Licking the Cat and Other Writing Tips

Drunk Kitty

Poor cat had a midnight deadline—had to hit the hootch hard afterwards

Scuttlebutt had it that Barbara Cartland, the doyenne of romance writers, did much of her early writing at the piano, stark naked. However that strains credibility, everyone’s heard of writers who insist they can’t write without their ancient manual typewriters with the missing keys, or their favorite fountain pens (or maybe even a stylus and hot wax). Writers can be a peculiar lot, and it’s not surprising that their composing methods can be all over the map.

You would think that the map for business writers would have to be a bit more restrictive, at least in terms of how they approach deadline destinations, but it ain’t necessarily so. I’ll peek here at some variegated methods that freelance writers use to get to the same place—the delivery of deadline material. Since I am a freelance writer (mostly for the tech industry), perforce my attentions will focus on my own methods. However, since I have kept the company of fellow miscreant scriveners in the tech-writing world, I’ll toss in a couple of contrasting approaches.

One sidestep I’ll take is taking on the startup mentality: though you can still hear of Silicon Valley employees working 15-hour shifts, the sleeping bag rolled at the ready under the desk, with maniacal managers patrolling cubicle fields exhorting the troops to donate their iron-poor blood to the cause of one more development deadline, that’s no path to writing productivity. At least qualitatively.

Writing in Bursts (of Bourbon)

My distaste for those fervid accounts is personal (and relevant to this account, thank god). My general view is that even with business writing, even with pressing deadlines, the stacking of ever-tottering hours of effort just results in a diminished return: your stack will topple (and so will you). This view is prejudiced by my own writing methods: I think writing is best crafted in short bursts, somewhat like synaptic patterns, the mind sending out a sheaf of arrows that hit targets, and then reloading. I recognize that sometimes you absolutely must grind out time at the keyboard (or on your papyrus), if you know that tomorrow’s brochure needs an eighth page and you’ve only got seven, or if you’re inputting “final” edits for the 10th time on a print-ready book project at 1am, but those are times when prayer or bourbon (or both) might ease you through.

What I’m addressing is where you have writing requirements for which the scope is pretty clear: this many words on this subject gets you this check. I know writers who can just bang out a first draft by sitting down and getting up hours later. For me, taking mini-breaks is the breathing of the mind after exercise: sprint through a paragraph, get up and wander to the front window to see if anyone is undressing in the neighbor’s house, sprint through another paragraph, pay the invoice for that fountain pen you regret buying, sprint through .…

These writing tips tilt favorably as well for so-called “creative” writing, corralled in quotes here because I believe that business writing can be quite creative. I finally realized that I couldn’t wait for inspiration, a muse whose answering machine is all I get when I call. Often, I can only work on a fictional piece in half-hour or one-hour bursts, then need to read a magazine article or wipe grime off the stove knobs or use my hair to apply polish to my shoes. Then, when I go back to the work, the windows open again for fresh writing air. Contrary to those tech-industry beliefs, dawdling is an integral component of productivity.

Forget the Beach—Bathe Your Brain Instead

It’s a laugh to have seen so many ads in tech magazines past of people at the beach with their laptops, or writing on their decks in the blazing sun (“Stay Connected All The Time With Our Wireless You-Don’t-Know-How-Asinine-You-Look-At-The-Beach-Now High-Speed Modem), as though that was incredible freedom. Nah, freedom is when your brain does the work for you while, away from the keyboard, you peel an orange: “Ah, the hollow-but-compelling marketing phrase I was looking for just appeared in my mind—a miracle!”

So, whether you need to lean back between writing jaunts and listen to Hendrix playing Purple Haze at bleeding-ear volume, or choose to give the cat a good five-minute grooming (whether with a brush or your tongue), consider it all part of the writing process. Whether you decide to bill your client for that “passive concentration” time is a matter for you, your accountant and your conscience, you conscientious scribe, you.

Writing Tools and Writing Fools

I love the word cacography. And that affection is amplified because it has an obverse term, calligraphy. I say the obverse, because the two words aren’t precise opposites of one another, but rather counterparts. But your fervid brain is saying, “Why Tom, why do you love cacography?” Because the word has an almost rude sound, a yanking of the earlobe, that works well for me—I have wretched handwriting, and “cacography” serves to describe it in sound and fury.

But the real direction of this post isn’t toward ear-twistings. I mentioned cacography because I wanted to talk about writing tools, and one of the most natural—though less enamored of keyboard clatterers today—is the pen. However, because my handwriting is such a cruelty to the eye, no matter if I painstakingly slow the cursive motion or speed it up, or ply it with bourbon, it always comes out as sadistic scratchings, the Caligula of cacography.

However, I do still take notes by hand when I’m mulling over an article or story, or sometimes just single words which are designed to later prompt an image or situation. Sad are the times when I’ve gone back to my notes and read “Xdz?mph” or some other transmogrification.

Does This Macbook Make Me Look Fat?
So, my writing tool in the broadest sense is my Macbook Pro, which has been my companionable computer for a couple of years. The specific applications I use to wrest words from the ether are Microsoft Word or TextEdit, Apple’s built-in word-processor. (Ah, “word processor”—think blender experiments that render smoothies of beef tongue, lightbulbs and turn-signal lamps.) Many people decry, and with good reason, the tyranny and arbitrary nature of Word, but I have been using it for so long that it’s second nature to me, unnatural nature that it is. But when I just want to write notes without the overhead of a bells-and-hellacious-whistles word-churner like Word, I use TextEdit. Which is what hosts this post this very moment.

However, because I’ve been working on a novel lately, I’m probably going to start using an enhanced writing tool like Scrivener, which is a database-style application that lets you arrange, search and manipulate documents, text snippets, outlines, images and more without opening a rack of individual documents. Because I’ve been saving the novel chapters as individual files, I keep going back and opening them separately to remember some earlier details about a character or situation, and that’s clumsy. Almost cacographous. A tool like Scrivener lets you poke around in a bunch of associated documents and find which one has the red socks and which one the blue, without going through the drawers one by one. And it lets you color-coordinate.

Make Something Great of the Blank Slate
One thing I’m doing more of (with a nod to Leo Babauta) is to try and close out my full desktop of overlapping applications and just have a single naked document onscreen, so that it gets full attention. Thus I’m less tempted to jump to the browser to search for pancake recipes or to my email to see if the pope has written back. Some people use the most bare bones of word processors, without any pallettes or menus showing, in order to crystalize focus, but I’m not distracted by menus. Except in restaurants.

I had a nice device called a Neo a while back, which was a dedicated word processor of sorts. Neos have a built-in keyboard, boot up in a heartbeat, run forever on rechargeable batteries, and could also be used to hammer in loose nails on the deck. I wish I still had it for taking on trips, for those times when a full computer is overkill, but I sold it a while back to buy additions to my twig collection, or something like that. But long before that, I had a magnificent Underwood typewriter, which required brisk workouts with free weights to pound the keys, and which would have produced a seismic reading of 6.5 if dropped out of a plane. Those were the days.

So, which writing tools strike your fancy?