Tricks Are For Writers

July 19, 2016 § 8 Comments

magic bunny

Brevity reminds our readers to support your writing bunny by the hind legs–never grasp it by the ears.

My beloved life coach sent me a link to Shut Up And Write–business consultant Karyn Greenstreet heard about a method for generating work in silent company with other writers, and she’s now (mildly) monetizing it for writers who need to get their work done.

People who had to write their master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation would agree to get together on a regular basis, spend a few minutes getting settled, and then “shut up and write” for 25 minute sprints. Then they’d take a 5 minute break and do another 25 minute sprint.

This technique of 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break is a proven method for working within your brain’s normal rhythms. Add that to the group support and accountability of working quietly together, it’s a real win-win.

Greenstreet charges $20 for five sessions–about what I’d save on coffee if I Skyped into her meetings instead of running down to Starbucks for the afternoon.

I mentioned Shut Up And Write to a writer friend, who wrote back “Sounds like a great way to collect money for doing nothing.  Pay me 20 bucks and then stfu and do what you should be doing by yourself.” A bit snappish, yes, but is that true? Should writers be doing it by ourselves? Are we less-able if we rely on the real or virtual presence of another person, an appointed time, outside accountability? Is creation solely a personal responsibility, to be generated through will alone?

Tools to support writing abound. Apps that turn off our internet or blacklist social media sites. Apps to keep writing steadily (or lose your work!). Approving kittens. Over at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost reviews the Freewrite, a “smart typewriter” that he describes as

…the latest and most extreme entry in the distraction-free writing wars. The idea: by stripping down a computer to its basics, writing can be simplified and improved.

…the mechanical keyboard inscribes text to an e-ink screen (like the Kindle’s), and a physical Wi-Fi lever activates networking—but only to send your documents to services like Dropbox or Google Drive. The lowly writer, plagued by the torment of Facebook, Twitter, and browser tabs, can finally get down to business and just write.

Bogost talks about the effect of writing tools and methods on the writing itself, going back to Nietzsche on typewriters–“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts;” tools change their users. Brevity‘s own Dinty W. Moore strongly recommends his workshop students write in-class exercises by hand, since the veins in the hand flow up through the arms, connecting to the heart. Many writers would say they need a certain notebook, a particular pen. I don’t know how I’d finish this essay without being able to websearch every few moments–to check a quote, find support for a point, look up another word for trick. What’s a crutch or a ploy or a gimmick and what’s an assist from a teammate?

Writers and painters are the most solitary of artists. No matter how we get the work done, in the end, one person (usually) is responsible for what ended up on the paper. Dancers and musicians and actors go into a room together. Rehearsal has a beginning and an end and a structure enforced by a leader. Shit gets done. If you’re not on your A-game today, you fake it as best you can, someone else picks up the slack, and you do the same for them tomorrow or next week.

I realized a few weeks ago, I work on the rehearsal/performance model. I want to pound out work in a sixty hours before a hard deadline, then lie around and play Bejeweled for a week to recover. I’ve known for much longer that I, too, am a Shut Up And Write person. My writer friend in Florida, my writer friend in Louisiana, my writer friend in Dubai–we sit together in a coffee shop, sometimes different coffee shops with Skype on. Write for an hour, chat for a few minutes or read what we have so far, write for another hour. I can do this six days in a row, and writing with a teammate makes me show up, helps me start. The presence of another person encourage-shames me into continuing to type past when I’d quit alone. Sure, it’s a trick. But the rabbit coming out of the hat is pages.

It’s not the only way I write. “Need to post a blog for Brevity” is a strong motivator. So is “I want to finish this book so I can sell it when I speak at a conference next month.” Or a contest deadline. And sometimes, on a lucky day, “Because I’m passionate about this project and sitting down to work feels good.” Those days are the best, the most joy-filled, the most creative. But they wouldn’t add up to much if they were the only days I worked.

Why trust to luck when I can stock a toolbox? Carpenters don’t think less of the cabinet that needed a bandsaw as well as a screwdriver. Stockbrokers aren’t shy about whipping out calculators and whiteboards. Dancers show up to rehearsal whether or not they’re in the mood, because rehearsal is the tool to get work done. They don’t look back at the choreography and say, “Yeah, but someone had to tell me to show up to learn that.”

Writers (and visual artists) often work without any of the tools we see as a “normal” work framework. No hours, no co-workers, no desk where someone will notice if you’re watching Samantha Bee. So why should it feel weak or dishonest to use tools most everyone else uses to get our work done? Because art is supposed to feel like “play”?

We can desperately want the feeling of having created, we can love the passion of wanting to create, and still have a hard time sitting down to work. Writing can feel like a job as well as a joy. And it’s OK to need a tool–even one that feels like a trick.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

Tagged: , ,

§ 8 Responses to Tricks Are For Writers

  • elizabethmosier says:

    Brava! And thank you!

  • Jan Priddy says:

    For almost five years in the early to mid-2000s, I exchanged writing prompts with a former student each week on Thursdays. When we found time that day, we each set a timer for 30 minutes, read the prompt and wrote furiously. We then sent them off as attachment, not for critique, but just to complete a process of writing and sharing. Several of the prompts led to published stories for me. I regret now that I called a halt to this SU&W activity. It damaged me to stop writing fiction, but my writing partner is now a tenured professor, and, while on on sabbatical for the next year, plans to write a novel.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Jan, that sounds fantastic! I was part of an online writing contest/community on LiveJournal in 2012-2013 that involved a prompt every week, with a deadline. It was really awesome to be forced to write every week whether or not I was in the mood, and I’m still revising and submitting material I generated in that time. It’s what made me make the leap from circus performer to writer 🙂

  • Anna says:

    Hundreds of dollars for a Freewrite? My AlphaSmart does all that for chump change without reliance on the cloud. It’s been running for years on its original pair of AA batteries, holds several documents at once in its generous memory, takes up very little room, is lightweight, goes anywhere, has a streamlined design, is practically unbreakable (it was designed years ago for use with young children), and cables in to my home computer or printer for downloading and editing or printing as I wish. I’m happy with what I’ve already got. (Disclaimer: no connection with the company.)
    Now for the prompts and the deadlines….

  • Shi Jiachen says:

    I used a technique which is to “25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break” when I was preparing for the postgraduate entrance exam in China because I know marginal utility applies to a good or a service as well as the efficiency of study.

  • There’s a great monthly event in Lancaster called Write Now Lancaster. One of the co-founders calls it “study hall for adults.” I find that I am more sometimes more productive when I go to this hour-long event than when I’m at my office. [The idea is this: local writers all sign up to bring wine/beer/soda/sweet snack/savory snack/paper supplies, and we show up – network for 15 minutes, write for 60, network for 15, and go home.] I find that when in the presence of others I’m less likely to stray.

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Incredibly honest and helpful re-blog today…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Tricks Are For Writers at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.


%d bloggers like this: