I am not a sprinter by nature. I believe in the power of making slow, steady progress on your work. Over time, small steps taken regularly can amass big results. Too often we wait for big chunks of time that never come, or worse, wait for inspiration to strike before we write a word.
Now I want to turn the conversation around. In one of those “the universe is calling you into a conversation you didn’t know you were having” moments, another writer I follow, Todd Henry, sent his weekly email enumerating all the reasons why slow and steady doesn’t win the race. He talks about two things in this regard: the need for deliberate practice, and the need for the occasional sprint.
It’s true, if all you’re doing is putting your time in, and not really paying attention to developing your craft, you’re not getting the most out of your daily word count. So amen to deliberate steady practice.
But the idea of sprinting caught my attention. When and why would we want to sprint in writing?
1. To push past blocks, or jump start a piece of writing. Doing a short timed sprint on a topic that is blocking you can work wonders. Pick a word, a phrase, or an image that is catching your attention but you’re not sure how to use it yet (e.g., I think my next scene needs to include this. I keep seeing this image and I don’t know where it’s going. Etc.). Set the timer for 15 minutes, or whatever seems reasonable, and just let it rip. See what shows up. This is best done longhand, without taking your hand from the page. If you type, keep typing. Don’t go back to fix typos. Don’t stop just because you can’t think of the next word.
2. To warm up. Before you sit down to “real” writing, set a timer for 15 or so minutes, and journal about everything else rattling around in your head. My journal is usually the most boring document imaginable, and if I become famous, people who read it are really going to wonder how I was ever seen as a writing genius (go with me here). I write down the stuff I have to do that day, like laundry, grading papers, grocery shopping, taking the car for a wash - all the day to day stuff that we all have to do. I complain about things and people, I write notes about books I’ve been reading or movies I’ve seen, I obsess about weird stuff… you know what I mean. But if I do it before I do more formal writing, it gets all that junk out of my head, so I’m clear for the good stuff. The trick is do do it quickly, and not let it take over your writing time so you don’t get anything else done. Hence, a sprint.
3. To inspire you. Just like for a runner doing sprints, pushing yourself to do more than you think you can on occasion is good for you. The mind craves variety, and a challenge. Give it one. NaNoWriMo is a case in point. For those who never seem to start (or finish) a novel, it’s a month-long sprint that can force you into producing a workable draft.
4. To just finish, already. This often requires a “long sprint.” A friend of mine did a three month long sprint last summer. Every minute she had available, she worked on the final revisions of her book. This was a book she’d worked on for years, and she had many drafts, but she finally knew exactly what it needed and how to finish it. It just required time and focused attention. So gave herself a deadline, put everything else she possibly could on hold, and plunged in. She was tired when she was done, but in her next round of shopping the book around, she found a publisher. Sometimes you have to silence the doubts, stop playing around, and do what needs to be done.
So, as you think about your writing, could you use a sprint? A long one? A short one? A daily one? Become conscious of it as a tool, and see what it can do for you.
Note: in every instance of the word “sprint” I’ve typed while writing this, I’ve put “spring.” No, I’m not sick of winter at all. Spring is not on my mind. I’m like Snow Miser: not happy if it’s over 40 degrees. Yeah. Right.