Since the collapse of my regular life last year, I’ve been concentrating on writing a lot more, and also — because I’m self-conscious and overly analytical — thinking a lot more about how I can be a better, more productive writer. I’ve also ended up talking to a lot of young people who want to write and don’t know how.
Now, a lot of what I’ve recommended has been the usual thing: write more; submit what you write; keep writing and submitting while you wait to hear back about what you have written; submit to publications you like to read. This, of course, is Robert Heinlein’s Rules for Writing, with the serial numbers scrubbed off. For people who find it hard to write at all, I recommend The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron; for advice on how to basically write more, and gooder, I like Mark Levy’s Accidental Genius.
So the last few days have been unproductive — I’ve been occupied with mundane things like an audition to teach for another programming bootcamp — and it’s been frustrating until this morning when I sat down to figure out what the problem was. I did so using a process I made up from those books and several others that I call “thinkwriting.” While I was talking with our managing editor about another piece I wrote today, it occurred to me that people might find it useful.
It starts out with “freewriting,” something I first learned about from Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power. It sounds suspiciously easy: all you do is write as fast as you can, without stopping or going back, for some fixed length of time.
It’s not as easy as it sounds: try it for just 5 minutes to start. Remember, just as fast as you can write. (I have done it both longhand and typing, and I find longhand a little easier; I’ll explain why in a bit.)
The trick is in doing this without stopping or going back. I do a good bit of editing, especially copyediting, and it is very tough for me to see a typo or a bad word choice and not want to go back and fix it.
That way is death. You start editing, and pretty quickly you’re trying to say it perfectly. For me, writing longhand is easier because the most I can do is strike through something and start over, and I try really hard not to do even that. (There are writing programs to help you do this as well. I’ve used Rough Draft and like it pretty well, but I still find it easier to just use pen and paper.)
So, now you’ve mastered freewriting — just practice, you’ll get it — now we go to thinkwriting. It’s just like freewriting except you start with something in mind, some question you want to consider. So, take a clean piece of paper, or open a new file, or open Rough Draft and write the question at the top of the page. Start freewriting, talking to yourself about the topic. At this point, it’s a lot like brainstorming, meditation, or stage improvisation: you simply don’t stop, and you don’t say no to anything. No one is going to see what you’re writing.
Here’s an exact transcript of the thinkwriting I did this morning to unblock on my insurance series:
2017 Mar 27 [I date everything.]
Back to work thinking the insurance thing. So here’s the goal: give people the tools and knowledge they — knowlege? No — I’ll be damned, Alexa can tell you how a word is spelled. Judgment [Aside: I always get confused because I expect it to be judgement.] Yep, that’s it. Cool. Okay, so anyway, the goal is to give people the tools to evaluate these schemes for themselves….
You can see, this is very informal and conversational; I’m just putting down words, and if I get distracted by a thought I carry on with it until I either finish the thought or notice I’ve been distracted and bring myself back to the original topic. Just as with meditation, when you notice you’ve gone off on a squirrel hunt, you just gently come back to the topic. No blame, don’t beat yourself up, just go back to it. You aren’t being graded on your freewriting.
My experience is that if I thinkwrite about something, I fairly quickly start seeing new ideas, or at least ideas I didn’t know I’d had. In fact, it was while I was writing about insurance that it struck me that I could write about thinkwriting and people might find it useful. So I did.
I hope you did. Give it a try and tell me the results.