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Friday, February 12, 2010

Keys to Productivity?

I've been thinking about the keys to productivity lately, mainly because I've gotten a slow start on the numerous projects I plan to complete during my sabbatical.  It is true that I've had lots of unexpected distractions in the last month, but the key to productivity, in my experience, is to learn to keep writing no matter how many distractions occur. So I'm trying to remind myself of some of the lessons I've learned over the years, which are roughly as follows.

Writing scholarly articles is a creative and hence an emotional process.  One of the keys to productivity is to learn to overcome, sidestep, or simply accept the mental white noise that makes one afraid to commit an idea to paper.  Before I had my first child (the year before I went up for tenure), I used to waste lots of time asking myself whether my idea was good enough to see the light of print.  I still waste time second guessing myself but only a tiny fraction of the time I once did. I've realized that the mental and sometimes literal hand-wringing that accompanies beginning a new project is a luxury I simply can't afford.

Strangely enough, one key to productivity for me was to learn to accept that the process of writing is not linear. I used to expect myself to sit down in the chair and write like a robot: have the idea, outline the article, write the article following the outline to the letter.  I don't know why I expected the process to work this way.  I was an English major in college and never, ever wrote a paper using that process, but I somehow assumed that once I became a "professional" writer things should be different.  As you might guess, trying to write an article that way, trying to "force" the process, led to panic and writer's block, which are emphatically not the keys to productivity.  It was only when I accepted that I can write ten pages on some days and two sentences on others that I became more productive.  I finally accepted the fact that my mind is often the most active on the days I write two sentences because my subconscious is working out the structure and the details of what comes next.  It sounds hokey, I know, but I have truly come to trust that my subconscious will eventually "tell" me what comes next if I just get out of the way. 

I even learned how to get out of the way.  When I am having a really frustrating time in front of the computer and I've written the same sentence over for the fifteenth time, I pack up a bag with a 99 cent black and white composition book, a kitchen timer, and a black gel roller ball pen.  I go to the coffee shop that I expect to be the quietest, and I sit and I write as fast as my hand will go for twenty minutes without stopping.  This process is painful because I force myself to put down every idea I have, no matter how stupid it is, and to even write down every negative thought, such as "this is never going to work," "this doesn't make sense," "why did I start this project?".  The first five minutes are always the hardest, but eventually something useful starts to emerge.   I don't know why this works.  I just know that it does.  Always.  It never fails that the core of the next section of my article is there somewhere amongst the dreck I've just committed to paper.      

Learning to get out of my own way was the biggest contributor to productivity for me, but I have other little tricks as well.  One of my mentors once said to me that every piece of writing represents a compromise with time, and this is the mantra that I repeat to myself when I can't quite let an article go.  I don't, as I once did, wait to start writing until I've read every article ever written on the topic, and I long ago got over the notion that writing can only occur when you have several hours to sit and think great thoughts.  One trick I learned while I was an associate dean was to ALWAYS have my writing project on one of the computer screens in front of me.  It serves as a visual reminder to get back to work on writing the minute someone leaves your office.  Even if you write one sentence at a time, it adds up.

The writing process is so personal that some of the things I've suggested probably don't or won't work for others.  But I'm fascinated by the writing process, and I'm always looking for more tricks to stuff up my sleeve.  What are yours?

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on February 12, 2010 at 02:43 PM | Permalink


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Another thing that helps with the editing stage is reading your final product out loud, which can be very humbling (even if it's soembody else's work that you thought you edited).

Posted by: Mark D. White | Feb 16, 2010 1:33:07 PM

"The downside of the method is either choppiness or the writer's equivalent of investment bias or endowment effect, which is that once it's written one is loath to change or cut."

That's where editing comes in. In my experience that final hard-copy edit catches a lot of that choppiness. Material that's never been viewed by the author except in draft form on the computer enhances the risk of "investment bias," IMO. Viewing my writing in dead tree form often helps me view what I've written with fresh eyes. Even better, getting another writer you respect (I'm lucky to live with one) particularly helps in that regard.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Feb 16, 2010 7:33:38 AM

Hanah wrote, "So the key to productivity for me is to get to the office at 7 AM."

How many of you write in your office at work, as opposed to a home office or elsewhere (coffee shop, etc.)? I cannot write at work - I try to get all the "other stuff" (such as administrative paperwork) done at work so I can better use my time out of the office for writing.

Posted by: Mark D. White | Feb 15, 2010 6:04:57 AM

I cannot write after 10 AM. Really the best stuff all gets done before 9 AM. So the key to productivity for me is to get to the office at 7 AM. Then I can write for 2-3 hours and spend the rest of the day doing other stuff, like class prep, looking up citations, editing, or playing solitaire on the computer while my subconscious works out the problems with my paper.

