Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What to Do Now

For some people, twenty-seven minutes is a very long time to spend writing a single paragraph. After seven or eight minutes, they've got eight sentences and a hundred-and-fifty words. Now what?

Remember, whatever you do, do not stop working on the paragraph before your planned 27 minutes are up. To pass the time, try this:

First, read what you've written out loud. This could take about a minute. Read it slowly and deliberately, like you would speak the words if they were coming to you spontaneously. A well-written paragraph should be easy to read out loud. A piece of writing, it is said, has an "immanent orality", and rhetoricians will sometimes say that all textual interpretation is about figuring out how it would be "performed". When your readers are trying to make sense of what you've written, to understand it, they are really trying to "hear" it.

Next, retype it. That's another two minutes. Remember that before the invention and propagation of word-processing all texts were written and rewritten several times before they made it into print. I am certain that this had immeasurable effects on the quality of the prose that was produced. While the effect of less rewriting today is perhaps also immeasurable, it is, it seems to me, quite palpable. Your reader will be pleasantly surprised (without quite knowing why) to meet, in your writing, prose that has been physically rewritten (i.e., re-typed) several times as part of the process. Prose that has been cared for in this way is also, of course, more likely to be re-read. It deserves it, you might say.

Now, put a blank line between each sentence. Work on each sentence individually for, say, one minute. (This, then, will take you eight minutes altogether. If you don't have that much time, pick one or two sentences to focus on.) This is a great opportunity to perfect the grammar and punctuation of your sentences and to think about the order in which the important concepts appear. Also, ask yourself whether you are using the most interesting verb that is available to you in the sentence. The verbs "to be" and "to have" are often not the most interesting.

Finally, spend a couple of minutes putting it all back to together. Here, you should focus on the connections between sentences and the progression of the argument through the paragraph. It is sometimes said (and I have said this too) that you should work on the "flow" of the paragraph. But flow is just one kind of progress, and it's not always the most appropriate one. Sometimes you want the reader to feel like the paragraph is a series of careful steps taken towards a conclusion.

If you find yourself with a great deal of time to spare often, you might consider writing more difficult prose on more difficult subjects. It seems you have the strength to do it. Or you can cut your writing sessions down to 17 or 18 minutes (with a 3 or 2 minute break). But remember that you must plan this in advance. However much time you thought you would spend on a paragraph the night before, that's how much time you must spend on it on the day. Don't "reward" yourself for finishing early. All you are doing is punishing your writing self for being efficient. And remember always to give yourself enough time to both care about and enjoy the act of writing. This, too, is good for your style in the long run.

See also: "What to Do" and "What to Do Next".

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