August 20, 2010, 08:00 AM ET
The Rule of 200
As the semester quickly approaches, I find myself trying to shift gears from summer-writing mode to semester-juggling mode. In the summer, I have the luxury of devoting the majority of my time and energy to my research agenda. There are no courses to prepare, no papers to grade, no committee meetings to attend, and no students to advise. The writing can take as long as it takes, which is often the better part of a day. During the semester, however, many of us aren't so lucky. We have to find a way to balance research with teaching and service, and that can be very difficult to do.
Often, because the research goals are long-term rather than immediate, they get the short end of the stick. Elsewhere on ProfHacker, Kathleen Fitzpatrick has talked about The First Half Hour of the Morning, and Billie Hara has written about 750words.com, both of which can help writers make progress and maintain productivity. During the semester, however, it is a struggle for me to follow either of these programs. I am simply not a morning person, and I'm often so busy that 750 words seem insurmountable when I finally do sit down to write. At the end of the day after my teaching and service obligations have been met, I'm usually fried. So in order to maintain my writing pace (which is, albeit, slow), my system is slightly different. Instead of writing 750 words, I follow The Rule of 200. It has gotten me through my dissertation and the writing that I have done since. There is no website or digital tool (save for your trusted word-processing program), and rules are pretty straightforward.
The Rule of 200 works like this: my document word count must increase by 200 before I am done for the day, no exceptions. 200 words is a modest goal. It isn't even an entire page of double-spaced 12pt font. It's a grocery list, an email, a series of text messages; it's a lot shorter than most of my ProfHacker posts (this one included). Sometimes it takes me 15 minutes to write 200 words. Sometimes it takes all day long. But no matter what, before my head hits the pillow for the night, the word count is +200.
I write 200 words a day, every single day, until I have an entire draft. "Every single day" includes weekends, long days on campus, holidays, even my own birthday. I first encountered the "no exceptions" idea in Joan Bolker's helpful Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day. Bolker's reasoning is that if you spend just 15 minutes a day, every day, on your dissertation, you will keep momentum and maintain progress. Similarly, the Rule of 200 helps me to feel like I'm moving forward through the drafting process, which for me is the most painful part of writing. I tried Bolker's 15-minute process too, but while it was helpful, focusing on the number of words instead of the clock gave me a more concrete goal and visible results.
200 words can be anything as long as it contributes to the complete draft. Sometimes it is a big idea. Sometimes it is a block quote. Sometimes it is an explication of the previous day's block quote. Sometimes it is working out an idea that I know I want to include but I am not sure where it will fit.
200 words + 200 words = 400 words. 400 words + 200 words = 600 words...As you marvel at my math skills, let me point out that all of these words add up. The bottom line is the count, and for me this is very important because I like to tinker with my words. Without this system, I have a tendency to fixate on the wording of a sentence or a phrase as a form of procrastination rather than on getting the ideas out. I do not mean to suggest that there isn't a time and place for tinkering or polishing one's prose, but that time and place is not the initial draft. A little bit at a time is, for many of us, less stressful and more productive than the other method of writing that I was fond of in graduate school: the binge and purge.
If the words are flowing more easily, by all means don't stop at 200, but there is no "rollover plan." If you have more time to write, then keep writing, but you still owe another 200 tomorrow even if you up the count by 1000 today.
In a nutshell, the Rule of 200 has enabled me to maintain productivity and sanity as I try to balance the demands of life on the tenure-track. It gives me a modest and attainable concrete goal that I can track from day to day, and importantly, it doesn't set me up for failure or discouragement.
What strategies do you follow for maintaining productivity during the academic year? Please share in the comments section below.