Before a swimming lesson when I was about two years old I jumped in at the deep end of the pool.
I loved jumping into the water, so while we were waiting for the lesson to begin my mum had been putting me up on the side so I could jump in, in the shallow end, where she was waiting to catch me.
I had other plans.
Mum put me on the side and she saw me walk towards the other end of the pool, where my swimming teacher had just entered. She thought I was just going to get a pre-lesson hug.
Instead, I was headed for the deep end. I stood next to the diving board and jumped in. My mum figured out where I was headed and got to me shortly after I jumped.
At two, I’d already learned to swim the width of the pool unaided, but I really had no business tackling its length. But of course toddlers don’t think of these things. For me then, there was no real difference between one end of the pool and the other (I couldn’t touch bottom anywhere) except the diving boards where the big kids got to jump in.
I had no fear. I wanted to jump in the deep end, so I did.
Child-like fearlessness vs the ‘shoulds’
Parents and carers everywhere are relieved that not all children express their fearlessness as dramatically (and potentially dangerously) as I did – but all kids are fearless.
When you first started drawing pictures and doing colouring in, you thought nothing of making the sky bright pink with green clouds and a purple sun. It was only when you got older that you started editing yourself: you learned (whether you were formally taught or not) that the sky should be blue, clouds should be white or grey, and the sun should be yellow and orange.
These are just a few of the ‘shoulds’ you bumped up against early in life. None of these shoulds, on their own, made a huge difference in who you were or how you acted, but taken together, they have a massive effect on your life.
Some of these changes are good, life-preserving ones: I no longer jump without looking, but I still have no fear of water. Others can get in the way. Why can’t the sun be purple; it’s your picture, isn’t it?
Using play to keep the shoulds at bay
It can be helpful to know how to quiet the shoulds any time they’re getting in the way of what you really want to do – whether they’re interfering in a business decision, a life choice, or in your writing.
Unsurprisingly, we’re going to focus on how they get in the way of your writing. If you look back at early examples of your writing, you didn’t let little things like not knowing how to form letters or spell words get in your way. You wrote what you wanted to write anyway.
Now that you’ve grown up, you do need to edit your writing to make it easy for others to understand, but only after you’ve made the beautiful mess your inner child delights in.
How do you do this? You get creative.
Keep a stash of brightly-coloured, unlined paper and some crayons or glitter pens on hand. When you need to write fearlessly, step away from the keyboard, get your art supplies out, and create.
When you do this, your inner editor (the keeper of the shoulds) will get out of your way and let you write freely without fear of judgement. She knows that when you’re colouring, you’re not writing copy that’s going to go out into the world. Since she knows you’re not going to post things from your colouring pages to your website (though you could if you wanted to!!), she doesn’t mind how many ‘rules’ you break.
When you use play in the early stages of creation, you make connections and have ideas that you wouldn’t have had if you were following the rules. Being a truly fearless writer gives you the freedom to express yourself, explore ideas, and find your voice.
Once all the words and ideas are out of your head and on the page, your inner editor won’t be so fearful of them. She’ll see that you wrote them and nothing bad happened to you – she doesn’t need to protect you from them.
‘Anything can happen’
This post has reminded me of a poem by one of my favourite children’s poets: Shel Silverstein.
LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS
Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child, Listen to the DON’TS Listen to the SHOULDN’TS The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS Listen to the NEVER HAVES Then listen close to me— Anything can happen, child, ANYTHING can be.
from Where the Sidewalk Ends
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On one level, it seems fairly obvious how I got from studying and teaching literature and writing, to being an editor, to being a writing coach. My training as a writer and a teacher are crucial to my work as a coach. But it goes deeper than that.
My thesis was on how George Eliot (penname for Marian Evans – see note) used music to represent emotion in her novels. If you feel your eyes glazing over and you’re wondering what the hell Victorian novels have to do with being a writing coach, bear with me a little longer.
Eliot wanted her novels to change the world one heart at a time. She didn’t believe that top down change imposed by a religion or a government could ever bring about meaningful or lasting change. The only way, she argued, that you could make the world a better, kinder place was to teach people to feel empathy with one another – especially with those they had very little in common with.
To do this, Eliot sought to teach her readers to empathise with her characters, in the hope that they would then empathise with the actual people they encountered in their everyday lives. Thus, she set herself the difficult task of making her readers understand how other people experience feelings like love, sympathy, and hatred.
