Strategize Your Writing Session

“Write every day” might be the only advice we ever need to hear. The other advice can be great, depending on who’s doing the receiving and what kind of problems they’re facing, but “write every day” is the one piece of advice that is absolutely true for everyone.

But when we sit down at our keyboards, we don’t always know what to write.

And so we sit, we fiddle with items on our desk, we pick fonts and fonts again, we play with our application preferences, and when we’re not doing any of that, we just stare at that blinking cursor.

It’s just one of those days. Our characters don’t want to move; our tension seems like it’s fizzling; and “Oh god, wouldn’t a warm cup of tea taste great right now? Let me just go make that.”

Next thing you know, it’s bedtime, and you haven’t done any writing today.

What you need is a strategy, a set of methods to keep you writing. If “Write every day” is the only advice you need, the second part of that advice is, “(and remember, revising is writing”).

Whenever the wind of inspiration leaves you stranded in the horse latitudes, it’s time to break out your revising strategies and row.

It’s best, on the “bad” days, to focus your writing session on one particular strategy. “Today,” you should tell yourself, “I’m just going to improve the liveliness of my settings.” Then, for the next couple of hours, just scan through your existing text and do exactly that. Don’t pay attention to your character descriptions, or your dialogue, or your plot developments, or anything else. Just focus on your settings.

On the next bad day, tell yourself, “Today, I’m going to fix all my tense errors.” If your draft is of any significant length, fixing the inadvertent errors that sneak into every early draft could take you an hour or more. After all, you’ll have to correct them anyway, so why not correct them today, when the muse is off porking someone else?

There are any number of strategies you can use for a writing session, from improving character descriptions to revising dialogue tags to doing nothing else but improving the first and last paragraphs of each one of your chapters.

It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re writing, and as long as you remember, revising is writing.

Teaching to the Text Message

Andy Selsberg explores his vision for freshman composition classes in Teaching to the Text Message: “I’ve been teaching college freshmen to write the five-paragraph essay and its bully of a cousin, the research paper, for years. But these forms invite font-size manipulation, plagiarism and clichés. We need to set our sights not lower, but shorter.”

On arriving

Jennifer Lawler pens a beautiful piece On arriving, one that lovingly explores the reasons why “being a writer is a hard, confusing, thankless kind of life, except for the times when it isn’t.”

Idea Testing

In a post about the validity of testing ideas for a novel, Jessica Faust reminds us that creative writing is actually a laboratory science: “Unfortunately there are no shortcuts in this business. You can use your writing group as a sounding board for your ideas, but ultimately you need to sit down and execute the book and then see if it works.”

In Praise of Scrivener

In a couple of weeks, Literature & Latte will release a major upgrade to Scrivener, a market-upending, writing application they first launched back in 2005/2006. The software has received incremental improvements throughout the intervening years (including one major release at version 1.5), but this is the first upgrade the company feels comfortable charging its existing customers for. After years of development, the company is releasing Scrivener 2.0.

Before it comes out, however, we should take a moment to celebrate the wonder that is Scrivener 1.x.

Scrivener was designed to make the process of writing easier. Before Scrivener, most writing applications followed the word processing model, which was, itself, based on the model of the typewriter: writing begins at the top of the document and ends at the bottom. Word processors don’t change that model, choosing instead to make the middle of the document their battleground—”my word processor is better than yours because I can add tables in the middle of the document;” “no mine is better, because I can drag and drop images into the middle of my document;” “no mine is better because I can track any changes people make to the middle of my document;” etc.

The genius of Scrivener is that it tries to model not a typewriter, but a writer’s mind.1 While it contains some of the basic features of a word processor (it shares its text engine with Apple’s pre-installed TextEdit), Scrivener can be more accurately described as a project management application, where the project in question is a large and complex piece of writing.2

Writing is a notoriously messy operation, but word processors assume that the process of word writing is a fairly simple enterprise: a writer has an idea for a story (or research paper, or law review, or documentary script, etc.), so she sits down in front of a blank “sheet of paper” and types it up; case closed. This, of course, is pure fantasy. Writing involves collecting half-formed ideas, turning them into a series of communicable thoughts, and then developing them into an organic and intelligent whole. It’s not a process that lends itself to the linearity of the page—which is why Scrivener 1.x doesn’t even include the concept of the page: pages are for readers, not writers.3 And that’s the difference between word processors and Scrivener. Word processors assume that writing is just like reading; Scrivener knows better.

