Writing Practice: the dreaded 15 minute write

Almost every writing teacher argues that the basic unit of writing is writing practice, usually a timed exercise, with the admonition that through practice you actually do get better.

However, I have never enjoyed exercises like: Look at a plant. Write the life of the plant – what it’s done, what it’s seen, where it’s heading, its thoughts. I have never found advice like, try writing in your notebook upside down, or turn the book sideways, or write outside the margins to be helpful. I just do not believe that these small tasks will force me to think in creative ways, that forcing my brain to think outside the lines will make me a better writer.

I used to despise writing practice.

I felt like I had little enough precious time and I did not want to fritter it away on writing that was just practice. After rereading Brande’s Becoming a Writer, Campbell’s The Artist’s Way, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, I revised my aversion to writing practice. I mixed up their ideas and came up with a system that works for me, and it is one that I now encourage my writing students to use as well.

I advocate writing for either fifteen minutes or three pages, whichever comes first. However, from there my approach differs. I warm up with the first page of writing. I am primping the pump, so the rules are simple: Write without stopping. Do not be concerned with being good. It is warming up the writing muscle, just like stretches warm up our physical muscles.

But after the first page is done, I switch to deliberate writing, and this different type of writing. This is where I deviate from Brande, Goldberg and Campbell. In the next two pages I generate new writing. It’s deliberate. It’s specific. This advice does not originate with me—I got it from Priscilla Long who said, “The writing done in writing practice can be about anything . . .It can be an observation exercise. It can be work on an essay, story, article, or scene. It can be used to conceptualize new work” (p. 15,16).

Since I read that advice a year ago, I have done writing practice almost every day. I have written poetry. I have done character sketches. I have drafted new essays. I have done observation exercises. I’ve moaned and complained (I do it once in a while). Usually, I plan, conceptualize and draft new work.

I agree with Long when she says, “In a busy life, a week and then two weeks can go by in no time at all, with little or no writing done. The practice of writing for fifteen minutes per day simply deletes this problem” (p. 15). More importantly, writing for fifteen minutes a day helps commit to safekeeping a woman’s writing life.

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