Think about that for a minute – you know how you experience those feelings, but how do they feel to your partner, your child, or the person behind you in the queue at the supermarket?
That’s where music comes in – you can’t explain feelings without comparing them to something else. Eliot’s favourite comparison was music because music can evoke feelings without the need for words.
That’s nice, but what does this have to do with being a coach?
Good question. With my background, I could be a full time editor, a private tutor for pupils sitting their A-levels in English literature, or a teacher. I could also be a project manager, a time-management/organisation coach, or help people learn to give better presentations. So why be writing coach?
I gravitated towards being a writing coach because I’ve spent most of my adult life studying and working with words – and the better part of the last 20 years thinking about how words can change the world.
Over the years, I came to realise that Eliot got frustrated with trying to change the world through her novels. She saw that no matter how many people read them, the vast majority were not going to be more understanding of their scullery maids or try to really understand the feelings of their business rivals.
In the last few years I realised, first on an unconscious level and recently on a conscious one, that the problem wasn’t with her novels or the difficulty of communicating emotion. It was with her approach.
We do need to learn to empathise with each other, but we won’t do that by reading one writers’ novels. We need conversation to develop understanding and empathy.
Joining the conversation
Every time you publish or read a social media post, blog post, or book, you’re joining the conversation. When you publish, you’re presenting your view and inviting comments and reactions, even if your reader doesn’t share them with you. And when you read, you’re listening to and thinking about another perspective.
This conversation can be very quiet (though obviously not in some comments threads), but it’s vitally important to society that we have as many voices in it as possible.
I became a writing coach to help my clients join the conversation. It’s only when we welcome and celebrate multiple perspectives that we can create a kinder, more tolerant society.
How can I help you?
If you want to have a chat about how I can help you join the conversation, book a call below!
Marian Evans changed the spelling of her first name several times – she was born Mary Ann. After studying French at school, she changed it to Mary Anne and then Marianne. As an adult, she settled on Marian. I use that spelling because it’s the one she chose as an adult.
The test copy of my book arrived this week! When you publish your book as a printed book (as opposed to an ebook), you can order a test copy so you can see what your readers will get when they buy your book.
Before I get into how it feels to hold your book for the first time and put it on your shelf, I’ll briefly describe what you need to do when you get your test copy.
What do you do with a test copy?
Once you stop marvelling at the fact that you’re holding your book in your hand, you need to take a close look at it.
This is not at all the same as the proofreading stage – you’re not looking for sentence level errors now because they should have been sorted before your book was typeset.
So what are you looking for? When you examine your test copy, you’re looking at the overall layout and quality. Is the artwork arranged how and where you want it? Are the pages laid out correctly?
While at this stage you don’t need to read every word of your book, you do need to carefully look at each page. When you do this, you’re keeping your reader’s experience in mind. Is this the kind of book your reader will enjoy reading?
How did I feel?
I knew when the test copy was arriving and expected to feel excited the first time I held it.
It was exciting, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional roller coaster I’ve been on over the last couple of days.
It’s thrilling to hold your book, to see that it’s real, to know that the hard work of writing and revising it is nearly finished!
I was happy, relieved and excited all at once. I wanted to show it to anyone who would look at it. I also loved putting it on the shelf and seeing that it looks like it belongs there amongst all the other books!
I was a little sad. I feel like I should have anticipated this because of how I felt when I finished my thesis. But I didn’t – it caught me by surprise.
On reflection, this response makes sense: this part of my journey is over. Endings, even ones we look forward to like finishing school, are inherently sad. We’re moving from what we’ve known into the unknown, or at least something we know less well than what came before.
Explaining this feeling to those closest to you is another matter. I’m pretty sure my husband is still confused by my response yesterday. He kept saying, ‘but it’s good that you have your book now’. He’s a published author (Purity and Contamination in Late Victorian Detective Fiction), he’s been here, but he responded very differently.
This isn’t the first time I’ve perplexed him, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
I was scared. This book is going to be out in the world very, very soon. While it was an idea, it was safe. No one could read it. No one could decide they don’t like it. No one could decide they think it’s brilliant and start referring people to me.
