Tuesday, December 06, 2011


My recent posts about the introduction, conclusion and body of a paper were an attempt to provide a kind of "a priori" sketch of the outline a standard social science paper. The idea was to rough out a space for your writing. By a similar logic, a schedule provides a time for your writing. To be present in your writing process is to coordinate the here and the now of your writing by coordinating an outline with your schedule.

If the basic trick to outlining was to conceive of your paper as 40 paragraphs, distributed across roughly 8 sections, the basic trick to scheduling is to work in 30 minute sessions, no more than six a day. You can work as little as five minutes a day (for the purpose of writing every day), but you'll be most effective if you're working at least 30 minutes and at most 3 hours on your writing every working day. I encourage you to take your weekends off, but some people do find it useful to take ten or fifteen minutes even on their days off to keep the process "primed".

Like outlines, schedules should be both rational and conventional. An outline should satisfy the inner logic of your argument, but also the expectations of your reader. Similarly, your writing schedule should be coordinated with the thinking, reading, and observing you are doing to build your knowledge of its contents, but it should also be convenient for yourself and others. You are a social being before you are a writer and you should find time for you writing in social life, not outside it or in opposition to it.

If you get yourself into shape to write a paragraph in under 30 minutes you have a good unit of time to coordinate with the fundamental unit of scholarly space (the paragraph). You can begin to plan the first 20 hours of drafting, one paragraph at a time. Each week will have at most 15 hours of work. And to rewrite a paper three times (which is roughly what it will take to get the paper into shape for a first submission) you'll need at least four weeks, i.e., sixty hours. And that's if you've got an ideal amount of time for your writing.

So you do well to map your 40-paragraph outline onto a writing schedule that spans 8 or 16 weeks. This will give to time work on a paper, lay it aside (to work on another), think about it, read background materials, do more fieldwork, etc., and then return to it again in an orderly fashion. The process that will produce your paper should be visible to you, stretching before you into the future.

Your schedule helps you keep everything from happening all at once just as your outline keeps it from piling up all in the same place. That is, your outline makes a space for your writing. Your schedule gives you time.


Jonathan said...

I like the idea of timing a paragraph to a half hour. I usually spend a half hour flitting between paragraphs without finishing a single one.

Thomas said...

Like I normally say to students at all levels: you won't regret developing the ability to write, at will, a paragraph about something you know in under 30 minutes. People squander the opportunity to train this ability while at school.