Emergency writing

People who think that all writing is emergency writing are correct, at least for their work. Their methods turn every piece into a last-minute disaster. They leap in and type and make a mess.

But we all get into a real writing emergency now and then. You have 20 minutes to knock out 800 words. How do you do it? Several ways, depending on how you think and how you work.

I’m a PLANNER, meaning I plan what to do, and then I do it. I write an outline and follow it; I also type badly. So I spend the first two minutes deciding what to say and how to say it, typically by answering two magic questions: “What’s this about?” and “What are the parts of this piece?” Now I have an outline: the lead and the parts. The answer to “What’s this about?” creates my lead, usually one paragraph. Then I draft the easiest part first, followed by the rest. Late in the typing, an ending will usually pop into my head. I draft a little slower than usual, because I have less time to revise and need a better draft as a base. I take a one-minute break and then revise. In an emergency, I can knock out 800 words in about 18 minutes.

Why does that work? I use methods that produce an organized structure from the beginning, and then I slow down my typing a little.

Suppose you’re not a planner, but a PLUNGER, meaning you do things to figure them out. You type to decide what you want to say. The paragraphs come out in no particular order until you glimpse a pattern, then you type some more, but in a more directed focus. Then you use the block-move function to rearrange things to make sense. Plungers tend to write long and cut back, which makes them slow.

Plungers in an emergency might first decide what the parts are, and then type only paragraphs that will fit into those parts, resisting the urge to digress into interesting bits. They would not revise as they draft, because they will probably cut some things. When they have enough, they would rearrange and then revise the whole thing.

Finally, there’s another emergency method, regardless of whether you’re a planner or a plunger, but not for the faint of heart. You type with the screen off. You ask yourself out loud, “What do I want to say?” Then you turn the screen off and type at top speed. You watch your fingers to make sure they don’t shift off the right key range. When you realize you just typed the ending, you turn the screen back on. Here’s a shocker: the piece will be terrific, and you probably won’t have to revise much, if any.

Why does that work? You can’t criticize what you can’t see, and criticizing yourself while drafting makes you slow. And you may type better when you don’t watch what you’re typing. Bad typing makes us feel stupid.

Speaking of stupid, I’m the worst typist in the history of the world, and when I use the screen-off technique, I don’t make typos. Well, not many, mostly numbers. I’m not kidding; try it.

I wrote this piece in 22 minutes, without an emergency.

[How do you handle emergency writing?]

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Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 5:53 pm  Comments (7)  

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great stuff! Keep up the good work. It is so wonderful to read, because I can hear you saying it as I read.

  2. Thanks, Lee. The other day, Joan and I saw a book on woodworking projects for the kitchen, coauthored by Lee Rankin. Is that you? The book looked useful.

    By the way, I also post daily writing tips on Twitter, under donaldkfry. Take a look.

  3. I’ve never tried the “screen off” technique – looking forward to giving it a shot.
    I follow you on the blog and on Twitter – I enjoy your sense of humor & learn a lot along the way!

  4. Thanks, Gastronomad. Let me know if it works for you.

  5. Your emergency writing column is wonderful. I am assigning as “must read” for my advanced reporting course at Indiana U. You have created a very useful teaching tool with this website.

  6. I finally got up the nerve to try the screen off technique. Once I got started, it was wonderfully liberating! A great way to jump start an evening of writing, and much less self conscious than regular free writing. Must admit, the urge to peak was hard to overcome.

  7. Thanks, Gastronomad. I don’t know anyone who uses the screen-off technique for regular writing. Anybody out there do that?


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