I knew this response was likely, and I address these feelings in my book in chapters 19 (Dealing with criticism) and 20 (Dealing with praise). I’m trying to take my own advice here and remember that judgements (good or bad) of my book are not judgements of me as a person.
This response is another one that perplexed my husband. I don’t like arguments that men are one way and women are another way (men are from Mars, women are from Venus). Humans are too wonderfully complex to be put into neat little categories like that. Nevertheless, historically, female authors have been more likely to have, or at least to give voice to, fearful responses to publication.
They range from Anne Bradstreet’s poetic response in ‘The Author to Her Book‘, in which she calls her book ‘Thou ill form’d offspring of my feeble brain’, to George Eliot’s (pen name for Marian Evans) avoidance of all reviews. She feared positive and negative reviews in equal measure. Eliot thought positive ones would make her feel she’d never write so well again (and therefore shouldn’t try), while negative ones would reinforce her self doubt which would cause her to stop writing.
If you respond to impending publication with fear, try to remember to sit with your feelings for a bit: counter any arguments your impostor syndrome throws at you and trust that this too shall pass.
I’ll have a publication date soon. That still seems weird. A year ago today, I hadn’t even started writing the first draft! I started writing it on 23 April 2019.
If you follow me for any length of time, you’ll find I’m insistent that you can (almost always) fit writing in around everything else you need to do. If you’ve resisted hearing that message, you’ve probably wondered what it looks like in practice.
I’ve been there. I used to imagine that ‘real’ writers, because I (then) a lowly PhD student couldn’t possibly count amongst them, spent hours and hours at their keyboards every day churning out beautifully written, thoroughly researched prose.
That’s not how writing works. Not for you, not for me, not for anyone!
This is how writing works for me
I wrote the first draft of my book, There’s a Book in Every Expert (May 2020), in four weeks. I never wrote for more than two hours a day, and I didn’t write on weekends.
Also, I only rarely wrote for two consecutive hours. Usually, I wrote in half hour spurts spread throughout the day.
I wrote on trains, in cafés, and, sometimes, at my desk in my office.
I rarely had uninterrupted time – phones must be answered, appointments must be kept, laundry must be changed; in other words, life goes on even when you’re writing.
My day would go something like this: Write first thing in the morning (because I often woke up with ideas and needed to get them on paper before I forgot), had breakfast, showered, started work, paused to write for a bit, worked some more, had lunch, and then spent the afternoon dividing my time between work and writing. I usually quit for the day by 5 or 6 and leave the writing until morning.
To write your book, you only need to find a few windows for writing in your day, most days. You do not need to retreat to a remote cabin, cut off from civilisation to write it.
How did 10-ish hours a week produce a book?
I wrote quickly, and I’ve learned to accept that all first drafts need to be shit. These points are related.
First drafts that are not shit, never get finished. Instead, they remain pristine, imaginary drafts that never make it to the page.
Your first draft’s only job is to be finished.
That bears repeating: your first draft’s only job is to be finished.
There’s no point in trying to write a ‘good’ first draft. When you try to perfect draft (write a first draft that’s good enough to be your final draft), what you end up doing is taking a really long time to produce a shitty first draft.
Are you still sceptical? You don’t have to take my word for it. Anne Lamott, the writer of one of the best writing books in print – Bird by Bird, agrees. She discusses it in her chapter called ‘Shitty First Drafts’, which you’ll find here.
Returning to the question of how I wrote a book in about 40 hours, the answer is simple: I wrote as quickly as I possibly could.
The key to writing your first draft is to not get too hung up on making it interesting or new. You just need to get the words on the page.
In the revision stages (yes, there are more than one), you polish your writing and shape it into something interesting and new.
How do you stop yourself from getting hung up on the quality of your writing or ideas? Chiefly, by writing as fast as your pen will go or your fingers will type. When we write quickly, we don’t have time to censor ourselves.
Those of us (many of us) with highly developed internal editors struggle with this and experience impostor syndrome as a result.
Silencing your internal editor
You don’t want to do away with your internal editor altogether – you’ll need her when you revise your book. However, if you are struggling to keep her quiet long enough to let you write your first draft, the best thing you can do is to practice freewriting for 5 to 10 minutes a day for several weeks. This involves writing whatever comes into your head during that time – don’t let your pen leave the page and don’t go back to correct mistakes. To learn more about freewriting, click here.
