Writing experiment

I’ve been running a little writing experiment these past months. What I found may be especially useful for those with little to no free time.

I don’t know about other people, but I have noticed that one of the most effective ways to stifle one’s creative flow is, quite simply, to go to sleep. I may have spent a couple hours before bedtime all absorbed as I worked on something and then said to myself that I’d continue the next day. Then I wake up the next day and… I forget all about it, as if the person who woke up that morning was a different one or sleeping triggered some sort of memory wipe. I guess the deep-rooted rituals and habits of daily life overwrite whatever thing your excited self from 8 hours ago thought was critical. More than once it took me days to remember that I still had something half-done lingering there in the computer. But by then the excitement had pretty much vanished and I had little to no interest in going back to it.

So to counteract this I set up a simple experiment. You have to split up the time you will devote to writing in two: the first and last thing you’ll do each day. So ideally these are two consecutive sittings divided by whatever insufficient hours of sleep you are able to scrape together. The idea is that by building up this habit, your mind will eventually bridge the two halves into one single experience and avoid the annoying creative forgetfulness sleep may sometimes induce. It’s also a very effective way to wean yourself off bad morning habits like checking social media or the news since when I mean “first thing in the morning,” I mean it. Well, I may let you hit the john if necessary, but that’s it. No coffee, no shower, no Twatter, nothing. You crawl out of bed—you start typing.

So that was the idea: the first 15-30 minutes of each day would be spent writing. And before turning off the lights for the day, at the very least the same amount (or more if possible) should be spent writing. I recommend doing things like leaving your document open so it’s the first thing you see in the morning when you turn on the PC and leave the text midsentence when you finish. Naturally, you should also keep track of your word count.

To increase word output I also came up with some rules and writing tricks. Since I suspect most (especially novice) writers tend to get stuck due problems at the word choice or word accessibility level, you should bypass that by, if your writing ever falters or comes to a painful halt, stating the object, purpose, or result of the difficult text, and then keep on writing as if nothing had happened. Here’s what I mean:

This is an hypothetical text you are writing:

“Clobis Simpson, the heir to the county of Websterland, married the beautiful [come up with a fancy name later] on March 1, 1765, the same year that [something amusing happened] At first theirs was a happy marriage, but the [not ‘beauty’, use another adjective] lady soon became the object [or ‘target’?] of a turbulent [barrage?] of rumors,” etc, etc.

These [] are there to state the goal or purpose of a piece of text where you have an idea of what to say, but not how or in what manner. They serve as your notes, comments, shorthand, etc. You’ll fill them in later. Are you struggling to put into words a description of a forest or building, just write [description of X] and add a few adjectives or tags that you think should go there and then jump to the next stage. A recalcitrant fighting sequence that eludes you? Well, you may not know how, but you probably know who wins, right? So state that and keep writing. You’ll come up with the details later.

That way you’ll avoid any pothole or chasm you may encounter as your brain wrecks itself trying to find the word, expression, or idiom for this or that mental image or concept.

These lapses increase anxiety, which then becomes deep-seated to the point that just the thought of sitting down to write may cause people to suffer considerable distress. By bypassing the process of having to write perfectly all the time, and by putting your thoughts in the most economical and straightforward (yet unliterally) way, you can keep writing even when you don’t know how to say something (as long as you have some idea of what to say next, of course.)


So keeping these things in mind, here’s what I did. January was the control month, so I used no method or programme; I tried to write as much as I could, though, but only when it seemed to come to me spontaneously.

M T W TH F S D
1 2 3 220 4 5 1100 6
7 8 1400 9 10 1300 11 300 12 150 13
14 600 15 1400 16 1450 17 1430 18 2250 19 20
21 22 400 23 1300 24 25 26 27
28 500 29 30 31

total: 13.800 or 493/day

If I remember correctly, I wrote a 9.000 short-story this month plus some blog post and perhaps something else. Better than nothing, but it’s not much.

For February, I started using the first and last trick every day, although I actually discontinued it on the third week.

M T W TH F S D
1 1975 2 900 3 2860
4 250 5 6 884 7 2900 8 400 9 370 10 800
11 1120 12 1350 13 2180 14 400 15 625 16 1640 17
18 1850 19 2450 20 700 21 835 22 2580 23 3040 24 1900
25 26 27 450 28 2900

Total: 35.359 or 1262 words/day

The increase is noticeable but the most important result is that empty days, where nothing is written, almost disappear. And if there are still a few there is mostly because I was sick those days.

Now, keep in mind that I wrote for more than just those 20 minutes in the morning and at night—that’s the bare minimum. As a general rule, the days with numbers in the hundreds are days when I only wrote in those two segments.  So even if you have only 40-60 minutes a day, as long as you are consistent and do not stagger, I believe you can manage 300-600 words per day easily. It’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing, and it builds up quickly into more respectable numbers.

Now, as I said, I stopped the two-segments scheme in the third week. At first, it was mostly due to laziness but I ended up discovering something interesting: whether the previous two weeks had primed me up or it was for another reason altogether, I ended up writing more after I went back to free writing.

Thinking about it for a while, I have come to the conclusion that although the two-segments programme helps to build momentum and it’s great when you start, you can easily get lazy and confident. As long as you write in those two segments, you don’t have to do anything else that day. Now, if you really don’t have more free time available, that’s great, but if you do (and I did) then you are just sticking to a suboptimal strategy. So when I ditched it, my numbers increased.

A counterintuitive consequence of that is that I felt less fulfilled, almost as if I had wasted the entire day, those days I wrote the most. I guess it’s because by ditching a programme that is basically a reinforcing programme (write for twenty minutes twice a day and then you are free to do whatever you want) I had now no clear goals or reinforcers—just write as much as you can. So that may explain why I felt like I had done nothing while, in truth, I had typed 2000+ words that day.

Keep that in mind when or if you try a programme like this. It may be wise to start small and then increase the writing time or segments as you get used to them, to avoid any possible creative crash or negative feelings due to lack of reinforcement.

And remember that if you ever get stuck, think whether the reason is truly one of lack of ideas or inability to put them into words (and it’s not easy to see which one is the culprit.) If the latter, consider using [ ] as I have explained. Also, you can always motivate yourself thanks to the awesome power of pure hate.

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