(I wrote this for my newsletter.)
I’ve been using a daily writing goal of at least 1000 words for the last several months. This system is more structured than what I’ve used previously and has been working well. I think it’s a good adjustment for a changed situation.
I commonly write between 1000 and 2000 words, sometimes more. I write on weekends too and rarely skip any days. I never count words towards past or future days. Replies don’t count; it has to be a topic I chose myself and wrote about on my own individual initiative. It has to be important – something I think helps make forward progress.
I usually write all the words about one topic. I often write a standalone essay draft. I usually have a few things to say about my topic and finish writing them instead of stopping in the middle.
Writing discussion replies is extra writing, not part of my goal, and I mostly do that after I’ve already finished my writing goal. I generally write in the morning, when fresh, and don’t do much other stuff until I’m done with my main writing for the day. I usually don’t eat until after writing.
I set the 1000 word goal low enough that I can generally do it even if I’m busy for most of the day. It’s just a minimum. The time it takes varies a lot based on how much I’m developing new ideas. And I have flexibility to do other things in the day: read books, podcast, listen to talks, write discussion replies or do non-philosophy. After writing, especially when it went relatively quickly, I try to do at least one more intellectual thing that day. The variety helps avoid burnout. I try to monitor how much I can do without getting too exhausted (getting too exhausted is inefficient). I aim to do near the maximum so that I don’t waste some potential productivity.
Most people can only focus and do good mental work for up to 3 hours a day (the 8 hour workday for knowledge workers or school students is a bad idea). Note that that average includes all days, not just weekdays – you can do a bit more during the week if you take a break on the weekend. I can do more than 3 hours of serious focus per day, but it requires managing what I’m doing, like not trying to write the whole time on most days. I think the 2-3 hour limit is more about methods than anything inherent, and people could increase their limit with skill and knowledge (and that’s why my limit is higher, though still under the 8 hours that many people are supposed to do at knowledge worker jobs).
It helps to have a lot more break time than people get at an office. If you work at home, you can e.g. take a 4 hour break in the middle of your work day. I use non-intellectual activities like showering, eating and exercise as breaks. I intentionally do them in the middle of the day after I’ve already done some writing. If I did them first thing in the morning, I’d be unnecessarily putting two breaks in a row because sleeping already was a break. BTW, naps are the most effective type of break, but I’m often unable to fall asleep during the day because I get enough sleep at night.
I’m currently working on a Critical Fallibilism (epistemology aka philosophy of knowledge) book/website project. I started on this again after finishing my grammar article. I wrote 30,000 words for it last year, and I have over 20,000 new words. Words include notes and outlining, but it’s mostly articles.
The theme I’m working with is error correction. I’m organizing various epistemological ideas around their connection to that theme. I’m also trying to make stuff as clear, practical and approachable as my grammar article. People often read epistemology as abstract stuff for clever discussions, but I want people to actually be able to use it in their lives.
I had planned to write more about liberalism, but I changed my mind. I’m more interested in epistemology. I’m very happy with my article Liberalism: Reason, Peace and Property but less interested (compared to epistemology) in writing followups with more details. The overview article said a lot of what I wanted to write. I do have over 80,000 words written for the liberalism project, mostly from last year. I hope to finish up and share more of it in the future. One particular area I don’t plan to cover in much detail is economics – that’s already covered well by Mises, Hazlitt and Reisman.
I don’t mind writing things which aren’t for a particular project. Having a project goal is useful to help me focus and to help guide me when I’m not sure what to write about. But I also try to be flexible and to follow inspiration when I have it. I also do some freewrites (similar to journaling). If I don’t have an idea for what to write about, sometimes I will freewrite about what I did recently, what my goals are and what I could write about. Another way I find a writing topic is by rereading material, particularly outlines, from my current project. Outlines are like lists of writing topics I can use. When rereading articles, I often think of more ideas to add or think of other issues which aren’t covered.
I’m flexible with my writing goal when doing activities like editing (in which case reducing the word count is often a positive outcome). The real point is to make daily forward progress, not specifically to write new words.
I write more, and edit less, than most writers. I’ve worked to get good at first drafts. When I find out about writing problems, I mainly try to figure out how to not make those errors in the first place rather than how to fix them in editing passes. If you get good at understanding that error, you should need barely any conscious attention to deal with it – you should be able to autopilot dealing with it instead of needing a separate editing pass. (This is the same as how learning in general works.)
I do lots of exploratory writing. I write several articles on the same topic rather than just writing one and doing a bunch of editing. I usually edit after I already have a version that I mostly like. Editing helps polish the details. Writing about cool ideas is generally more fun and educational than editing details, so it’s better to spend a larger proportion of time on that. And there isn’t much point in going through an article and updating everything to fit a major change you just made when you’re still exploring (you may make more major changes and may undo the major change you just made).
People can use editing to reach a local optimum. Sometimes they fix tons of little details, and polish everything, while the big picture is actually wrong. Exploratory writing lets people try out several big pictures and see how well they work. And then the best ideas from each version can be combined.
When editing, people often go in circles because they keep making changes without clearly knowing whether the change is an improvement or not. Editing works better after you’ve already decided what the article should say.
Writing several versions of an article helps you explore what it should say. And it lets you work with largely-independent parts. It splits the overall project up into smaller, more manageable, separate chunks. That lets one deal with less complexity at once which makes things easier and more productive.
For my grammar article, I wrote several earlier versions (and then made major changes which would have been hard to fix in editing, it was easier to just rewrite while referring to the previous writing to reuse the good ideas that would fit into the new version). Plus I broke it into five mostly-independent parts which I wrote on different days. The parts were edited individually, but I also did a couple full-article editing passes near the end. Each part could be thought about and judged on its own, so that limited how much stuff I had to think about at once.
BTW this writing progress update is 1500 words, and I think it’s productive, so I could count it, but I already wrote a 1750 word article today anyway.
I’ve also written 1000 discussion emails and over 700 web posts so far this year. That’s around 10 pieces of writing per day which aren’t included in my writing goal. If you don’t pay attention to my discussion forums, you’re missing out on many ideas.
Related: I like Brandon Sanderson’s writing updates.
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