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August 20, 2010, 08:00 AM ET

The Rule of 200

buoysAs 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.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Hâkan Dahlström.]

Comments

1. acavender - August 20, 2010 at 09:59 am

"...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."

Ah, I'm not the only one! Thanks for this, Erin--it's timely and helpful, especially as I look toward starting classes again on Monday.

2. kfitz - August 20, 2010 at 11:03 am

This is absolutely brilliant, Erin. What I need to ponder now is how to create a "rule of 200" for those periods between writing projects, or those moments in the startup of a new writing project when I'm really, honestly not yet ready to write. I already have trouble with feeling as though I haven't really accomplished anything if I haven't created new sentences, so I need to find a way to mark those more amorphous forms of progress as well.

3. karenjcannon - August 20, 2010 at 12:26 pm

These are words of comfort to a doctoral candidate who is teaching a large lecture course this semester while conducting dissertation research, writing chapters 4 and 5, and oh yes...graduating. I'm going to do this! Not try, but actually DO 200 words per day. Thanks Erin!

4. ckapennstate - August 20, 2010 at 04:30 pm

"there is no 'rollover plan'...

Damn. I was hoping to get credit for that extra two words I wrote yesterday.

But seriously, I love this essay. Great stuff.

5. twspannaus - August 20, 2010 at 04:41 pm

Great article. I just wrote my 200 words for today. Thanks, I needed that!

6. 11223435 - August 20, 2010 at 04:51 pm

This system absolutely works--even for great novelists (maybe poets not so much, but there's probably a corollary there).

Another great thing about the 200 wd per day is that you'll find pretty frequently that you haven't exhausted your idea with that limit, and you can think about it off and on for the rest of the day, or even let your brain idle on it while you're sleeping.

Hemingway, after all, said he always stopped while he knew what the next sentence was going to be.

7. crankycat - August 20, 2010 at 05:50 pm

Do 30 minutes a day, wired into my schedule - I'm not "fitting" it in, it's already there. Separate writing from editing.
At the end of the scheduled time, write a note in the manuscript about what's next so that starting up again is easier.

8. 23shoes - August 20, 2010 at 05:55 pm

Thank you for this great post. The rule of 200 sounds like a great way to start off the new semester.

You *exactly* described my natural writing process -- great when I have time and no other obligations, which means not so great in real life. Nice to know I'm in good company.

9. eetempleton - August 20, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Thanks, everyone, for your comments and feedback!

10. drjimgall - August 21, 2010 at 01:59 pm

In addition to "no rollover" there should be "no buyout." In other words, you shouldn't skip a day on your own commitment to do twice the work tomorrow. Like a good diet, if you slip up and fail one day, don't punish yourself or set unrealistic expectations for the future. Just get back on the plan immediately. It took myself too long to learn this last point.

11. janicereardon - August 23, 2010 at 06:23 am

Thanks for the idea! It was just what I needed to see this morning!

12. tulaikov - August 23, 2010 at 09:51 am

For further ideas along these lines, I recommend

Eviatar Zerubavel, The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books,

and also any related titles that show up when you search it on Amazon (for example). Persistence usually pays off.

13. solros - August 23, 2010 at 11:22 am

I think this is a great plan. I also liked Bolker's book. One piece of advice that I found helpful was the idea of keeping a separate document for notes and thoughts, and if I am blocked on writing in my current paper/article, I go to my notes file and just write for ten minutes about whatever line of thought I'm on--no corrections for wording, just keep typing. It helps get my brain back in the groove.
Thanks for this!

14. vsrake - August 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I, too, find the first draft the hardest. The variation that worked for me during the dissertation was to avoid the technology. I would take a few key notes or quotes, a pen, and 10 pieces of paper to the library or a coffee shop. I would scribble madly until the idea was fleshed out or the paper was gone. The next day, I would type in the scribbles, fixing grammar, improving word choice, and adding citations.

15. eetempleton - August 23, 2010 at 02:24 pm

@drjimgall Thanks for the useful addendum!

@solros--good point re: the notes document.

@vsrake--another great suggestion! I am fond of yellow legal pads and use them in a similar fashion before drafting.

Thanks again, everyone, for the comments.

