Writing fast and slow


I love writing and yoga, but for many years I just couldn’t seem to get it together to establish a daily practice for either, until I discovered yin yoga. Overnight, my yoga practice was transformed. Later, I watched long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad on Ted talk about achieving her lifetime goal aged 64 years, after she adopted her mantra: Find a way. It was then that I decided that I could find a way to a daily writing practice too.

Following the advice of Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K a day and Monica Loelle’s Write Better, Faster, I set up a spreadsheet and then, for six weeks, I tracked everything I wrote whilst noting down my location, my mood, what I was writing, how I was writing, and this is what I found worked for me:

Have an audience

The minute I started the spreadsheet, I had begun to watch myself, so I had created an audience. And with that came the need to add numbers to my spreadsheet. It was the same when I experimented with going to the library or a coffee shop. I had made such an effort to get my things together, get there, and then set it up, that I was that person working. Even if where I was got really loud and I was distracted, I would force myself to finish what I had set out to do.

Some writers on Twitter use the hashtag #amwriting. I haven’t tried it yet but it is quite nice to say out loud: I am writing, I want to finish this. NaNoWriMo, every November, encourages Twitter writing sprints, which can be both motivational and provide writing company, to encourage everyone to finish their 50,000 words.

Have a plan

If I was to keep another spreadsheet I would not allow myself to count the words I put in my journal. This is because I found that I would write away merrily, first thing on a morning, coffee to hand, and could rattle off 3k in under an hour, which was amazing, but then I would down tools once it had gone in the spreadsheet, as it felt like I had done my work for the day. I was producing words, but not finished writing.

When I kept a blog about my daughter being born with kidney failure, we had a lot to do each day with all the medical stuff. Often, people would ask me how I managed to be so prolific, but I found that writing it all down at the end of each day, didn’t take too long. It was cathartic and easy to do because I lived it and knew exactly what I was going to write. And, rather like the blogging I do now, it helped me make sense of things. That blog also had a specific audience of people who were expecting a new post, so that helped me get on, focus, and finish.

Knowing what to write when starting something new is a great way to avoid the blank page. Now, before I begin anything, especially a blog, I plan it out for at least 20 minutes. I then have something to type in and a structure to follow, and so I don’t waste time wondering where to start.

The other thing that helps me is having an external deadline. This ensures I have planned what I am going to say, how long I need to say it, and when I have to say it by.

Have a timer

I installed a timer on the bottom of my screen and set it to 20 minutes. This stopped a lot of the daydreaming and also ensured I was motivated to get writing as I had a break to look forward to at the end of each session. This approach gives me lots of words at the end of a day of sessions. A 20 minutes stint gives me around 1,000 words, which all make more sense than I thought possible and helps me get down a first blog draft quickly.

I can’t yet fit editing into the 20 minute-sprints. I have tried longer sessions but ended up noodling about. Editing and writing are very different skills. Perhaps, next time I will do an editing spreadsheet, as each time I edited work to make it better, I would fret about the lack of words in the spreadsheet, which is interesting, as I had nothing to proof to anyone except myself, but then taming your inner lizard is a life’s work.

Have a break

Writing this blog today has been very quick but that is because I have followed the three Haves above. I have had:

  1. An audience: Mainly myself because I found it fascinating to track myself and my inner lizard can take note and criticise me later with this new found knowledge.
  2. A plan: Partly because I took notes when I was tracking and journalled about it, so I didn’t need to research or think about it.
  3. A timer: I put the timer on because I wanted to make sure I finished this today. Sometimes, if I have been thinking about something for too long I have to fight the urge to feel that because I know what I think about it, I don’t need to write it up.

There have been days, however, even with the above three things, I have been unable to finish a blog or another piece of writing in the time I have set. And now thanks to the spreadsheet, I can see where I have banged my head against a piece of work to get it finished when I would have been better off just leaving it and giving myself a holiday, even a busman’s holiday, and writing something else.

Taking time to reflect on what I want to say seems to be part of my process, especially when writing a blog. My blogs on Sherry Turkle’s theory that social media is changing us and Maslow’s hierarchy of social media took a couple of weeks of thought. No timers, deadlines, or audiences could have changed that. First of all because I had a different opinion from anything else I had read anywhere else on these topics. And secondly, I didn’t even know what my opinion was until I gave myself permission to ruminate. So, I spent some time drinking coffee whilst thinking about these topics and reading around, and taking notes, before I was able to plan them out. And even then they didn’t go the way I had planned, because for me, writing is the surest way of getting clear about what I think.

