Seconds, Minutes, and Hours

It takes seconds to write a sentence. It takes minutes to write a paragraph. And it takes hours to write an essay. Writing never takes days or weeks or months. That is, you don’t spend day in and day out engaged in nothing but writing. At worst (and it’s bad enough) you might spend a whole day engaged in writing, to the exclusion of all else, but even this conspicuous display of your commitment to writing is best measured in hours. If you ask me, serious writing should never occupy more than three hours in a given day, which should be divided into 20- or 30-minute “moments” that have been arranged the day before. In each writing moment, you take 18 or 27 minutes to compose a paragraph out of sentences that you write. After a two or three minute break, you get on with your day, which may be another paragraph. You can write six or nine paragraphs this way in three hours. Writing is what goes on during those hours. It does not go on for weeks and months.

A scholar’s life, of course, goes on for years and years. Knowledge builds up over time as beliefs are entertained and tested, and then retained or replaced with other beliefs. The research experience doesn’t usually benefit from being overly segmented and planned. In order to make discoveries, you have to be open to novel insights; unexpected events must be welcomed as opportunities, not avoided as interruptions. So it makes sense to say that you were “working on a problem” for months before a solution presented itself. “Working on it” might simply have meant waiting patiently, receptively, for the issue to resolve itself. Thinking something new, or even just seeing something you hadn’t seen before, isn’t an event you put into your calendar and then dutifully show up to participate in.

But writing is different. When you are actually doing it, writing is something quite specific. The idea you want to express comes to you and your fingers produce the words, either on the page or on the screen. As I said in a previous post, this happens at something like the “speed of thought”, though we might qualify this by saying that we think a bit more slowly when we are sitting in front the machine than we would if we were going for a walk or, say, engaged in conversation. But it’s still an immediate experience: having a thought and expressing it occurs essentially simultaneously, in the span of few seconds.

Paragraphs, by contrast, take longer to write, with a number of ideas occupying your attention at various times, sometimes recurrently, sometimes simultaneously. Crucially, when you are composing a paragraph you are putting ideas together, which is to say, you are working with several sentences at the same time (in the same moment). It’s not so much the ideas you express in each sentence that matters, but the relationships that you establish between them. One of the sentences, for example, will be your “key sentence” and all the others will be organized around it — supporting, elaborating or defending it. This, in turn, means they have to work together, which is not a simple of matter of making sure they’re all true. Sometimes two true sentences imply opposite conclusions unless they’re each properly contextualized in their own paragraph. That’s why you need significantly more time to write a paragraph than a sentence.

An essay is an arrangement of paragraphs that are composed of sentences. You can work on their arrangement separate from the writing and the composition by making yourself a key-sentence outline and confining yourself to putting them in the right order, perhaps tweaking their scope by changing a word or adding a qualifier. Revisions like this shouldn’t occupy more than a few hours of your time on any given day. Remember that it is possible to overthink the structure of essay, imagining that it does more work than it is reasonable to expect of the reader. After all, the logical structure of an essay must be able to fit into the mind of an ordinary, academic reader, who is reading it paragraph-by-paragraph, minute-by-minute. (It takes about one minute to read a 200-word paragraph.) An essay or research paper occupies about an hour (often less) of your reader’s attention. Your own image of it as a writer should not be more complicated than that.

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