There are some things I don’t really write about. This is one of them, my secret art of blogging. Fine, I have written my share of posts touching on the purposes, whether it be reflecting on the uncanny, connect with others or curate different ideas. However, I have written very little about the time and space in which I write.
I am not exactly sure why after 300+ posts I haven’t really written about this. Maybe it is too personal? I have written about reading and listening to texts, but not the actual writing thereof. Maybe it isn’t something that is usually shared? How many posts do you read about how posts are written? Maybe it isn’t usual? Sometimes when you read about people and their Pomodoro Timers, my process somehow feels wrong. Maybe no one cares? Fine, I write for myself firstly, but there are some things I only write when I know it has an audience of at least one. Maybe I am scared of not being real? Sometimes I fear that when people find out that it is all the product of time and effort that I might be found out as being some sort of imposter? So why now? I chose to write this post in response to Naomi Barnes recent on ‘What Works in Writing?’ Although I wrote a response to her post, I felt that it deserved a longer reflection.
In her post, Barnes reflects on the act of writing. In particular, she shares her thoughts on John Birmingham’s argument that to be a serious writer you need to be selfish and set aside time each day. The problem she explains is that such views ignore the instability of time. Some people balance family and work before even considering writing. Does this mean that they are not committed or serious? This point really stood out, especially in regards to what being a writer means to me.
As much as I would like to commit myself to writing or reading uninterrupted for a few hours each day, it is not something that my life currently affords. I really applaud those movements, such as #28daysofwriting, where people are encouraged to start a habit or those who write 750 words a day. With two young children, I am lucky to get five minutes uninterrupted. So at the end of the day, I have learned to make do with what I have. To be honest, having less time has really opened my eyes to the time that I do have. So here are some of the things I do with that time.
Building Ideas One Brick at a Time
There are those who argue for writing for a set time and then publishing. Others a word limit. Sadly, I do not have the conviction for either. This is not to say that I am not deliberate, I am instead deliberate about building ideas. Sometimes it is something someone says, sometimes something I read, sometimes something that happened, wherever the source, writing begins long before words hit the page. Doug Belshaw talks about increasing your ‘serendipity surface’, while David Culberhouse shares about spending regular time at the idea well, I think that the challenge is dedicating deliberate time combining seemingly disparate ideas.
Barnes captures this in her post when she explains,
While I’m pushing my daughter on a swing I am turning ideas over in my head. When I am watching TV or chatting with friends, I am thinking about how what we are saying fits with what I want to write about.
I could not agree more. My ideas often form and ferment when I am out and about.
It is easy to get caught up in impact and the influence of digital tools, but this has always been my habit. I have always built my ideas slowly. Back in university, I would always be writing down bits and pieces on anything and everything. Old envelopes were often my favourite.
Before becoming a teacher, I was a cleaner. Working odd hours, I was usually left to my own accord. Often I would stop after mopping this or cleaning that and hurriedly scribble down a few thoughts associated with an essay I was in the midst of. Nowadays I have replaced the paper with various apps. In the words of Bill Ferriter, technology has made this more doable. However, the habit itself of constructing ideas has not changed.
A Mobile Workflow
Over time, I have explored a range of digital workflows. I used Evernote for a while until I lost a post because of syncing issues. I think that I had a document open in two locations so when it backed up, I lost a whole lot of work. I then toyed with notes for a bit, as they connected with my Gmail account. However, the most dominant application that I have used for a while is Google Docs. The game changer with Docs was when offline capabilities were added a few years ago. So, for example, with my monthly newsletter, I create a template in Docs and progressively add to it as the month unfolds.
In addition to Docs, I use Google Keep for snippets of ideas that have not found a home or links that I might want to take further action on, whether it be adding them to a post or writing a comment.
I tinkered for a while with recording ideas. Both Keep and Docs allow this. However, I feel that recording works best when an initial draft is already written, not when ideas are still at a stage of stream-of-consciousness. I also found that the voice-to-text functionality on my Android mobile was not as good as using it via the web in Docs.
To support my working space, I develop ideas using social bookmarking, in particular, Diigo. Whether it be annotating posts or taking a few notes, these are the ideas that I store for later. Once I start building an idea, I will often go to Diigo to mine for further ideas and inspiration. It acts as something of an extended memory. Something that Clive Thompson touches on in his book, Smarter Than You Think. I also read quite a few books on my phone using either via the Kindle app or PDF and often dive into these as well.
Limits to Writing On the Fly
There are limits to going mobile. I could manage, but it would not be ideal. Earlier this year, with the arrival of our second daughter, I spent two months depending on my phone. Much of my writing was done while she was asleep in my arms. I wrote using Docs and posted via WordPress in the browser. Being a keen attributor, adding endless links can be fiddly. The continual cycle of flipping through tabs, copying links, adding them to text and making sure they open in a new tab is both frustrating and tedious. I have at least now discovered a plugin that makes all links open in a new tab, but the process is still annoying on a phone.
In addition to this, embedding content is near on impossible. Having ventured down the path of creating my own images, posting them to Flickr via my Known instance and adding them via Flickr using Alan Levine’s CC bookmarklet. This is very much dependant on the desktop. I won’t even start with embedding other content, such as video and audio.
Lately, I have also started exploring different apps and extensions for improving my writing. Grammarly and Hemingway App provide various forms of automated feedback. I am particularly interested in finding alternatives to the usual search engine optimisation aids which seem to focus on making writing machine readable, rather than human readable.
Although there is a WordPress app, I just do not think that it supports the way I write. Like with Evernote, I have had issues with losing work. It is getting better and I must admit I am slowly coming around.
When you are a writer, you write?
Gayle Munro recently wrote about her experience of writing a thesis. Like Barnes, Munro spoke about challenges of not necessarily having the luxury of time. With a job and a young family, she spoke about the challenges associated with having to “relearn and adapt study habits developed during my ‘free’ undergraduate years and a very focused full-time MA.” She describes how with each change to her situation she adjusted.
It can be easy to say that a writer needs dedicated time in a space of their own. However, to me, writing is a story of compromise. David Truss talks about finding the time by getting up early, so does David Culberhouse. Bill Ferriter has shared his regular practice of doing his writing in a booth at McDonald’s. I also remember being told about how Raymond Carver wrote many of his stories in his car or how David Malouf wrote An Imaginary Life at night after teaching. Although each of these people managed to find time, they only did so by making some sort of compromise.
For me, I have written this post on a train, during my breaks, holding my daughter, wherever I have gotten the chance. It has grown bit by bit. Writing a bit, then reviewing, adding this and deleting that. I was once told that I should keep my posts to three paragraphs. However, I neither write to paragraph, to a structure or to a word count. I write with the hope of giving ideas flesh, but with the knowledge that it is a quest that shall never end.
So what about you? What is your process of writing? In what ways are you deliberate? How has your workflow changed over time? As always, comments welcome.
If you enjoy what you read here, feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter to catch up on all things learning, edtech and storytelling.