The feature list of Scrivener 1.x is long and involved, and this is no place to go into it. But each one is the result of a seemingly-agonizing battle (example) in the heart and mind of Scrivener’s chief (and until recently, sole) developer, a “gruff and quirky” chap named Keith Blount. Where Microsoft Word and other “writing” applications often feel like the result of way too many compromises, Scrivener feels like it springs from a single vision. That vision may not always align with your own, but once you give yourself over to it, you can predict (and be surprised by) its actions the same way you can predict (and be surprised by) the actions of a beloved character in your favorite novel. Scrivener is not just software for a writer; it is software by a writer, and it carries the authority that all art—if it’s good art—should carry.

And in just a couple of weeks, we’ll get to experience that writer’s next masterpiece. I am nervous for the upgrade, the same way you get nervous when you’re about to crack open the sophomore effort of a novelist you like, your mind plagued with concerned questions: will this one be as good, but at the same time, be different; will the author give me the same thrill I had when I first discovered his work; will the author be able to overcome any cynicism that may have crept into my worldview during the intervening years; will the work change my life for the better—differently but again?

We’ll soon find out the answers to those questions. But in the meantime, I just want to say thanks to Keith (and his growing team) for all the joy that has been Scrivener 1.x. Good writing software doesn’t do the hard work for you. But it makes it feel a lot less like work.



  1. Even the name of the program reflects this choice: where Microsoft tries to improve the word, Literature and Latte tries to improve the scrivener.
  2. The best illustration for this is the keystroke ⌘N, which in all Mac applications, creates a “New ___.” In Microsoft Word, for example, ⌘N brings up a “New Document”; in Scrivener, it creates a “New Project.”
  3. It should be mentioned that Scrivener 2.0 will include the concept of the page, but only because screenwriters depend on page counts to understand the length and shape of their movies.

Shaping the Short Story

A piece of fiction writing—a short story, for example—has two distinct elements to it. The first we can call synchronic, which means existing at one and the same time; the second is diachronic, which means existing through time.

