Rule of 200

Want to make progress on a major long-term writing project? There's excellent inspirational advice in Erin E. Templeton's brief essay "The Rule of 200". An excerpt:

The Rule of 200 works like this: my document word count must increase by 200 before I am done for the day, no exceptions. 200 words is a modest goal. It isn't even an entire page of double-spaced 12pt font. It's a grocery list, an email, a series of text messages; it's a lot shorter than most of my ProfHacker posts (this one included). Sometimes it takes me 15 minutes to write 200 words. Sometimes it takes all day long. But no matter what, before my head hits the pillow for the night, the word count is +200.

I write 200 words a day, every single day, until I have an entire draft. "Every single day" includes weekends, long days on campus, holidays, even my own birthday. I first encountered the "no exceptions" idea in Joan Bolker's helpful Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day. Bolker's reasoning is that if you spend just 15 minutes a day, every day, on your dissertation, you will keep momentum and maintain progress. Similarly, the Rule of 200 helps me to feel like I'm moving forward through the drafting process, which for me is the most painful part of writing. I tried Bolker's 15-minute process too, but while it was helpful, focusing on the number of words instead of the clock gave me a more concrete goal and visible results.

200 words can be anything as long as it contributes to the complete draft. Sometimes it is a big idea. Sometimes it is a block quote. Sometimes it is an explication of the previous day's block quote. Sometimes it is working out an idea that I know I want to include but I am not sure where it will fit.

200 words + 200 words = 400 words. 400 words + 200 words = 600 words... As you marvel at my math skills, let me point out that all of these words add up. The bottom line is the count, and for me this is very important because I like to tinker with my words. Without this system, I have a tendency to fixate on the wording of a sentence or a phrase as a form of procrastination rather than on getting the ideas out. I do not mean to suggest that there isn't a time and place for tinkering or polishing one's prose, but that time and place is not the initial draft. A little bit at a time is, for many of us, less stressful and more productive than the other method of writing that I was fond of in graduate school: the binge and purge.

If the words are flowing more easily, by all means don't stop at 200, but there is no "rollover plan." If you have more time to write, then keep writing, but you still owe another 200 tomorrow even if you up the count by 1000 today.

Of course, 200 isn't a magic prescription; just about any positive number will do. A professional may do more, and quality counts for more than quantity—as long as quantity is nonzero, that is!

(thanks to the Brown Studies blog for showcasing Templeton's essay; cf. SelfReliance (1999-06-16), SiteSuggestions (2004-07-08), John McPhee (2008-03-09), Perseverance (2009-02-19), ...) - ^z - 2010-08-25