday, October 08, 2012

One Idea at a Time

I wrote another stand-alone page recently called "27 Minutes". Added to "40 Paragraphs" and "16 Weeks", a nice set of a not-quite-arbitrary proportions to guide your scholarly writing is emerging. You can read these pages by following the links in the sidebar on the right.

I say "not-quite-arbitrary" because these guidelines are supposed to feel at least a little arbitrary. They constitute an order you can impose on your writing process no matter what you are writing about and no matter how the work is going intellectually. If you're struggling with your ideas, you will now be struggling with your ideas 27 minutes at a time, working on 1/40th of the problem, as part of a 16-week program (divided into two 8-week periods). This allows you to appreciate your finitude, and the finitude of your writing problem.

We might also say that this approach allows you to work on your writing one idea at a time. By "idea" here I mean that which is expressed in a single true sentence supported by a paragraph. It is something you know. You can work on an idea as many times as you like, as long as you do it for 27 minutes and then stop. After a three-minute break, you move on to another idea, or you stop writing for the day.

On my approach, you can work on any given idea as many times as you like, not as long as you like. Don't spend an entire day, or (as some people do) several days, vaguely trying to think "something" through. Sit down every day for 27 minutes and write something down. In some exceptional circumstances, you might sit down every day for a week and work on the same idea, writing the same paragraph five times. But this should happen only near the completion of the paper, when you know that this paragraph is the one that needs the work.

That is, you can write a paragraph as a many times as you like, but not as often as you like. As a general rule, try to work on each of the forty paragraphs once before you work on any of them twice. (An exception here can be the introductory and concluding paragraphs, which you might return to once after having written, say, half the paper.) Then decide which ones to work on again. And then work through that list before you get hung up on any one idea/paragraph. This keeps your process "flowing", rather than getting stuck.

If you are left with a single paragraph to work over again and again, I recommend doing it only once a day. You'll find sleeping helps solve the problem. You may as well sleep between each attempt.

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