Up until that point I spin, I flow, I tap the words out like a prima ballerina flying across the keyboard. But once I start to approach the dreaded limit I slow down, meander, erase and finally stop.
For years I thought that this was some sort of magic limit, a curse that would strike me the moment the count reached 999. It didn’t matter how great the idea was, how motivated I was, how rested, how revved. Come word 1000 and everything fell apart. I resigned myself to writing short pieces.
But about six months ago I sat down to write up an idea which had been bouncing about my head for a while: an introduction to Intellectual Property law aimed at game designers.
It wasn’t the greatest of ideas, nor the most fascinating of subjects but as I sat down and started writing the words kept coming. I hit 800 and still felt on a roll. 900 came and went. I reached 950 and still had things to say and, before I even realized it, I passed 1000, 1 500, 2 000. After close to two hours of concentrated writing I hit 3 000 words and kept going. The curse was broken!
Full of myself I sat down to write my next article and clocked it in at 886 words before faltering. The next came to 455 and the next reached 930. I tried to push it further but the words just wouldn’t stick.
Something had happened with my IP-law article, something I wasn’t seeing.
I spent days thinking about it; what was different about that gargantuan 3 500 word epos? It wasn’t the idea, I’d written about copyright and trademarks before. It wasn’t the setting, nor the tone, time of day, target audience or anything else I could put my finger on. But there was one thing that came back time and time again, that little phrase “I had written about trademarks and copyright before…”.
Perhaps that was the answer: if I’d write about a subject I’d covered earlier I’d do better. I picked an article from my archives at random and sat down to play. 726 words later I could say that nope, this wasn’t it. And yet…
There was something there. I knew it, I could feel it in my bones.
I started picking the article apart, section by section. Copyright – 306 words. Trademarks – 476. Patents, enforcing, common misconceptions, each sections was less than 1000 words. Each section was something I had written about before. Each section was an idea.
The article wasn’t a single article, it was a series of linked pieces, or rather a series of linked ideas. But not any ideas. These were ideas I had some prior knowledge of. I knew copyright, I knew patents, I knew the basics of enforcing your IP claims. Then I realized the obvious: I could write 1000 words on any given topic of information. If I wanted to write more I needed to break the topic down into subtopics, each of which I’d need to know well enough to write an entire article about.
During my studies I heard a claim bounced around by pretty much every non-fiction writing teacher I encountered: for every fact you use you need to know and discard ten others or your piece will be thin. This was what was happening to me: I couldn’t remember enough redundant facts to write longer pieces. But when I wrote the IP-law article I had covered the subtopics in enough detail to know them by heart. So when I wrote the compound article it was those subtopics that set my limits, not the main article. If I wanted to write longer pieces on other subjects I needed to change the way I researched and memorized facts.
Normally I’d research until I felt that I knew enough to start writing. I’d read up and fill up but I couldn’t retain enough in memory to last me more than 1000 words.
Now I research until I feel that I know the subject well enough to start writing. Then I ask myself: how long do I need this piece to be? If it’s over a thousand words then I need to break up my research into a distinct topic for every 1000 words of completed text and do separate research on each subtopic, with separate notes and separate outlines, then write separate pieces that I merge into each other in post.
Then I can get past the 1000 word block.
This piece was written two years ago. Since then I’ve advanced to the point where I can write more than 1000 words in a go, about a subject I know, without resorting to cheat sheets. I’ve managed to push my standard article length to about 1 500 words.
This means that by practicing, by writing more and more articles, I’ve expanded the amount of knowledge I can hold in my active memory at any one time.
Of course, I haven’t become smarter. My working memory hasn’t improved that much.
What I suspect is happening is that I’ve learned to handle the writing process so well that I don’t need to devote resources to it. I can “write on autopilot” while concentrating on what I want to say.
This has allowed me to write past my 1000 word writer’s block. My new constraint is instead how far I can stretch one idea before it becomes uninteresting. My interest and knowledge is the outer limit of my articles, not my writing skill.
And that’s a pretty amazing thing.