The Pomodoro Technique for Writers

So I’ve been using something called the Pomodoro Technique to help me in my writing. It’s been nothing short of amazing. On the surface, it’s very simple. You block out 25 minutes to work, crank up a kitchen timer and only focus on that task until the timer rings. But I have found it to be Double-Plus-Advanced-Level-Zen-Productivity-Ninja-Superbest for writing. And here’s why — It defeats something psychologists call the Anxiety of Becoming.

Here’s what the creator of the Pomodoro Technique, Francisco Cirillo has to say on the subject:

For many people, time is an enemy. The anxiety triggered by “the ticking clock”, in particular when a deadline is involved, leads to ineffective work and study behaviour which in turn elicits the tendency to procrastinate. The Pomodoro Technique was created with the aim of using time as a valuable ally to accomplish what we want to do the way we want to do it, and to empower us to continually improve our work or study processes.

That feeling of the ticking clock is the feeling that we should be further along in our writing. This anxiety has been very useful to me in my professional life. Writing ads or even brochures is like sprinting. Faster! Faster! Faster!

But a book is a marathon. A serious article has to be a 5k. And for both, there is certainly something to be said for pacing. And limiting anxiety. For me, the anxiety gets in the way. All those thoughts of, I should be faster, I’ve got to hit this word goal, I’ve got to make sure that these words are good enough to keep or I will fall behind and I really really suck at this are counter-productive.

As writers, I’m not sure any of those worries are within our control. Or any of a thousand other worries that beset us as we are trying to go about the business of getting words on a page. All we can really do is control our focus. And the Pomodoro technique helps me get better at that.

The Real Distractions

Sure, distraction is the enemy. Everybody knows that. Facebook, Twitter, googling random things — the productivity that a computer can grant us is easily counterbalanced by the interrupts that it offers. But the real interrupts aren’t digital. They are psychological. The thoughts that you have while trying to write that have nothing to do with writing. Here’s how the Pomodoro helped me with distraction:

Every time you have a thought about or desire to do something else, I write it down and continue with my work. At the end of the Pomodoro (25 minute interval) I would review the things that had attempted to derail me and see if any of them needed doing, or had merit.

For example, “take the dog for a walk” has merit. I should take both the dog (and my fat ass) for a walk at some point during the day. But “need to look up commas because you are using them wrong” has no merit. Maybe, I, am, using, commas, wrong. Who cares. Fix it in the rewrite. No reason to let one misplaced comma get in the way of 500 good words.

There are a billion worries and criticisms that can get in the way of getting the first draft down on paper. If we are unaware of them, then were are powerless over them.

Quality versus Quantity versus Progress

There’s probably not much we can do about the quality of our writing in the first draft. It is what it is. If we write enough first drafts and then rewrite them, we will become better writers. The more you work at something, the better you get. But what the Pomodoro Technique has done for me is give me an atomic unit of effort. A first draft is a rough number of words. But to get there I will have to spend X amount of quality, focused time. Not X amount of anxiety. Not X amount of times putting it off. Nope, X amount of time actually at the keyboard (or pad, completely focused on what I’m trying to write)

So the measure of a draft becomes X Pomodoros. Not words. Not quality. The psychological relief of this is immense. It gives me a way to just show up and do my part of the job. I put in the hours, I get the result. But if I worry about the result while I’m trying to put in the hours the process becomes much, much harder.

The Illusions of Quality

I’m not sure anybody can judge what they are making while they are making it. At least, not in the first draft. If you’ve been at this game for a while you’ve been over the moon excited about something you’ve written, only to go back and discover that it’s not that good. Likewise, you’ve cranked on something you thought was total shit and when you’ve gone back to re-read it, you realize that it’s not that bad. While you are giving birth is not the time to critically evaluate your children.

