A Worthy Exercise

When I wrote in college, I always hit a wall at about 2000 words. I could spend days doing research and organizing my ideas, but when I got out my yellow pad and began to write, eight pages was my limit. At that point, I’d said everything I wanted to say. This wasn’t a serious problem in college; I wrote well enough to get passing grades. When I started graduate school, though, I realized (duh) that eight pages wasn’t enough. I had to push myself to say more about the Roman Attitude Towards the Christians During the Fourth Century A.D. or The Significance of the Order of Horace’s Odes.

Being able to churn out lots of words is a skill my students struggle to master. Even after weeks of writing journal entries and stories, a few of my creative writing students can’t seem to put out more than two hundred words at a time. Part of the problem is that they don’t have a lot of experiences to supply them with material.  Another part is that they don’t trust their own imaginations enough to let go and write badly, which is the first step to writing well. Writers know this, but our students have been taught to keep their page clean until they are sure of the right answer.

This new year, I have begun an experiment: write less. My goal is to write one hundred words a day — exactly one hundred — about anything. I’ve written one hundred word stories before, and understand the discipline it takes to cut words out instead of expanding.

What I’ve learned is this: I can’t write about the same things in one hundred words that I easily expounded on for seven hundred words. One hundred words forces me towards poetry (never a strength of mine), and makes me look critically at the page. When there is no limit, I have lots of room for posturing, unnecessary words that make it sound more conversational, give it a flavor. In one hundred words, my voice must be terse.

There are many topics that need more than one hundred words to cover; some things need a slower, more leisurely voice. Still, I fall into bad habits without a limit. Catch phrases, stock bits of prose enter my prose. I meander.

My young students don’t have the patience for length — in reading or writing. Seven hundred words is a lot for them. Every assignment is approached as a goal — how many pages, how many words? They look for ways to stretch their essays out, to reach the goal.

In my own writing, I seek a new voice; I examine my prose for words that lengthen without enlightening. Whether this will improve my writing or not, it is a worthy exercise, I believe.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. somethingnewplease
    Jan 06, 2011 @ 01:15:07

    Minimalism can be very difficult. I think your thoughts here capture that idea, and the idea of writing about information, very concisely. Teaching writing to young students… I can see the challenge that poses.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience on the subject with Word Press Land,


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