Staying focused on writing: The High Score Method

A lot of times, learning to write better does not start with changing what you write. Instead, it starts with changing why you write. I know lots of writers who have developed a writing routine that includes rewards to get themselves writing. I’ve tried to replicate many of these approaches, but found only one that really worked for me. I call it The High Score Method.

Towards the end of my grad school career, in the midst of procrastinating away a semester when I was supposed to be studying for comps, I became addicted to online video games. I found myself spending hours on game sites even as I felt lazy and constantly berated myself for doing so.

My ability to focus on sometimes complex games and not focus on even simple writing tasks made no sense to me. I had people tell me that I should set it up so that the games became some sort of reward for getting writing done. That approach must work for someone because it is constantly bandied about. It doesn’t work for me, mostly because I had no will power to deny myself the reward if I didn’t finish a certain amount of writing.

Besides, I already had plenty of reasons to write and not play games. Finishing a PhD was a path to earning more money and getting more respect. Completing an online game gave me only a high score that often failed to register in the top thousand players world wide, many of whom were probably only twelve. Yet I still chose games.

I’ve ruminated on that fact a lot, and it still comes up when I think about trying to write something like this blog, which aspires to share ideas with like minded people in the same way that a career in academia would. Then I learned that stopping that rumination was the key to succeeding, and key to stopping that rumination was finding a way to make writing more like a game. That’s the idea behind The High Score Method.

Here are the rules:

1. Find a timer, and set it for fifteen minutes. (Most cell phones offer countdown timers, but there are also plenty available online.) Hit start on the timer and sit down at your computer and start writing your paper. Don’t worry if you drift over to Facebook or if you are watching television out of the corner of your eye. Just come back to your writing as often as you can.

2. When your timer goes off, record your word count on a separate sheet of paper. Write down the date, time you finished the countdown, and the word count on a sheet of paper. That number is your high score.

3. Now the fun begins. Reset the clock. Take a break if needed, but when ready, come back and hit start again. Your new goal is to try and beat your high score. Write for  for 15 minutes, and then repeat step 2.

4. Repeat cycle until the draft is done, each time trying to beat the high score.

With this approach, you’ll see the amount of words you’ve written skyrocket after the first few cycles. As your high score grows, so does the desire to stay focused on beating it. When you click out of that word processing window, you become more aware of what’s at stake. Sure you could take a break in the middle of the cycle, but if you do, you’re hurting your chances to beat your past high score. Often, there can come a frenzy of writing as the seconds tick down, and getting down the words on the page feels great.

Obviously, this approach has a few drawbacks. It’s not likely to produced polished prose, and writers will need to put in some revision time at the end of the process. However, it changes the your mindset and gets your attention off of all of the reasons why you should be writing.

The game can become less fun if you end up setting a high score that you have trouble beating. When this happens, I encourage writers to average all their scores and just try and beat their average each time. Or scratch all the scores simply start the process again.

The big benefits from this approach come over time. The process sets you up constantly exceed your own expectations and to build positive momentum. It makes the process of writing more enjoyable and consequently lessens the stress involved with the act of writing. And it helps to get writers who really hate writing feel more comfortable and confident.

Plus, it gets the brain into that flow state of work and shows the benefits of being there. Eventually, you will attempt to develop strategies to build your word count, and one of the most effective is not taking a break between the sessions. The frenzy of writing in the final minutes helps to push aside distractions, and if the clock can be quickly reset and the next session begun immediately, you’re new score is likely to trounce your previous one.

If you’re competitive and have a friend who is also the same, you might try facing off against each other and working off of one timer. This adds a new wrinkle to the mix, giving you another target to meet and the sound of clicking keys on your friend’s keyboard to drive your own efforts.

If you try this method, let me know how it works for you and how you tweak it to make it your own.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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