End Of Year Review – And The Rules Of The Playground


Thursday, 7.52am

Sheffield, U.K.

People have to see play as more important than what it currently is. We don’t want to get boxed into thinking play only happens on a playground. The best type of play is all kinds of play. – Darell Hammond

I suppose this should be a sort of review post, given it’s the last day of the year. So let’s look at the last 366 days and see what they look like.

As a reminder, back in 2017, I gave myself ten years to write a million words as a self-directed writing apprenticeship. It’s what I always wanted to do but it took almost four decades to get started. But the important point, I suppose, is to start.

I write using a routine that’s emerged over time. First I think about an idea and draw an image that captures it – a list, a model, a picture. Something that shows the idea. Then I spend some time freewriting – three paragraphs of anything, just to get the gears moving and break off the rust that’s grown since the last time I wrote. Then I set up my post, look for a quote or joke that again captures the idea and then I set off to write. And the writing itself is unplanned and just flows, one word into another, one sentence into the next.

Okay, so a few stats first. In total, I’ve written 961,000 words so far, freewriting and posts, but not counting this one. I’ve published 694,395 words on my blog in 950 posts in four years. The number of words per post has steadily increased, from just under 500 in 2017 to over 1,000 in 2020.

Should I talk about visitor numbers and likes and that sort of stuff? I’d rather not – in fact I’d like to have the ability to turn off visitor tracking on WordPress. It has a strange effect on a writer. Do you write because you want to explore an idea, or need to get something off your chest? Or do you write to market, for the things people like? I think the answer to that is pretty obvious but metrics make it hard to go in the direction that is the right one for you. If you’re familiar with my posts, I argue in several places that setting goals and targets can be a dangerous step and you should be careful about which ones you select. The one target I have – a million words in ten years – has been a stable and consistent one and it’s easy to test progress against it.

So what’s happened over that time – what lessons have I learned and what’s changed about my writing?

I think the practice of trying to write daily is invaluable. I manage betweem 240 and 260 posts in a normal year although this one I’m at 275 because of the pandemic and we can’t go anywhere. The daily practice has helped to loosen me up, bring out whatever my natural voice happens to be. I dislike big words and complex sentences and like clarity and a “talking” sort of style. I overuse the chattiness, perhaps, and the extra pause words like “perhaps” and “suppose”. That loosens the writing and should really be taken out at some kind of editing stage.

I think the approach I take to writing – circling around a concept with drawing, looking for a quote, just freewriting – helps to prime my brain to look at things from multiple perspectives. I don’t write to a recipe or follow an outline. I just write. And hopefully it makes sense. I think it’s the difference between looking at storm clouds and stirring a cup of tea. The controlled chaos of the stirring will hopefully result in something worth drinking. The rain could fall anywhere.

Practically, writing using the methods described in this post are still valid. Thinking in small bits – chunks – and using semantic linefeeds, a way of writing that follows the advice:

“First, when you do the purely mechanical operation of typing, type so that later editing will be easy. Start each sentence on a new line. Make lines short, and break lines at natural places, such as after commas and semicolons, rather than randomly. Since most people change documents by rewriting phrases and adding, deleting, and rearranging sentences, these precautions simplify any editing needed later.”

This is the one writing technique that works for me – it turns essay writing into poetry writing and the words just flow.

Finally, the one thing that’s changed recently, since the start of my latest book project “Community” is writing in paragraphs rather than sentences. I don’t know how that’s going to turn out but hopefully it will make editing easier.

Looking forward then, there are a few things I want to try out. I recently came across the work of Lynda Barry and am going to try out doing more hand-made material – physical, not digital. The image above, for example, is done using children’s crayons and copier paper. It’s an experiment to see how spending more time with analog tools helps with the thinking process. There’s this nagging feeling I have that everything I write is too sterile, too general, the material doesn’t have any ghosts inhabiting it. It’s like Easter eggs or big chocolate reindeer. Once you break through the shell, there’s nothing inside. I remember being extremely disappointed the first time I came across one of these large chocolate sculptures and finding the insides empty. It’s probably normal to everyone else but I didn’t know and I felt let down. So an exercise for myself is to make this more real – and that needs experimentation and practice.

We’ll see how these things work out and hopefully you’ll find it useful as well.

Now, in my last post, I said we’d look at the rules of the playground and how they work. We’ve all had that experience of entering into a new situation and not knowing quite what to do. Some jump straight in and some hang around on the sidelines, waiting to be invited. Some of it comes down to personalities, and some of it to the norms and practices that are in play. And some norms change – I watched a trailer of the film “Bad News Bears” and was a little taken aback by the language.

This is not an easy question to answer. For example, the child development textbook I have here is bookmarked to the page which addresses the question “What determines which children will be popular with their peers?” And the answer is nuanced.

First of all, the behaviours that are acceptable or not depend on the norms of the group. Some are aggressive and some are cooperative. Just think of a gang of kids in one location hanging out in the street versus a groups of kids at a sports camp. The kind of approach you need to take for acceptance are different.

In general what you can say is that children who behave in an aggressive and inappropriate way tend to be rejected by their peers. In a playground, for example, if a child pushes its way into a game and demands to have the ball, the others will move away. In other situations, however, aggression can lead to higher status. Again, imagine a group of kids around a bully or the stereotypical image of salesmen or traders and the kind of macho behaviour that we imagine they indulge in.

The thing that matters, it seems, is not what happens over time but what first happens. It’s that first meeting where a group decides whether to accept or reject you. And if you are friendly and funny and get on with people then you have a good chance of being in the group. And once you’re in the group you tend to stay in, even if you are aggressive later.

Some children struggle with shyness and a lack of sibling relationships. Social isolation is a real problem and one of the most important jobs a teacher has is to make sure children get on and are not isolated – taking steps to ensure mixing and acceptance, forcing it if necessary.

These few ideas give us something to hold on to. In traditional communities you look after your own, even if they are aggressive and inappropriate because they are part of your extended family network. You’ve seen that again and again, haven’t you? But you wouldn’t accept that from a stranger in your village.

Online and workplace communities are not that different – initial acceptance is based on how you look and appear – your profile and public statements. Have you had an experience where you’ve been excluded from a closed group? Once you’re in the group, how do you act? Do you try and get on or do you speak your mind? The research would suggest that you should take some time – first get accepted and then start to stake out your position.

As a leader or group moderator, your main job is to ensure that people who join the group are not excluded – and I’ve found that this can be a hard task and is not done particularly well sometimes. It takes time and no one has enough time.

In the next few posts we’ll carry on exploring some of these ideas. I think this comes down to external strategies – constraints and enablers and internal approaches – picking up tasks to be done, for example. So we’ll look at this next.

This is a pretty long post, a mix of things, so apologies for that. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve had a good holiday break and wish you a very happy New Year.


Karthik Suresh

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