Writing Process Reengineering

It is famously difficult for scholars to establish and maintain an efficient writing process, i.e., a process that reliably produces prose about their research. Over the years, with a tip of the hat to the similarly named management approach, I’ve developed something I call Writing Process Reengineering, which many writers have found useful in getting a handle on this problem. It consists of a number of core ideas, which are really just a set of commonplace observations organised into a system.

Scholarly prose is composed in paragraphs. They each consist of at least six sentences and at most two hundred words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it. Given a little training, you can compose a paragraph about anything you know in about half an hour. The ability to do so is part of what it means to “know” something “for academic purposes”.

With a little planning, you can find at least half an hour every day to write. Writing for more than three hours on a given day is rarely a productive use of your time.

Mark off four periods of eight consecutive weeks in your calendar (usually separated by the Christmas holidays and summer vacation, and the spring and fall reading breaks). Decide how many hours you can write in each period — this will be between 20 and 120 hours every eight weeks, between 80 and 480 hours every year. Set yourself some goals.

Challenge yourself to follow my rules for eight weeks. Allow yourself a less disciplined schedule (or an outright rest) during the breaks between these 8-week periods.

As each period of discipline approaches, settle on a firm number of hours to be devoted to your scholarly writing. Book these hours into your calendar, a half hour at a time.

You have planned your work. Now, as the saying goes, you must work your plan. There are forty working days of planned writing, which will produce between 40 and 240 paragraphs. (That’s between 1 and 6 journal articles worth of prose.) You don’t have to know what all 240 of them will say at the start of the period, of course. But you do have to know what you will write the day before you write it.

The day before each writing day, articulate the key sentence of each paragraph you will write tomorrow. That is, write down one thing you know in a clear, declarative sentence, which you will support, elaborate or defend tomorrow. If you’ve got two hours of writing planned tomorrow, you’ll need four key sentences today.

Decide on these key sentences at the end of the working day, when you’re not going to learn anything new. Reaffirm your commitment to write during the particular half-hours you’ve booked into your calendar. No matter how many hours you’re planning to write, don’t spend more than ten minutes on this end-of-day planning exercise.

At the end of the eight-week period, count how many paragraphs you’ve written. Compare this with your plan. Learn from this. As needed, make a better plan for next time.

Repeat. Eight weeks at a time. 32 weeks out of the year. Year in, year out.

Please stop every once in a while to notice that working this way protects a time and a space for your writing. It establishes a “writing moment”. It’s not just a moment that helps you “get things done”; it affords you the time to enjoy the craft of writing.

[Next: The Scholar]