Posted by: Hanah | Feb 14, 2010 6:28:45 PM

The philosopher Colin McGinn, in his terrific autobiography, follows a similar plan to that which Grits mentioned: for three or four hours in the morning, he inhabits a room with a table, a chair, a pad and a pen, and he writes until lunch, and that's it.

Posted by: Mark D. White | Feb 14, 2010 2:11:09 PM

For what it's worth, here's two cents on productivity:

My metaphor (I'm into metaphors these days having just posted an article on SSRN about metaphors and business lawyering judgments) is ice sculpture - placing big blocks together and then using tools, like chain saws and chisels - to carve them into a seamless whole (at least that's the goal). Like "grits," I use blog posts as a way of writing out themes, and sometimes they are coherent enough to be building blocks. I also use a program for Mac called "Scrivener" on which I keep notes about what I'm reading. So often if I'm discussing another scholar's contribution, I can lift my thoughts about it from Scrivener into the draft.

The downside of the method is either choppiness or the writer's equivalent of investment bias or endowment effect, which is that once it's written one is loath to change or cut. The best remedy I know for that is to keep re-writing either the part of the introduction that summarizes the piece, or to keep re-writing the abstract.

I agree with grits that by writing blocks whether as blog posts or as Scrivener notes I keep writing whether or not I have a thesis that is completely coalesced for purposes of an article or an essay. The upshot is often that when I'm ready to write the piece it comes out very quickly because it's the product of all that thinking and writing and saving that has been going on for the past many months.

Finally, one of the benefits of having one or two big ideas that motivate one's work (the hedgehog, I guess, versus the fox, as one of my colleagues has called me), whether or not that's a "research agenda," is that you create and collect the "blocks" as they occur to you - say, a reaction to something you read in the newspaper or saw in somebody's paper that just got posted on SSRN. (To me the "one big idea" test is whether your article ideas are related enough that someday they might be integrated into a book.) I've focused mainly on contract theory and judgment, but even when I've branched out into things like the financial crisis, the value proposition lawyers bring to the party, or a review of a book on "policing and poetry," I've tended to stick with the "big ideas" as a way of framing my take on the particular subject.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Feb 14, 2010 1:34:01 PM

I tend to write free-form then fill in details, as Howard and Mark do. But Howard's mentor's one-page-a-day practice reminds me of Henry Miller, who in either Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn (can't recall which) he described a French writer he admired (can't recall whom) who lived by this motto regarding productivity, a line I haven't read since college but which has always stuck with me: Two hours per day before breakfast, the rest of the day to oneself. I think that fellow was attempting to strike a balance between "just write" and the need for time away from the keyboard while your "subconscious is working out the structure and the details of what comes next."

You're absolutely correct that the writing process is very personal. In part as an (at this point subconscious) homage to that Frenchman whose name I've forgotten, to this day I tend to do the vast majority of my writing between 5 and 9 a.m..

I should also add that for me, blogging has changed my writing process. I use it to keep in the habit of writing, to record factbites or analyses that might later inform a more in-depth examination, and I've produced several papers and public policy reports that were largely developed, including most of the documentation, through blog posts over time. It's a more informal setting where one feels freer to trot out an idea before researching every jot and tittle or "wait[ing] to start writing until I've read every article ever written on the topic."

Finally, the writing process is important, but the real key to good writing is the EDITING process. On that score, I've learned that only so much editing can be done on a computer screen. When I'm writing for publication, I edit as much as I can on the computer, then print out a double-space hardcopy and edit on paper by hand. Somehow I always catch things on the written page that I didn't see staring at the computer screen.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Feb 14, 2010 8:21:38 AM

I do what Howard does, which in addition to the benefits he cites, also helps me make sure I have my basic argument solid before I embellish it with quotes, cites, asides, etc.

Posted by: Mark D. White | Feb 13, 2010 6:27:20 AM

A friend in another discipline (criminology) once told me about his mentor, who wrote one page per day--no more, no less. His goal for the day was to have that one page perfect.

For my last two several projects, I have written "free-form"--writing the paper without citations, just to get everything down and in my own voice. Then I go back and fill-in the citations and detailed discussions of other arguments. That then fills-in the gaps in the arguments. The thing I like about it is that I see "progress" because I am getting something down on paper.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Feb 12, 2010 8:44:00 PM

Drinking. Don't forget about drinking.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 12, 2010 3:55:42 PM

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