Writing, 400 words at a time

For the last year (and 3 months) I’ve done a lot of writing. I haven’t tallied it all up, but I’ve participated in the Any Good Thing Writing Challenge and I have been successful each month. Success means that I’ve been able to generate at least 400 words at least 5 days per week throughout that time. And that’s a lot of words.

What I tell people about the challenge, they ask what counts as writing. I do a lot of writing that I don’t count, because the purpose of the challenge is to further my scholarly work. So the email message I wrote to my students earlier today? (402 words before I personalized and sent it to each student – definitely another 400+ words involved in personalization) Yeah, that doesn’t count. Nor does the review I just did for a journal. Or the report I’m working on for my academic program.

A lot of everyday writing doesn’t count, but I still try to be liberal about what does count. Why? Because not every word that I type can be profound (or even published), and that’s okay. I figure it all goes toward the greater good. Adopting this attitude not only helps me get my 400 words written each day, but it also helps me more readily embrace the peer review process.

If I felt the need to write 400 publishable words each day, the pressure would be immense! Some days I write 1000 or more publishable words. And some days I lack the time or mental focus to do it. However, I can still write on those days, and mostly daily writing is a valuable part of the process. I need to keep flexing my writing muscles. When my daughter was an infant I remember being told that sleep begets sleep. Similarly, writing begets writing. The more you do it, the more you are able to do it.

By writing 400 words each day – and sometimes it’s freewriting on a topic that I research, sometimes it’s some synthetic notes after reading, sometimes it’s a blog post (or even just in the form of a blog post, because that form seems to come easily to me) – I’ve developed a strong sense of how long it will take me to write 400 words. I’m also thinking about my research and writing every day, and just doing small bits here and there. Over the last year, I’ve seen this freewriting morph into the intro of an article. The notes lead to a strongly synthesized lit review. And the blog posts? Sometimes they turn into ideas for new studies. Sometimes they help me reflect on the work that I’m doing and how I do it (meta moment!). And sometimes … sometimes they’re just blog posts. And that’s okay, too.

As I talk to other people about writing 400 words a day, and they share their fears about having to come up with 400 “good” words each day, I think about the value that we start to place on each word. Each word becomes a symbol of our journey toward success, and starts to represent so much more than just a thought or even the thoughts being expressed in a particular manuscript. I see this issue with over-valuing our individual words play out frequently as a journal editor, and when I discuss publishing with my students and my academic friends. When each word is so precious and represents a tortured or laborious process, then having to cut or edit those words is similarly painful.

Conceptually, the idea of 400 publishable words per day is appealing. At that rate, I’d be churning out at least one new manuscript a month. However, it’s not feasible for most people to write 400 publishable words per day, day in and day out. But 400 words related to a project is quite reasonable once you free your mind from perfectionism and decide to just enjoy the process of putting thoughts – however rough – on the page. Then the flow of thoughts from day to day turns into a lot of words, and those thoughts and words can be worked together and shored up with theories and references, and edited into beautiful phrasings, and suddenly a pretty darn good manuscript emerges.

So, back to where I started: I write 400 words almost every day. Often more. All of this practice with turning thoughts into words has helped me write more, better, and faster. Many but not all of the words turn into manuscripts that are submitted for publication. And if a manuscript isn’t accepted? It’s not the biggest deal. It’s just a collection of words. I’ve got more.



Just a quick tally (off the top of my head) of major accomplishments since starting AGT Writing Challenge:

  • 7 journal articles (from scratch) – 5 already accepted or in print
  • 2 book chapters from scratch
  • 2 4000-word conference proceedings papers

And then there are a bunch of items that have been revised, partially written, proposed, etc. 400 words really add up!