The “Chapter 6” phenomenon

I’ve touched on the idea of recording your process when you’re writing in “Writing the book–during,” but I want to talk some more about it.

Long, long ago (1984), in a software environment far, far away (DOS 2.0 using Wordstar 3.3), I had just started my first tech writing job. I was documenting accounting software at a company that has been gone for about 20 years. I had gotten this job after being a programmer/analyst writing accounting software and I was rather nervous because I didn’t have any formal training writing software manuals.

And I froze; at least, that’s what it felt like. I couldn’t get words down.

It was frightening: I was worried that I have having impostor syndrome and I’d hit the wall. I kept trying to document something and I couldn’t. I’d poke at things and nothing would happen. I finally said “Well, if I can’t write this, I’ll do things that need doing and see what happens,” so I set up physical files for the chapters, I looked at the software, and did a lot of little things, and eventually, the words started flowing. A lot. I got done with the manual on time and even won an award for it: my first manual and it was an award-winner! Hurrah!!

Next manual comes in, I’m ready to rock and roll and… I froze again. “Okay, we’ll poke at things and set up files and see what happens.” And after a while of poking and playing around with the software, I wrote another award-winning manual. And so it went.

I soon discovered that what I was seeing was not freezing, it was my process. The first thing I’ve found I need to do when writing something big seems to be not write about it. I need to do almost anything but that still gives me exposure to the thing I’m writing about so I can let the ideas percolate in the back of my head. After a certain amount of time (for some varying value of “certain amount” that I can usually gauge based on a variety of esoteric factors such as the size of the project, its technical complexity, and the card you have in your hand there), I usually start writing and everything’s fine. This applies to manuals, to books, to magazine articles… almost everything, really.

Similarly, I discovered by the time I’d done my third book that I suffered from what I called the Chapter 6 phenomenon. The Chapter 6 phenomenon is that I’ve been cruising along nicely, spitting out chapters regularly until I hit Chapter 6 (or thereabouts) and it becomes The Thing That Would Not Die or, perhaps, more accurately, The Chapter That Would Not Live. The chapter goes on and on and on… and on. And on some more; nothing I can do seems to bring it to an end. When I finally get done with the chapter, it becomes apparent why I was having this problem: Chapter 6 is generally two or even three times as long as the preceding chapters, so the fact that it was taking two or three times the time to finish it isn’t surprising. Most of this is structural: Chapter 6 is about where I’m shifting the focus of the book after having laid down the basics, so I’m starting something new and there may be a considerable amount of conceptual pump-priming going on. But in the middle of the chapter, it’s impossible to see that. I have no visible perspective when all I can see is Chapter 6 from horizon to horizon. These days, all I can say to myself is “Oh, yeah, I’m Chapter 6-ing.” (Chapter 6 is kind of like a big cork, too; once I’m past it things go back to being easy again.)

I also mentioned recently in “Prison and Writing” that I had trouble near the end of the project. This is part of my process, too: maybe not as subjective as some of the others, but an important part of my process that I can expect and need to plan for. Buckling down at the last helps me get the book out, when I’d much rather go play.

The thing is, I would not have known about any of these things if I hadn’t been keeping a day log. A day log is a private file (I usually just open a flat file in Word, my word processor of choice) in which I record notes and comments about how I’m feeling, what’s going on, and so on. (Look for more about day logs in an upcoming post.) If I feel like the chapter I’m working on is taking forever, I say so. If it’s going swimmingly, I say that, too. But equally importantly, you probably won’t know what your process is the first time you write a book. Even if you’ve written a bunch of manuals before, your processes when writing a book may be very different.

You also won’t necessarily have the same experiences I do. One of my co-authors observed that she never seems to have Chapter 6 problems, but another has it on most of the books we wrote together. It happens. You may have other personal reactions to various stages of the book that I don’t. The message here is: whenever you’re writing a book, keep a steno pad or a Word file with notes about how you’re feeling a couple times each day. You won’t have enough data to draw conclusions during the first project, but at the end as part of your post mortem, you may be able to match feelings with productivity and even identify some patterns that let you predict what will happen the next time you write a book.

3 Responses to “The “Chapter 6” phenomenon”

  1. andrea humphrey

    i am so sharing this w my colleagues writing dissertations – ie that first book. it is incredibly hard to recognize your own process as such the first time you go through it bc it seems more like idiotic ignorance than process bc it’s the first time. i was going to snow shoe over to have tea with a floundering colleague, but this is much more efficient!

  2. On “Chapter 6-ing”… OH. I think that explains why chapters 1-5 are very short, chapter 6 is as long as two of them, and I’m still fighting through chapter 7. Thanks! That makes me feel better ^^;

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