25,462 Words

Reflections on a month of writing.

Assumed Audience: people who care about writing, accomplishing longer-term goals, or both.

By way of completing this blog post, I am officially finishing my November-long project: writing at least 500 words per day. I started a day late (on the 2nd), and I missed a couple days during our travel, so all told I ended up writing 27 days out of the month. My grand total was 25,462 words. Including those three off days, I averaged 849 words per day. On actual writing days, I averaged 943 words per day.1

I also wrote for a variety of audiences. Some of those words I published: on this site, in my newsletter, or for my rewrite updates. Others I will publish: a couple posts and essays in progress for Mere Orthodoxy, and a bunch of new documentation for ember-cli-typescript. And some of the words I wrote this month I don’t intend to publish, at least in anything like their current form: they are simply part of my Zettelkasten, notes for myself which I wouldn’t publish (even if they might eventually become part of something I do publish).2

All in all, not too shabby! Certainly better than the 500 words per day I was aiming for, though also only about half the roughly 1,700 words per day I’d need to manage if I were to do NaNoWriMo — the inspiration for this whole project. Someday, perhaps!

So much for the stats rundown. What (if anything) did I learn from this process? A handful of things, it turns out!

1. I love writing.

We knew this already, of course, but this month proved an effective reminder. The biggest reason I keep blogging, now close to 15 years since I started, is that I just love writing. I have enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember. I have strong memories typing out fiction on an old PC when I was in middle school, and loving it. I have equally strong memories of typing out papers on an even earlier PC in late elementary school, and loving that.3

That hasn’t changed. Writing like this for a month made me very eager to keep writing, and it was quite refreshing. Doubly so because it made for a very good contrast with the slog of a task I’ve been hammering through at work for the last few months.4 Writing, even very technical writing, is not like programming. It exercises my mind quite differently. That makes it a complementary hobby to my day job in a way that programming side projects are not (however much I enjoy and intend to keep pushing on those side projects).

This love for writing has me wanting to do more than what I can manage in blog posts, though. Good as this public journal is, the space for essays on this site needs to fill up over time as well. Essays can do things that blog posts cannot. That goes not only for how they affect the audience, but how they affect the author. I learn things by writing; I learn much more by doing the hard work of making a robust argument, whether in a research paper or in a careful essay.

Essays also demand more craft than blog posts. At least as I construe the distinction between a blog post and an essay, essays are longer and more careful than a blog post:  — Less off the cuff.  — More considered.  — Better argued.  — Revised and not merely copy-edited. I am comfortable with the form of the blog post (even if always working at it). Essays mostly exceed my grasp. I have said as much for the last few years, but this reinforced it: I want to get past that hurdle and write things that demonstrate that craft, at the scale and length of an essay.

2. I need to read more.

When I relaunched this site, I included the Library section because I want to share more of what I’m reading — not just the short reviews I’ve done over the past few years, but more quotes, more substantive interactions with those quotes, more arguments with the authors of the things I’m reading. The obvious corollary is that I also need to be reading more, if that section of my site is ever to be populated. Writing this month hammered home how necessary that is simply to be able to do the kind of writing I want, as well.

This is a more complicated thing than it might seem. I have long loved reading as well as writing: I have equally strong memories of my mom having to tear me away from my books to go play in the summer. Since about midway through seminary, though, my reading road had been bumpier — for a wide variety of reasons, many of them also contributors to the burnout I experienced last year.5 I have, my best intentions notwithstanding, not made it through a lot of books even since graduation. (In the past two and a half years, I have finished only three theology books, and fewer than a dozen novels.)

I am slowly turning this around, figuring out how to get the studying wires in my brain connected once again after burnout short-circuited some of them. But it is painfully slow.

3. Break days help.

While I set out with the goal of writing every single day, the down days were actually quite nice. I think if I do this again, I will make a point to schedule break days — probably Sundays, which I take as a day of rest in general. The habit of writing is good. The need to do it every single day can make it become more burdensome than it would otherwise be, though.

If I were chasing a word count goal, I would just adjust the word-per-day count to account for the days I wasn’t writing. With the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words as an example: taking off four days would mean a daily writing target of 1,924 words instead of 1,667 words. That’s a small difference, and a very doable one — the more so because those break days make it easier to plow ahead on the non-break days. Had I inverted my goal this time — 15,000 words in the month, rather than 500 words per day — that would have come out to just 577 words per day. That goal was obviously in reach for me, given that I exceeded it by over 60%!

4. I must not sustain this pace.

If I had no other projects going, spending this much time writing would be fine. However, writing so many words would not be fine; and I do have other projects going. Writing so many words would not be fine, because my ambition to write essays and not merely blog posts means that if I were spending this same amount of time on writing projects, it would actually involve a great deal more time reading, and a great deal more time editing. Fewer words, but better words: because more prepared, and because more practiced.

Equally, though, I want very much to ship rewrite. Every time I do engage in research writing — every time I prepare to teach at church, for example, but also any time I start think about working on an essay! — I want it to exist, and it doesn’t. If that is ever going to happen, I cannot afford to spend so much time writing: some of it needs to go to building software instead. A lot, even. I expect that figuring out this balance will be a significant part of my year ahead. I need to keep writing, not least because it is a perfect way to dogfood that software project. I need to write less, though.6

In sum

This was a great experiment and I’m glad I did it again (I did the same one month the better part of a decade ago, and enjoyed it then as well). I’m grateful for those of you who followed along, too! It was good to get these muscles loosened up and going again. I may repeat it every so often. But for now, it’s over and done, and I’m going to plunge back into making progress on rewrite, even as I continue working on some of the essays and posts and documentation I started this month. It’ll be a little quieter around here as a result. Never quiet. But a little quieter.

  1. Getting these numbers required finishing this post, since they’re inclusive of its totals. Self-referentiality FTW! ↩︎

  2. I count those in those totals because the point was not to publish but to write — and my notes are definitely writing. ↩︎

  3. Yes, I was the kind of kid who liked writing papers even in late elementary school. Nerdy from the beginning. ↩︎

  4. To head off any curiosity: LinkedIn remains great! This is just one of those tasks that (a) comes up everywhere but (b) has really great rewards for completing it and best of all (c) I’m doing work that will make this particular kind of slog far less common or entirely eliminate it for other engineers on this project going forward. Absolutely worth it; but a slog nonetheless. ↩︎

  5. Those reasons are a mix of public (and obvious) and private (and not obvious). Those of you who know me well personally will be able to infer the latter. For those of you who don’t know me personally, suffice it to say that life has many trials. ↩︎

  6. This is a recurring theme of my blog over the past few years. Given my love of writing, I don’t expect it to stop being a challenge for me. ↩︎