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Friday, December 16, 2011

The Twenty-Five Minute Challenge

Inspired by Thomas's post below, and by my use of the pomodoro timer, I am going to write for twenty-five minutes, just to see what quantity of fluid, comprehensible prose I can produce within that window of time. I began at 10:04 central standard time. The idea is that if I can figure out how much I can write within such a period, then I can use my writing sessions to better effect. I don't have an exact prediction, but I feel that I can produce a surprising amount of prose in this period.

One of my other ideas here is to refute the idea of a "shitty first draft." I believe that any writer should learn to be able to write serviceable prose on the first try. (Thus I won't be going back to revise sentences, though I will work on improving one before going on to the next.) You might argue that my writing here is "contentless," similar to what I might produce while playing "the complete sentence game." I won't disagree with you, but I don't think that is a serious objection. If I were writing about my own project, I could write nearly as quickly as I am doing here. In fact, I often write two or three hundred words in 25 minutes while using the timer. (Six minutes have elapsed now.)

Another analogy might be jazz improvisation. Of course, you might take several "takes" to record an improvisation that elates you, but suppose that you could only put one of these takes on your record? Then at least one of those takes would have to be something superior to a "shitty first take." I like the idea of rewriting from scratch more than the traditional notion of producing a "rough draft" and then making it better through soul-killing revision. I rarely revise my own poetry, preferring to throw out a poem that doesn't work.

Many academics are not that articulate in spoken language, because of an overemphasis on writing. I think that speech should also be fluent and comprehensible. If you can't produce such speech, then you might not be a good writer either, because you won't produce a steady stream of comprehensible language.

Another issue is speed. Obviously, you can think fairly fast, faster than you could speak, write, or type. My fingers are barely keeping up with my thoughts. More accurately, they are not keeping up at all. I think a sentence in my brain, then type it, and this process slows me down immensely. So, if you know what you are going to say, you should be able to write as fast as you can type.

Now the problem is that, quite often, you don't know what you are going to say. Writing is the process of finding out what you really want to say. I have avoided this problem here because I am simply writing down thoughts that occur to me rather than attempting to produce a piece of publishable scholarly prose. I would insist, though, that the same process is at work either way. If you have thought a lot about your subject matter, at some point you should be able to write about it fluently, as a student is asked to do while taking an exam. Think of it as "taking an examination on your project." The essay question is to explain your project, and you have x amount of time to do it. What would you write? Here you don't have the option of writing a shitty first draft, because the examining committee is going to grade you on it. Your prose will not be deathless (who's is?) but it has to say what you have in mind and do so in comprehensible form.

At this point, I have seven minutes left. I often say that I can work for very small amounts of time on my project and still get something done. I have almost no minimum time that I think is "too short" for me to produce some prose. So this last paragraph or two will be a test of this principle, even though I find that I have very little left to say. Think of routine types of writing like email messages. Mine are carefully worded when they have to be, but I write them quickly because I don't feel they require more time, as long as they are careful enough and express what I want to say. I'm sure everyone does this kind of writing without stressing out too much over it. Blogging is another example, since I often write a blog post about as fast as I can type. I believe that blogging has given me greater facility in writing.

I think the idea of "facility" is greatly underrated. If you can write fast without glibness or facility in the negative sense (of being glib and facile), isn't that preferable to writing with great pain and suffering. People who write without facility often produce a good, but "cramped" style, in contrast to the fluency and grace of better writers.

As the last minute and a half shows up on my timer I wonder what, if anything, this experiment can tell me. I will have a "baseline," in terms of the number of words I can fluently produce in twenty five minutes. In the first comment I will tell you how many words I have written. I might do a follow up to reflect on my experiment, but my time is up right now with six seconds left.


Jonathan said...

924 words

Andrew Shields said...

It reminds me of the poems that undergraduates write for their first poetry assignments, the poems about the problem of writing a poem. But this is not a waste of the time spent writing it because you learned a lot from the experiment, and I suspect that there are one or two bits that surprised you, too (though I would not know which ones they are).