Two tweaks = a great writing day

This was a very good writing day. I wrote 2256 words for my book, Wicked Cool Emacs, filling in the section on using Planner to take notes. I braindumped some stories from yesterday and today in an 847-word blog post, and I also sketched the outlines of my upcoming presentations and articles. All of that was extracurricular work in addition to e-mails, instant messages, meetings, wikis, and spreadsheets. Yes, it was a very good writing day, and I think I’ll finish this chapter by the 7th, somehow managing to finish a chapter a month despite everything else that’s going on.

What did I do differently? I tried two things:

Using a PDA to write during my commute: the thumb board made all the difference. Tapping tiny keys on a virtual screen or even scrawling in handwriting or graffiti was too slow for me. It made me think too much about input, and I got distracted from what I want to say. On the other hand, I found it easy to type while thinking about what I want to say. I didn’t feel slowed down by the technology.

I spent most of my commute writing blog posts and outlining my upcoming presentations and articles. I was surprised to find that a flat file was good enough for organizing my outline. I thought that I would need an outline or mind mapping program, but all the programs I tried took too much effort to get ideas into the system. Palm’s built-in memo pad did quite well, although I ran into the 4 kB limit about halfway through my commute and I had to start a new note.

I also ended up draining the battery because I hadn’t dimmed the backlight, but that just meant that I could play on my DS with a clear conscience.

Tracking the number of words remaining: Early in the writing process, I set up Emacs to show a running total of the number of words in my draft. The first version of the quote showed the total number of words, and the second version of the quote showed the difference between a baseline and the current number of words. This was useful for seeing how much I’d written since I reset the baseline. Today, I flipped it around. Instead of showing me how many words I’d written, Emacs showed me how many words I still had to write, starting at 2000 and counting down. I don’t know if that’s a key change, but I admit that it was fun seeing the number inch down. Maybe it’s the computer science geek in me, but I find it easier to test if something is zero then to test if something is equal to another number.

Hmm. One of these days, I might even hook my word counter into some kind of automatic status notification to the outside world so that people can find out how I’m doing. Maybe it would automatically tweet when I reach 50%, 75%, and 100% of my quota. Not that anyone really needs to know, but I think it would be fun.

I didn’t look into doing word counts on the Palm, but I don’t think I’ll need it. I think of the Palm as a way to work on outlines and jot quick thoughts. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I’d written so much, though.

End result: another section in the book, another step closer to the end of my third chapter, and a warm and fuzzy feeling of accomplishment. I may be getting the hang of this writing thing.

I’m looking forward to joining the writing group that Leigh Honeywell is thinking of starting up. I’d happily head out into the snow for an afternoon of writing at the Linux Caffe. Of course, I won’t be able to do speech recognition, but I think the company will more than make up for it. And who knows? If I bring my voice recorder along, I can use it to capture my demos to other people and transcribe those into my computer afterwards.

Kaizen: relentless improvement. Yes, even for creative processes like writing… =)