Towards A Master Writing Program

The last few weeks I’ve been under a lot of strain in terms of writing. It’s given me some additional clarity.

NaNoWriMo has honed my ability to bust out a first draft in record time. But that’s not enough. I see writing mastery as a linear game.

Level 1 - Draft Writing
Level 2 - Rewrite 1 - order, transitions
Level 3 - Research
Level 4 - Rewrite 2 - Word choice, how things are said, scamping
Level 5 - Proofing.

Various websites, including THIS one, divide the process into revision, editing, and proofreading, but I’ve seen it described in other ways as well.

This relates to an article I know how to do. This would change depending on the essay’s purpose. For example, writing a story is different than writing a pitch. A story may not need research per se, but may need more depth in regards to character development or world building. So this order might be altered in different scenarios, but generally the conception seems useful so far.

This NaNoWriMo I was under a huge time constraint and writing a draft was particularly painful. I found that in doing 20 (rather than standard 25) minute Pomodoros, I was able to consistently output 1,000 words per session for 3 sessions, after which I needed a break. I feel pretty damn good about that.

I found that in a more recent article, the pain period arose with the rewrite rather than the draft. And the same exact emotional problems arose: the need to do it all at once and the need for it to be perfect. In my mind at the time Levels 2 through 4 were jammed together. James Patterson’s Master Class sneak peak got me past that.

I also found that the pain of editing was very high. I noticed a pattern, that for every 20 minute Pomodoro editing session I paused at 12 or 13 minutes. That pause would break my concentration, and the remaining 7 minutes would be incredibly draining. It really reminded me of what I’d read about Flow states - that keeping in them requires constant positive and progressive stimulation. I appeared to go into mini flow states while working, but jump out of it at  around 13 minute mark.

At this point I didn’t seriously think anything of it. But I decided to experiment to see if anything changed if I instead did 13 minute Pomodoros. The results were quite staggering.

I was able to easily do 6 or 7 sets. I was able to more readily bypass the pain and work forward. I could go longer at a higher level of concentration, even if I didn’t pause after the alarm in order to take a break. It really reminds me of my breakthrough with waking up early - it’s not the alarm that wakes me up since I usually wake up close to an hour before it. It’s the act of setting the alarm and recording my sets that makes a mark on my mind.

I was also eager to squeeze in a Pomodoro even when I didn’t have much time, because, hell, it’s only 13 minutes, right? That is an incredible difference from constantly putting off the work. My failure to start issues evaporated.

It makes me feel, perhaps prematurely, that I’ve nailed the next level of writing. In the last few weeks it caused me to take more assignments than I thought I’d be able to do (what with jet lag and travel), and complete them successfully on a deadline.

There are a few other questions and points going forward.

I’m curious how this affects other levels. Research is the next lull I experience in my writing, and it’s something that I believe requires a strict cut off point, which is slightly different than simply recording 13 minute Pomodoros.

Other techniques, like scamping and a thesaurus at the ready with sentence wording and rubber duck decoding for proofing should be a default. For more complex articles, I’m also having problems with keeping transitions and open loops all in my head, and am testing out an idea that involves a distilled symbolic logic notation - like a programming language - to concisely summarize prose. That way I can easily see the global progression of an article complete with themes and specific transitions. It has still has a lot of kinks, but I hope it will really come in handy for the revision level.

Metrics really help with all this - knowing I can do 3,000 words in a rough draft per hour is relieving in its predictability. I don’t really have that with the other levels involved in completing a piece - yet. It’s something I should perhaps measure. I’m beginning to think I should keep a writing master log so I can better assess this.

This master plan also does not address skill pushes for other types of writing. I believe this is where classes come into play, replacing the role challenges play in other habits (or NaNoWriMo did for me with the draft level). Luckily there are plenty of resources -  I am taking a Gotham class on querying next month, and I’ve already bought the full James Patterson course for Lydia that I’d like to go through as well. The same goes for the specific Holly Lisle courses.

The point of all of this is that often enough knowing where you’re going takes so much of the stress out of endeavors. I often feel totally lost with writing, and have a sneaking suspicion that there really should be a more efficient way to progress in the skill - when I’m not drowning in panic. I think this is the beginning of such an efficient progression.

