Granularity

People who think about hacking their lives and their work often speak of “granularity.” It’s a curious word. The online Oxford English Dictionary offers only “granular condition or quality” as a definition. A more helpful definition comes from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications: “The extent to which a larger entity is subdivided. For example, a yard broken into inches has finer granularity than a yard broken into feet.” To think of tasks and challenges in terms of granularity is to think in terms of breaking them down into smaller and more manageable parts.

Granularity is a tremendously useful strategy for students. The typical spiral-bound student-planner doesn’t seem to encourage it; that tool is often little more than a place to store due dates: “research paper due.” But no one can just write a research paper. That paper can only be the result of numerous small-scale tasks. It’s not surprising that students who think of “write research paper” as one monolithic task are likely to put it off far longer than they ought to. Instead of “write research paper,” one could think of these tasks: go to library to look up sources; organize them by call number; read first three sources and take notes; get article from JSTOR; read remaining three sources and take notes; organize notes on computer; check bibliography format; ask professor about endnote form; make rough outline; and so on. Each of these “granular” tasks is far more do-able than “write research paper.” Thinking of work in terms of granularity can be one way to overcome the overwhelming dread of getting started. And keeping track of such tasks on paper and crossing them off one by one gives the satisfaction making progress and getting closer to done.

A student might also apply the strategy of granularity to the work of writing itself. Instead of writing a draft and “looking it over,” it’s much smarter to break down the work of writing and editing by thinking about one thing at a time. Developing a strong thesis statement: that’s one task. Working out a sequence of paragraphs to develop that thesis: another task. Figuring out how to make a transition from one paragraph to another: another task. If you tend to have patterns of errors in your writing, look for each kind of error, one at a time. Noun-pronoun agreement? Read a draft once through looking only for that. Comma splices? Read once through with your eyes on the commas. It might seem that approaching the work of writing and editing in terms of smaller, separate tasks is unnecessarily cumbersome, but breaking things down will likely make it far easier to work more effectively and come out with a stronger piece of writing. No writer can think about everything at once.

Granularity is also a useful strategy for making even a daunting reading project do-able. If you have eighty pages to read, finish twenty and take a short break; then repeat. If you’re reading James Joyce or Marcel Proust, a handful of pages might be all that you can manage at one sitting, and sometimes you might need to chart your progress by the sentence. But those sentences and pages add up, and I should know. I just finished all seven volumes (3,102 pages) of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), averaging twenty pages a day over five months and two days of reading.

Try thinking of your next major (or even minor) assignment in terms of granularity. You might find that getting started and making progress come far more easily.

Michael Leddy is an English professor whose recent writing includes an essay on Stanley Lombardo’s recordings of the Iliad and Odyssey in translation. Leddy blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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