You also need to remind yourself that all good writers produce multiple drafts. This is what I say about drafting in Chapter 9 of my book:
Unless your goal is to irritate your reader, the first draft is never the final draft (neither is the second or third draft, for that matter). The idea that a ‘true artist’ or a ‘real writer’ doesn’t need to produce draft after draft has been with us for a long time. It goes all the way back to the Greeks with Athena springing fully formed from Zeus’s head. You wouldn’t expect a newborn to get a job and be a productive member of society, so don’t expect your first draft to be your final draft.
There’s a Book in Every Expert
I assume your draft is not Athena, so it doesn’t need to be perfect! Keep reminding yourself of this until you believe it. Use it as your mantra, meditate on it, do whatever you have to do to convince yourself your draft doesn’t need to be perfect.
After all, your first draft’s only job is to be finished!
If you know who your ideal reader is, it will be easier to write your book. Writing to a person is always easier than writing to an ‘audience’. Also, knowing some specifics about your reader will help you decide what to include and what to leave out.
For example, if your book is about coping with a chronic condition like type-1 diabetes, how you discuss the topic will change depending on the audience. A book for a newly diagnosed child will be very different in tone and scope to one for that child’s parent, an adult living with diabetes, or a health professional working with diabetes patients.
Nevertheless, books for these four very different audiences will have some similarities. It’s likely they’ll all discuss controlling blood sugar through diet and exercise, as well as managing the condition through medication. The differences will be in how these topics are addressed – are they explained in terms appropriate to an eight-year-old or a hospital consultant?
Returning to your ideal reader, you need to think about what she wants and needs from your book. To that end, consider questions like the following:
Does she know next to nothing about your field, or is she a fellow practitioner?
How is she likely to use your book? Is it an instruction manual she can use for reference, or does she need to read the whole thing? Or is it somewhere in between? (My book There’s a Book in Every Expert (May 2020) is in between; it’s detailed enough to serve as an introductory text, but the chapter titles and subheadings make it easy to find particular topics.)
Is your book likely to be a complement to other books she has on your topic? Or is it the only one in the field? (If it’s the latter, is it really? Check a good search engine to be sure.)
As you can see just from these questions, identifying your ideal reader goes a long way towards helping you decide on the scope, content, and tone of your book.
If you’re producing an instruction manual for a fellow practitioner, she likely already has a good set of reference works in your field, so your book would need to be a user-friendly reminder of how to do particular things. By ‘user friendly’, I mean that it would need to be organised in a way that makes finding particular sections easy. If she has to read (or reread) 100 pages to find the answer to a question, she’s going to get irritated.
However, if you’re writing an introductory book for someone new to the field, you’ll need to be more comprehensive. This will mean taking the time to define terms specialists would take for granted, and it will probably mean including plenty of narrative examples.
Think back to our hypothetical book on diabetes; a consultant does not need (or want) you to discuss how insulin controls blood sugar, but an eight-year-old child has likely never thought about sugar in any form except sweets and doesn’t know what insulin is.
Now that you’re convinced you need to identify your ideal reader, how do you do it?
How do you identify her?
You’ve likely come across business development exercises on identifying your ideal paying client. Your ideal reader has a lot in common with your ideal client, but the groups are not necessarily identical.
For starters, your ideal client has to be able to afford your course or hourly rate – this is likely a much bigger financial commitment than the price of a book.
This is not to say that only those who can’t afford your primary coaching or healing services will buy your book. Your readers may be, or may become, your clients. But your readers don’t have to be as committed to working with you when they purchase your book as your clients do when they purchase a coaching package or course.
So, your ideal reader will be interested in learning what it’s like to work with you. Your current clients likely share this interest, but they may or may not feel the need to buy and read your book.
As in the exercises you’ve probably done on identifying your ideal client (sometimes called customer avatar), you need to think about who she is and answer questions like the following:
How old is she?
Does she have a family?
What does she do for a living?
What are her interests?
Where does she hang out on social media?
Where does she hang out in real life?
What does she do for fun?
What are her dreams?
What are her fears?
What does she look like?
What is her name?
Write your answers down. If you’re artistic, draw a picture of her or make a collage or vision board that represents her personality and interests.
However you choose to document your idea of your ideal reader, keep it to hand. When you start writing your book it will be easier to write to a person, than to write to a faceless reader.