Skill Pushes and a Looming Problem: Strategies

I have a few ideas on how to juggle the problem of multiple skill pushes:

The Cast Method - making sure everything is exactly the same, or minimal, while ratcheting up a skill. For example, increasing rowing from 20 minutes to 30 minutes while keeping everything the same. This method is usually based in fear for me because I don’t want my whole routine to fall a part (like it has in the past). Another better method MIGHT be…

Sandbagging - I initially viewed this method to implement habits, but I think it could be used as a safe diagnostic tool to discover where the breaking point is. Take two or more skills, push them, and as soon as things start to get wobbly, drop back all skills to normal levels except one. I believe that this will also solidify that one skill’s advanced practice.

Fracturing - Cycling practice. When I had a daily practice of 1 hour of cardio at the gym, I usually did an hour of recumbent cycling. But it was pretty boring. It was actually easier to break it up and do half on the cycle and half on the treadmill, or into 3 with the last 1/3 on the elliptical. I feel this would really work well with practice that involves an extension of time.

Gamification - NanoWriMo, the Flash diet, I feel this is fantastic for 30 day challenges. I actually think it’s better for pushing skills than it is for making skills habits. 

Ritual - I keep meaning to write a massive post on rituals. The idea for me is that these small things ease the transition between the normal day and the place in the mind where difficult things happen. For example, when I was trying to establish a non-bracketed habit of recording my food, I made tea. I got to the point where I really enjoyed the process, and so I enjoyed the quiet time before bed where I recorded.

I did the same with writing for a while, and it’s something I still need to fiddle around with. Personally I think Ritual is like a proto- or ur-game or motivation - it just helps to lower that starting threshold, whether it’s starting or pushing a habit.

Changing multiple skill variables to maintain equilibrium- I mentioned one example of this already - my 8 week HIIT cycle, where it folded really well into my already established rowing habit. I think it worked because though it was more intense it wasn’t longer - equilibrium was maintained so there was no real load to the system. I think I have more problems increasing my base time. I like the idea of this best.

The Dragon Ball Z Kung Fu Method - Artificially intensifying practice in order to then lower it to higher base levels, but nowhere near the levels set during the initial push. 

In the cartoon DBZ and in many legendary “iron” kung fu trainings a practitioner would weigh himself down, or in the anime, train at weighted artificial gravity. After getting thoroughly used to the weight, they’d take the vest off and then would be able to fly, have preternaturally fast reflexes, or be incredibly light on their feet.

When I did NaNoWriMo, where some days required 13,000 words, going back to my normal writing quotas was incredibly easy. But I haven’t deliberately done this technique very much, so it would be interesting to practice this.

Where does this leave us?

So while my normal “Cast Methodology” relies on a natural growth in willpower to lift the extra load, gamification and ritual seem to lighten the new weight. Sandbagging and the DBZ Method both use comparisons in feeling and temporariness to advance practice. Changing variables and fracturing appear to cause as little load as possible. 

And fracturing also uses the feeling of doing multiple things to fool the mind into thinking things are going faster - it’s like hanging out with a friend. You go to one place for an hour, and it may be tedious, but go to three places in that hour and it feels like you’ve done a lot more and you know that person more. Depth of experience or relationship in this case acts as a stand in for depth of practice.

I still don’t know what skills I plan on moving forward, but this at least gives me a bit more clarity on my options.

photocred: chess by Ruocaled, ritual by rahul rekapalli, shaolin by Sven Laqua

Skill Pushes and a Looming Problem: A Rudimentary Skill Push Scale

Based on previous behaviors in this project, it appears that Skill Pushes come in several flavors or vectors:

-Classes
-Time (meditating for 10 minutes to 30 minutes)
-Reps (flossing one tooth to flossing all of them) 
-Deliberate practice (focusing on problem areas and working them)
-30 Day Challenges (like my no bread challenge or NaNoWriMo, or even the 8 week HIIT thing I recently completed - “30 Day″ is just a catch all)

When I think about it it becomes pretty clear that there is a difference in difficulty or weight with these pushes. Assuming Tiny SkillPushes ™, from lowest system load to highest I’d organize them like this:

1) Reps
2) Time
3) Classes
4) Deliberate practice
5) 30 Day Challenges

Why? When I think of increasing my meditation by 5 minutes versus doing 5 more pulls on the rower, I’d pick the latter. The same is the case with adding another glass of water in the morning or going from flossing 1 tooth to all of them. I think it just has something to do with the active nature of added reps versus just ENDURING more time. Enduring is just more painful (to me).

