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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Anyone else find "writing quotas" depressing?

Do you try to write 500 words a day? Or some other fixed number? I do not. Maybe I should. But somehow I find the whole idea a little, well, depressing.  (I must say I also don't completely understand how it works -- don't you have to spend some time just reading? How do you orient yourself to a new line of cases, theoretical area, body of scholarship, etc. if you are writing every single day, plus teaching and attending meetings?)

Don't get me wrong; I have been in this job long enough to understand that, despite the fact that it often seems more like fun than work, writing scholarship, like preparing for class and managing administrative responsibilities, must be treated like an actual job or it will not get done. And that generally means keeping a disciplined schedule and working somewhat regular and predictable hours at it, rather than squeezing it in between student meetings, classes, and errands or household chores.

That being said, there is something about the idea of a writing quota that is a bit too mechanical. Call me Justice Powell if you will, but I detest the idea of quotas in this realm. For me, writing is best when I lose myself in it. I am a believer in (gasp!) setting aside huge blocks of time when possible, and I often don't know by the end of the day just how much time I've spent actually writing or how many words I've produced. Sometimes I delete as many as I write, or more. I usually edit each sentence after I write it, which can be very slow going (and produce rather few words) but makes the next round of editing less painful and time-consuming. 

I know that everyone writes differently, and I don't mean to knock the "writing quota" technique if it works for you. But to me, it seems to take some of the joy out of what is fundamentally, often, a pleasurable and--let's be honest--largely self-indulgent activity. One of the big reasons I love academia is that there is a creative component to what we do; churning out a certain number of words each day, however, feels like drafting discovery requests, or making widgets.

Posted by Jessie Hill on January 10, 2012 at 01:45 PM | Permalink


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My pace of writing depends on where I am on a project. To get a rough, all too rough, draft, I find that devoting blocks of time to it is the most efficient. For me, writing four hours a day is about all I have ever been able to do. Once I have that draft, then I can rework it in little spirts of time that can readily fit into other things on my plate.

Posted by: Mike Zimmer | Jan 12, 2012 12:37:27 AM

I will make one other observation, quoting as always from Bull Durham: Respect the streak! If you're in the zone, or something's working for you, keep doing it, for God's sake. I can identify particular schedules, albums, and tables at Panera that can probably claim co-authorship credit for the two books I've written.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 11, 2012 9:13:12 AM

Scott's points all ring true to me. Focusing on the first, my sense is that when faculty are not producing it is generally because they don't commit to having x project done by y date. I find the winter submission season extremely disciplining in that regard. I generally commit myself to gettting a piece out over the transoms each winter plus whatever else I agree to do during the year (symposium pieces, book chapters, book projects). If I meet that self-imposed deadline, and don't do too badly with the externally set deadlines for symposia, book contracts, and the like, I'll be reasonably productive. Not Posner/Sunstein productive, but those guys are just smarter than (and just write faster than) me, and that's okay. I think it's quite silly for me to try to be Posner or Sunstein. You have to play to your own strengths. And I tend to think in terms of what pieces I'm going to produce over a year rather than how many words I'm going to write a day because, for me, it helps me feel less like a widget maker and more like someone who is thinking deep thoughts. That's a kind of ridiculous self-concept on lots of levels, to be sure, but it keeps me going -- just like the word quotas keep lots of other people going. This is a matter where everyone has to find what works for them.

Posted by: Sam Bagenstos | Jan 11, 2012 9:01:45 AM

I have found quotas to be very helpful. But, I am a younger faculty member still learning to produce scholarship. And, my personality is such that I often need to start writing rather than continue thinking/researching/analyzing.

I will say that quotas work much better when you are not teaching and have more control over your daily schedule.

Posted by: Luke Meier | Jan 11, 2012 9:00:52 AM

Re: Scott's comment on Sunstein and Posner. To the extent that their smarts mean they have a ready store of ideas, then certainly. On the other hand, smart is not synonymous with prolific. Many a genius has produced a single opus over a good deal of time, or a few brilliant works, without being steadily prolific. (And, of course, some would argue that many a prolific genius has produced more dross than gold precisely because or she wrote so much. I personally think it's mostly futile to wish that people's natures were other than they are.) And plenty of lesser lights in the legal academy at least write consistently in the same area, so they still have good reason to have a ready store of ideas. I do, however, want to pick up on one phrase Scott used: "surrounded by very smart people all day long." Another factor in producing regularly is an environment in which your colleagues produce regularly and expect you to the same, whether through friendly encouragement, the pressure of expectation, competition, or what have you.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 11, 2012 8:08:42 AM

1. I almost always have several writing projects underway simultaneously, which makes it difficult _not_ to write everyday. I'm always working on a long academic book, such as my recent Oxford book about the origins of judicial independence in America (http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Law/ConstitutionalLaw/~~/dmlldz11c2EmY2k9OTc4MDE5OTc2NTg3NA==), a novel, such as my recent legal thriller Mr. Justice (http://www.sunburypress.com/mrjustice.html), a law review or history journal article, an invited symposium piece, a book review, and an occasional op-ed.

