Word counts are a feature common to business and academic writing alike. ITTs (invitations to tender) commonly specify a word limit for key sections. And while an essay or a doctoral thesis usually come with a word minimum, the reality is that it quickly becomes a target.
On the face of it, that should be fine. In practice, it’s often where the problems start.
The trouble is that numbers are a distraction, which is one thing you definitely don’t need when you’re trying to produce an important document.
How big this distraction is depends on the size of the word target. If numbers are off-putting, big numbers can be paralysing. Watching the figure at the bottom of your screen creep up in ones or twos can easily become a fixation that displaces creativity and original thought. It’s like watching the clock in an exam hall tick by while staring in vain at a question you can’t answer. Fortunately, there is an easy way to tackle this. And, like the problem itself, the answer lies in the way your brain works.
Step away from the pain
The first step is to realise that we all deal with big, scary numbers all the time. We just don’t notice it. In a typical working day, you somehow manage to fill up around 1,000 minutes (assuming you get up at 6.30am and your head finally hits the pillow at around 11 at night). What you don’t do is tackle them second by second. Just as well, as there are 60,000 of them in that same working day – that’s over 15 MILLION waking seconds every year, not counting weekends.
Next, let’s overcome another mental stumbling block – the fact that we know writing is often a complex task. Well, you deal with other complex tasks all the time. Getting through a typical day is actually pretty complex, if you think about it. Even an hour’s commute involves many actions and decisions that, if you considered them as a whole, would seem overwhelming. (Which route do I take? Shall I use the bus or the train? Which train shall I catch? Shall I get a coffee? What type of coffee? You get the picture.)
Shift your focus to the content
Focusing on a big, scary word count will just make it scarier and scarier. But it’s the act of focusing that’s perhaps the biggest thing making it scary. The most important thing is not the number, it’s the content.
The more you focus on the number, the less productive you’re likely to be (often because you’re not writing but thinking and worrying about writing).
Not only that, but focusing on the number can dramatically reduce the quality of your output. You end up just counting words, rather than really thinking about whether each word deserves its place in your document. Filling each page becomes your priority, with the result that – if you’re not careful – you end up using longer phrases than you need to, just to pad it out. (Why use ‘helped produce’ when ‘facilitated the production of’ gets you twice as many words?)
Counting words reduces each one down to a base value. In an 80,000 word thesis, that value is just 1/80,000 of the final document. This doesn’t only make you casual with the words you choose. It’s also utterly demoralising.
Say you have a productive day and produce a thousand words. Not just any thousand words, but a thousand words of engaging prose that will provide real value to your intended audience.
When you finish, you sit back and bask in the glow of a job well done. But that glow lasts all of about 15 seconds (if you’re lucky). Taking its place at that point is a kick in the guts, as you realise that you’ve still got 79,000 words to go. Cue depression, demotivation and – probably – paralysing writer’s block.
Fortunately, there is another way: forget about the number altogether. I realise that’s easier said than done: you can’t not think of something by trying not to think about it. (If you don’t believe me, try not thinking of a pink elephant now that I’ve put the idea in your head.) But you can take advantage of a quirk of the human brain, which means that you can’t consciously think about more than one thing at the same time. (Multitasking is a myth: deep down, it’s just switching back and forth between tasks, albeit perhaps very quickly.) That means you can forget your Big Scary word count by thinking about something else.
Channel your thoughts
It also holds the key to transforming your productivity. Because you can dramatically increase how many words you produce by thinking about the information itself, the people who will read what you write, or switching between the two.
That in itself is a lot of thinking. So first, you need to separate your research from your writing. Research, thinking and writing all go hand in hand, but they’re not the same thing. Confusing them and trying to do all three at the same time only invites trouble.
So turn your attention to the topic in hand and think about it for a few seconds. This is vital if you’re going to write anything valuable and informative. (Although it’s surprising how many documents are apparently produced by focusing on something less important – such as a template or model structure. Believe me, it shows.)
I realise that thinking often feels neither productive nor like ‘real work’. To make it feel more concrete, grab a notebook and start scribbling down some ideas about what you might include in the document itself. Don’t worry too much about the words you use or forming them into sentences. Don’t even worry if the ideas are any good. These are just for your use only. Do them in a real-world notebook though, with a pen or pencil (remember those?), rather than on a screen. As you do so, you’ll start to notice gaps in your knowledge, which you can use to direct your research. And as you do more research, you’ll generate more ideas, which you then scribble down in your notebook. It’s a virtuous circle. (I call it the research cycle.)
After a while, you’ll have enough information to start to map out a structure. When you get stuck, just think about the reader and what they’re likely to need to know or be interested in. (Note that those are often not the same thing.) In fact, do that even if you’re not stuck. Stepping into your reader’s shoes is vital if you’re to avoid the risk of writing something that’s of limited value – value that’s perhaps even limited solely to you.
Separate out topic ‘chunks’
Then use the same technique to generate ideas and notes for each part of the structure. To make this easier, break down the structure into easily manageable chunks. ‘Manageable’ in this case could just be one mini-topic that produces only three or four paragraphs at first. But if you take five to ten minutes to scribble down the information you’re going to include in those paragraphs (deleting or adding to it based on your knowledge of your reader), you’ll find that ideas start coming thick and fast.
The writing part then becomes very, very easy. Just start writing, based on your notes, to produce a few paragraphs.
What you’re doing is ‘blocking out’ the information, separating completely from the writing process. The idea is that you get the information down in a form (ie scribbles) that makes it very difficult for you to slip into self-criticism.
You can rearrange the notes first, if you need to. Post-it notes might help here. But don’t over-engineer the method and turn it into another distraction. (Just drawing arrows or giving sections numbers might be safer in this respect.) And resist the temptation to edit as you go. Instead, leave each draft section for a few days – or the entire document if it’s fairly short – and edit it in a few days’ time. You’ll be amazed at how many new ideas and improvements you can make then, once you’re viewing it as an editor rather than a writer. (Again, you can’t be both at the same time.)
Make it a daily habit
This technique works well for one-off documents. But where it really comes into its own is if you make it a daily practice. Because doing that will give you a skill that you can use throughout your career. (The ability to produce original documents quickly and fearlessly is a rare and extremely valuable one.) You’ll have off days, but those are all just part of the process of adjustment. Think of it as building up your writing muscles. As you adjust to the pace, you’ll find yourself getting faster and faster. As you practice, you’ll also start to build up an impressive volume of work.
It’s easily possible to produce thousands of words a day with this method. You can use it to write a management report, a term paper, a tender for a contract or a PhD thesis. It works especially well for blog posts too: I wrote the first draft of this post in less than an hour, after 30 minutes of scribbling in my notebook. (I know this because I did it sitting in a London museum that restricts free WiFi access to 60 minutes, but also because I timed it. The original word count was just under 1,200 words. It took exactly 57 minutes and 17 seconds.) Give it a try.
Just remember not to think of that pink elephant.
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