Estimation

So give yourself over to your writing for 25 minutes. And then another 25 minutes. Do this for N trials. Say N > 30. And you’ve got a statistically valid sample of how fast you write. How fast YOU write. Not how fast you should. Not how fast someone else writes. But you. Average those suckers together. In the next 25 minutes you might write more or less. But now you are able to estimate your progress. Now you have a production process. The more I turn the lever, the more words come out. I have a measure of control over the creative act that I did not have before.

Sure, sure. Sometimes you get lost. Sometimes you get nowhere. But over time, that’s not the case. Otherwise writers would never finish anything.

Treating Yourself Like a Dog

Another interesting facet of the technique is the sound of a kitchen timer in the background. After a little while, it become a powerful reinforcing device. Just like Pavlov could ring a bell and get his dogs to drool, the sound of the kitchen timer now causes me to focus. It also reassures me that all is well. It’s an audible signal that I’m working and things are as they should be. This is not a feeling that many people encounter naturally while writing. Especially not while writing fiction at the limits of your ability.

And let me tell you, I’m not above treating myself like a dog (or marmot, or ibex or prairie dog) to get good work done. Really, whatever takes. And anything that can make the passage of time reassuring — sign me up.

Check It Out for Yourself

You can download Francisco’s excellent book and find out everything you want to know about the Pomodoro Technique (including why it’s called Pomodoro) here http://www.pomodorotechnique.com If you put the technique to use. Leave a comment to let me know about your results.

George Orwell’s Six Rules for Saving the Language (and the World)

The world doesn’t make much sense to me. Or, more precisely, the sense that the world makes to others is not the sense it makes to me.

Nowhere is this more evident in the use and abuse of language. Language of any kind is a slippery, imperfect instrument at best. And if we want to get good use out of the tool of language, we should take some pains to see that our language stays in good condition.

This is George Orwell’s first point in his wonderful essay “Politics and the English Language”

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

To be sure, this essay is a source of wonderful, practical advice for anyone who wants to use, as he puts it,

language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.

And to this end Orwell offers these six rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

But as you can see from the first quote, for George, the stakes are considerably higher than the marks on your next term paper. Or the stylistic considerations of your next memo. He points out that allowing this kind of sloppy language to advance unchecked also allows people to defend the most horrible of acts.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

We can easily come up with additions to Orwell’s 1946 list of atrocities (to both persons and language). Most obviously, the President of the United States is to receive the Nobel Peace Prize while his country is engaged in two wars. One of which he has just escalated. More generally, the United States has a “defense” budget that is 48% or almost half of the world’s combined military expenditure. Observing that offense is more costly than defense, and that the United States spends 71% more than Russia, China, Korea, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria combined, one is moved, at the very least, to begin the search for a different adjective to couple with that use of the word budget. More subtly, Social Security is bankrupt. Those who place their trust in it will find no security at all.

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

To appreciate the timeless insight of George Orwell, you only need to remember that in Saddam Hussein’s interview with Dan Rather, Saddam claimed that he was the democratically elected leader of Iraq. He proudly told Mr. Rather that he had received 100% of the vote. Dan was skeptical of the percentage. But what he couldn’t do was refute Saddam’s claim. For there is no agreed definition of the word democracy.

Ideas have consequences. And insofar as each of our words is an idea in a more crystalline form, we should take care with them. Orwell understood this and argued for it with brilliance and passion in his essay “Politics and Language.”

The complete text of “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell is available here: http://langs.eserver.org/politics-english-language.txt

A Defense of Writing Longhand

I like technology. A lot. But I’m not too sure how technology feels about me. It may be my faithful friend and boon companion — then again, it may just be pretending to be my friend so it can date my sister. Especially when it comes to writing.

I’m writing a book. And for all the romance and immensity that phrase can contain, writing a book is also, simply a production process. I am in the process of assembling 75,000 to 100,000 words. And, after writing 50,000 of them, I’ve become convinced that the first draft is the hardest part. Hemingway famously said that the first draft of everything is shit. For what it’s worth, I agree. So, my question, becomes, what’s the easiest way to get through the hardest part.