What does writing to a particular reader look like?
It looks exactly like this post. Since it’s really clunky (and irritating) to write about how anyone could write anything, I’ve focused this post on helping writers who are writing books for women.
Does this mean it’s not useful to any other sort of writer? No. What it means is that having an ideal reader in mind allowed me to make this post suitably focused.
It’s easier to write when you write regularly. I’m not suggesting you ignore all of your other commitments to spend hours at your keyboard every day. That’s actually not very productive or pleasant.
What works, in this case, happens to be what’s easier: writing little and often. Commit to writing for at least 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
That may not sound like much, but you’ll be much more productive in a handful of small, focused sessions, than you’d ever be in a mammoth-sized binge writing session.
After you’ve written for 15 minutes, if you feel like it and your schedule allows, write some more. If you’re busy or you’re just not feeling it that day, put it aside.
You can put it aside guilt free because you’ve kept your commitment to yourself to write for 15 minutes.
Here, you’ll find two PDF calendars you can use to track your writing practice. One is full colour and is probably best for tracking on your computer; the other has minimal colour and will be best for those who want to print a copy.
As with every other habit you’ve ever tried to build, you’ll be more motivated if you track it and see your progress. On your days off, don’t feel bad about not writing; instead, celebrate by doing something that will energise you for writing later in the week or the following week!
We, as humans, respond well to definite, positive rewards. I know of a writer who lines up their favourite sweets on the desk and they get one for every 100 words they write. Another buys a couple of decadent truffles from a local chocolatier every Friday if they met their goal to write for at least 15-minutes a day, Monday to Friday.
Meanwhile, others prefer larger goals such as a nice dinner out with their partner upon submitting an article or a weekend away for submitting a book proposal.
I don’t see why you should have to choose between small and large rewards. Consider how much happier you would be if you gave yourself little rewards on a regular basis for what you had accomplished and bigger rewards for meeting bigger targets.
Rewards to consider
Below is a list of inexpensive, sugar-free (or at least low sugar) rewards to consider:
Make a cup of tea (or coffee) in your favourite mug and sit somewhere comfortable without distractions and just enjoy drinking it.
If the weather’s nice, go for a walk – bonus points if you can walk somewhere pretty like a park or the beach. Spending time in natural surroundings will do more to recharge you for whatever the rest of your day brings.
Watch a favourite movie or TV show (no guilt allowed; you’ve earned the break).
Read a book for fun.
Call a friend or meet up for coffee.
Play with your kids, dog, cat, …
Take the time to cook and eat a proper meal – one during which you don’t try to multi-task by working and that you don’t rush through, so you can get back to work.
Take a nice hot bath.
Have a nap, go to bed early, or sleep in a little in the morning.
However you choose to reward yourself, make sure it’s a conscious choice and that you take a moment to connect the nice thing you’re doing for yourself with the writing goals you’ve met. The more often you associate rewards with making progress on your writing, the more you’ll want to write.
Take some time to consider how you’ll reward yourself. Below, you’ll find a two-page PDF — one page on which I suggest things to reward yourself for and a blank page for you to fill in as you wish. Have fun!
What kind of snack will beat writer’s block you ask? After all, we’ve all tried chocolate, biscuits, crisps, and endless pots of tea to no avail. The snack we’re after is snack writing. Sorry if you were hoping for a magical brownie recipe.
What is it?
Snack writing, as opposed to binge writing, is a short writing session. When we snack write regularly, we tend not to experience writer’s block.
This is similar to eating snacks. When you eat little and often, you don’t become ravenously hungry or get headaches caused by low blood sugar or any of the other nasty things that being overly hungry can cause.
The number one cause of writer’s block is that overly critical voice in your head. Snack writing keeps it quiet.
It starts to work immediately. When you sit down to write for ten minutes, it’s easy to tell the voice to hush for a bit because it doesn’t believe you’re going to publish anything you write in such a short space of time.
It works better as you go on. When you develop a habit of snack writing, your voice gets used to keeping quiet. See, as annoying as that voice is, it’s really only trying to protect you. Once it sees that you can write for a few minutes without its input and nothing bad happens, it will trust you to carry on.
After all, that voice doesn’t get in the way of you doing any other mundane, routine things like cleaning your teeth, making a cuppa, or taking out the bins, does it? Once writing is a habit, it will be as stress free as those other things you do all the time without stress.
