My Best Writing Hack

I’m a professional writer. My words pay for my bread, my beer and everything else I consume. Last year, not counting re-writes or emails, I generated 400 pages. That’s a novel worth of writing. Except that I don’t write novels.
The average length of what I write is about two pages. Which means I started writing something new about 200 times last year. And as you’ve probably experienced, starting is the hardest part.
Hell, starting an email is hard. I write for a living and starting is hard. But if I don’t start, I can’t finish. And if I can’t finish, I can’t get paid. And when I really get stuck, this is what I do to avoid starvation:
I write longhand.
Seems silly, but, for me, this is the gold standard of all writing hacks. The problem with writing is, in many ways, the same problem as hitting a golf ball. Both the page and the ball just sit there. And when you write you have (theoretically) a lifetime to rewrite it until you get it right.
But that gives the critical part of your brain time to jump in a muck everything up. It needs something to critize. That’s it’s job after all. But when I write longhand, instead of giving me a stream of, “you’re writing sucks, it sucks, it sucks, sucks, sucks and you just changed tenses you eggsucking loser” it pours forth with “you’re HANDwriting sucks, it sucks, it sucks, sucks, sucks, go back to those huge pencils you had in kindergarden you loser.”
This is a huge difference. Because now the critical part of my brain is no longer in the way of the creative part of my brain. The critical function is necessarily and naturally secondary to the creative function. Something must exist before you can start whining about it.
In fact, the more I focus on the quality of my handwriting, the easier the process seems to be. So when you’re really stuck – go low tech on the problem. Bust out the paper and pen and start scrawling away.
And let me know if it works for you.

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11 replies on “My Best Writing Hack”

  1. I have a serious desire to pick up the papyrus again, but my IT professional brain says ‘nooooooo, illogical, inefficient!’.

    Thanks for giving me more fodder to consider Patrick, and congrats again on the Parsec win!


  2. John,

    Is that IT brain like the reptile brain?

    But seriously, production efficency is completely different than ideation efficiency. You want me to believe a good programmer produces more lines of code than a bad programmers? The good programmer produces better thinking, which should translate to less lines of code – right?

  3. To get going, i sit down at a computer and start typing. Sometimes the first thing that comes out is OK, and sometimes it isn’t. But, for me, hand writing is about 7 WPM, and typing is 50-70 WPM. If it’s garbage, at least it doesn’t take as long. And it always seems to lead to something interesting. I’ve no patience for handwriting.

    Oddly, some of the best computer programming work i’ve done was hand written first, then typed. This discipline requires an extra full editing cycle, reducing errors to nearly zero.

    Here’s a recent review i did on my blog:

    As it turns out, my white text gag was the first thing that came to mind, and it stayed. For humor, i lied a little. It never really got into my mind to do the whole thing that way. It’s a good gag. Once i got started, a dozen things appeared in my head, and it was all i could do to type them up. There was an edit stage where a paragraph got moved, and fixed a little. Then there was a spelling checker pass. Then there were two or three proof reading passes, with corrections at each.

    There is such a thing as too much editing. I have edited the life out of a piece, and even abandoned it.

    The great thing about word processors is that you can move things around, and go in and fix little errors easily. The bad thing about word processors is that you can move things around, and go in and fix little errors easily.

    There was alot more i could have said on the topic, but my audience doesn’t want to read whole books on the blog. Tomorrow’s another day. When my time limit (more or less – there’s no clock) was up, i stopped.

  4. I definately agree… i took an english class spring semester, and we had to do several in-class essays, which means we had to use a pen and paper (i think some of my classmates had forgotten what a pen and paper were). But it defiantely felt different than typing it out. I was less inclined to just throw stuff away that might have been good, but i didnt give it the time to settle in.

  5. The other day, my commuter train was so crammed with people that there was no way I could sit down. I was standing with fellow sardine-commuters in a narrow corridor, and we were such a consistent blob that no amount of jerking could have made us fall. I understood that trying to get my laptop out was useless. It was either podcast or scratchpad. I chose scratchpad and wrote for an hour, until people got off. Then I took said laptop and edited what I had just written. I know that to be perfect, my writing always needs to be edited once more, so there is no efficiency gap between a .txt draft and an analog longhand scrawl.

  6. On the other hand, you have different fingers.
    In times past, paper and ink were expensive — talking about typewriter times here, and people had to think very carefully about each and every word they put into their letters. Like poetry. The point of poetry is to convey a complex feeling or idea in the least amount of words. like…

    you fit into me
    like a hook into an eye

    a fish hook
    an open eye

    ~Margaret Atwood


    Jesus wept.

    So … the question, i think is… when you’re writing (I think I actually typed started to type “righting”), do you like to prethink every single word/sentance/paragraph? or do you like to just write and write and edit out the crappy parts?

  7. I run sort of in the middle-ground on this – I “hand-write” a lot of my blog entries on my PDA using Documents to Go. I find it’s convenient for a lot of locations that a laptop just won’t work it, and I pretty much always have my PDA with me.

    I especially prefer it for creative (as opposed to technical) writing, where there are a lot of pauses between lines and thoughts. On the technical writing that I do, I already know how to say what I’m going to say, and the speed of the keyboard is really paramount to getting it done. For the creative writing, how it’s said is really the greater goal.

    The PDA has the added benefit of the work already being digitized, so I don’t have to re-type it. However, since you have to learn the Grafitti writing system, and it is far from perfect, I replace “my handwriting sucks” with “Grafitti sucks, sucks, sucks… No – I typed a “t” not an “L” you stupid @#$%ing thing”. And you still get to edit it on the computer, because there are always errors that you didn’t catch.

  8. “There is such a thing as too much editing. I have edited the life out of a piece, and even abandoned it.”

    Yup. Just as George Lucas. 😉

    I used to write a lot on my Palm PDA. I got up to about 30 wpm with Graphitti. I can’t stand writing longhand — I really am one of those types who has to just say “screw it” and start typing. The first draft (with notable rare exceptions) is a bunch of junk, but my writing is a lot like making a pearl — I need that grain of sand to build on and polish, and sometimes I come up with something downright good.

    Actually I take that back — the best stuff I’ve ever written practically came out of me in it’s final form, but that happens so rarely that I could never make a living writing that way. I took up blogging partly as an exercise to get me writing, for better or worse, on a regular basis.

  9. Writing by hand may actually use a different pathway to the brain than typing on the computer. Perhaps even a different part of the brain. The MRIs are now advanced enough to actually show what parts of the brain are working when you do various thinking, although not sophisticated enough to show pathways. Yet. So, keep doing what you’re are doing. There may be a good reason why you are doing it.

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