I’ve recently had the privilege of undertaking a writing retreat to get my contributions to a book on childhood and religion I’m co-editing completed. I managed to get far more writing done than I normally can, which led to think ‘why?’.
First things first, writing isn’t easy, but it is immensely satisfying. It’s great to get something down on paper, which you may have wrestled with, and which expresses precisely what you want to say.
Below are a few thoughts about the writing process: they are more practical than profound; personal than universally applicable.
- Have somewhere you can hide away for a few hours. In the course of a normal week I might write in a number of different places. A coffee shop, at the kitchen table, or on a train, are more often than not more effective places to write than at my desk, or in a library. I think this is because having others around – as long as the noise levels are not too intrusive – enables me to focus in a more concentrated way. Perhaps the effort of shutting out the low hum of others’ conversation helps?
- Don’t fight distraction. It’s a lesson from meditative techniques that distraction, amidst attempts at concentration, is normal. When focus is lost by a fleeting thought, or an aeroplane overhead, gently bring yourself back to your writing activity.
- Set yourself realistic targets. I’ve found there’s nothing worse than having whole days (or even whole weeks) devoted solely to writing, without planning how the time is going to be used. I’ve tried the pomodoro method, which chunks up time helps a little. The more useful approach for me has been to have a daily/writing target of either 300 or 500 words. This probably doesn’t sound a lot, but added together over a few days or writing sessions it can quickly amount to a significant piece of writing. Of course, I’m talking about first-draft level of writing; refining the quality of the writing does take somewhat longer. Even so, you may have a 30 min train journey, or 15 minutes between appointments, try using them to write. Even if it’s just a few words, or refining some you’ve already written, this is time well-used.
- Attend to the creature comforts. I find it really useful not to have to think about where the next meal is going to be coming from whilst writing. Having planned for necessities like this in advance, or having someone else do so, as in my writing retreat, is essential.
- When you’re stuck, take a break. Don’t just sit there, go for a walk – even if it’s only around the room. Do some more reading, or do something entirely different and come back to the writing another time. However, try not to make this a permanent block, setting the writing aside for an extended period can leave it unfinished. This goes back to my point above. Writing is not easy.
- Reading and refining. As a historian I find it’s really important to go back to my sources to sharpen or deepen my analysis. Taking time to do this when I’m stuck, however familiar I believe myself to be with my material, can help stimulate further thinking which extends and argument or provides a nuance or element of detail.
- Order and precision. One of the benefits of writing in chunks is being able to order text so that it flows, intersects or leads to making an argument, or point of analysis. Finding a clearer way of saying something, which is fair to your evidence, is part of the redrafting process. It is not unusual for documents to run into multiple drafts (between 30 and 50 is the norm for me).
- Publish or perish. I find it’s important to set a document I’m working on aside for a few days before finally submitting it. Coming back to a text after working on something else, or simply taking a breather, gives you a better sense of the clarity of your draft, and helps you to spot any silly errors you’d missed. Getting someone else to look the text over at this stage can be important too. A critical friend’s fresh pair of eyes can make all the difference, even if you decide not to take into account some of their advice (after all it is yours!). There does come a point, however, when you simply have to let go and submit what you have written.