Have a good time

Sometimes when I have spent a couple of weeks wondering what I am trying say, followed by saying it. I post it online and wonder why I put so much effort in. I blog because I like to and that is enough.

Today, I installed the Organize Series plugin for WordPress**. I have found that, once I begin a blog and post it, later I go back and want to add more, and so a series is quite a nice thing to do. Next on my list – after another blog on embodiment – are my old HCI lectures, which are a less old and more relevant today than I believed. Aside from what I believe though, they will be fun to write up.

And this is the most important rule I am now living by when writing fast and slow: Have a good time whether you are getting results or not, because having fun is what it is all about.

** I had to disactivate this plugin as it ate all my resources and gave me a 508 error! More investigation needed as having links to my series was very nice.

The power of the written word

Charlie Brown Wah Wah Wah
I used to read a woman’s blog, everyday. It was amazing: Her drunken, violent mother, her complicated pregnancy, her terrible having a baby experience followed by terrible post-natal depression. It was a detailed slice of life which was compelling to read. One day she wrote that her husband was thinking of resigning from his job to go to another job for more money even though his boss had been great to him and it was a bit of a dilemma and what was he to do? Next day, the blog had gone forever, all that was left was an apology for saying too much.

I can only guess that the last entry, before the blog got deleted, jeopardised her husband’s livelihood and it was the kind of the thing she might not have mentioned to any of husband’s work colleagues had she seen them face-to-face.

I remember when I was eight-years-old being with my mother when we met a woman in the street who told us all about her suicide attempt. At the end of the long, sad story she looked at me as she said,

‘And I lay on the bed and wished that I would never wake up.’

I am probably the same age now as that woman was back then and I wonder would this woman be blogging nowadays? Lots of people do blog about their feelings. Is there any difference between blogging and telling people in the street?

Blogging about something and publishing it online means that you don’t know who you are telling although you have an exact record of what you have said. Telling someone in the street face-to-face means you know whom you have told but you might not remember exactly what you said.

Whether you are saying too much depends on how comfortable you feel sharing whatever you have to say and your state of mind. If you are traumatised, the filters, that you normally have to stop everything you are thinking coming straight out of your mouth, are not always working and sometimes that is not necessarily the best time to be talking about things, well, in front of eight-year olds anyway, but it is often when you have the greatest need.

Talking or blogging can be cathartic and just the thing to make sense of an event. Or, you can, as in the case of the husband-job blogger-woman, say too much and later be sorry because you set into motion events you wish hadn’t happened.

It is easier to be free with your information when there is just you and a computer and no one else. There is the fake intimacy of ‘between you, me, and the four walls…’. The X million people also on their computers who might read what you are writing, are forgotten about.

When interacting with another person we often tailor what we say depending on what they say. Or, we get prevented from saying what we want to say because this other person has something to say. Or, someone else comes along and we don’t feel comfortable having the same discussion in front of them. On a computer there is no one there to stop you saying exactly what you want to say, exactly how you want to say it. Liberating or dangerous?

It is common to read about people getting fired because they have blogged about themselves and the company they work for feels that its reputation is somehow compromised. This is interesting because people often talk about how they feel about their job when in the workplace. But, because they are talking to a limited audience in the canteen or at the coffee machine it doesn’t carry as much weight as if their opinion is all typed up and put online where you have an audience -potentially in the millions. The power of the written word does seem to be greater than the spoken one.

Years later, I asked my mother about the woman we met in the street and she didn’t remember it at all. Perhaps, back then she was forever meeting women who wanted to top themselves. Perhaps, she chose discretion. She chose not to remember in case the woman in question didn’t want anyone to remember and be reminded of a difficult time years later. Or perhaps, we said goodbye to this woman and got on the bus to go home and what to have for tea become the most important thing to us.

And perhaps it is the same when reading blogs. We switch off the computer and go back to our lives and we forget a lot of what we have read and eventually these blogs are deleted by their owners and whatever seemed so important then isn’t so, because life is ever changing. And, since we are all human, and the human condition doesn’t change, perhaps you can’t share too much. Perhaps, sharing our experiences and connecting to others for good or for bad is all we have, whether we do it online or in person.