2. Although I agree with the comment that we should treat writing like part of our job--which it is--I also think it's more of an art than a science. Just as some folks are better at golf than others, writing comes easier to some than to others.

3. Re: Sunstein and Posner. Law professors are surrounded by very smart people all day long. However, Sunstein and Posner (Richard Epstein, Mark Tushnet, and a few others) are probably smarter than the other really smart people we know. I think that goes a long way to explaining how prolific they are.

Happy New Year,

Posted by: Scott Gerber | Jan 11, 2012 7:54:25 AM

Far too *many* writing responsibilities, I meant to say.

Posted by: Mark D. White | Jan 11, 2012 7:29:20 AM

This is a great discussion! I follow many fiction writers on Twitter and at their blogs, and am fascinated by some of their routines and methods for maintaining discipline--E.J. Newman is particularly introspective and intriguing on this:



I've been thinking a lot about this, having taken on far too much writing responsibilities lately: do these techniques (especially word counts) work for academic writing as well as for creative writing? As one commenter above said, it really applies best to the "final" writing stage, after the initial research stage is done; fiction writers do this too, with research, outlining, etc.

The problem arises if you're the type of academic writer (like me) for whom research and writing are not separate activities at all: I write a bit, which leads me to read up on a point, and then come back to write a bit more, and so on. (I get the impression that fiction writers, once a story or book is plotted out, spending their writing time writing fairly continuously from that point.) I fear that a fetish for the holy word count would have the effect of discouraging such intermittent wordcraft, which, to echo again earlier commenters, would rob me of some of the joy (such that is) of writing.

(On the other hand, this comment took care of 226 words. Go me.)

Posted by: Mark D. White | Jan 11, 2012 7:24:22 AM

All right, I'll go ahead and ask it: how does Sunstein achieve his prolific status? I've read enough about Posner's writing habits--although I can't recall him ever mentioning a quota; he just writes every day. What about Sunstein? I am actually curious.

I suppose, having raised a light-hearted but genuine point of curiosity, that there is actually a point there: Posner writes regularly and routinely, but as far as I can tell it's not a matter of having a quota or not having a quota. It's a matter of maintaining a steady flow of writing, a regular schedule, a store of things to say, and, admittedly, a demonic work ethic and a ready store of resources (or, which is much the same, an absence of "deficits"--like children, household duties, illness, and so on). Quotas may be much less important than consistency. Quota or not, I get much more done when I am writing at something like the same time in the same place with regularity.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 10, 2012 10:40:03 PM

I think if you want to be productive like Posner and Sunstein you have to divorce yourself from attachment to what your write. As someone in law school now after starting a PhD, all I can say is all hail the RA!

Posted by: FormerRA | Jan 10, 2012 10:19:45 PM

I think if you want to finish a particularly piece of writing there are a number of ways to do that. However, the people I most admire are prolific and being prolific, more often than not, requires some kind of quota. If you want to be like Trollope, Posner, or Sunstein, you have to set clear goals for yourself. You have to be mechanical on some level. I have a timer and I make sure I am either reading or writing ten hours a day. I have fixed my life around doing so. It's not hard. We simply think we can't do it these days, because there are so many mind-numbing and pointless distractions. One simply has to be committed. Let's not pretend as if you can't stop volunteering for so many committees, giving the same paper at a conference once again, spending more time in office hours than necessary, watching Youtube videos, reading blogs, blogging, et cetera.

Posted by: Todd | Jan 10, 2012 6:26:22 PM

I only use quotas when I am in a primarily writing phase. I should use them (and adhere to them) more.

FWIW, Anthony Trollope had a strict writing schedule that included a daily word quota. He also did not revise. If he finished a novel with 500 words to go on that day's quota, he wrote the first 500 words of the next one.

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Jan 10, 2012 5:22:15 PM

I couldn't disagree more. I was always a binge writer -- until I had to write a 180,000 word book in twelve months (after researching and outlining it). I knew a quota was my only chance of finishing. Because I didn't like the idea, I turned it into a game. 500 words during the week; 750 on the weekend. If I wanted a day off, I had to "bank" the next day's quota. I certainly didn't hit my quota every day; we all have days we don't feel like working. But I hit it 80% of the time -- and most important, I finished the book.

Did I lose some of the pleasure of writing more intermittently? Maybe -- though there isn't much pleasure in not finishing something. But there is a compensatory pleasure in writing to a quota, and that's the pleasure of progress. Each few thousand words, each new chapter validated the project and kept me going. And the feeling of progress kept me intellectually interested in the project.

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Jan 10, 2012 2:37:10 PM

I'm with you. I've never been attracted to writing a set number of words each day. And I often prefer to have large blocks of time (hours, days) to read/think, followed by almost as large blocks of time to write. I have often thought that I might try the 500-words-a-day technique if I were really writers'-blocked, but then I'd probably just write the f-word 500 times, which I don't think is the point (though it might be satisfying!). But everyone's different, and for a lot of people the word-quota seems to work.

Posted by: Sam Bagenstos | Jan 10, 2012 1:51:37 PM

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