JyriAnd Blog

One Idea One Week

This post was first published on my substack: https://jyriand.substack.com/p/one-idea-one-week_

Writers often write about the effectiveness of writing routines. Some swear by specific word count: 1000 words per day. Others believe in setting aside a specific time-block in a day, and writing during that scheduled time, regardless of the word output. Many, if not most, advise writing in the mornings when the mind is fresh and distracting elements have not woken up yet.

This is common sense advice that totally escapes me. I’m adopting an alternative approach, not focused so much on a single day, but on a week.

A week gives you time to think deeply, without rushing out your incomplete thoughts. In seven days, breakthrough moments have a chance to emerge. Just when all hope is lost, unexpected connection pops into your head, tying the loose notes into a coherent whole.

I first recognized the advantages of a weekly approach to writing when attending The Newsletter Launchpad cohort, taught by Louie Bacaj and Chris Wong . They talked about the weekly cadence of writing newsletters. I felt liberated. I just need to write one thing per week—it doesn’t really matter if I write every day. Also, I remembered the Important Books course that I took few years back in the university. Each week, we were assigned to write one essay based on a passage from Joseph Conrad’s book Lord Jim. The week was an ideal time to dig into the book, ruminate and despair over it, only to finish the essay as if by magic before the due date.

The Important Books course was modeled after the Oxford tutorial system, perceived by some as an ineffective and outdated way of teaching. Yet, in spite of these “antiquated” methods, University of Oxford is still ranked number one university in the world.

A tutorial system involves a weekly face-to-face meeting between a student and a tutor. The student presents a work on an assignment, often in the form of an essay that he has prepared over the week. He reads his essay out loud to the tutor, which then forms the in-depth discussion with the tutor. The student is expected to talk in depth about his ideas and opinions related to reading and research he has done. Tutorial format allows the student to push himself academically and work independently on a topic he is interested in.

Preparing for a tutorial demands a week of intensive study. Some students report spending as much as thirteen hours preparing for each tutorial—and they have more than one tutorial per week. This is intense, to say the least.

The purpose of the tutor is to occasionally nudge the student in the correct direction and prevent him from following false and unpromising paths.

The format and experience of the tutorial can vary significantly depending on the individuals involved. Some tutors just “smoke at you” the whole time, clearly bored with the contrived arguments you are making, some fall asleep. A.J Carlyle, historian and a fellow in Oxford, had his own quirks when listening to his student’s monologue. Sitting on a couch by the fireplace, wearing slippers, he yawned indiscriminately, if the essay was dull, or started to poke the fireplace with ever-increasing intensity, trying not to comment on the silly mistakes of the student. Out of respect, he always left his remarks till the end of the essay.

The tutorial system, introduced around 200 years ago, is quite new addition to Oxford, given its age. In the 18th century, Oxford was going through a dark ages of sorts. While the Cambridge was flourishing, the knowledge was seemingly vanishing from Oxford. Some described the period as academically lethargic. There was just too much intellectual idleness and moral decline.

Something had to be done. The Oxford’s degree was devaluing, there was no “guarantee of distinction”, and no security against collusion between students and examiners. Perhaps inspired by the examples of Ancient Greeks, it occurred to someone that there isn’t a good education without a one-to-one contact, as was in the times of Socrates and his disciple Plato. The following Oxford renaissance came about mostly on two reforms: the examination reform, and the introduction of the tutorial system.

The tutorial system is not without its critics, particularly among the teaching staff. One major concern is the extensive time commitment required to engage with students individually or in small groups. Also, sometimes either the student or the tutor just don’t give a damn. A student, faced off with an indifferent tutor, without a single sign of recognition nor a word of feedback, might conclude that his essay is worthless. Similarly, some students, paralyzed by the presence of an eminent professor, stare at the wall and can’t get a word out. The tutor concludes that the student is a hopeless case of intellectual numbness.

