Things they don’t tell you about writing

One of my favourite new blogs is ‘Patter’, authored by Prof Pat Thomson who co- wrote the quite wonderful “Helping Doctoral Students to Write” with Prof Babara Kamler. I was fan-girlishly excited when Pat appeared on Twitter. After a few 140 character conversations Pat asked if I wanted to co-write a post with her and I jumped at the chance.

This piece was authored, surprisingly painlessly, from Pat’s original idea to finished post, over a couple of weeks using Google Docs. We planned for it to appear simultaneously on both blogs which, given that Pat and I live on opposite ends of the world and have busy travel schedules, ended up being the one unexpectedly difficult part of the process.

If you haven’t started to read Patter yet I hope this post will encourage you to pay a visit!

Did you plan to be a professional writer? Most academics we meet in our work don’t. What usually draws people to academia is teaching. When you think about it, teachers talk at least as much as they write. And their writing is related to planning and assessments, not the kind of extended paper writing that professional writers do.

It’s only when they start a research degree that many people realise that writing is more than ‘ passing phase – it is the key to a successful academic career. It is hardly surprising, then, that writing is a source of much anxiety.

There is a great deal of advice around about how to write and indeed, we have written some of this ourselves. Some people claim that it takes 10 years to become an expert at anything, but we would argue that one probably never really feels like an expert writer. Being a writer is an endless process of discovery. It is a little like becoming a professional musician; committing to being a writer means a lifetime of honing your technique through practice.

Becoming a writer is  also a bit like becoming a parent. It’s not until you have walked the floor with a screaming infant at 4am that you can truly understand what all the talk about ‘tiredness’ is about.  But there are many aspects of parenting that no one tells you – or doesn’t think to mention. Like ear infections, strange phobias, weird little habits and so on.

So it is with writing. Only by indulging in the practice of writing, day in and day out, do you really understand what it means to be a writer. Like parenting, writing can be full of surprises – both pleasant and unpleasant. We thought we would compile this list of  “Things they don’t tell you about writing” in an attempt to prepare you for what is coming!

(1)    They don’t tell you that once you get used to writing with a computer you can’t go back to pen and paper again – or only with great difficulty. They forget to mention that you become obsessive – and snobby – about the tools you use to write with and will bore for your country to unsuspecting graduate students about what they SHOULD use.

 (2)    They don’t tell you that writing ends up written not only on the page but also on your body – shoulders, neck, arms, wrists, back. Pat’s PhD led to carpal tunnel syndrome, which makes your hand go numb . You wake up with a dead appendage on the end of your arm. Inger’s PhD ended up in her right shoulder and has never left. They don’t tell you how writing will affect your sleep patterns either. In the middle of a project you may find yourself waking at 3am with too many ideas whirling around your head. Indeed, some of this post was written in that witching hour.

 (3)    They don’t tell you to learn touch typing at school. When we were at school typing was only available to girls who they thought ought to be secretaries. The rest of us did Physics and Chemistry. Now we both do versions of typist hunt and peck. This would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that kids in school still don’t seem to be taught keyboarding. All over the UK and Australia kids type on desk tops with two fingers. It’s no wonder that they prefer txting

 (4)    They don’t tell you when you buy your first computer that now you’re locked into an endless loop of consumer desire. You have to have the desktop, the tablet, the notebook and the phone… regardless of the fact that they all now work together. We both have cupboards full of old discs, disc drives, CDs, CD burners… which eventually end up at the local waste transfer centre.

 (5)    They don’t tell you that regardless of how intuitive it seems some software is always just a bugger to get to work properly. Case in point – TOC, tables, auto-formatting, auto-spelling. And don’t think that transferring from PC to Mac is entirely seamless either, despite what the blurb says. The professional writer has to be the professional digital trouble shooter.

(6) They don’t tell you that … Well – what do you think? Are there aspects of writing that you are only now discovering? Let us know in the comments!

Related posts

How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)

Another way to write 1000 words a day?

50 thoughts on “Things they don’t tell you about writing

  1. Karenmca says:

    Excellent post. I relate to the carpal tunnel comments. But! I’m proud also to relate that I have RSA Stage 3 in Typing. Done the good, old-fashioned way on a Typewriter, after grudgingly paying a professional to type my Master’s dissertation, many moons ago. Those typing qualifications have been worth the time and effort, many thousands of times over. If you get the chance to learn to type, DO IT! In terms of speed and accuracy, you’ll bless the day. (I don’t look at the keyboard, and I don’t use spellcheckers. Don’t you envy me?!) Pity I never get the chance to type diagonal mileage charts, though. I spent so long perfecting the technique …

      • Karenmca says:

        No, I attended real-live evening classes at Exeter City College, and dutifully typed letters, agendas, tabbed programmes and all sorts – then sat the exams. Boring but remarkably effective!

