Photo Credit: KConnors
Connie admitted that she’d finished everything she’d set out to do that day, but I could sense her hesitation. When I asked about it, she demurred at first. Then, after a few seconds of silence, she admitted what was bothering her. “I’m making steady progress,” she admitted, “but I feel like I could be working more efficiently. I just can’t figure out how.”
Maybe you’ve wondered this yourself. Perhaps you’re writing fairly regularly—or, if not regularly, at least enough to see the pages adding up. And that’s great, you think. That’s fine. But there’s this niggling little worry, it keeps creeping into your head. “Shouldn’t I be doing more?”
I’ve especially noticed this question among writers who attend one of my retreats. They have so much uninterrupted time, such an unusual opportunity to move their manuscript forward, that they’re desperate to make the most of the time. Spring Break generates the same response, as do summers and sabbaticals. Once we actually find time to write, we’re often off to the next question, which is, “How can I make sure my writing is as efficient as possible?”
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The question is legit. Writing often takes us down such a windy road that it can seem there’s something terribly wrong with the path we follow. So, let me start with the bad news. Chances are, your writing’s not efficient.
Here’s what I mean. Inefficient writing is not something that’s particular to you. It’s just that writing itself is an inherently inefficient activity. The standard dictionary definition of efficiency is an act that achieves “maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” (Think tiny houses with solar panels and compost toilets.) The thing is, writing isn’t like that. Instead, writing is an iterative process, in which we loop around, again and again, to the same activities and ideas, in order to sharpen and refine them. In his book The Way We Write (1999), writing theorist Mike Sharples describes it this way:
a writer forms a plan, specifies its content and structure, and generates it on paper (or some other medium). Its visual appearance prompts the writer to interpret it and contemplate ways in which the plan could be extended, leading to a new round of planning. In revising, a writer reads and interprets all or part of the draft text, contemplates its form and content, decides on changes that need to be made and annotates or edits the draft…The flow of activity, however is not just in one direction. While reading the draft, new ideas occur which need to be incorporated into the text through further composing. Or the writer may realise that the draft text fails to match the plan, in which case either the text needs to be revised (in a new cycle of contemplation and editing), or the plans extended or changed (71-72).
Sound efficient to you? Me, neither. But sadly, that’s just how it goes. But it’s better, isn’t it? To know that’s how it goes for everybody? The inefficiency of writing may not be comfortable. But neither is it evidence of things gone awry. It’s merely what happens when you sit down to the heroic task of transforming the tangle of information in your head into a sleek ribbon of reasoning.
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If the deed itself is inherently inefficient, then why do we use that language to measure the quality of our efforts? One reason is that most of us experience what Sharples describes in isolation. So it’s hard to believe that these twists and turns, these detours and dead ends, are not particular to us. You’re toodling along and suddenly find that the evidence you’re providing has no relationship whatsoever to the argument you killed yourself to articulate in the introduction. Now you’ve developed a completely separate line of thought. Where does it belong? Within the original piece? In a separate section or chapter? Is it a separate piece altogether? It doesn’t look like progress. It just looks like a hot mess.
Moreover, it looks like a mess that only you ever make. We compare our mess to the tidy, streamlined procedure of the imaginary writer in our minds. That person who seems to bang out an article every time they take a shit. It’s so obvious, isn’t it, that whole and well-constructed arguments pour seamlessly and without effort from their being? In our isolation, we step into an endless, circular trap, where all we can see is the lie that there’s something wrong with our own inability to move so directly from beginning idea to polished prose.
Our reliance on the language of efficiency is also driven, not just by isolation, but by our institutions. Their tendency toward bean counting as a measure of intellectual and human worth means you too must always be playing a numbers game (How many are under review? In the pipeline? At which journals, of what Impact Factor?) You must be able to speak of your work in these terms, especially to others. In fact, it pays to become fluent in this language, however foreign it may initially feel.
But to truly determine whether you’re getting all you can from your writing time, you must also hold on to your mother tongue. That is, you must be able to have long, lingering conversations with yourself about your own writing process--the particular steps you take to move from an idea in your head to words on a page. The conditions you need to make the most of your time. Where you shine and where you stall. And most importantly, what strategies you need to encourage the former and move through the latter.
Connie, for example, despises the morning. She tries never to engage ideas or individuals before 10:30 if she can help it. When she tries to wake up early and write in her home office, her thoughts are muddled and slow. So yes, she is incredibly “inefficient,” because she’s less focused and less organized, so everything is more difficult and takes longer.
But when, in defiance of nearly every piece of writing advice you will ever encounter, she starts writing at 11 a.m., she’s sharp. Focused. Excited to dive in, even if all she has is 30 minutes. Her starting time is just one small piece of her entire process—but you can see what a difference it makes. She makes better use of the time she has available, although the writing itself still contains all the twists and turns that Sharples described and that each of us knows so well.
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So, if you want to make your writing more “efficient,” you absolutely can do so—by making sure you have effective strategies for starting your writing sessions, sticking through them when things get hard, and wrapping them up when they come to an end. It’s tempting, instead, to worry about how you rewrote the same sentence twelve times, only to discover that the original phrasing most cleanly expressed what you think. But the truth is, that notion of efficiency is a distraction from the real issue. Instead, ask yourself if you had to:
These are just a few of the common ways that we accidentally hijack ourselves when we sit down to write—making our entry into writing much more difficult than it needs to be and therefore leaking minutes from that tiny, precious bucket of time we have to focus on our writing.
Once you get into the writing—how do you handle the voices of doubt and moments of fear that are also an inherent part of writing? Do you know how to persist when you get to the end of your intellectual rope and realize that what you’re saying makes little to no sense? How do you resist the urge to binge write your way through the day? How do you recover when you can’t resist?
Chances are, you have some bang-up strategies for some of these moments—and for others, you may not be quite so clear. But these questions—questions about your own natural process for making your way through Sharples’ description of writing—these are questions worth asking. They pull you out of that loop of fruitless comparison. They bring you back to yourself and to the reality of how you actually work. They give you solid ground from which to know when you’ve reach that elusive place called: enough.