Sword vs Bukowsi, or how I wrote a 75,000-word book in seven weeks

Two of my favourite pieces on writing share the same title: “Air and Light and Time and Space”.

The first is a poem by Charles Bukowski. In it, he attacks the idea that a writer might need to find the right conditions to write – the air, light, time and space:

no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on

I’m attracted to Bukowski’s no-excuses mentality. It has helped me get things done. But it’s ultimately flawed. The social and material conditions of writing have a big influence on my ability to write.

The second piece is a book on writing for academics by Helen Sword. She responds to Bukowski’s asceticism with evidence from some of the most prolific academics about how they do the job of writing. It turns out that air, light, time and space actually do matter. In her book she proposes a set of options that might work, based on the many and varied approaches successful academics take.

It was with these two competing philosophies of writing in mind that I set out to write an entire academic book over the pre-pandemic December-January period. Two people helped me to get the air, light, time and space that I needed to get the job done. Rola Ajjawi took over my role as Associate Director of CRADLE for the time I was writing, for which I am very thankful. And my wife, Sam, looked after our two children on the several working days when childcare and the school holiday program didn’t run, for which I am also thankful. Bukowski would be most unimpressed, but to quote the Nick Cave song We Call Upon The Author:

Bukowski was a jerk!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So, how did I write 75,000 words in seven weeks? I’m slightly reluctant to share, given the different times we are in now, and my fear of promulgating more ‘productivity porn‘ in a time when we’re all struggling to get by. But if pressed, my one-sentence answer would be: In 25 minute chunks, obsessively tracked, with a soundtrack and a plan.

In 25 minute chunks…

I’m a firm believer in the Pomodoro technique. In this approach you write for 25 minutes at a time, exclusively focused on one task. Then you get a five-minute break. Then you do it all over again until you’ve done four 25-minute ‘pomodoros’. After that you get a longer break, before you do another set of four pomodoros. I have real trouble staying focused on writing; I’m not one of these people who gets obsessed and into a state of flow. I can’t commit to writing all day – but I can commit to 25 minutes of solid focus.

In my pomodoros I was only allowed to write. Not edit. Not find sources or research. Just write. No excuses. The other jobs can get done in the gaps in my day.

There are many ways to time pomodoros; I switched between the Be Focused app from the Mac App Store and the timer on my cheap wristwatch.

…obsessively tracked…

I initially was aiming to write 80,000 words and it seemed like an impossibly huge number. But split across the number of days I had to write it didn’t seem so bad – as long as I stuck to it consistently. To keep me accountable to myself I used the free WriteTrack site that logs daily writing productivity. Here is December:

Graphic tracking Phill's writing output for December 2019 - 4 red days, 3 yellow days and 10 green days

The green days I met my target. The yellow days I was close. The red days I missed by a large margin. I kept some personal notes to try to see if I could learn anything from this data to help improve my productivity. I re-learnt what other writers probably already know: sleep more, exercise more, and don’t drink any alcohol the night before writing. Bukowski would probably disagree with that last one.

…with a soundtrack…

At the start of each pomodoro I would put on my noise-cancelling headphones, which played this very particular white noise tailored specifically to the noises of my household. I would take them off at the end of each pomodoro. I’m very distractable and this setup helped me immensely. It became a sort of ritual that got me in the writing zone. The soundtrack played that much of a role it deserves a mention in the acknowledgements.

…and a plan.

Although I wrote the 75,000 words in December-January, very little of it was new ideas. Since the start of 2018 I had been jotting down as many ideas as possible about my book. At the start it was a Google Docs file on my phone – an unstructured mess of thought bubbles. This gave me a small academic outlet during the six months I was away on parental leave in 2018. Later, I migrated it into the book writing software Scrivener. From there I split the notes up into chapters. Then I kept brainstorming new ideas in the chapters. These turned into plans for chapters, which turned into more detailed plans. This was a two-year-long haphazard project. It didn’t feel like writing, because none of it would end up in the book.

I sometimes say that I write words like I write computer programs: by obsessively planning and documenting everything to the point where doing the ‘writing’ is mere implementation. I do this because it works for me; sitting down to write from nothing is absolutely terrifying.

Bukowski or Sword?

My seven weeks of writing were delightful, and a testament to the need for a bit of Bukowski and a bit of Sword. Chuck is right, to a degree: I did need to just sit down and write the damn thing. But Helen is right as well: without supportive colleagues, a paycheck, family help, and some nice hardware and software I doubt I would have been successful.

Bukowski finishes his poem this way:

baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses

Chuck, I love the challenge you set for writers, to just get the damn thing done. But I’m with Helen on this one. Bloody-mindedness is not enough; writers need air, light, time and space.

Feature image: Marika Bortolami (Flickr) – CC by 2.0.

Category list: CRADLE Books, Reflections


  • Oh, thank you, Phillip, for this nugget of inspiration! For me, today is Day 1 of pulling together the drafts findings chapter for my doctoral thesis. I have just set up Write Track and a personalised soundtrack and watched Helen Sword’s first Writing Retreat video. Your offering is just what I needed- practical, encouraging, and the foot up the rear to begin, one small 25-minute chunk at a time.


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