Every November, I mean to write fifty thousand words. Every November, something comes up that keeps me from doing it. This year, I’m doing it! I don’t have any trips planned except for Thanksgiving. I don’t have any activities outside work that take up a large amount of time. Nothing is standing in my way.
For those not familiar with NaNoWriMo, head to the website and take a look. I want to explore why NaNoWriMo works and what it could mean for digital humanities.
When teaching creative writing, I have two weeks titled “Editing without writing” and “Writing without editing” that cover sophistication and voice.
This is based on the idea that we have two competing forces that together produce what we do: idea production and idea rejection. What isn’t produced can’t be rejected. What isn’t rejected is done. We can’t write what we don’t come up with, but neither do we write what we reject. If we’re staring at a blank piece of paper, it’s often because we are rejecting what our mind is producing instead of accepting it.
Editing helps us survive. If we did everything we thought about and didn’t reject anything, we’d act as if we were drunk. That’s why we do stupid things when we’re drunk. Alcohol turns off the editor.
This model is useful and matches well with my own experience. For more background that seems to support this model, read Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. For now, let’s assume that we need to turn off the editor if we want to let production flow.
Crisis does this. Judgment takes time. If we don’t have time to think, then we don’t have time to judge. Baseball gives the batter a half-second or less with the ball in the air. Since it takes almost half that time to realize the ball’s on its way, there’s no time to think through options. The batter’s production side is tuned to create choices that don’t need winnowing.
This is where we could do a post about neural networks and feedback loops. Memorizing vocabulary doesn’t train the production side of the brain. Guided trial and error are best. Experts have been through about ten thousand hours of this trial and error. After reading about neural networks over twenty years ago, I gave up trying to memorize as a way of internalizing. I just let my brain do the learning while I gave it opportunities to correct itself.
Sophistication is tightening prose, selecting better words, or removing clichés. Voice is the result of our production. Voice comes through practice as we teach our subconscious what is or isn’t appropriate. It will never rise to the level of sophistication. That’s what editing is for. Voice is what we have before we edit. Sophistication can come from a checklist of things to look for because it rejects what has been written. If the most frequent mistakes are avoided, the text might be publishable. This is why we practice so much: to develop our voice so that after we’ve rejected everything, there’s still good stuff left over.
NaNoWriMo is all about writing stuff that we can reject later. Throwing us into a crisis by making us write forces us to turn off our judgment and commit to what comes to mind. The result is fifty thousand words of pure voice. We don’t have time to edit if we’re going to write sixteen hundred words a day.
A problem I see in DH is the tendency to edit too much before anything can get done. People don’t want to make mistakes. They may not know how to program, feel in control of the computer, or know HTML and CSS. Instead of trying something and learning from failure, they don’t do anything at all. They have the equivalent of writer’s block.
No one has to be a professional to participate in NaNoWriMo. No one should have to be an accomplished programmer to get started in DH. They just need the crisis that forces them to turn off their judgment and start typing.
We need a NaNoWriMo-like event for digital humanities. Take a month and write a web-based project. It doesn’t have to work well. You won’t want to read my novel at the end of November, but I can take time after November to edit what I’ve written. Once a month has passed and the project is starting to take its first shaky steps, the polishing can begin.
How much should be done in a month? We don’t want this to be easy. The whole point is to have no time to edit while writing. NaNoWriMo chose fifty thousand words because it’s an arbitrary number that is long enough not to be a novella while still being reasonable. The DH equivalent should be more than a tool, but not as large as the blockbuster projects out there.
If we assume about fifteen words per sentence on average, then we have 3,333 sentences in our NaNoWriMo novel. That’s a little over a hundred sentences a day.
We can think of these as lines of code. As a professional programmer, I can do a hundred lines of edited code a day if I know what I’m aiming for, so expecting about three thousand lines of unpolished code in a month isn’t too far out there to be impossible. Having to write this code on your own time may be enough to induce crisis, similar to what is happening to me with my NaNoWriMo novel.
What about rules? Considering NaNoWriMo, no code should be written before the event begins. Instead, things like planning, platform selection, learning APIs, and sketching the look and feel can be done in preparation. Use a framework that lets you focus on the things that are important to your project, just as a novel writer selects a genre and all of its expectations so they can focus on the important parts of the story.
Your three thousand lines of code won’t be publishable. You shouldn’t test or debug during the month of writing. That’s editing and polishing. Getting the code down forces you to think through all of the parts of your project and how they might interact. In fact, you may want to start over from scratch after the month. You’ll have a much better picture of what’s going into your project.
Anyone interested in trying this?