      • ingermewburn says:

        I might just do that – maybe paying for it will give me the necessary motivation! BTW I am going to be in Edinburgh in a couple of weeks. I hear it’s a short hop to Glasgow… Should I try to come over for the afternoon?

      • lizit says:

        I learned when I was 9 and recovering from chicken pox using my mother’s Pitman’s typing manual from when she had gone to Commercial college in the 1920s and my father’s portable typewriter. Although I won’t claim never to look at keyboard, it is a skill well worth learning, and all the better when young!

  2. Cleverreality says:

    I wish I could type fast, my hands just hate the idea of it. It is also a game of chicken in my mind. I don’t want to learn to type and then boom, a new technology makes typing obsolete. I thought speak typing would be more advanced and common by now, but it is very complicated and still pretty expensive. Where is the chip implant that will just transcribe my thoughts!? Well maybe we shouldn’t go that far.

  3. Irene says:

    Great post.

    I’m a touch typist, so is my husband. We both did some typing at school, but I’m not convinved that we can credit that entirely with our ability; we both made a conscious effort to learn the keyboard – there are some good programs out there that help you learn to type. Certainly my ability with the numeric keypad has nothing to do with school.

    I still need the spell checker though because I sometimes get spellings wrong or because my fingers on one hand move faster than those on the other, i.e. some letters have a tendency to get swapped.

    I think one thing they don’t tell you is that sometimes your best writting comes when you are lying down (or in some other position/place, depending on who you are). I do experinece the 3am wake up call of good ideas (not just for writting, but for any creative activity including physics research), but I also find that if I need to ponder something it’s often best to go and lie down for a while. Hey presto, ideas will flow and connections will be made. (I’ve heard of some authors who consider they do their best work when lying down.)

    • Kelly Dombroski says:

      We did 3 weeks of typing in our first term of high school. Enough to get my fingers in the right place and then just gradually built up speed. But because of microsoft word autocorrect I have NEVER learned to type ‘and’ or ‘the’ — I think I type ‘nad’ or ‘teh’ everytime and it autocorrects!! When I switched to Scrivener I realised….
      I did physics and chemistry etc and it was all girls planning to be secretaries that did typing and shorthand (I WISH I had done shorthand!! so useful for lectures and interviews!). But getting your fingers in the right place is enough for typing I think.

      • Deb says:

        I did typing and shorthand in school; I’ll be forever grateful I learned to touch type, but I have *never* used the shorthand, even for taking notes in meetings.

    • Lisa says:

      I do yoga shoulder stands or go for a walk. Yes, I think blood flow definitely. (Typed with one thumb on the phone.)

  4. Pamela Fruechting says:

    It’s interesting to me that you find reclining the best thought-provoking position. When I’m lagging, I take my computer to the breakfast room table which is a high table, and stand to work. Then my brain and creativity kick in and I’m so much more efficient. It takes more attention and faculties to stand for work, I suppose. Even so, the 3 am call of the creativity sprites have their own way, too.

  5. Macgirvler says:

    I’m a touch typist but I got Dragon dictation as well – if you can muddle your way through the training and don’t feel like too big an ass talking to yourself then its a definite bonus tool. Having said that, I don’t find it works well for academic writing, but certainly when I need to do a brain dump it works well with ‘waffle’ style’.
    As for injuries with PhD, I developed something mysteriously called Ischial tuberosity syndrome – basically because I spent all day at my desk. It equated to sitting writing being a literal and exceptionally painful pain in butt. The iron is not lost on me.

  6. Maryanne says:

    Great post! May I suggest .7? They don’t tell you that …
    when you are on a roll and you can’t stop because the creative juices are flowing, or you can smell the end, or you JUST HAVE TO FINISH, and it is the witching hour or later, it will irritate the people you live with, and you will seem callous and uncaring (you are…) because you just have to keep going….

    • Karenmca says:

      Oh yes, I’ve been there! And those times when the house is silent, all are sleeping, and it’s just you and the computer and a single glass of wine …! And it feels as though you’re inspired and simply have to keep writing …?

    • Irene says:

      They also don’t tell you that you need to train the people you love not to interrupt you to say hello. It’s not that you don’t love them, it’s just that you might lose a crucial idea. How callous and uncaring is that?
      I try to make it up to them though…

      • Karenmca says:

        Irene, I don’t know how you achieved that! My entire thesis was written with countless unpredicted interruptions, frequent “hellos”, and “have you washed/ ironed my …” / “my Converses have holes in and need replacing TONIGHT”, etc, etc, etc. But – it got done nonetheless.

      • Open says:

        Please let me know if you’re looking for a aohutr for your weblog. You have some really great posts and I believe I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d absolutely love to write some content for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please blast me an email if interested. Cheers!

    • cmm21 says:

      Yes, exactly. And when you do finish, you feel great (if a little wrung out). Ready to have fun… But housemates won’t speak to you..