How can you develop the habit?
Set a goal and track it! You’ll find a free writing tracker here. As with any other habit–engaging in it will make you want more of it, so get writing!
Over the last few weeks I’ve been writing the first draft of a book about writing a book about your business. As I was preparing to print the first draft so I could start revisions, it struck me that reading this excerpt sooner rather than later could save some of you from a future headache.
Practise safe writing
Imagine having written 20,000 words of your book, saving it on your laptop, and having your laptop stolen. Alternatively, imagine finishing your first draft, saving it, and coming back to it the next day to find that your computer won’t turn on at all.
I know writers who have had such experiences. To keep you from having to add your name to the list of the unfortunate, I want you to put some healthy habits in place before you start writing. In this chapter I’ll address how to keep both hard copies and digital copies safe.
Protecting paper copies
Many writers still write their drafts out longhand before they type them up. For some people this both frees and focuses the mind. If you are one of these people, carry on, but take some precautions.
Risks to paper
Massively destructive fires are, thankfully, less common than they used to be. But they aren’t unheard of. For a few pounds, you can get a small fire safe in which to keep your completed manuscript pages/notebooks.
Don’t store your manuscript on the first floor if your house is prone to flooding. Also, don’t store it in the bathroom or kitchen (I’m not sure why anyone would, but stranger things have happened).
Water and paper are not good friends. Water and ink get on less well. Try to choose a pen that doesn’t run when it gets wet.
Okay, maybe not wild animals, but pets can wreak havoc with your paper manuscript. When she was younger, my cat took great pleasure in sliding my papers around the flat. Now, she takes pleasure in chewing on them. Keep an eye on your pets, and keep your papers out of reach.
If you have children, until they are old enough to understand that they mustn’t touch your papers, keep them well out of reach. You don’t want to come home to find that chapter one has been used for your little one’s latest masterpiece, or to find that they’ve smeared the carrot they weren’t happy about at lunch all over the first page.
Backing up your work
Backing up a hard copy requires more work on your part than backing up digital copies. I recommend you do all of these:
Get in the habit of photocopying, scanning, or photographing new pages as you produce them.
If you choose to scan or photograph them, skip to the next section.
If you choose to photocopy your manuscript, keep a copy in your firesafe.
In addition to this, at least once a month, take a second copy to store somewhere else – at a trusted friend’s house, in your office (assuming you don’t work at home), or in a safe deposit box at the bank.
You may think these suggestions are extreme, especially the safe deposit box, but think about how you’d feel if you lost your whole book before you could type it up and publish it. That would mean throwing dozens, if not hundreds, of hours away because you didn’t take the time to back up your work.
Protecting digital copies
We’ll start with how to keep it safe while you’re actually writing and work forward from there. We all know that the main risks to a digital copy are failure to save, virus infection, and power surges. Install good virus protection software and use a surge protector. For everything else, read on.
Autosave is your friend
Word has an autosave function. If you’re typing your manuscript in Word, click on File à Options àSave and then choose 1 minute for how often you want autosave to save your document. If you use another kind of software, it is worth your while to check whether it has a similar function.
Hard save regularly
If you haven’t already, you’ll soon learn that I don’t trust computers. In addition to using autosave, get in the habit of manually saving your document at least once an hour. Doing this will massively increase your chance of saving everything should there be a power surge, or should your computer take a funny turn.
Save to a flash drive and/or email yourself a copy
At least once a week, save a copy of your manuscript to a flash drive and/or email it to yourself. I suggest doing both just to be absolutely certain you don’t lose anything. If you don’t email it to yourself, make sure you keep your flash drive in a different building than the one you keep your computer in. You could also consider saving a copy in Google Docs – since that is not saved on your computer, so long as you don’t get locked out of your Google account, you’ll be able to access it.
Invest in the Cloud
Saving everything to the cloud is affordable and easy. If you didn’t buy the cloud backup package when you bought your computer, now is the time to look into it.
Print a copy
At the end of each draft, I strongly recommend that you print a copy and ask a trusted friend to keep it or store it in your office if your office is not in your home. As I said above, I don’t trust computers. Also, I recognise the fragility of paper. Printing a copy, in addition to the other steps, almost guarantees that you will have a copy somewhere. Though computers sometimes seem to have minds of their own, paper always behaves as you expect it to.
