Writing tips & tricks for all seasons
Getting started, breaking blocks, and keeping the flow
For a while now, I’ve been keeping a list of writing tips for my students, gathered from my reading, courses I’ve taken, and various mentors and coaches. It began as a video I recorded during Covid lockdown, put on YouTube, and circulated to my classes and my department — you can access the video here. It’s morphed into a PowerPoint presentation I talk through in class, and now a handout. This is not advice for writing a good research paper, but a grab bag of techniques that can be used for any kind of writing — scholarly, creative, professional — to reduce the anxiety and maintain flow once it’s there. Since then, I’ve asked my Facebook friends for more advice, and added their tips to my list as well.
Different things work for different people. Not all of these work for me, but they might work for someone else. I think a lot of the skill of writing is figuring out what process suits you and the project at hand. The categories below are rough — many of the ideas could just as well fit under another heading. I have not sourced all of these ideas, but have tried to do so here and there.
Please share the link to this page with anyone who might find it useful. If you teach and you want to use or adapt the material below for your students, go right ahead. If you adapt this post for your site, please attribute & link back.
And most importantly — if you have tips to add, put them in the comments! I may revise this post later with more advice.
Happy writing everyone,
• Set a timer for 25 minutes and resolve to do nothing but write in that time. I use https://tomato-timer.com/
• Cover your computer screen, then write
• Write by hand. Make spirals or squiggles on the paper when you can’t think of what to write so you can keep the pen moving. (Natalie Goldberg’s advice)
• Try The Most Dangerous Writing App (https://www.squibler.io/dangerous-writing-prompt-app). Set the timer and you are forced to keep writing, or it deletes what you’ve already written!
• Set a ridiculously low expectation for each day: write 3 sentences, and you’re done for the day!
• Sketch out a rough outline – could be in constellation form if you don’t think in linear terms
• Aim for a “zero draft” aka “shitty first draft” – just absolute vomit on the page that you can reshape or rewrite later
• Pick something to describe, and just focus on describing it
• Write in a silly font that lowers the stakes – try Comic Sans
How to keep going:
• Make a big list breaking down all the components you need to do for the project, then cross them out as you go
• Do what you can in the time you have: gather biblio, take notes, freewrite, if you can’t produce “good” prose
• Break up the process: mark up your readings, copy out notes by hand (& comment), type up notes and your comments, etc.
• Try to connect with your project on a regular basis, even if it’s not a big chunk of work. “Connect” can even mean reading over some material.
• Jump around in the project: write what you feel like writing, not in order!
• Keep a log of what you’ve done each day, not what you have left to do
• Decide each night what your biggest goals are for the next day. No more than 3.
• Write an email to a friend outlining your thoughts in progress. It can be as messy as you like
• Join the free Writer’s Hour on zoom: https://writershour.com/
• Stop writing each day before you’re exhausted – and leave some notes for yourself on what to do next
• Keep a writing journal: write down goals for the writing session at start, afterwards see how you did and write what you want to do next
How to start again if you’ve stopped:
• Read what you wrote before and do light edits, tweaks, until your brain starts connecting with the work again
• Talk to yourself on paper: write out “what I’m trying to do is….”, “What I think the problem might be here is…”, “What I want to say is this:” and see what comes out.
• Reread your material just before going to bed, let your subconscious work on it
• Restart in a different part of the work
• Print out what you have (notes, outline, partial drafts) and read them, pen in hand, marking them up
• Take notes in your phone – you can send yourself emails, or record a WhatsApp message
• If you’re writing about literature, reread it!
How to break the block:
• Morning pages: write 3 pp by hand every morning, as close to waking as you can. No judgement. (Made famous by Julia Cameron)
• Go for a walk. Take a notebook with you!
• Take a lot of showers.
• Make a list of smallest possible sections, cut up into slips and put in jar. Pull one out at random and write about it for 1 pomodoro (25 min)
• Do a short breathing meditation (You’ll find plenty on Youtube, or try a meditation app. Or just put a timer on for 5 min and pay attention to how your breath feels moving through your body. Or use the practices on https://nadiacolburn.com/)
• Count down from 5, then once you hit 1, DO THE THING (This is Mel Robbins’ big idea and it works weirdly well.)
• Set a Skype/Zoom date with a friend to write together. Talk about what your plans are, set your timer, then turn off camera and sound and write. Chat about how it went at the end
• Try writing when you’re a bit tired and your inner critic is off (if you’re a night owl, write in the morning, and vice versa)
• Write down a list of reasons not to do this project. Now write the reasons that you should.
• Write down a list of reasons you should do this project.
• Listen to music
• Do something creative – watch a movie, go to an art gallery, draw, walk through a fun store, dance, etc. (Julia Cameron calls this an “artist’s date”.)
• Switch up the writing! Write by hand if you usually type, change the pen, try a typewriter, etc.
• Keep log of work done (could be words written, or time worked). Sometimes it helps to see how much you’ve actually done!
• Count every step as writing (notes, outlining, freewriting, revision)
• Focus on “connecting” with project rather than how much you’re progressing
• Set ridiculously low goals and remind yourself you’re ok with just meeting those
• Celebrate both big and small goals – formally, not just in your head
• Find a friend who is an ideal reader – not a critic – for early drafts
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