Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

What a Crooked Spine Can Teach You About Writing

My 15-year-old daughter and I share many traits. We'd both rather eat a really good piece of cheese than a sweet. We share the belief that The Gilmore Girls was one of the funniest, most charming programs ever produced by network TV. And we both have scoliosis.

Scoliosis is an s-shaped curve that twists its way through your back. My case is mild. My daughter's is much worse. Weirdly, it's good news that she has three curves because they are said to "balance" each other out. Not quite the same thing as get-out-of-jail free card, but about as good as it gets when it comes to spinal problems.

Still, in addition to being followed by an orthopedic doctor, my daughter needs physio every 10 days or so. And her curves are severe enough that she must do a modified PE program — hence the physio appointment requiring me.

The physiotherapist, bless her soul, said she wanted to focus on what she calls "the little things." Then she said something that shocked me. According to her, our society's switch from regular typewriters to computers has had a measurable impact on exercise.

Sounds crazy, I know, but have you ever used a regular typewriter? They required hard pounding of keys and the strong thwack of a carriage return at the end of every line. I know that in our new e-world, the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome has risen dramatically (because people type on computers so much faster and overwork their wrists.)

But I didn't know the change also had some weighty results. The physio's shocking statistic? For a regular typist, the decrease in effort expended on typing on a computer will cause an 11-pound weight gain in one year.

I'm not sure I even believe the exact statistic — it may be apocryphal — but I do believe the trend. It ties in with a math principle I've always loved called the additivity of small numbers. Basically, this principle holds that if you keep proper track of relatively small things (for example, how much you spend on lattes each week, or how often you drive short distances when you could easily walk), the ultimate number will be large, not small.

But here's the factor that many writers miss. It applies to writing, too.

I know business people who procrastinate on writing reports. They don't realize that working on them for a mere 15 minutes here and there would add up quickly to a finished report.

I also know students who freak out at the idea of a 5,000-word paper for school. It sounds enormous! But they should get out their calculators. Anyone writing merely 300 words a day can have that paper finished in just over two weeks!

And exactly the same idea applies to books. Write 300 words a day, working only on weekdays, and by the end of the year you'll have 78,000 words. That?s a book. Think of it! Not a skinny novella. Not a booklet. But a full-length book.

Granted, you'll still have to come up with the idea. And, at the end, you'll need to edit it. But who can't write 300 words a day? You already probably write at least triple that — maybe even more — in emails.

Harness the additivity of small numbers to surprise yourself with the quantity of writing you can produce.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 8th 2009, 1:11 AM
Comment by: Susan B.
I enjoyed this column today. I like your vocabulary and will need to look up a word--apocryphal--to confirm my suspected meaning. The only part that faltered for me was the ending. I worked on NaNoWriMo last month and I'm sure that many of the words I wrote will not be included in my novel in the end. It seems disingenuous to say that writing merely 300 words a day would result in a novel at the end of a year.

With all due respect,
Susan
Tuesday December 8th 2009, 2:30 AM
Comment by: ppeffy@bigpond.com.au
I wondered why i don't lose weight!!!!!!!!!! I walk up to 3 kms per day and try to eat correctly.I have pain in the right jaw after long sessions on the computer, and recently went to the dentist!!!! Is that my form of RSI
I enjoyed your discussion on small inputs regularly. Perhaps I'll finish my assignment before Christmas. I will take this good advise as my New Year Resolution!!!
Tuesday December 8th 2009, 2:37 AM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
I have tried several times to write a book but just can't seem to get past page 10 or so. Maybe I just need to take your advise.
Tuesday December 8th 2009, 7:01 AM
Comment by: Paul G.
This article was helpful to me in that I tend to think big. In other words, big projects need big blocks of time. I therefore dismiss opportunities to do a little, waiting for a a free day to tackle a big project. I teach piano and have always encouraged my students to practice daily for brief periods rather than skip days.

This certainly applies to writing as well. I need to take my own advice. I have produced over 50,000 words of a novel, and yes, not all of these words are "gems". However, I have to generate the junk before the pearls appear.
Tuesday December 8th 2009, 7:09 AM
Comment by: Kathe B.
Daphne - I receive your e-letter, too, and always look forward to your ponderings and particulars. This column has encouraged me to spend at least 5 minutes a day exercising. Maybe I can work my way up from that. It's like a deep breath, to realize that the burden I thought hovered over me is not nearly as heavy as I make it out to be. As a freelance commercial writer, I'll also try to tackle major client projects in short shifts instead of pushing against the clock at deadline time. Thank you for sharing your expertise!
Tuesday December 8th 2009, 1:31 PM
Comment by: Theodore O.
To end up with 300 final words you would need to write at least 600, so a book would take at least two years at that rate. On the other hand, if you write no words each day, you have no book at all.
Tuesday December 8th 2009, 1:53 PM
Comment by: Nancy W.
Hi Daphne,

I've always cleaned my apartment by spreading the tasks throughout the day and at the end of the day, what I wanted to get done got done.

I never thought to compare writing with doing tasks--once I sit down to write, if I get interrupted, it's very hard for me to get back in focus. That is why I start writing as early as 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning--no emails or phone calls that early!

Thanks for the column reminding me how I will get my book done.
Tuesday December 8th 2009, 2:24 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Susan B & Theordore O: I should have said a DRAFT of a novel. You still have to edit it, of course, and that will mean removing some words and adding others. But at Theodore puts it, if you write no words a day, then you have nothing.

Doing a little bit at a time works for most things -- from housecleaning, to income taxes, to exercising. If you're looking for more on this important topic, check out the book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Mauer. Inspirational! And practical!
Saturday December 12th 2009, 3:32 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I liked your comments.
However, it may be discovered at times that the first draft is the most ingenious.
In photography I often marvel at the result of a "point-and-shoot" image as compared to the "finished" product of deep calculation.
Don't ignore spontaneity!
Saturday January 2nd 2010, 9:23 AM
Comment by: George P. (Farmington, NM)
Thank you for the inspiration. I have been hesitant to undertake some writing which I have wanted to do since I have had not the time. But I do have time in 300 word increments! Since I have no deadline, if it takes a year or more - I did not have anything else planned.
Kathe B. says something about 5 minutes a day exercising - one of my least favorite things to do. Thanks (I guess)for that idea as well. :>)

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