Sep 7, 2009

Twenty-Six Words

Left: Useful but annoying word count tool

I spent an hour-and-a-half on my dissertation this morning, and I felt pretty good about myself for cranking out a page-and-a-half of new text on a day in which I am still dragging from a virus I picked up last week. After all, I could have moped around sipping tea and grumbling about my ill fortune in the department of pathogen acquisition, but I found enough wherewithal to do my work.

And then I saw the word count in the lower left-hand corner: 50,974.

Despite my efforts, I was only 26 words away from another milestone, albeit an insignificant one. I found it difficult to save and close the document knowing that I only needed a a little over two dozen words to cross another barrier. Much like a long-distance runner who has already met the particular goal but still has some energy, I found myself pushing on.

Well, coming up with 26 words is a lot easier than forcing another mile out of a weary runner's body, but you understand the metaphor, right?

I spent a few minutes looking over a chapter, and I ended up adding a 39-word sentence to a paragraph that seemed to need further clarification. For the record, here is the passage I wrote that put me over the 51,000-word mark and allowed my neurotic mind to relax:
Mansa Musa may not have been the Christian priest-king known as Prester John believed by Europeans to exist somewhere in the Indies, but his wealthy kingdom surely provided an enticing lure to the mysterious regions below the Sahara Desert.
Yet ignoring the call to write would have been an exercise in fidgeting and self-criticism, since the sentence took me all of two minutes to develop. Yes, I may be borderline obsessive-compulsive, but I bought myself 24 hours of peace from my neuroses.

However, I made an error in my momentary glee, as I scrolled down to the end of the chapter and noticed that I only needed a short paragraph to turn the corner onto page 222. Now I will have to live with my decision to walk away from the dissertation knowing that I turned my back on the writing just when I could have pushed the page count one more digit, and after all: a page is much more valuable than word count, right? I mean, that's a real, tangible thing, unlike the the mere counting of words, which could be just about anywhere in the document and mean absolutely nothing when pulled apart from each other.

I think I need to get out more.


Anonymous said...

Your old predecessor at UT, Marina Tolmacheva, would have been delighted to note your milestone achieved with Mansa Musa and Prester John (perhaps you can squeeze Ibn Battuta as well).

Now give yourself a well-earned break!

Thomas said...

Are you still using Windows 95?

The screenshot reveals your outdated taskbar....

historymike said...


Nope - this is XP on a university laptop. I was using Vista on my personal laptop, but it is too much of a RAM-hog, and my new job offers me a free laptop (3 GB RAM and the more stable XP).

historymike said...


Thanks for your kind words, and I can only hope to live up to half the level of scholarly excellence demonstrated by Dr. Tolmacheva.

Jim Styro said...

I'm truly glad for your continuing progress on the dissertation but - and I mean this in the most supportive way possible - I cannot agree more with the last line of your post.

Can I take you out and buy you a beer - a Diet Coke - anything?