Writing Tip 8: Figure out what works for you and do that

Writing is hard work. The first five minutes are often the most difficult. But, if there’s a deadline looming, a dissertation due, or a monograph months behind schedule, sometimes keeping at it is even harder. You’ll need some writing tricks to push through, especially when stopping while the going is good is not an option.

Writing Tip 8: Figure out what works for you and do that.

Pay attention to your good writing days and your bad writing days. Do what worked on the good days, and avoid what didn’t work on the bad days.

For me, writing is made up of many smaller tasks. Writing is not one thing. Drafting a new text is different from revising something I wrote last week. Polishing an argument in a literature review is different than removing the duplication in a piece of description. Hunting down unnecessary adverbs and passive voice is different from getting the citations worked out.

If you can’t do one thing, do the other,

If you can’t draft new text, try removing passive voice. If you can’t get the energy to polish the argument, work on fixing the citations. If you can’t do anything? Read it out loud for a while. Just don’t get stuck editing sections that you might remove later.

My general rule: Do the hardest kind of writing task, for me drafting new text, first. Then, when you get stuck try something else.

Sometimes, however, you might need a more drastic strategy.

If I am stuck on a new piece of text, I draft it longhand with a pen or a pencil. My computer is off. After I have the draft, I might rewrite the text longhand a second time and revise and edit as I go. I wrote the blog post about outlines this way at a coffee shop with an eighteen-month-old paying on sofas. Later, I typed the drafts out. Speech-to-text software is one way to convert handwritten words on a page to words on a screen.

In the same way, a digital audio recorder helped me get ideas down during fieldwork. Were they the best ideas? No. But, they were words I can come back to. Field notes need not be perfect. But, it helps to have them.

If my head is spinning on the computer, I find editing a printout with a pen is a great way to get some more work done.

Too many audio recordings, too many handwritten pages, and too many printouts with scrawled copy edits? Ask someone to help. In the midst of dissertation, I asked someone—my mother—to type out my handwritten notes and the copy edits. I’m not arguing for a return to unpaid and unrecognized labour of educated women—Jenny Marx and Sophia Tolstoy both copied out much of their more famous husband’s words. But, don’t underestimate how far a little help can go.

Feel guilty? Pay someone. What your supervisor never told you is that in the 1980s there were typing services and dictaphones. Everyone used them. Similar services exist today. Google them.

Too many distractions on the computer, but hate to write longhand? Try using a typewriter. I use a Brother GX-6750 Daisy Wheel Electronic Typewriter a couple times a week. When I am visiting my parents, I love my mother’s Olympia Typewriter. My mother wrote her M.A. on it, and I drafted dozens of pages for my book last summer. I scan the pages it into my computer and convert the scanned images to plain text.

To write my Masters thesis, I used an AlphaSmart until it broke.

Each machine forced me to slow down, and got rid of Internet based distractions.

During the mid-afternoon lull, if I am stalled but still trying to work, I leave for the office or a coffee shop or the library. The change of scene—and the walk to get there—will let me write a little longer. In my dissertation, I often met with a friend at a coffee shop to write.

Going for a hike works too. I thought through the thread for my book walking up a mountain in October. When I wrote my M.A. thesis, I went for long bike rides in Ottawa summer evenings.

When all else fails, loud music might helps. For me, what works is something I’ve listened to hundreds of times or music in a language I don’t really know. Fado does the trick. For a while, I used FocusAtWill all the time, until I realized I actually work best in absolute silence.

Earplugs are small thermonuclear devices that let you counter distraction from noisy trains, loud airplanes, and screaming toddlers in the next room. Jamie Lauren Keiles recommends Mack’s brand earplugs. I bought a small bag, and now I need more.

Robert Boice, in Advice for New Faculty Members, suggests pausing before you start. Take ten minutes before you start a task to meditate a little: Then get to work.

In short, learn what works for you. Take real or mental notes. And, when just doing it isn’t working, and you can’t stop, try changing your writing tactics.

Case in point. Saturday was a slow day. I spend the first few hours in with a toddler, not writing. When I had the time to write, I couldn’t. So, I decided to forget about writing for a while. I made a date with myself at a coffee shop in the afternoon. I got there at 2 o’clock and wrote until 4 o’clock. By leaving the house, I saved my writing day. Then I went to the gym. If I had tried to write at home, I would have gotten progressively grumpier and made no progress.

Learn what works for you, and do that. Maybe this will take trial and error. If it means a coffee shop or hiring someone to type your notes, do that. Figure out how you get your writing done, and do it.

Try new ideas.

When I have some time, I would like to follow the advice of John August, of the brilliant ScriptNotes podcast, and get away:

When I start a new screenplay, I generally go away for a few days. I find that barricading myself in a new hotel in a new city helps me break the back of a story. I hand-write pages, trying to plow through as much as possible; my record is 21 pages in a day. Writing by hand keeps me from editing and second-guessing. At the start, it’s crucial to generate a critical mass of pages.

Every morning, I send what I’ve written to my assistant to type up. The Scannable app is great for this.

I find I can generally get 40 decent pages out of a good barricading session. I won’t paste the scenes together until I’m more than halfway through a script.