How To Write: Timed Writing or Practice Writing

May 17, 2011 | By | 9 Replies More
Ute Carbone Woman Writer

Writer Ute Carbone

Ute Carbone, a writer who discovered us on Twitter, submitted this rich post about a method of writing.

The first step in writing is getting it all down. This can be hard.

Words can be elusive; you see them glimmer in your peripheral vision. When you turn to stare they disappear.

That wonderful turn of phrase that was just right there, right in front of you, is gone. How do you capture those capricious words?

I use a method of first draft writing called timed writing. It’s been called by other names, most notably ‘practice writing’, which is the term Natalie Goldberg uses in her book Writing down the Bones.  In broader terms, it’s part of ‘pantsing’ or flying by the seat of your pants. It’s not for everyone, but it’s worked wonders for me. I’ve written the drafts of novels this way. At any rate, it can be a terrific way to break through writer’s block and get those elusive words recorded onto the page.

To start, you need a pen, a notebook and a timer.

If you don’t have a timer handy, you can use a wristwatch or a clock that you can see from your writing space. Set the timer. Ten minutes is a good amount of time if you’re new to writing or if you haven’t written in a while. If you’re a more practiced writer, you can go for a longer period, twenty minutes, an hour if time allows.

I use pen and paper to write all my first drafts. I wrote the first draft of this blog that way. Currently, I’m using a journal with green pages and a harlequin cover. I like to change up journals, when I’ve finished one I move on to a different one. My last one was tall and skinny, with words like Monet and Impressions written all over the cover. I use an ink-jet pen because it’s light weight and it lets me write fast, though too fast can mean that I won’t be able to read my handwriting later, so I try to be careful.

I find that there’s something freeing in the physical act of writing. I prefer pen and paper because it allows me to play more, to not worry quite so much about how the words look when I’ve first shaken them awake and out of a dream.

Lots of writers open a blank document and begin typing away. I’ve known a few writers who take pen and paper to the other extreme- they use markers and Big Chief writing pads. You might want to experiment, different pens, lined or unlined paper, a new font on your computer screen. Whatever works for you.

Set the timer and begin to write. Keep the pen moving on the page. Don’t stop. Don’t re-read. Don’t look back. Keep writing. Write as fast as you dare. Outrun your inner editor.

I call mine Zelda, she’s got a long nose and she likes to chew up red pens. She does a lot of tisk-tisking whilst reading over my left shoulder.  Once I have a draft written, I let Zelda have a go at it. She gleefully points out dumb mistakes and clunky sentences. She’s invaluable for re-write but I try not to let her catch up to me when I’m first-drafting because she scares off metaphors and makes lovely sentences go and hide under the bed.

Don’t worry about tense changes, grammatical errors, or misspelled words. I just heard Zelda tisk-tisk. Let me rephrase. Don’t worry about tense changes, grammatical errors or misspelled words for now. These are things you can and should fix later. But for now, just keep the pen, or your typing fingers, moving.

Sometimes you get stuck. I’ve heard runners talk about hitting the wall.

When runners hit the wall, they keep running until they get a second wind. Writers need to do the same. If you get really stuck, you can write “I don’t know what to write” You can keep writing “I don’t know what to write” for the entire writing period. I doubt that you will. “I don’t know what to write” gets tedious after three or four repetitions.  Consider that re-writing the same sentence a hundred times over is a time-tested method of punishing wayward fifth graders. I can almost guarantee that after three or four repetitions, your brain will devise some better use of time.

When time is up, stop writing.  If you’re on a roll and time allows, ignore the timer and keep going.

After you’ve finished, take what you’ve written and stash it away for awhile. Go walk the dog and fold the laundry. If you can, leave it be for a few days or a week. Then take it out and read it through. Now is the time to let Zelda have a look. Allow her to use the red pen to correct the missteps and misspellings. Remind her to be gentle. If you have some brilliant turns of phrase, underline them and don’t let Zelda touch them. If she insists, store them away for use later.

Now you’re ready for the next part. Get the timer. Get your pen. Begin again.


Have you tried this method for writing? What works for you?

Thank you for leaving a comment for Ute and the other readers.


Follow Ute on Twitter. Visit Ute Carbone’s blog. Visit Ute Carbone’s website. Like Ute Carbone’s Wildwords Facebook Page. We all want to get known for what we do, the more we reach out and connect to each other, the more we’ll find our own niche of readers, friends and collaborators.


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Category: On Writing

Comments (9)

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  1. LM Milford says:

    Great post Ute. I’d always been afraid of trying the writing practice/writing-to-time you suggested above because I was afraid that if I just sat down and tried to start writing the words wouldn’t come. Then I did a Spread the Word workshop on rejuvenating your writing and the exercises there were fantastic. We played word cricket and when the time was up I just couldn’t stop writing! I came away with a few pieces that I could definitely use as future work, so these tricks are worth their weight in gold!

    Great advice. And I love the description of Zelda!

    • Ute Carbone says:

      I’m glad the method worked for you, LM. I found it’s a great way to open up your writing and really ‘get at’ the words buried just under the surface. Zelda is my constant companion, for better or worse!

  2. Great post Ute,

    I’m a self confessed control freak so the idea of ‘pantsing’ scares me but I’m going to give it a try.

    I love the idea of outrunning your internal editor- that’s today’s challenge! I’ve also got external editors x 7 at my MLitt creative writing course workshop so sometimes feedback can be overwhelming!

  3. I follow Jane Epenson on Twitter (writer on shows such as Buffy, Once Upon a Time) and she frequently holds ‘writing sprints’ where she will do nothing except write (although she encourages her followers to do whatever job it is they’ve been putting off like the laundry) for a set amount of time.

    As a world class procrastinator, and someone who’s easily distracted I’ve found this to be a brilliant method of calming my mind and actually getting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and often once I’m ‘in the zone’ I do keep going – despite the inner nagging of my inner Zelda 🙂

  4. Ann Patey says:

    Thank you, this is just the advice I need to get me going again after two months away from my first draft.

  5. Nettie,

    You may need a much meaner name for your editor than Zelda. Something like Wicked Witch Editor. What would you name yours, cause she needs to be told to stand aside until phase 2. It’s essential!

  6. NettieWriter says:

    It is true that when I write with pen on paper I get a different result than when I use only the computer. I like to use both, for different purposes. Pen and paper for wild thoughts and plotting, keyboard for getting it down. I find it almost impossible to turn off my editor though. She is always there, nipping in my ear.
    Nice post, Ute.

    • Ute Carbone says:

      Thanks Nettie! I like what you said about wild thoughts- I taught a first-draft writing workshop using this method. The workshop was called “wildwords’ for just that reason- you can catch wild thoughts-which are often the most interesting thoughts.
      It is hard to outrun Zelda. I’ve threatened to lock her in the trunk. Usually, promising her that she’ll have her turn to ‘fix it’ gets her off my case!

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