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.

5 thoughts on “Licking the Cat and Other Writing Tips

  1. I charge by the project, not by the hour, so cat-grooming time gets rolled up to the total. And I don’t even have a cat, so I’d hate to be called to account for that particular line item.

    There are universals at work here: our brains function a certain way, our bodies need certain minimums of nutrition and rest.

    But there are individualities at work as well. While I use what I call “procrastination as starting” by, well, all the methods you describe for your breaks, except I’m doing it as a way to ease into writing — once I’m done procrastinating, I sit, and I write. I tend to resurface when my stomach or my bladder screams for attention, and sometimes well into said screaming.

    It’s like with Steven Wright bought a dog in New York and walked it all the way home to New Jersey and said, there, you’re done.

    I get all my breaks out of the way before I even begin.

    That’s what works for me. Since we’re both making headway, both methods must be valid. Nonsense, but fact.

  2. Joel, I often charge by the project as well, though my practices (perhaps we should label them my tics) are pretty much the same no matter how the dollars are defined.

    I like the fact that after you finish your dithering, you can just apply hands to keyboards for a good stretch. But speaking of stretching, I’m the guy that has a crick in the back, so I get up every hour or so just to work on the kinks. But my kinkiness working only lasts for the few minutes it takes to walk out to the driveway from the Airstream to see if anyone’s stealing my muffler.

    By the way, you could alway lick the neighbor’s cat.

  3. “dawdling is an integral component of productivity”
    -Favourite phrase to come my way in a long, long time.

    Tom, you’ve stirred excellent and useful thoughts about what we in the bio game call “refractory periods.” I’m sure that means something else to a grammarian, but a workable definition from physiology is “The amount of time it takes for an excitable membrane to be ready for a second stimulus once it returns to its resting state following excitation in the areas of biology, physiology, and cardiology.”

    Substitute “writer” for “excitable membrane” (or perhaps just merrily assume they are synonyms) and I believe we have the underlying explanation for the effects Tom is exploring here. And Joel’s amount of time for each burst of creativity is simply longer then Tom’s, or perhaps mine. His wave function has the same amplitude and a lower frequency.

    And gin for my breaks.

  4. Rick, all this discussion about excitable membranes has me flustered. I went to Catholic school, you know. But there is something about refractory periods—one has to recover after wrestling with some particularly punctilious point of grammar, or after grappling with a gritty character.

    Joel, thanks for your admissions. I thought I was the only one who had a talking gin bottle.

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