Cooling Off

Writing involves intense thinking, strategies and tactics, memory, and self-control, all at the same time. This intensity tires you out, your head seems too full of information, and you can’t see anything but detail and problems. Time to cool off.

During the Gathering phase, you may have to interview numerous people, perhaps even hundreds for a book. You digest written sources and scour the Internet. Your hard disk fills up, and you sit amid piles of paper. And suddenly you can’t see anything but more of the same. Time to cool off.

Cooling off involves getting away from what you’re doing so you can see it fresh. Ideally you get as far as possible from what’s overpowering you. Some writers cool off by drinking hot beverages, such as coffee or tea; now there’s a paradox. One writer I knew cooled off by getting drunk, a bad tactic since it made him miss deadlines. Some take a walk, call a friend, get a massage, or eat something they like. I cool off by eating a carrot, which I don’t like, but it’s low calorie. The trick is to get away and not think about what you’re immersed in. You un-immerse yourself temporarily.

How long you cool off depends on you and the project. Some people cool off for a few minutes, and some book authors let things sit for a year or so. But make sure you’re really cooling off and not procrastinating.

In the Drafting stage, you add typing to all the intense mental work described above. You need to cool off when what you’re typing all sounds alike. If you ask yourself, “How did I get here,” you’re drowning and should stop. If you decide you’re bored with what you’re writing, you should either take an extra long cooling break, or type as fast as possible and just finish the monster.

I type poorly (25 words a minute drafting, 4 finished), so drafting wears me down. I cool off about every four paragraphs unless I suddenly “get up on the step” and just blaze away, in which case I don’t want to cool off.

You should always cool off between Drafting and Revising. Take a long break, maybe ten minutes or lunch or a year, depending. You need your head clear and fresh to revise.

The symptoms in the Revising stage resemble those in Drafting. If you keep revising the same thing, and it doesn’t get better, take a break. Pick a unit, such as a section or a certain number of paragraphs, and force yourself to take a break at the end of revising each unit.

Some writers, usually perfectionists, let a revised, finished piece sit for a while, and then give it one more pass. If you get a better finish that way, it’s a good technique. If that second revision leads to a third, fourth, twenty-second, you need to ask if you’re making any progress. In most cases, excessive revision makes prose stiffer. That’s why I recommend one draft and one revision.

(Two paragraphs back, I drew a blank. I couldn’t think of any reason to cool off during revision. Nothing came into my head, and nothing fell out of my fingers. So I recognized that I had entered what I call “the brainless zone,” a time when nothing good’s going to happen at the keyboard. So I went to the store and bought lettuce and Bandaids. When I came back, I had things to say. Your brain does the heavy lifting for you while you distract yourself. So when you feel brainless, cool out.)

Published in: on January 7, 2009 at 5:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

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