Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Paper Towel Method

By Elizabeth

A friend of mine (and if you need a tight and tiny gorgeous female with a great set of pipes when Hollywood calls, you must call her--but I've got first dibs!) blogged the other day, linking to a post about keeping a couple of paper towel rolls to track your weight loss.

It got me thinking, because in so many ways, putting out a manuscript is like losing weight. Both take dedication and time; both have room for edits; both are worth the effort. (Though only losing weight is likely good for your health.)

Basically, the article said to get two rolls of paper towels, think of each sheet as a certain amount of fat, and every time you lose, say, a quarter of a pound, tear a sheet off one roll. Leave the other one alone. The first few weeks, you won't see much difference, but as the weight comes off, each sheet will make a bigger difference, until finally you are down to a svelte cardboard roll, a tub of Ben & Jerry's to celebrate (oops--see "room for edits" above) and perhaps really clean kitchen counters from all those paper towels you've used. The full roll is a reminder of where you started.

So how does this apply to writing? Well, the big rolls of Bounty I buy have 147 sheets. If you're aiming for a 75K word manuscript, give or take, that's a sheet for every 500 words. Which means every time you write 500 words, you tear off a sheet and, by the time you are down to a skinny brown tube, you're basically done. Okay, sure, it'll be a little short, but once you pen those 73K words, you can figure out a few thousand more. If you are really ambitious and know you'll have to cut the heck out of the manuscript anyway, shoot for 147K words, tearing off a sheet every 1,000 words. Or meet in the middle, go for a paper towel for every 700 for a nice just-over-100K manuscript. So long as you're not writing middle grade, you're golden. And that other roll, still fluffy and pristine, is a reminder of how far you've come, sheet by sheet.

When doing the nitty-gritty of our job, writers are often in a solitary place, and more often, probably, without any really visible proof of progress. Oh, sure, the notebooks get fuller and multiply (if you're dumb enough like me to write longhand), or file size gets bigger, but sometimes it's hard to envision how much we've accomplished. That's where the Bounty comes in. Towel by towel, one or two or five a day, that roll slims down as we get closer to the end.

I really love this idea. Peeling off the layers, feeling the satisfaction of doing something when I've wrenched my pen across paper, I can see the reward motivating production. Like with weight loss--and anyone whose talked to me for more than ten minutes knows I'm practically a Weight Watchers evangelist--like getting on the scale after a week of being true to your intentions and your plans, there's a payoff. Another paper towel gone, another squirt of Windex, and a slimmer roll revealing how far you've come.

I can even imagine keeping the old rolls in a place of honor on a closet shelf, like that old pair of fat pants half of us have hanging in the back to remind us where we once were. Or the skinny pants from college we cherish to--well, remind us where we once were. Relics, all of them, and the empty tubes, now that I think of it, will happily soak up the ink of a Sharpie to record the title of the book they tracked.

And in my case, my countertops will get an extra dose of swiping. Which is a good thing. Just trust me on this one.


  1. You're an amazing woman. You know that, right?

  2. This is a really interesting idea! Of course, I am not convinced that my husband wouldn't grab that roll for cleaning the car, or my daughter to make a new outfit. But it is certainly more visual than that stupid little counter at the bottom left-hand corner of Word.

  3. This is a great idea ! So good I am planning on trying it!


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