checking for comfort

The inimitable Dave Crenshaw had me on his podcast recently. Our conversation touched on finding an audience, focusing on what matters, and learning from the competition. Worth a listen: Apple Podcasts, Spotify.

A few months ago, I stumbled on Professor Robert Boice's wonderful tips for writers on the University of Chicago website but neglected to save it. Today, I discovered that it had mysteriously vanished. Luckily, there's an archived version.

Boice begins with the basics:

Pace yourself.  Work in brief, regular sessions, 10-50 minutes in length, no more than 3-4 hours a day, 5 days a week. Use a timer to help yourself keep the sessions brief, and take breaks between each. 

This is the most important fact about writing I've ever confirmed through personal experimentation. It's also the one nearly everyone ignores (to their detriment) no matter how many times they're reminded it matters. When we push ourselves too far, or not far enough, projects die. Sometimes, we stop writing altogether because we refuse to pace ourselves.

A sense of pace is foundational. As with cardio, once you find a comfortable, sustainable pace that still keeps you moving briskly, everything gets easier. But this is old news. True but also a truism. Another element of Boice's advice verges on unique:

Pause while writing to check for comfort.  Watch for signs of impatience and rushing, particularly thoughts about needing to finish in any one session. 

I can't recall seeing this elsewhere, certainly not as "checking for comfort," and the phrase resonates. When you're writing, you sometimes experience an irritable drive toward completion at any cost: "Ugh, I just want this over with." So you start to push.

In my experience, compulsively chasing the finish line this way guarantees a mental, emotional, and even physical hangover while leading to subpar, facile output. Note the following related point from Boice:

Watch, above all, for the temptation to binge out of impatience to get something done.  Remind yourself that bingeing leads to overreaction leads to depression. 

This rule is particularly tough to follow when writing to a deadline. However, to quote Doctor Strange's nemesis Baron Mordo, "the bill comes due." Don't push. You'll pay for it later.

Boice's whole list is worth reading. Likewise, if you can snag a used copy, Boice wrote several books (now long out-of-print) on productive writing, including Professors as Writers and How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency. Having collaborated with many academics over the years and seen the struggles common to many, I'm eager to dig into this forgotten opus.

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