                <p>Or to put it another way, a piece of fiction writing has both <em>structure</em> and <em>flow.</em></p>
                <p>Fiction writers must become artists in both domains, developing aesthetic skills that are akin to a water-slide designer's. They must build structures that impress upon the intellect, and develop a sense of flow to tickle their reader's sensations.</p>
                <p>The synchronic domain of fiction writing&mdash;its structure&mdash;usually becomes manifest in the arrangement of a story's scenes, but in a short story, where the entirety of the text may only include one scene, the synchronic domain has to become manifest in something else entirely. <span class="pullquote">When it comes to short stories, where does the structure come from?</span></p>
                <p>Let's begin by defining the short story as a narrative text that is intended to provide the reader with a unitary effect. As Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his essay, "<a href="" target="_blank">The Philosophy of Composition</a>" </p>
                <blockquote>I prefer commencing [the composition process] with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view &mdash; for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest &mdash; I say to myself, in the first place, 'Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?'</blockquote>
                <p>The structure of a short story, then, comes not from the arrangement of scenes, but from the arrangement of sensations and impressions experienced by the reader, an arrangement designed to leave the reader, at the end of the text, experiencing a <em>unitary</em> effect.</p>
                <p>James Joyce said that he wrote his stories with an aim towards providing his reader with the experience of an epiphany. In <em>Stephen Hero</em>, a precursor to the text that became <em>A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man</em>, <a href="" target="_blank">Joyce wrote</a>: </p>
                <blockquote>By an epiphany he meant 'a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.</blockquote>
                <p>When Joyce writes, "vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind," he's using "vulgar" in its Latin sense, meaning "common and ordinary." It's important to note the radical nature of Joyce's project. His stories try to record the presence of the spirit as it manifests in everyday objects, events, and people. </p>
                <p>Joyce continues: </p>
                <blockquote>The clock of the Ballast Office was capable of an epiphany....I will pass it time after time, allude to it, refer to it, catch a glimpse of it. It is only an item in the catalogue of Dublin's street furniture. Then all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany...</blockquote>
                <p>Joyce further explains the process of epiphany via Thomas Aquinas' theory of beauty, summarizing: </p>
                <blockquote>First we recognise that the object is <em>one</em> integral thing, then we recognise that it is an organised composite structure, a <em>thing</em> in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognise that it is <em>that</em> thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.</blockquote>
                <p>For Joyce, epiphanies are the result of a structural beauty, which is comprised by the quality of an object's "integrity, symmetry, and radiance." </p>
                <p>Of course, short story writers can aim at different effects than Joyce's epiphany, but the success of their project will still be decided by the story's integrity, symmetry, and radiance.</p>
                <p>What do these words mean in the context of the short story?</p>
                <p>Aquinas (and Joyce) use "integrity" to speak about an object's wholeness. When you come across an object in the world, you have to first discern the object from the world around it, which means you have to divide the world into <em>the object</em> and <em>not the object</em>. Sometimes you have to combine several parts to actually perceive the whole, i.e., a chair may be comprised of two arms, a back, a seat, four legs, a handle to lift a footrest, cushions, multiple fabrics, screws, nails, etc., but even then, it is still <em>a</em> chair.</p>
                <p>A short story is not a collection of random words on a page, nor a collection of random sentences, settings, characters, events. The parts of a short story must work together to form <em>a</em> whole. This is what it means for a short story to have integrity.</p>
                <p>Additionally, integrity implies that nothing extraneous is included in a short story. If some character, event, object, setting, or even a <em>word</em> is not absolutely necessary to the integrity of the whole, then the writer should have enough integrity to excise it from the final draft. By deleting the extraneous, the writer begins to achieve what we've called "symmetry."</p>
                <p>Symmetry can only be appreciated through a process of analysis. As Joyce writes, we must "consider the object in whole and in part, in relation to itself and to other objects, examine the balance of its parts, contemplate the form of the object, traverse every cranny of the structure." Accomplishing this, we can begin to appreciate an object's symmetry.</p>
                <p>Short story writers can use the concept of symmetry to help them decide what needs to come next. When drafting a story, writers are continually faced with the question of the blinking cursor, the question of what should they write <em>now!</em></p>
                <p>One way to find the answer is through symmetry. If the writer knows that her final story must, in some way, achieve symmetry, then she can examine what she's already written with an eye towards putting it in balance. This balance could require changes to something major, such as the plot, or to something minor, such as the quantity of words the writer uses to describe the physical appearance of her secondary characters; the key is to discover those elements of the text that are out of balance with the others, and to decide if something can or should be done to correct them, whether through deletion or extension.</p>
                <p>Symmetry helps the writer to know that her "story" is complete (and by story, I mean "narration of the plot"). When the beginning, middle, and end of the story achieve a kind of symmetry, when every extra scene has been cut and every extra line of dialogue has been deleted, the writer can stop working on the "story" part of her text and start focusing on its "radiance."</p>
                <p>When it comes to short stories (or really, all creative writing), radiance refers to the text's clarity of vision. When a text is radiant, it lacks a certain fuzziness, a certain murkiness; it shines a clear light into the reader's imagination and dispells the shadows of ambiguity (this is not to say that a short story can't be ambiguous; it's to say that its ambiguities must be radiant).</p>
                <p>By placing a value on the radiance of the text, the clarity of the vision, the short story writer ensures that her reader won't wander lost and alone through a fog of impreciseness. The writer reads through her draft&mdash;"traverse(s) every cranny of the structure"&mdash;and revises all those instances where she used an imprecise phrase; for example, where she wrote "He looked at the woman, his eyes full of determination," she now writes, "He looked at the woman the way a bull looks at the waving red cape." The writer makes this revision because she needs the look on her character's face to radiate in the mind of her reader, but her original phrase, "eyes full of determination" created a murky image at best; the image of the bull is clear, and it <em>shows</em> the determination rather than <em>tells</em> it (in a later draft, the writer may want to improve the phrase by changing it from an analogy to a metaphor, but we don't need to take that trip with her&mdash;why is a metaphor an improvement over an analogy, you ask? Because analogies create <em>two images</em> in the reader's mind, requiring the reader to do the heavy work of transferring the qualities of one image on to the aspects of the other; metaphors, on the other hand, impregnate one object with the qualities of another, providing a single image for the reader to examine&mdash;a metaphor allows one image to beam with the radiance of another).</p>
                <p>Integrity. Symmetry. And Radiance.</p>
                <p>If writers focus on these three aspects of the text, the beauty of their short stories will begin to take shape.</p>
                <p>Of course, in the end, short stories will not only be judged by their beautiful structure, but also by the way the spirit of the text rises from the dead pulp and enters into meaningful communion with the reader. If integrity, symmetry, and radiance defines the story's structure, it is this quality&mdash;this quality of rising and communing&mdash;that defines the story's flow.</p>
                <p>But we'll talk about that some other time.</p>