And to my surprise, the easiest way, turns out to be writing longhand. Not printing mind you, but composing with a long, flowing, and delightfully irregular script that fills the page like a river of words. I sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and a thousand words roll out in a flash. And not only does it often take less time than typing, I think I write better longhand.

Now realize, I am not a hunt and peck typist. I type very fast. And when I type on one of those thin little laptop keyboards that have about 3 millimeters of travel, my typing speed approaches the absurd. Like Glenn Gould, the wonderfully talented and eccentric pianist, who remanufactured his piano, shortening the action on his keys so that he could play Bach faster. Beautiful, yet a little insane.

There is obviously more to writing than typing.

What I’m really doing is composing. Composition requires focus. It is, like most acts of creation monotasking. And as much as I love technology, it drives us to distraction.

A pen and paper has but one functionality. It captures the marks I make so that they can be referred to at a later time. It doesn’t ring, it doesn’t bother me with an incoming chat or IM. It never asks me to plug it in so it can get more power. It doesn’t crash, it never needs an upgrade and it is unlikely that someone will snatch my pad and bolt from a coffee shop with it when I turn my back.

Sure, paper is perishable.

But it is predictably perishable. Data turns to noise in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Like hard drive crashes. And if an IT person tells you that there is a way to archive a file, not touch it for 500 years, and guarantee that it will be useable – they are lying to you. If you think I’m wrong, I’ll email you some WordStar and AppleWorks documents just as soon as I can figure out how to get them off my five and a quarter inch floppies.

But I can go the national archives right now and read a copy of the Magna Carta that was handwritten 793 years ago. No format or version issues here. It is fitting for this essay that, Magna Carta literally means “Great Paper”

But, to paraphrase Emerson, all of this is small account compared to what lies within us. And that is the struggle to organize and communicate our thoughts clearly with the beautiful, yet horribly imprecise instrument of language. And it is in this struggle, I believe that the beauty and power of writing longhand is discovered.

In a way, the problem with writing is, the same problem of hitting a golf ball. Both the page and the ball just sit there. And when you write you have (theoretically) a lifetime to rewrite it until you get it right.

But all that time is simply a field day for the critical part of your brain. Just the time it needs to jump in and muck everything up. This part of the brain needs something to criticize. After all, that’s it’s job. But the critical function is not creative. You be critical about anything. And no matter how absurd you are being, you will find ammo to support you. Try running Hamlet through a Microsoft Grammar check.Try running Hamlet and leaving all the scenes in.

But the point is, there’s no possible way to get it right, if you don’t first get it down. And as much as I know this — I mean know it in my bones, as carpenter knows his measuring tape — it still doesn’t help.

The critical part of my brain is telling me, right now, that this sentence is horrible.

That the entire device of anthropomorphizing the critcal side of my nature in this essay is a bad idea. And that I just mispelled critical. And I shouldn’t have started two sentences in a row with “and”.

But when I write longhand, the experience is different. I think it is because that critical part of my brain is busy picking apart my handwriting (which truly is horrible) instead of my prose. It tells me that my handwriting is atrocious. And it gets the satisfaction of being right. But who cares? While it’s busy the words are just rushing out. And they’re not henpecked or second-guessed before they’ve had time to cool. They exist in a flawed, but pure state. This kind of prose has a feral power that seems to be lacking from the things I type. Maybe that’s not it, maybe it’s just harder to get my head in that effortless writing space when I use a keyboard. But whatever the case is, writing longhand makes it easier for me to reach a writer’s high.

And if you’re still not sold on the idea that writing longhand might help you write better, consider this. Until the 20th century, books were written by hand. I would argue that the best writing in history was composed by hand. The entire process is much easier now. But, would you like to argue that the increase in the power of our technology has led to a corresponding increase in the quality of our writing?

Not me. I’m too busy scribing away.