Allan Johnson is Assistant Professor in English Literature at City University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst. You can find ot more about Allan at his website: http://thisisallan.com, and follow him on Twitter @thisisallan. Below is his reflection of writing process.
Last week I wrote about managing creative energy by dovetailing the drafting and rewriting phases so that one chapter or portion of work can be in the drafting stage while another is being rewritten and revised. The primary reason for doing this is that these two stages of the writing process rely on very different forms
of thinking and commitment. Spending a full day on just drafting or just rewriting is an easy road to burnout, but spending a little bit of time each day on both of these activities becomes much more manageable and keeps the project moving steadily ahead.
On an ideal day I would spend three hours on writing, three hours on rewriting, and three hours on teaching and administration, but, of course, that ideal day almost never happens. Since the academic life is filled with commitments and interruptions that can easily whisk one away from research, I began to think about how best to manage my writing progress alongside these other responsibilities and while keeping the project on track. While I still use the Pomodoro Technique during some parts of a project, I soon discovered that it perhaps wasn’t the most useful way to organise all aspects of the writing process.
Because the drafting phase of any writing project is about creative exuberance, about finding the connections between ideas, and, ultimately, about using writing to think through the argument, focusing exclusively on the amount of time spent in the process may not be the most useful indicator of accomplishment. When drafting a new chapter, I might be reading key sources, writing short summaries and observations, or developing my own lines of thinking and interpretation. After the first or second week of drafting a chapter, I might not have written many words, but at the end of the three months I usually spend on drafting, I had better had something in the region of 10,000-15,000 words that can be further refined and developed during rewriting.
For this reason, I set incremental word count goals during drafting, based on weekly word count rather than time spent writing or daily word counts. By the end of the first month I aim to have at least 2000 words written (most of this time, of course, will have been spent in secondary research) and then in each subsequent week my goal is to complete an additional 1000-1500 words. Thinking holistically about words-per-week allows for the periods of additional research necessary for ideas to formulate while still keeping me on task. And, as I try to integrate digital and analogue tools in my research for their best-intended purposes, I keep track of the growing word count in a rather old-fashioned sort of way: a blank monthly calendar pasted into my Moleskine.
But because the rewriting phase is much more connected to analytical precision, focusing on details, and, ideally, shaping the earlier draft into something accessible to others, I needed to set a much more regimented daily practice for myself in which could maintain focus and built forward momentum. For this reason, I continue to use Pomodoro during the rewriting phrase. I use Pomodoro Pro which not only provides all the necessary timer features, but keeps track of time spent on projects (very useful data for my monthly self-review, which I’ll explain in a future post).
Because drafting and rewriting rely on such different forms of the thinking and energy, it is important to track and evaluate progress using a method best suited for each stage. While drafting, I use a pleasingly old-school method of noting my weekly word count in a notebook to allow for the rise and fall of creative energy through the week while still keeping my work focused. And when rewriting, I use a rather more contemporary time management technique to keep forward momentum through the analytical precision required of rewriting.