“The most productive writers typically write several times a week for one to three hours per session” (Hartley and Braithwaite, 1989; Kellog, 1994 as cited in Sword, 2017).
And I thought it took 10,000 hours to write like a star. Whew.
But how do you write like a hero? Well, write in any way that works for you, says Helen Sword in her heavily researched book Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Sword topples the rules that say write every day and write first, edit later. Instead, she says, anything goes—if you get results.
What is my approach to writing? I used to draft outlines, insert citations, and then write. But lately I’ve procrastinated—infested with doubt and perfectionism. So, I tried a new approach: lay out a rough sketch and then read aloud to edit.
I repeat, read aloud to edit—alongside a thesaurus, that is.
Many books on writing urge you to read aloud. By doing so, you’ll correct mistakes, lack of rhythm, and long clunky lines. You’ll make your musings musical. And if You’re like me, reading aloud will flip-flop editing into playtime.
But reading aloud might not be your style. Instead, you might edit by reading your writing backwards. Or you might edit by adding imagery tapped from your bio. What’s best? Whatever works for you, says Sword.
So, what is your approach to academic writing? Well, authors say keep your sentences short—and lavishly use one-syllable words. But what about academic writers? They get pats and claps from muscling in clauses and ginormous nouns, don’t they?
Well, one of my profs mocked the big-word rule. She told me to write simply, clearly. She showed me her writing. I was unimpressed. Not a single Latin word in sight. Not a single word worthy of a head scratch. Only a touch of jargon. So, I chose not to heed her advice. She’s now Dean. And me? Well, I had a contract to teach at the McDonalds’s of colleges. One with unhealthy dough and a smorgasbord of turnovers.
Helen Sword talks about ways to write in her book Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. She crafts a new paradigm for writers, while sharing her own story.
- Helen Sword says she writes 100 words per hour. (I write 100 words per hour, but when I tweak writing, I take up to two hours. It takes me five hours to write an article, and another five to research it.)
- Make your writing more than essays; make it fun. Yet, bear in mind that even prolific writers struggle with the craft.
- Boice did an experimental study (as cited in Sword). His first experimental group wrote in large, steady chunks at a time. His second experimental group wrote in 30-minute stints daily, logging results. His last experimental group wrote in 30-minute stints daily, but with Boice checking on progress twice weekly. The results? The last group output 2X the writing of his second group and 9X the writing of his first group.
- Stephen King writes four-to-five-hour daily marathons.
- Helen writes a daily paragraph before breakfast. She says these paragraphs add up.
- Why write daily? Less procrastination, less fear, more new ideas, fresher recall, clearer thinking. Plus, 300 daily words adds up to 6,000-word articles each month. Anyone up for the role of Dean? But many Deans write less than daily.
- Only 12% of Helen’s highly accomplished writers wrote daily: 7/8 don’t. Daily writing isn’t “a clear predictor of productivity” (p. 15).
- Write at any time of day you desire and any spot you prefer. Now, night owls no longer need to feel shame. If you write best at 3 a.m., more power to you. Certain profs scribble at 3 a.m., too.
- If you wish, write only during summer months or in fifteen-minute daily stints. Do whatever works.
- Find a spot to write, say a coffee shop. If you visit that spot often, then It’s easier to write in other places with at least one thing in common. For instance, if you write in coffee shops playing jazz music, you’d likely write well in motels playing jazz music.
- Try writing at times you wouldn’t normally. By doing so, you may crack open precious minutes of productivity.
In prior articles, I argued for fifteen-minute cleaning and study stints. But Sword shares a new paradigm: do whatever works. A paradox? I call it a creative spark!