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Thank you Helen for the tips, but in my case what you suggested will not work out.
I think the creative process that is writing (philosophy, literature, cinema, etc) demands structure, as you say, but it is also very different for everyone, so it is difficult to define a formula that can be useful for everybody. For example, 20 min are completely useless for me. I can only start writing without spending time entering into the subject if I was writing the same text the day before. If not, I have to take 20 or more minutes to read what I wrote, where I left, and enter again in the conceptual world of my writing. But even in the first situation, in 20 min I could not write some sketchy lines. I am not an English native speaker, so while I am thinking ideas in English I have to search words in the dictionary that help me to better conceptualise those ideas, and a search can perfectly take more than 10 min (a first search for a translation, a doubt about the English meaning, some examples in the net to be sure that the word is used that way, etc). We think with words, so it is not possible for me to think the idea first, write it in a sketchy way, and then revise what I wrote using the dictionary, etc. Someone can suggest me to write in my mother tongue and then translate it. But for me this process is a pain in the ass (sorry for the expression). I do not write in the same way in my mother tongue, and translating what I wrote implies to change again everything, even to think again everything. I have done this before and it really takes me more time than to directly write in English. Furthermore, writing in my mother tongue about ideas and texts that I read in English is also a very hard task, so doing this first to translate it afterwards, would be extremely difficult and take infinite hours of my life.
In my case, writing only works if I have 3 or more hours.

Michael Barkasi

I find it difficult not to edit as I write. I am a perfectionist, but I also find it's part of my process. There's no clear-cut line between fixing grammar/word-choice and doing real conceptual work. Often my attempts to clean up the grammar and be more precise lead to catching conceptual mistakes or even conceptual insights. Also, sometimes (often?) the changes I make on a single line are so consequential that, had I continued writing, I would have had to make major revisions to everything that followed (so it's not clear I'd save any time forging ahead).

It does take some restraint not to go overboard with qualifications and stuff. And concurrent editing can wash away one's "inspiration" and exciting big ideas. I try to work around the second problem by doing a lot of rough brainstorming. As I write, my stuff is filled with really rough bulleted lists or fragmentary prose capturing the big ideas. I then expand and shape that into something presentable.

So my process probably isn't too contrary to the suggestion. I just never end up writing "rough first drafts" which fall between scratch notes and polished prose. Also, filling out chunks of unwritten work with scratch notes can be a good way to keep the writing process going and often can be done in just a few minutes.

Mike Titelbaum

Thanks for these tips Helen! I think one thing that's emerging in the comments is that everyone has their own writing process that fits various contingencies of their circumstances and how their mind works. The most important thing is to figure out what works for each of us, and your suggestions are a great starting point for that process.
I know people who create a thorough outline before they write anything. But in my own case, the writing is an integral process of sorting out what I think about a topic. So I will often get only a couple of pages in, realize there's a problem, rethink my whole approach, and then start from the beginning again. I usually only reach the end of a draft when I'm on at least my eighth or ninth draft. There are some types of editing (like filling in all the citations, worrying about small objections, etc.) that I think it's a good idea to avoid in the initial drafts. But other types are absolutely essential to my process.

Michael Barkasi

Like Marina, for me to sit down and do "serious" writing I need to reread what I've already written, so 20 minutes isn't enough time. But a lot of my writing isn't to produced polished prose, but just to sit down and "plug holes", e.g. jotting ideas down in the unwritten sections for later when I do have serious time to write. The general tip to produce, even if it's not polished prose, is a good one. It's just that, as Mike Titelbaum says, this takes different forms for different people. As I read Helen's (great) tips, they all center around this idea of just generating material that's later cleaned up.

Helen De Cruz

Marina: many thanks for your comment. It makes me think we need to commission a piece on writing philosophy if it is not one's first language! I agree that everyone has a different process, and 20 minutes does not seem like much. I used to need lots of time but I had my first child in grad school. We had no childcare, which was challenging to say the least. But I did manage to learn to work in shorter chunks, and overall this has helped my productivity immensely. Turned out I don't really need chunks of 3 hours.
And as people are right on this thread, everyone works differently, I'd still strongly recommend trying shorter chunks of time if one feels daunted or simply has a lack of time. I would've balked at the suggestion that 20 minutes is good for anything but it does seem to work, at least sometimes, to make progress.

Mike: some people outline, some don't, that seems to be a big difference in how people approach things. I do a bit of a mix of both. During the first sittings of a new project I quickly jot down some ideas that I want in (most of these, sadly, fall somewhere later in the process). I rename successive drafts and I usually have 6-7 drafts before I ask other people to look at them. But getting that first raw draft out there is really critical for me (I don't enjoy this part of the process, I much more like to work at a more developed draft, this seems also something that differs a lot between people).


I also hate the first draft. Once I have some sort of words on paper I can edit it, and this can be fun. But doing the first draft is typically not fun for me. But in some sense, my first draft is done before I write. I typically spend a lot of time thinking about what I will write as I go about my day doing other things.

Although this process might be changing due to circumstances, my writing process up until a week ago was this: Write for 7 minutes, mess around on the internet for 30, write for another 7 minutes, back to messing around, and so on. Eventually I have a draft, and then I edit it, and then I polish the grammar and citations. And yes, that strategy was actually intended, not just me failing fo do what I planned. Somehow I've managed to write and publish a lot, don't ask me how.


To Marina & Michael: While, as MT and others note, there are many individual differences in how people work best, it is worth emphasizing that one of the advantages (for most people) the "20 min per day" approach is that you DON'T have to spend a lot of time "re-reading" or "remembering" where one was exactly. If you write 2 hours once per week you'll have to spend the first half an hour remembering details and re-reading, whereas if you write 20 min per day over six days, that same total of 2 hours will be much more efficient because you'll remember exactly where you left off from one day to the next.

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