If you’ve finished reading this and you think I’m just being alarmist, ignore this advice at your own risk. Losing your book draft is much worse than losing your homework or even a term paper could possibly be.
I have decided to start inviting guest posts when someone has something to share that will help you become better, happier writers.
The first such post is by Sarah Boak, who is a health and wellness writer at Whole Health Thriving. Sarah has kindly shared a post about how listen to your body and keep physically fit despite all your hours at the keyboard.
The Embodied Writer, by Sarah Boak
As writers, we can often feel like heads on sticks. Our focus is on the mental world, where the cognitive tussles of structure, logic, and creativity take priority, and the body is easily forgotten. Yet as writing is such a desk-based, sedentary pursuit, it’s vital that to stay healthy we become more embodied in our writing practice. But how to do this, when it seems that the very conditions of our occupation limit our opportunities for physical movement?
I’m now a health and wellness writer, but previously was a part-time PhD candidate (for almost a decade), and an academic for some years during and following. As such, I had spent a significant amount of time chained to my desk before I became interested in exercise and wellbeing. As I approached middle-age, I started to realise how unhealthy I had become, and how my body felt creaky, inflexible, and sore. Coming to this realisation, I needed to find something that would motivate me to do something about it. But how to undo many years of unhealthy habits, when sedentary work is your bread and butter?
There are different ways we can think about our health and wellbeing, and some have more benefit than others. There’s the objective route of looking at what the scientists tell us. Sitting at a desk for long hours has been clearly proven to increase health risks for conditions including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. An expert statement published in June 2015 by the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM)[i] collated the research to provide some guidelines for employers to help ‘curb health risks of too much sitting at work [in] the public health context of rising chronic diseases.’ Whilst we may know this objective reality, this doesn’t easily translate into action. We know drinking too much alcohol is bad for us. We know that fast food and takeaways don’t help our bodies. We are aware we are supposed to exercise to stay in good condition. Yet many of us don’t follow this advice, and bad habits become ingrained, subtly permeating our lives until we are not even aware of them.
I would suggest that there is another approach which is more motivating than following the scientific advice. It is the most practical way to boost our health and keep us investing in our physical wellbeing. It’s an awareness-based approach, often linked to mindfulness and meditation practices. It’s called ‘embodiment’. Mark Walsh, Director and Co-lead Trainer of the Embodied Facilitator Course explains embodiment as ‘the subjective, felt sense of the body inside out through awareness’.[ii] He outlines that we can become aware of our bodies, not as a separate entity but through understanding ourselves being a body, through practices of ‘awareness, attention, intention, posture, movement [and] breathing’. In this way we connect with a sense of our whole selves. Here, ‘Sarah Boak’ as a writer exists not only in the mental realm, where I fashion these words, or just through my fingers that are tapping on this keyboard, but as a whole-body experience. It is possible for me to notice my feet on the floor and the sensations therein, whilst writing. I can bring attention to the speed and regularity of my breathing. I can notice that other parts of my body move a little whilst typing – shoulders up and down, arms and elbows out a little, through the mechanics of keying in words. This kind of attention to our bodies in daily life gives us a huge amount of information about ourselves. It encourages us to be in relationship with our whole being. This perhaps sounds a little woo woo and ‘New Age’, but it’s fundamental in order to be a full, healthy and happy human.
Bringing attention to ourselves holistically is the springboard to change. I feel a twinge in my back, and so I adjust my posture. I notice that I get out of breath more easily going upstairs, so I factor in more exercise to attend to that. I take time in my day to just be with my breathing and to relax my muscles. I use embodied yoga postures to have a sense of how I’m feeling emotionally, through my physical practice. As Mark Walsh says, embodiment ‘brings choice’. Having deeper knowledge of ourselves, we can make wiser choices to support our full health – body, mind, and emotions.
To bring a more embodied approach to your life takes only some simple beginning steps, and you need little or no equipment to do so. Here are some tips for beginning:
Befriend your breath
Paying attention to your breath is helpful because it is an anchor that is always with you. An easy way to begin is to start when you first sit down to write. Give yourself ‘breathing space’ to notice the in breath and notice the out breath, without trying to change them. Close your eyes for an extra sense of how your internal world is. Once you’ve connected to your breath, and spent a little time with it, you might notice a natural sense of calm. It’s easy then to take your attention to the rest of your body, scanning through with awareness to any points of tension or pain, and trying to bring some relaxation there. This process only needs to take a few minutes, but it will set up your writing period with a sense of body awareness.