John Betjeman, an English poet and writer, famously, despised his tutor and blamed him for not completing his studies. His tutor was no other than C.S. Lewis himself. Lewis also wasn’t fond of his pupil, writing in his diary “I wish I could get rid of the idle prig.” The personalities clashed, and Lewis complains in his diaries that Betjeman once “appeared in pair of eccentric bedroom slippers and said he hoped I didn’t mind them, as he had a blister.”

Lewis was generally loved by his pupils, but he had his shortcomings. A contemporary of Lewis’s remarks: “Lewis’s great fault, perhaps his only one as a teacher, was his basic lack of interest in his students as individuals.” But also: “He respected anyone who had done their homework.” Betjeman had obviously not done his homework, spending more time cultivating his social skills.

The tutorial is demanding format. You don’t want to disappoint the tutor, and might as well spend many sleepless nights reading books for the essay, and end up with a devastating remark.

It can be challenging even to an experienced writer. Justin Cartwright, a British novelist, went back to Oxford 20 years later while working on his book Sacred Garden: Oxford Revisited. As an experiment, he tried out the tutorial. The teacher assigned him some passages to read. When they met again, Cartwright read the produced essay to the tutor. After some discussion, he was surprised, how much he had missed. “I left Trinity, shaken by Simon’s[the tutor] judgement that, if I were a first year student, he would say ‘Must read more attentively.’”

Obviously, the tutorials are not easy. The workload on the student is immense, writing up to three 1000-3000 word essays per week. On top of that, students have to attend lectures and read extensively. There’s a myth that Oxford students don’t attend lectures and are largely self-directed. But that is not the case. When the student attends the lectures, he has already done his reading based on the weekly assignment from the tutorial, and he has a set of questions in his mind.

We can imagine the bewilderment of exchange students visiting the Oxford for the first time. Coming from a lecture-driven and structured learning environment where teachers tell you exactly what you need to do to pass the course, the seemingly haphazard and frighteningly liberal way of Oxford can be, to say it mildly, off-putting. Visiting a tutor once a week, while the tutor doesn’t really teach you anything, seems like an inefficient way for the American or German student. It might feel that the tutor does little, while he has to do too much.

I’m OK with doing too much, sometimes obsessing about a seemingly unimportant subject for a whole week.

That’s why week is an ideal timeframe. A single day is not enough;more than a week, and I will start to lose interest. A week is the middle ground: just enough time to dig into something, however trivial it is.

Having practiced weekly cadence for a dozen times now, first for the Important Books course and later for writing in general, I have detected some patterns.

The first day is usually where I get excited about a subject and write a horrible draft. Few days go by. I occasionally ponder about the topic, taking notes in the pocket notebook throughout the day. At that moment, I feel like I have everything figured out. Only much further into the week the first doubts begin to arise. By the fourth or fifth day, I realize I don’t have anything to write about. I don’t have a point, only a stack of notes and random facts. I start to look for new alleyways into the topic.

But I keep taking notes. It all happens in small chunks of time: while driving, while walking the dog, while falling asleep. My mind just keeps coming back to the topic. Some might call it obsession; for me, it’s curiosity, it’s captivating.

During the weekend, I’m starting to accept that everything is lost. There is no entry into the grandiose palace that I have built in my mind. My attempt has failed. It’s one of those dark night of the soul moments. I write a new draft, trying to crack the problem, but without much success. And then I write another, and another. Everything I write, sucks. This is it, I’m done. I’m surrendering, I’m defeated.

Comes Sunday, and I have all but forgotten about the topic. I decide to go over my notes and disgusting drafts for the last time. I pick out a few good sentences here and there, and … ahha!, something clicks. Finally, I know what I wanted to write about. I start typing away with fresh excitement.

It’s now 23 minutes past the midnight, I’m writing my last words of the week. Technically, it’s already Monday. I don’t care. This topic is closed, and a new one is awaiting.