Composing the Moment, part 2

You’re prepared for this. Yesterday, at the end of your learning day, you decided what you were going to write and when you were going to do it. Then you had a relaxing evening and got a good night’s sleep. You’re now awake and ready to work. Wait for the appointed time (if you decided to start at 8:00 don’t start at 7:57 just because you’re ready) and begin precisely when it arrives (don’t start writing at 8:03 because you now feel ready). Start typing when the moment begins. You have given yourself exactly 30 minutes, but you will take a three-minute break at the end. That means you’ve got 27 minutes of writing ahead of you. Notice that this means that the first two and the last five minutes are given to you in advance — you know they will happen. In between there will twenty minutes that we can summarily split into two times ten. This post is about how to spend those 2 + 10 + 10 + 5 minutes. And the break.

First, pose the difficulty for you reader. As you start typing your key sentence, think of your reader. Why does the reader need a whole paragraph about this? Is the key sentences hard to believe, understand, or agree with? Is there some way of making it clearer what difficulty you think the reader will be facing? Spend two minutes working on just your key sentence, making sure you’ve got it right. If it ends up just like the one you wrote yesterday evening, that’s fine; ideally, you will indeed have the problem precisely cued up already the day before. But you’ve got two minutes here to really feel the difficulty. Give yourself a good sense of what you’re about to do. Remember that your reader is someone you respect, someone who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong, a peer. Find your footing and take up an appropriate posture.

Next, write some sentences. These will either support, elaborate, or defend your key sentence, so they should be as true as it is, and as well known to you, but just a little easier to believe, understand, or agree with. You’ve got ten minutes; try to write one a sentence per minute. During this time, don’t stop writing. If you get stuck, simply rewrite some of the sentences you’ve already got, saying the same things slightly differently. You don’t want to sit there thinking, and do not give into the urge to read something or search for facts on the internet. (If you have to look something up, and you know how to find it easily, go ahead. But keep your focus on writing.) Your job, in this moment, is simply to write sentences that you know are true and that you think can be used to support, elaborate, or defend the key sentence. The sentences don’t have to be in any neat order nor add up to a strong argument; you can even put them on separate lines with lots of white space between. They don’t even have to be entirely grammatical (though they should say something). At the end of the ten minutes you should have 11 sentences altogether (including the key sentence) but a few more won’t hurt and a few less is fine too.

Now, compose your paragraph. Don’t be ashamed to use your visual imagination. A paragraph occupies about half a page and it should look like you put it there deliberately. Unless you’ve got a blockquote or a bullet list in the paragraph, there should be no line returns, just lines wrapping at the right margin (which I recommend you leave ragged). Remember that a paragraph occupies about one minute of reader’s attention, which consists of nothing but the words you put before it. Use the sentences you wrote in the previous ten minutes to arrange the best possible reading experience you can, the best possible string of words to support, elaborate, or defend your key sentence. At some point, you must decide where the key sentence works best; it doesn’t have to be at the beginning of the paragraph; it can go anywhere just so long as the reader can easily see that it’s the key sentence, the “take-home message” of the paragraph. Give yourself ten minutes to do this and make sure you end with a neat, finished paragraph. Do notice that this is ten times longer than your reader will have to read it. Feel your advantage.

Finally, read it. Out loud. Until now, you have not given your vanity any occasion to assert itself. Your perfectionism has been kept in check. By reading it out loud, you will see how well it works as a text. You will be able to feel how well the words come off the page. Both the the rhythm and the melody of your language will become apparent. You will be able to hear how your sentences sound inside the head of your reader. This will develop your empathy for your reader, deepening your kinship with them. Indeed, this act of reading constitutes your kindness to your reader. It performs your care for them. The reading itself will take one or two minutes, after another three or four — five minutes in all — stop.

Take a three minute break. This break is more important than it seems. It shows the part of you that writes that there’s still a little time left but it’s not for them. When your 27 minutes runs out you are to stop working on the paragraph but not begin on something new. Walk around in your office, rolling your shoulders and rotating your wrists. Stare out the window. Listen to a piece of music. Pour yourself a cup of coffee. But don’t check your emails or your Twitter feed. Don’t use the time productively (and don’t even waste it). Show your writing self that you are not writing by choice and that you therefore, just as freely, chose to write when you did. Writing is freedom, perhaps the purest freedom there is. During those twenty-seven minutes you were free to do whatever you could with words. Next time you will have that freedom again.

After your break, get on with your day, which may mean that you start learning, or that you write another paragraph. I recommend no more than 3 hours of writing a day. If you’re writing 27-minute paragraphs, that’s six paragraphs at most per day. If you wan to write more paragraphs, consider compressing your writing moment into 18-minute paragraphs (e.g., 1 + 6 + 7 + 4) but go through the same stages (pose, write, compose, read) and then take a two-minute break. You can write three paragraphs an hour this way.

After that, repeat the pattern from yesterday. Learn. Prepare. Relax. Sleep.

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