Those two are definitely easier than classes, where you have to do all sorts of other things like interact with people and do homework. And that is preferable to deliberate practice where you have to essentially come up with your own class. There is a big difference between doing a module where you give over some agency to a program, versus poking and prodding to find what your weaknesses are. When I used to play the violin I used to absolutely hate doing this, and it’s probably why I never got really good at it despite having played for over a decade. 

Lastly, I find 30 Day Challenges to be a huge drain on the entirety of the system. When I do NaNoWriMo, I usually reduce other behaviors to minimums, though it’s getting easier. Also challenges are challenging and are not tiny pushes by their very nature.

As an aside, classes used to be incredibly difficult for me. But incorporated as part of an established habit, I sort’ve go on autopilot. Homework? No problem, because I no longer do everything at the last minute. I automatically start doing something, so simply processing what another person tells me to do (rather than trying to figure out where my effort has to go myself) is exponentially easier. It’s also an important reason why all this self-help stuff should be incorporated together as part of a whole system.  

But why was my 8 week HIIT program so easy? I think it’s because I was mixing variables. It was a part of an established routine which is based on time - 30 minutes. The HIIT was more intense, but it was for a shorter time.

I think skill pushes can mix and match these variables. If I were to go to a meditation retreat I would consider that a “Challenge” - but it would be a challenge because it’s increasing time of practice to several hours a day. At the same time, I’m presumably not doing ANY of my other routines while on retreat. It’s also not forever, while things like flossing would be an increase for GOOD. Though presumably a retreat would make a time push from 30 minutes to an hour look like nothing.

photocred: scales by Hans Splinter, violin by Jason Hollinger, doodle by Allie

Progression Dilemma Part 2: Pros and Cons

What’s the best option? Let’s list out the virtues of each path:

OPTION 1 - Establishing All Habits
Pros:
Steadily working on things. Better regimentation. Circle of support. vortex forces are not in play (because you’re doing everything!). Accrual of long-term benefits, like writing “two shitty pages”, allows for great benefits simply because you’re doing it every day even though it’s in incredibly small amounts. This latter benefit only occurs in some skills…like writing or fixed skills like flossing.
Cons: Glacially slow progress. Incredibly difficult to regiment - overwhelming. problems with house of cards, problems with time, problems in willpower - you have to do ALL of it in one day. Vortex forces might actually be in play on another level because you aren’t progressing in everything - there will be times when the impatience in some skills will affect you. Depletion forces in play.

OPTION 2 - 1 Skill Progression
Pros: fast progress. lots of willpower
Cons: no support. no regimentation practice. Vortex forces definitely in play.

OPTION 3 - Family of Skills
Pros: Fast progress - arguably the FASTEST progress due to skills backing each other up (ex, diet AND exercise) Seeing fast progress helps with motivation, saves on vortex forces. Saving some on willpower, therefore fewer depletion forces. Targeted relevant support. A little regimentation practice.
Cons: Vortex forces in play (a little). downside of regularity to prevent things like writer’s block. Accrual of long term benefits a la two shitty pages not in play.

CONCLUSION:

Option 1 is definitely out - there’s just too much going wrong for it. I think the best option is the third - it seems to have the best of both worlds - the only real thing wrong with it is a lack of small accrual in certain tasks. 

What does all this mean for the future of the project? It’s something I’ll discuss in my next post. I think the important thing to remember is that these are three phases. Regimentation, habituation, and mastery. I think clarifying what success means and separating out these three vectors is critical for any further progress and discussion.

What is good for habituation isn’t necessarily good for mastery. And making decisions like that are what’s crucial for continuing this project - it also definitively signifies a turning point in this blog. What started out as a project on habituation has definitely outgrown its starting parameters. 

And that’s a good thing.