16. bekdounes - August 23, 2010 at 02:32 pm

Thank you for this great - and engagingly written piece. This summer I've tried two word-count related techniques. When writing, my daily count is 300 words - but I take weekends off, so the weekly word counts are pretty comparable. When editing (I've been trying to edit down some particularly unwieldy old dissertation chapters), my daily cut count is 800 words a day.

I've found it incredibly helpful to focus on word count. It gives me a measurable sense of progress each day, and no day has felt overwhelming. I've still had time to write recommendations, create syllabi, and do assorted other more bureaucratic scholarly tasks. And I've also still had plenty of time for summer fun.

17. ksledge - August 23, 2010 at 03:17 pm

I like this plan and the 750 words plan, but for me a good half of my writing time is spent editing paper drafts with colleagues. So I wonder whether there is a way to measure progress with that kind of writing. The scheduled in time helps for sure, but is there something equivalent to word count?

18. 11245928 - August 23, 2010 at 05:06 pm

That's the way I finished my dissertation when I was teaching at Smith for a semester way back in the early seventies. Three differences--- I wrote 300 words a day, and counted charts and tables as a 300 word day. When I completed 600 words in a day, I could "bank" that day for a day spent in the park with the kids, and no 300 words in the evening to make up for it. Otherwise, it was the same. It worked, and I found mysefl doing the same thing with mss. during the next 15 years. Sometimes I would work on more than one in a day. What can one say, except that I published a fair amount until i took on an administrative position when inmy early fifties.

19. illuric - August 23, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Like everyone else, I love this idea. I think I'll start right now!

20. bbaylis - August 23, 2010 at 11:19 pm

I know my situation is very different from almost everybody else in academic circles. I could not survive writing just 200 words a day. Writing is my only outlet, however, it can be execruatingly difficult. I am medically retired from the academy after 40 of teaching and administration. I had a benign brain tumor removed in March 2009. It was discovered when a blood vessel in the tumor burst creating all the symptoms of a stroke. After the removal of the tumor, I went through months of speech and physical therapy. I was left with a mild case of aphasia that is more pronounced when I try to talk than when I try to write. In December 2009, I had 4 grand-mal seizures, so ontop of the aphasia, I now had to deal with epilepsy. My solution to dealing with retirement and these other challenges is to write all day. Most days my word count is well over 3000, but many days I find that I have to rewrite almost everything that I wrote the day before,because it is not what I wanted to say. I label these events aphasia attacks. I feel thankful that I can think and write at all, even if it's not at my former level or the level I want it to be. My aphasia is getting better but not "cured". There is no cure, there is just improvement for some people. Through aphasia networks I have come into contact with people that can't put two words together. This experience has given me a whole new perspective on how we treat challenged students in our classes. One essay that I wrote to describe aphasia from the inside, appears on my blog byhighered.wordpress.com. It is entitled "Words are more like cats than dogs." The central premise is that dogs are obient and come to you when you call them. For people with aphasia, words act more like cats. They only come to you when they want to come.

21. eetempleton - August 24, 2010 at 11:01 am

@ksledge I wonder if page count would work better with editorial work. It would depend on the kind of collaborative process you have worked out with your colleagues, but I would give myself a manageable number of pages to get through per day. I'm guessing that some of those pages would be easier than others, but page counting would preserve the concrete progress that I like so much about the Rule of 200.

@bbaylis Thanks for sharing your story. I really like the metaphor you use with regard to dogs and cats (and not only because I love dogs and cats). There are times that I fins words behaving an awful lot like cats, and I'm sure that most writers can relate. Best wishes on a continued recovery.

22. kronicul - August 24, 2010 at 03:22 pm

This could apply to anything. I knew a Dean years ago who told me she wrote every day, I don't know how many words, but she had a number of books to her credit. This is similar to scheduling things like exercise--actual put it on the calendar. There was a famous Englishman, I can't remember the name, but he credited his butler with awakening him 15 minutes early each day to read.

23. thomasmrobson - September 04, 2010 at 10:17 am

This might seem like a laughable idea to some, but I use my facebook page as a way of making sure I'm making progress and making myself accountable. I keep a running tally of current number of pages in my dissertation in a separate box on the page, and my friends all know it is there. Every time I complete a page, I update the box with the new number and the current date. Knowing that my peers (and family) can all see my progress (or lack thereof) keeps me motivated. If I haven't made that number go up in a few days, someone will usually harass me about it. On the other hand, if it takes a big spike, someone will usually send me a short congratulatory note, which spurs me to keep going.

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