May 14, 2014

Tips & Tricks: Try “Writer’s Math”, Dr. Greer’s More-or-Less Formula for Better First Drafts

Posted by Jennifer L. Greer

As a writer, I was always good at language and bad at math, until I realized how much it was costing me. Early in my newspaper career, I won reporting/writing contests, but I also missed deadlines, wrote stories that were too long or off topic. Such inefficiency did not please editors and ate into my personal time. I desperately needed to get a life! Then I discovered “Writer’s Math,” a formula for setting an approximate maximum word limit and working from that goal to successfully plan, outline, and execute a writing project. Now, as a writing instructor/coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Graduate School, I teach Writer's Math as often as I can. Here’s how it works. A graduate student is writing a journal article (one of three) for her dissertation. From the journal’s author’s guidelines, she finds out the maximum word limit for this type of article is 3,000 words. She knows that the average WORD document page, double spaced, at 12 point type holds about 300 words (more or less), and calculates that a 3,000 word article will run about 10 typed pages (3,000/300 = 10). Next, after weighing multiple factors, she decides on strategic space priorities: Introduction (2 pages), Methods (2 pages) Results (3 pages), Discussion (3 pages). For a discussion of Writer's Math, watch the video below.

Once she has a page budget, she creates a Writing Project Plan that is SMART -- Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound -- and drives the whole process. Caveat: If the graduate student is writing a traditional dissertation (grand tome), she will have no writer’s guidelines for a maximum word limit. In this case, her chair/professor may not want to constrain her intellectual genius and may advise her to write “as long as the scholarship requires.” Genius or no genius, if taken literally, this advice suggests a boundless writing project, which is feasible only if the graduate student has boundless energy, time, and resources. Typically, she does not. She wants to get the job done well. She also wants to get a life. In this case, the writer wisely asks the chair/professor for the names of authors of 3-5 quality dissertations from their university in their field. A quick look at these dissertations online will show an average text page count that can be used as a guideline (not a straight jacket) for Writer’s Math and SMART planning. It's not instant happiness, but it's close. For SMART Writing Project Plan details and samples, see the wiki, Writinginthezone.

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