Thanks for coming back to this series! We’re talking about the difference between feeling productive versus being productive, particularly in the midst of a long-term writing project or sabbatical.
Today, we’re backing up and asking what is productivity? How do we define it as writers?
Here’s an even more fundamental question: Should we approach writing from the vantage point of productivity?
There seem to be very few people out there asking this question. By contrast, the googleverse is filled with articles and blog posts singing the praises of writing productivity—how to achieve greater productivity, why you should be a more productive writer, how productive writers got to be so productive. So far as I can tell, greater writing productivity = writing more. But what is that? A higher word count? A higher number of books/ articles/ blog posts?
In our culture, more (and bigger) is almost always better. But this connection doesn’t usually work in writing, where brevity and concision is (or should be) valued over mere length. We should be saying whatever it is we have to say in as few well-selected words as possible. More broadly, however, the more-is-better mentality is simply not a very creative approach, because creativity thrives on curiosity, exploration and flexibility—basically, intellectual freedom. Among other things, creativity is the freedom to express a thought in fewer words when warranted, to write less rather than more if there is simply less to say on a given topic. And creativity ebbs and flows—we can go for long stretches of time without having a good idea to write about. Our mind seems fallow, but really it is just out there, living, experiencing. And we have to let it, sometimes, because that is the raw material of future ideas.
Some of us have to gauge progress in numbers because it’s the only way we can stay on track with job performance expectations or a livable income. But even when we have to make tangible writing progress to support ourselves, when the more-is-better mentality is left unchecked, our writing is at risk of becoming lifeless or worse.
I learned this firsthand in the early stages of my dissertation.
I'd obviously never written a dissertation before but I dealt with it the way I deal with most things in life: I made a chart.
There's got to be a way to quantify this, I told myself one day early in the writing phase, staring at an empty spreadsheet on my computer screen. A few dabbles here and there, my tongue lolling out the side of my mouth in feverish anticipation of a brand new Excel project about to be finished, and... Presto! I'd created a spreadsheet to map my progress through my dissertation.
As long as I averaged about 2000 words (7-8 pages) per day, and factored time for editing and polishing, I should easily finish this thing within a year. Easy, right?
And so it went. In six months had passed, I'd managed to amass nearly three-quarters of a dissertation's worth of pages. In the meantime, I'd also written two article manuscripts for peer reviewed journals on topics largely unrelated to my dissertation.
By all accounts, I was a productivity machine.
But that's not what it felt like. It didn't feel like I'd been writing at all, actually. In fact, it reminded me of what Truman Capote famously said of Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
In the midst of all that typing, I'd grown more disconnected from my mind and research than ever before. I had composed entire chapters whose central arguments, only a week or two later, were complete blanks in my memory.
In the midst of this, I had a conversation with a professor friend, trying to articulate this growing sense of ennui.
"It sounds like you're making too much progress," she told me. "If you were my student, I'd tell you to slow down. Slow way down."
But my word counts! My page numbers!
Around the same time, I received rejection letters from both of the journals I'd submitted my manuscripts to--the argumentation was not thoroughly thought through, the research base was not well-clarified... The articles would need to be significantly reworked and rewritten if I wanted to publish them.
The final nail in the coffin of my stress level was meeting with my main advisor to discuss a defense date. It was then she revealed that most of the pages I'd written weren't acceptable.
“Your writing sounds like you're spinning your wheels,” she told me. "Like you are writing just to fill the pages."
I wondered what she meant by this.
"Well, I don't think I've ever had to tell a graduate student this before," she continued, choosing her words carefully. "But in a way it seems like you are proceeding too quickly through this dissertation. I don't think you're taking it slowly enough to really think through the ideas."
By the end of the meeting, it was determined I would take a six-week break from writing or research of any kind. This was convenient, because I was also about to get married and go on a honeymoon. After we came back, I still had about four weeks left of my hiatus from the dissertation.
During that time, it became clearer to me that I'd been operating under some grossly distorted views about productivity and writing, and that I had been on the verge of total burnout.
Numerical metrics may work to gauge productivity in the corporate world, but they have less of a clear benefit in the writing and thinking world. In my case, I had swapped quantity for quality--I had started to place my daily word count over the quality of my writing, the depth of my thinking, and the line of argumentation. More than this, the goals I set for myself were purely arbitrary and self-imposed--no one had told me to type 2000 words per day, it just seemed like a nice, robust number to me.
When I finally went back to work, things were different. The most important change was that I had begun developing new metrics to gauge my progress as a writer--metrics that didn't involve quantifying my work into meticulously maintained Excel spreadsheets. I had developed new questions to ask myself at the end of the day besides the default “Was I productive today?” or “How many words did I write?” In the next post, I'll talk about some of those new questions and how they can revitalize our perceptions of progress in the midst of a long-term writing project.