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Why changing up your work space will make you a better writer

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Need to churn out a lot of words? Try mixing up your venues, so you learn to write anywhere.

Five years ago, I attended the Association for Psychological Science’s conference. While there, I went to a symposium of presenters talking about “how to write a lot”. Former colleague Maryanne Garry (now at the University of Waikato) contradicted the orthodoxy of setting aside a single place to write and writing only there, recommending instead that you mix things up. Write in a cafe or a park, she suggested, or anywhere other than your usual spot, at least now and again.

Why might this be a good idea? For years, I’ve been telling my students to study for exams in the conditions in which they’ll sit them – and that obviously doesn’t involve lounging on your bed, hooked up to Spotify with Netflix on in the background. You’ll better recall information in conditions similar to those in which you learnt it.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

But this is subtly different. Maybe you have an office where you write, and that’s all you do there – it’s your writing place. This can work, as long as you only write, because that place will become associated with writing.

But do you really only write there? You don’t occasionally surf the internet, do you? Play Fortnite online? Watch a bit of online TV? If this happens often enough, your writing place won’t just be your writing place, and those associations may not just be broken, but replaced with something else. Your office becomes your Fortnite place. So, break the routine and go to other places. You will learn to write anywhere.

I took two things from listening to Randy Engle from the Georgia Institute of Technology. If you’re writing something that will require back-up, say a scientific reference source for a piece of information, don’t look for it while you’re writing.

The time to disappear into the Google rabbit hole is once the writing juice has run out, he suggested. Otherwise it’s too easy to follow the next link, then the next and so on. And then two hours have passed.

Georgia Tech’s Randy Engle.

He also recommended reading aloud what you’ve written. This way, you’ll pick up problems you wouldn’t otherwise see on the page. His dog, he confided, had listened attentively to every word he’d written for years and, fortunately, was a sensitive critic.

A good rule of thumb is to get someone else to read over your email or movie script, because you know what you’re expecting to see, and it’s very easy for your eyes to skip over an omission or spelling mistake because of that.

Some universities and other organisations have taken to offering writing “boot camps” during which people sit down and write, nine to five, for two or three days. You are brought food and drink, you have a few relaxation sessions and you don’t write when you go home at night. Our one has also been known to offer Lego bricks as incentives. Do not underestimate the power of the Lego brick for writing 10,000 words. It can become quite addictive, but you don’t need to give yourself Lego bricks; any reward for meeting a milestone will help. Suitable incentives could include a 15-minute break after an hour and a half of effort, or a piece of fruit (or something else, but preferably nothing that’s going to affect what comes next), or the promise of watching an episode of that bingeable TV show you’ve set aside.

The philosophy here is not, in the first place, to write lots, but to just write. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, because the road to procrastinators’ hell lies that way. To edit, you need something to edit, and you can edit once you’re done.

Of course, this doesn’t apply just to academic writing, or to people whose job is to write.

This article was first published in the July 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.