On the athleticism of productivity

Late last year, in his widely shared essay ‘On Smarm’, Tom Scocca introduces the concept of writering: ‘We have a whole word here at Gawker, “writering,” to describe the tribe of writers whose principal writerly concern is being writerly, and who spend all their time congratulating one another on their writing and promulgating correct rules for writing.’

This is a writing column, but I also want to explore and critique the practice of writering. Specifically, let me point out some curious connections between writers and athletes.

I’m not talking about writers who exercise, such as fanatical runners Haruki Murakami and Joyce Carol Oates. I’m suggesting that writers are obsessed with productivity – perfecting their craft by writing harder, better, faster, stronger. This fretful, compulsive quest for increased efficiency is strikingly similar to the demanding training regimens of elite athletes. And a key compulsion is to read endless writering articles on how to boost productivity.

Because writing is a workout hidden in the brain – wrestling with ideas; sculpting flabby prose into elegant shape – writers grasp at productivity strategies to render their work visible. Just as athletes measure their performance against personal-best times, weights and distances, writers can obsessively log and analyse their cumulative achievements, imbuing their largely conceptual labour with tangible purpose and direction. As Mark Twain is quoted in a writering story I just read, ‘Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.’

Many apps and instructional articles work like sporting culture’s ubiquitous, often clichéd slogans: ‘just do it’, ‘refuse to lose’, ‘no pain, no gain’. They help writers bang out words – even terrible words – to see what they’ve got. The Pomodoro Technique (named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer) is writing’s answer to interval training. You write as much as you can in a 25-minute burst, then allow yourself a break before beginning again. Other apps goad the writer to reach a daily word target, or to consistently produce the same number of words each day.

When I was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow in 2012, I tacked a little handwritten sign above my desk:


Stephen King, I had learned, writes 2000 words a day. And in this desperate drafting period of my book, Out of Shape, the technique worked for me. I kept a word-count journal, allowing me to monitor and assess my progress. Here are some random entries from this Rain Man-esque document:

14 August – Ch3 2645 to 4265 = 1620
22 August – Ch3 9971 to 9973 = 2
2 September – Ch2 12798 to 12912; Ch3 11992 to 12016; Ch4 3778 to 3942; Ch5 602 to 820; Ch7 0 to 423; Ch8 0 to 347; Ch9 0 to 3047; Conclusion 0 to 291 = 4628

You can see here, as I could, that the days I fell woefully short of my target were balanced by days when I feverishly exceeded it. Reassuringly, I was indeed producing writing.

Publicly quantifying your labour, and consuming the quantified labour of others, transforms everyone into coaches and training partners – and competitors.

One of the most popular writering genres is a list of productivity tips from successful writers. It’s not really advice; it’s a challenge. Can I write from 6 am to 10 pm like Isaac Asimov, who could churn out a nonfiction book in seventy hours? Should I disconnect from the internet, as recommended by lucid thinker Zadie Smith?

Brain Pickings blogger Maria Popova – a noted writerer – worked with information designer Giorgia Lupi to visually correlate thirty-seven famous writers’ output (in terms of works created and prizes won) with their wakeup times. She concluded that, ‘with the exception of outliers who are both highly prolific and award-winning, such as [Ray] Bradbury and [Stephen] King, late risers seem to produce more works but win fewer awards than early birds.’

But rather than emulating their successful peers, writers might do better to emulate losers. Athletes are great at processing failure, because someone always has to lose on the day. If it’s them, they respond resiliently and tenaciously by redoubling their training and further honing and calibrating their physical capabilities, resolving not to be beaten next time.

Writers, by contrast, are in thrall to publishing mythologies that suggest all writers fail at first, but if they’re sufficiently talented – and productive – they will achieve a splashy breakthrough and then maintain a successful career until they die. Think of Bryce Courtenay, diligently delivering a new bestseller each Christmas, even in the face of death.

Where athletes use productivity as a tool to recover from failure, writers use productivity to inoculate themselves against it. That’s why so much writering exploits the shame of unproductivity and the fear of laziness.

But writing isn’t a zero-sum game; my fellow writers’ successes don’t require my failure. And the subjective nature of writing means failure is always relative and limited. The writering genre only celebrates productivity because we can see it; so much else about writing is ineffable. Like athletes, writers should recognise that being productive doesn’t guarantee we will win, but it can strengthen our resolve when we feel lost.

Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a journalist, cultural critic and media studies lecturer. She’s the author of nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, 2013), and co-author of the rom-com novels Nailed It! and The Hot Guy.

More by Mel Campbell ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays