April 16

Perhaps the most powerful writing myth

One of the tallest hurdles I faced in my early grad school days was this myth: “I write better when I'm under pressure.” Believing that my writing skills improved drastically with adrenaline, I (consciously or unconsciously) waited until the last-minute to even begin a paper. I would line up a large cup of coffee, an energy drink, and a bar of chocolate, and I would write all night in the dark, quiet student offices.

Bad idea. Terrible idea. Yes, the adrenaline and impending deadline forced me to sit down in a chair long enough to write, but looking back, I'm quite sure that I would have written better papers if I had followed this, the most important rule in writing:

Writing takes twice as long as you think it will.

As with construction, cooking, and shopping, if you plan for two hours of writing, you'll actually need four. If you plan for 10 hours of writing, you'll probably need 20.

Partly, this is because you need some warm-up time on the front end. Every time you sit down to write, you'll pull out all your folders, review your notes, open up your Word Doc, and stare at the screen for a bit.

Then, of course, there's the clean-up at the end. You'll have to go back, re-read, re-write, and proofread.

When we mentally guess how long a paper will take, we almost never include enough time for prep and clean up

Prep is critical because it's your thinking time. You have so many ideas floating that you need to mentally sift through them before you begin committing them to full sentences.

Clean up is often overlooked but is the mark between an amateur and a professional paper. A typo or a grammar error will decrease your authority in your reader's eyes immediately.

When you don't give yourself enough time to write, you decrease the amount of time spent in prep, so your idea tend to come out in an illogical order, and you decrease the amount of time spent in clean-up, so you submit a paper with errors that undermine your entire premise.

Do yourself a favor and double the amount of time you allot for a paper. If you don't think about how much time you'll need for a paper ahead of time, well, I'd suggest you start budgeting out your hours ahead of time.


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