Writing, 750 Words, and the Blog Schedule
A little while ago I heard about an interesting program from one of my professors. I forget the name of it now (and a few quick Google searches came up dry) but the basic idea was that you’d tell the program how many words you needed to write for an assignment and how long you wanted to take writing it. After that you went to work, and every time you paused for more than a minute or so the program would begin to yell at you. “Hey! Get back to work! You’ve only got twenty more minutes!” My professor thought it was interesting enough to share with the class and suggested that we try it out. I never did…but it got me thinking.
I’d recently watched an episode of Extra Credits (a fantastic show, by the way. If you like games and you like learning then it’s a must see) that was all about gamification (pronounced “game-if-ah-kay-shun”). If you’ve never heard of gamification before, then check out the video here. If you aren’t in a position to watch videos or you just don’t like clicking on hyperlinks then here’s the short version of it. Games tap into the reward centers of our brains. Certain games like World of Warcraft do this so effectively that some people are in danger of becoming addicted, but all games from poker to Dwarf Fortress do to some extent. I could write a whole post about how exactly this works (and I think I will, in the days to come) but the basic idea is that there is something about games that makes us keep playing them. Most of us would much rather play a game than do our homework, take out the trash, write a blog post, or go for a run. Gamification is about turning these things we’d rather not do into activities that tap into our reward centers in the same way games do. An excellent example of this is the game Chore Wars , which takes ordinary tasks like doing the dishes and turns them into quests that can be completed for experience points and loot. Why should we care about digital levels and imaginary loot? For the same reason we care about them while playing Skyrim, or League of Legends, or even Farmville! Arbitrary rewards like achievements, leveling up, high scores, and better equipment motivate us to keep playing, and can theoretically motivate us to keep cleaning as well.
The program my professor mentioned reminded me of all of that. Not because it was a game but because it was one programmer’s attempt to get people to sit down and write their assignments. The program itself sounded dubious in its effectiveness; it’s easy to ignore nagging, especially when you can just turn off the sound. Still, I began to wonder if anyone out there had tried to use gamification techniques to help people write. As I mentioned in my last post every published author I’ve ever heard of has said the same thing: if you want to become better at writing then you have to write as much as you can. Write often, every day if possible. I want to become a writer but I have incredible trouble motivating myself to actually sit down and write. Writing is difficult work and if nobody is making you do it then it’s easy to just let it slide. Occasionally I’d try to start a daily writing regimen, but it always ended in failure after a week or so. If someone out there had managed to make something like Chore Wars for writers then maybe that would be able to motivate me to actually write.
I started searching the internet and soon came across a website called 750 Words . The idea behind 750 Words is simple: every day you log on and write 750 words, roughly three pages. It can be about anything you like: journaling, random thoughts, short stories, cake recipes, whatever. You just write until you reach that mark, at which point a cheery green notice pops up and informs you of your success. The site then records everything you’ve written and assigns you a number of points for completing the day. Writing anything at all is worth a few points, while writing the full three pages is much more. On top of that it uses a bowling style scoring system where the more days complete in a row the higher your score becomes. At the end of the month your score is tallied and if you like you can compare yourself to other writers that month.
I started trying it out. It was fun to just write randomly, and I did feel a sense of satisfaction when I reached the 750 word goal. Pretty quickly I discovered that the points were just about meaningless. I rarely notice them anymore, and there are plenty of people who write every single day so there’s no chance of you getting the highest score. Instead the prime motivating factor is badges. When you write your first three pages you get an egg badge, which will forever sit on your statistics page. When you write three days in a row you earn the turkey badge, and when you write five days in a row you get the penguin badge. The badges increase in difficulty to earn from that point on. To earn an albatross you’ll have to keep your streak up for thirty days, and a pterodactyl will take a whopping 200 days to earn. The highest badge of all is the coveted space bird, which takes a 500 day writing streak to earn pages. Immediately I was in awe of the multiple space birds that would show up on the day’s leaderboard. A badge that takes almost two years of your life to earn? If you miss even a single day of writing you’ll have to start over from scratch. What dedication! Immediately I wanted to be a space bird. To have other writers look on me in awe, to have written over 1,500 pages of material.
From that point on I’ve been hooked on 750 Words. Oh it’s not perfect. It’s easy to cheat and just copy and paste a Wikipedia article in if you’re in a hurry and willing to cheat. After a while even the badges start to lose their luster. But I will say this: since starting 750 Words in September of 2011 I have written 97,985 words. That’s around 300 pages that I never would have written otherwise.
Why do I bring all this up? For two simple reasons. The first is to help explain the purpose of this blog. 750 Words is good practice, but I can write whatever I want there. Most of my entries are misspelled, feature terrible grammar, and often wander off down whatever rabbit trail I feel like exploring because nobody is going to read them anyway. I need to practice writing for an audience, which is why I’ve started this blog. The second reason is to explain what I hope will be my blog’s regular schedule. I have decided that on Sundays, Tuesday, and Wednesdays I’ll spend my 750 Words writing blog posts, which I will edit that evening. This means that you can expect new posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This is the schedule I will keep until I find good reason to change it.