  7. @umarndt says:

    haha, so true. as for #2: my Masters ended up in my lower back which led to numb toes (fortunately went a way after I handed in, the lower back issues stayed). Fortunately, I’ve discovered yoga which has saved my body from my PhD.(and has done wonders in terms of my mental health as well)

  8. pat thomson says:

    Inger do go to Glasgow. Definitely my fave Scottish city. As a melburnian you’ll relate to the more gritty arty parts of the city. Interesting comments so far…

  9. Ehsan says:

    They dont tell you that part of writing is to think and to concentrate. this means doing nothing physically and therefore, you look you are wasting your time and are not doing anything. This would lead to problems with your family, friends or colleagues.

    They do not tell you how being a writer look like. Every one knows what physicians do or how hair dressing, baking, trading, managing, teaching, etc look like. But no one knows about writing as a job. thus, it is just hard to tell people that you are working while you seem doing nothing.

    • Bex says:

      yes i so know what you mean… when i come home people think i have done nothing the whole day… just cause I was sitting in the office all day… and rewriting,
      checking references etc

    • Irene says:

      Oh yes! I even criticise myself that way. For the last couple of weeks I’ve mostly been trying to make sense of a theoretical idea and how it relates to my work – it’s very, very complicated. Overall I haven’t written much, but my understanding has shifted enormously, along with my view of the research I’ve done and the tale I will tell. Everything seems much more linked now.

      The question is, can I explain it in a linear way? The time has come to start putting words on the page.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I would like to add the importance of reading fiction for improving writing. I have writing problems because my writing has been deeply influenced by the articles that I read, but the style is so different to the journals I should be publishing in.

  11. Bex says:

    Since i have these back problems too i have set a reminder to get up every 2H. Also i take all phone calls standing up and also get up to get books etc. If i feel my back and shoulders getting really bad I also use my ‘Terra band’ ! That really helped me to get better. Writing is such a pain!!! i can just tell everyone out there to get a workstation consultation. My school has paied for it and i got a new chair and keybord 🙂

    • Macgirvler says:

      My chiro recommended the best chair. Its got a ball joint underneath, so can tilt 360 degrees. Haven’t had back issues since. Called the Panto move. Brilliant.

  12. M-H says:

    They don’t tell you… that writing is sometimes very spontaneous, and you will get some of your best ideas in the shower – or in other places where you can’t write. Something about that hot water seems to loosen up the ideas and make them bang together in your brain in new ways. I keep a note pad in the bedroom (next to the bathroom) and have been known to run naked and dripping from one to the other to make a note of an idea. And, about the body, I am consciously trying to walk as much as I can. It’s thinking time (carry a notebook!) and a really good way to work out those physical knots. And it’s free.

    • Deb says:

      Same here. Must keep notebooks everywhere. I have one by my bed, one in the bathroom, and always have one in my bag. I have had writing frenzies in the middle of the night, or shivering and dripping in a towel, mid-shower, or jumping off a bus in the middle of nowhere and heading for the closest cafe, only getting to my destination hours later. Good times!

  13. Di says:

    Love this discussion. And what about not warning you about the added kilos that will be stacked on as you sit on your backside for extended periods? Stephen Krashen’s article on ‘incubation’ as a neglected aspect of the writing process might help explain why some of our best ideas come in the shower, whilst walking, gardening, lying down etc.

  14. berlinickerin says:

    I found myself nodding along to all the points. Especially the part about being snobbish about the tools I use. Heh.

    And I think you managed to give me a startlign and most wonderful realisation because I actually wanted to become a professional (fiction) writer but first lacked the inspiration and then the guts to try. I never realised that I actually managed to become a professional (academic) writer after all. So one dream fulfiled after all. Thank you for making me realise with just one sentence!

  15. Incognita says:

    I like the ‘thinking and concentrating’ comment – so true. It would be comforting to hear that ahead of time…

    They actually do try to tell you – but I didn’t believe them – that you will have to cut and toss many many lovely words, phrases, paragraphs, and pages along the way. There will be many ‘starting over’ moments that require more determination than literary skill.

    Oh, and all the comments made me realise for the first time how thankful I should be for my pre-computer-era typing class in high school!

  16. ozzietassie says:

    My thesis manifested itself in my neck and shoulders, disappeared when I submitted and decided to come back when I stopped Pilates. I literally can not wear heels due for any amount of time also due to thesis.
    My mother sat me down and taught me to touch type when I was 6 on an old electric typewriter. 28 years later I still occasionally say thanks as it has made things so much easier for me.
    As for random ideas, lets just say I knew someone who kept soap crayons in her shower in case she had a good idea that needed writing down. Mine tended to come just as I was falling asleep, which then woke me up and stuffed my sleep patterns.
    I am SO glad that part of my life is over…. even though the manifestations are returning.

  17. Karen says:

    They don’t tell you that with writing come eating, preferably chocolate or any other snackable food and drinking liters of tea or coffee. They don’t tell you that will gains pounds when writing, or loose them when in a writer’s block 😉

Leave a Reply