How many words?

Yesterday, I was thinking about choosing to count all of the email I write for various projects towards my 200-word goal for the day. This has everything to do with my currently being all too distracted from the scheduled writing that I have been trying to learn with Wendy Belcher’s workbook. Of course, lowering my standard in this way is a slimy trick to play on myself, and I won’t do it. But it does recall to me a set of issues I’ve struggled with just about ever since I began teaching: academics write all the time. We write syllabi and email and course websites and responses to student work and recommendation letters and committee agendas and grant proposals and and and and and and and…. Writing up our research is only one kind of writing we do.

Which of course is why we need sabbaticals to focus on writing about our research. The more experience I pile on as a faculty member, the more I understand the seven-year cycle of teaching and sabbatical as being about an ongoing process of building productive habits of reading, research, and writing, watching them degrade as we turn our focus to teaching, and rebuilding them during a semester or year of sabbatical. We all know that there is evidence suggesting that teachers who make time to read and research are more successful in the classroom than those who don’t. (Sadly, I don’t have time to look up a citation right now.) One thing I’m noticing this particular sabbatical is how many of Belcher’s pieces of advice are things I say to my students about writing and how surprised I am to think about applying them to my own work.

In fact, it’s been a particular challenge for me to move my thinking from the teaching space in my brain to the writing space, and I find myself having to continue to make the shift consciously much more often than I would like now that–according to my own definition–I am already three months into this sabbatical. And I’m wondering how much of that difficulty is related to the fact that part of the entropic effect on my work processes over the past six years has occurred through my unfortunate redefinition of writing to include all of that other writing that goes with the classroom part of my career.

So. This time last week, ProfHacker recommended “The Rule of 200”, which is about writing 200 words on a project every single day, including weekends, holidays, and even on your birthday. That rule reminds me of a recommendation I heard from a colleague several years ago, which one might call “The Rule of 1000.” In this model, you write four pages every day before you leave the office. Not really a workable marker, of course, if you write at home, like I do.

I think what I’m trying to do right now is to use this blog and the many other ways and places in which I am writing during this sabbatical to think through a bit of a block that distractions have built for me over the past two weeks. First, I spent three full days away from my current article project and doing heavy brainwork in a TEI workshop. That was fun because it gave me a chance to access the math part of my brain, which goes sadly underused most of the time since I spend so much of my life with words. And then, I spent a lot of time either writing or talking about various grant projects, which also require the kind of attention that I would on a “normal” writing day give to my main article project.

I guess what I would like to learn in the next few months is how to be able to bring at least half that level of brainwork to at least 200 words on the article project every day, no matter what other brainwork I’m doing, so that I will be able to produce as many finished pieces as I would like by the end of January. Wish me luck. Or better yet, light a candle for me.

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