This is how many words I wrote last week:
During the working week 24 — 28 August, I wrote 13,671 words. Which is a lot, far more than I had expected. I also didn't anticipate that fully a quarter of all the words I wrote that week would be in emails to other people, nor that writing scripts for my podcast Shedunnit would be the biggest subtotal.
Why, I can hear you wondering, did you keep this record? Why, when you could have been writing, or sleeping, or doing literally anything else, did you choose to keep pasting text into wordcounter.net and then enter the total into a spreadsheet at the end of each day? Is this some advanced form of procrastination?
The answer to the last question, in my case, is almost always yes, no matter what I'm doing. But I hope that it was purposeful procrastination, if that's not a ludicrous oxymoron. I'm cautiously tiptoeing towards another book project at the moment, always looking at it sideways or out of the corner of my eye because if I look straight at it the idea might evaporate completely.
I'm not making very fast progress into turning it into something more solid. I've been finding it really hard to carve out the time to work on the proposal because I always seem to get to the end of each day and be completely written out. It never used to be the case, but nowadays there's a limit to how much I can write in a single day until there are no more words left in me.
Maybe it's the pandemic, maybe it's because I'm not in my twenties anymore, but the days of me being able to keep going all night if the inspiration is there seem to be over, at least for now. I have to spend my daily quota of words wisely, and therefore I thought I'd see if there was any slack in the system, anywhere I could pinch back a few hundred here or there and give them to the book instead.
I got the idea from something my mother told me about when I was about five years old. She is a computer scientist, and at that point she worked at a big corporate research laboratory. For a few months, she was part of a team conducting a study on how work was done at the facility so they could determine whether any new equipment was needed, or a new structure, or more people, and so on.
Every day she was at a different area of the campus, drawing plans of offices and labs and marking where all the computers were and recording who used them to do what. She built some software to handle all of this information and, at the end of the study, to spit out some conclusions. Because it was the 1990s, the programme was housed on dozens of floppy discs, enough to fill an entire cardboard box.
I loved hearing about her job every night when she came home. I also loved computers, especially the discarded broken ones that she brought home from work to fix in her spare time. The orange screen and blinking cursor that would appear after hours of patient soldering and fiddling around was very exciting.
Somehow I absorbed this idea of examining your work habits, of gathering data about how you're operating, from this period of her career. I think in business speak it's called doing a "time and motion" study, although that might be a very outdated term. Yet even though I'm just one person sitting still in a cupboard writing newsletters and making podcasts, I decided it was worth doing such a study on myself.
Some notes on methodology. I tried to count all the words I wrote for work purposes, i.e. where there is some remuneration involved. Messages to friends or family were obviously excluded. I didn't include Slack or WhatsApp messages in my count, even though I do use them to communicate about work for some projects, just because it was a faff to paste my text accurately out of those interfaces. I also didn't include the posts I wrote on the private forum attached to my podcast's supporters' club; although technically part of work, I suppose, it just feels too much like fun.
I was perfectly satisfied with my totals for my three regular writing jobs — my podcast, the audio industry newsletter I write for, and the podcast recommendation newsletter I do. If anything, I was pleased with how much scripting I got done this week. But I was shocked when I realised that I'd written nearly 2,000 words in emails just on Monday. For context, one podcast episode is usually about 3,500-4,000 words. I'd written the equivalent of half an episode in one day's emails.
I think the fact that I was totalling up at the end of each day started to affect my behaviour. I started trying to rein it in for the rest of the week — you can see how my emails total dropped to 105 for the next day. Partly that's because I got through such a backlog on the first day, but it's also because I started thinking harder about how long I was spending on my responses.
Could I write "yes, thanks" instead of "Yes, absolutely, really looking forward to it, can't wait!"? Yes, I could, without being rude or dismissive or negligent or really making any difference at all to the recipient. This 2017 article — Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses? — was very much in my mind while I tried to be more purposeful and concise, as was something I saw the writer Sinéad Gleeson post on her Instagram: do art, not admin.
Even while I was still doing it, the study made me reflect on my own behaviour a good deal. In some ways, this count is inaccurate because of all the words I deleted, ridding my draft emails of my needless adjectives and pointless flourishes. I find it too easy to slip into the habit of being overly obliging. Nobody is expecting instant replies to emails, or indeed replies at all in some cases, yet I still provide them. And that means I have less unimpeded mental space to give to the writing work I'm lucky enough to be paid to do, and to experiment with other projects around the edges.
I need to be more French, it seems, according to this piece from 2016: "In France, a personal life is not a passive entity, the leftover bits of one’s existence that haven’t been gobbled up by the office, but a separate entity, the sovereignty of which is worth defending, even if that means that someone’s spreadsheet doesn’t get finished on time."
I didn't include my word count for the book proposal in the spreadsheet. I'm nervous about anybody even seeing that much of it at this stage. But I did make progress this week, more than I have for ages. Uncounted, the words are finally flowing.
Twelve things I'm reading, watching and listening to:
- The Mortifying Ordeal of Being Interesting
- As devastating as everyone says
- Not sure why, but this one hit me hard
- Thirteen years later, what happened at Gawker isn’t going away
- I disagree with this so much yet would still eat it all
- Just such good editing
- Binged all of these
- Such a weird idea, but it works
- Audio romcoms! About dogs!
- I feel so much smarter after listening to this show
- Always weird, always compelling
- All the films I will never watch, helpfully spoiled
There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: I do daily podcast recommendations at The Listener, I write weekly podcast industry reports for Hot Pod, I make a fortnightly podcast called Shedunnit and I’m sometimes on Twitter and Instagram. My book is now out in paperback, find the links to purchase a copy here.
Until next time,