Regular movement at your desk Yoga teacher Adriene – whose videos have been watched millions of times on YouTube – encourages her students to ‘find what feels good’. Through your day, whilst you’re writing, build in little pockets of movement to explore this maxim. By setting a timer – I use the ‘Stand Up!’ app on iPhone, but you can use anything, including the one on your cooker – we can make sure to stand up and move about regularly. Find what your body likes. Do you want to move your hips in a figure of eight? Does bending down to touch your toes feel good? Stretching the arms overhead like a morning stretch? Move in a way that feels good and necessary, to really begin the process of bringing greater awareness to your body.
Standing desks are another way to combat the sedentary writer’s life. Although research has shown that just standing by itself isn’t enough to combat the issues with a sedentary life,[iii] it’s certainly important to keep standing regularly. Shift the height of your desk if you can – move from sitting to standing where possible. Use devices like an Apple Watch, which will nudge you each hour if you haven’t stood up.
If you’re concerned about the impact that regular movement will have on the flow of your writing, then leave your sentence unfinished to give you an easy route back into your flow.
Walking and other exercise pursuits
Factor in short periods of exercise into your day and aim for increased frequency rather than longer sessions. Three ten-minute brisk walks through the day – one in the morning, one at lunch, and one post-work – are much more beneficial than a lazy 30-minute post-work amble. The writer’s mind benefits from time alone to ponder, and walking is an excellent pursuit for the development of creative ideas, as Merlin Coverly’s 2012 book The Art of Wandering: The writer as walker suggests. On a walk, there is time for our ideas to percolate and co-mingle. Not only does our mental world benefit, but in walking, we connect our mental awareness with our body awareness. It’s the perfect holistic embodied pursuit for writers, and it’s of great cardiovascular value.
In terms of other kinds of exercise, one of the approaches I have taken is to have a stationary exercise bike just behind my chair. If I have a video to watch, as part of my research for a piece, I’ll hop onto the bike whilst I watch it. If it’s a short video I’ll up my cycling pace and do a sprint, a longer one and I’ll alternate sprinting and a more regular pace. Again, here I notice my overall embodied experience – where is my limit and do I want to challenge myself? How am I breathing, and what is my heart rate like? I use exercise as a way to better know myself. I also understand my tendencies of procrastination and physical sedentariness – my preference for sitting – but try to think more broadly about what my body needs.
Stretching for writers
The body loves to move, and once we bring more embodied awareness, we realise just how many ways the body can move. Yoga stretches can be very beneficial to writers. The upper body often feels like it needs particular attention – the wrists, arms, and shoulders – but in actuality the whole body can benefit. Simple exercises like rolling the shoulders up and back (then reverse), rotating the wrists in both directions, and standing and circling the hips first clockwise and then anticlockwise, could be a simple part of each writing session. This limbers us up before we sit to write, and can also be done at the end of our work period.
Yoga poses to try are a seated twist, where you sit cross-legged with an upright spine and place the left hand on the right knee, the right hand behind you on the floor. The standing pose Tadasana – or mountain pose – is both grounding and elongating, with a sense of energy lifting the body upwards at the same time as the feet are firmly connected to the floor. From here – with the arms down by our sides – we may enjoy sweeping the arms upwards in a wide arc, palms meeting in the middle above the head. We can gaze up at our hands, and perhaps if it feels comfortable lift the chin so there is a small back bend. Then bring the palms down in front of our heart in a pose of prayer. In this posture we can connect with a sense of intention both for our embodied practice, and for our writing. Other more advanced poses include bridge pose, which opens the chest, shoulders and hip flexors and feels great after a session in front of a laptop, and any of the lunge or warrior poses which stretch the legs and hips out. Websites such as Yoga Journal[iv] provide easy to understand pose libraries for even the beginner yogi.
The embodied writer is one who really understands that this wonderful occupation is richer and more enjoyable when we include our full selves – our physicality, our emotions and our mental capacity all come together to support our craft. Paying attention to our body will only heighten our wellbeing and our ability to bring ourselves more deeply into our present experience.