Adam Johnson: Data mining your writing habits

Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson
Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Orphan Master’s Son,” did an interview in the July 2012 issue of “The Writer” magazine. It’s one of the “How I Write” features on the back page, so it’s mostly in Johnson’s words. I saved the article as soon as I read it, long before he won the Pulitzer.

He offers so much useful advice in that short article that I wish I could quote the whole thing here, but I’ll try to distill it.

I was particularly interested to read that he tracks when and where he writes and whether what he wrote was good enough to make it into his manuscript. He does it all on an Excel spreadsheet that has every day of the year on it. That way, if he misses a day, it’s like a missing tooth. “And if I don’t write for a week, there’s a big blank point of shame,” he said.

From that information, he can target his efforts: “If it is morning and I have four hours, I can see which location is best. I’ve data-mined my own writerly ways.”

That is the most thorough approach to tracking your writing habits and using them to your advantage that I’ve ever heard. I would love to get a peek at that spreadsheet.

And for us historical fiction writers, he also said a lot of the research he did for “The Orphan Master’s Son,” which takes place in North Korea, was so dark that it weighed too heavy on the book. “I had to excise it and [instead] suggest it,” he said. “There was a lot of trial and error. I threw away 270,000 words.”

270,000 words?! That gave me hope for my own efforts at revision. But then he went on to say something that was even more encouraging: “I am a big believer in labor over talent…. I think talent is something you can create.”

I’d say he deserves to win the Pulitzer on hard work alone. But he’s also written an absorbing, surreal book that I have found totally captivating. (I’m about halfway through it, and my slow pace says more about my topsy-turvy schedule these days than it does about his writing talent.)

2 comments

  1. Very interesting. I’ve attempted this – but then procrastinate doing the data inputting, so then it just becomes another thing I’m not doing (and feeling guilty about :P)

    Like

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