Entry 12: Obligatory Words

December 29, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is the 12th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


388 words. I felt really distracted today even though I had pretty much all day to write. I don’t even have an excuse. Social media was endlessly distracting, but I can keep it under control most days, so there is no reason today should’ve been different. Yet it was.

A journalist friend of mine claims having too much time to write is a curse in itself. Deadlines drive productivity. Maybe she’s right. Maybe juggling numerous daily obligations makes the time I spend on writing the book more productive than if I just stared at empty days on the calendar. On days when I can’t seem to focus on the writing because I can’t still my mind, I go one of two routes: extreme deprivation, or obligatory words.

The former involves setting a word quota for the day and denying myself comforts like food and water (or surfing the web) until I get the words done. Sometimes it works. I got the idea from an episode of “The West Wing” where Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman said he got through law school exams by strapping himself to a chair and not allowing himself to get up until studying was done.

But today I went the latter way, focusing my writing on obligatory words — explanatory footnotes, introductory sentences that fill out the beginning of chapter sections, and sentences that explain or define terminology that might need unpacking. Basically, aspects of writing projects that are essential but don’t require creativity or critical thinking. So I made progress on the book, got a modest amount of words done, but with exclusively utilitarian writing that takes little brain power.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.