Stay sharp: write more.

My students are now well and truly bogged down in assessment season, and I’m currently handing out all sorts of hints and tips to help them stay sharp, use their time wisely and revise to the best of their ability… and hopefully pass with flying colours. The more advice I give out, the more I think I ought to apply it myself — a lot of it is good advice for writers as well as terrified students. I thought I’d share some of it here… so whether you’re a stressed-out writer or a revision-weary student, read on!

1. Sleep well.
Staying up til half past two in the morning because you’re on a roll (be it a writing-roll or a revision-roll) is all very well, but your judgement is often not what it should be when you’re totally wiped-out tired. You may think you’re writing at your very best but chances are you’re not really firing on all cylinders… and what’s more, you’re sabotaging the next day’s writing too. Better to find a natural pause, maybe write yourself some notes so you know where to pick things up tomorrow, and go get some shut-eye.

2. Start early.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am definitely not one of those writers who gets up at 4am and writes an entire academic thesis before the sun’s even come up. However, I do know that on lazy days when I sleep in til noon, I get nothing done. See point 2: go to bed at a reasonable hour, then you can get up at a reasonable hour, too. Knowing you have the whole day ahead of you to get some work done is a big motivation, whereas knowing you’ve wasted half of it slonking in bed will just make you feel guilty and tempt you to write the day off as a total loss. So if you’re reading this from under the duvet — get your butt out of bed already!

3. Eat breakfast.
Very few of my students do this, apparently — “breakfast” to most of them means a can of Red Bull and a cigarette in the five minutes before college starts. But whether you’re revising for your finals or sculpting the latest chapter of your novel, you need to fuel up properly in order to stay the course. A hungry brain is an ineffective brain — and a distracted one.

4. Take breaks.
If you’re lucky enough to have the whole day to write, that’s awesome… but don’t go thinking that you have to write solidly for twelve hours without stopping. Therein lies disaster: you’ll start to flag and your writing will suffer, you’ll get tired or bored and start to resent the task, and/or you’ll find yourself resorting to procrastination in order to break up the monotony. The human brain works at its best for around 45 minutes and then starts to need a rest, so make sure it gets one. I advise my students to split every hour into blocks of 45 minutes work and then 15 minutes rest… and rest means total rest, ie, not even thinking about your poem/novel/notes/revision/whatever. I advise making a cup of tea, reading the paper or going for a walk, but NOT potentially brain-numbing activities like watching TV (15 minutes can turn into an afternoon-long Sex and the City marathon really easily, trust me!) or playing computer games (just one more level just one more level oh dammit, it’s midnight, how’d that happen?) Take heed!

5. Hydrate yourself.
Very much like the breakfast advice: a dehydrated brain is an ineffective, easily distracted, fuzzy and tired brain. If you do not water the ideas-plant, it will not bloom, so drink some water already! I also advise my students to stay away from caffeinated coffee, nasty energy drinks and sticky stuff like Cola and Lucozade… water really is best. Or if you want to stay really razor-sharp, drink some ginko tea. It improves circulation and sends more blood to the brain, and also enhances memory. Works for me — I always drink it before an exam!

6. Use the time you have.
What seems to panic students most is fitting enough revision time into the day — they all have college classes, part time jobs and extracurricular activities, which seems to leave very little time for additional studying. I think this is a common writerly worry as well… when you have a full time job, family commitments and all sorts of other stuff going on, writing can get left behind. The best thing to do is learn to use the time that you have. Writers find this really hard — we all want to be able to devote whole days to just sitting and writing, but realistically it’s just never going to happen. Instead, we need to adapt so that we can scribble a few lines on the bus to work, or edit that short story while watching the TV of an evening (or alternatively, see point 8!). I see students sitting with their books and notes, revising in the canteen over lunch, or grabbing a few minutes in the stairwells between classes to look over their practice assessments. Writers can learn a lot from this ’study anywhere’ stance!

7. Do what you can.
But yes, I know… sometimes The Muse just isn’t there, and she just won’t turn up no matter how much you will her to appear. My students complain of the same problem — they’re reading the notes over and over, but the information just isn’t going in. In which case, say I: do what you can. If you can’t find the inspiration to write, do something else productive. I’d always say that if you can’t write, read. If you’ve got half an hour between appointments but you can’t get words out onto the page, grab someone else’s poetry book or get yourself over to Poetry Archive. Sample some ideas… it may make all the difference the next time you try to put pen to paper.

8. Turn off the damn TV.
I’ve said this so often here that I’m starting to feel like a stuck record, but the TV (and its evil cousin the games console) is out to get your creativity, and must be thwarted. Time spent watching TV is essentially time spent doing nothing, and although this is not always a bad thing, you should think carefully about your TV time before you sink into the sofa. Are you just channel hopping, or watching whatever’s on even if it’s drivel? If so, think: do I want to numb my brain like this, really? Do I care what happens to the people on this show I’ve never seen before and don’t really care about? Or could I possibly be writing, or doing something that might better facilitate my writing? I ask my students to choose: would they rather find out what happened to Crystabelle’s marriage in Soapland, or get an A in their exam? Is it a hard decision…?

9. Read this article.
Procrastination can be your friend… honest.

10. Don’t be afraid to give up and start again tomorrow.
Sometimes you have days where you get out of bed at 8am and the next thing you know, it’s 11pm and you’ve got nothing done. Everyone has those days, and they suck. You feel a total failure and it’s tempting to stay up til the wee hours of the morning cramming in revision or scribbling down the first ideas that pop up in your frazzled brain. Don’t do it: heed point number one and give up, get some sleep and try again tomorrow. At the end of the day, no one aces every single test life chucks at them. There’s always tomorrow!

Are you a student? Former student? Any novel revision survivial tips? Any sure-fire ways to optimise your writing? You know where the comments box is!

(Photo by Lost Star)

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4 Responses to “Stay sharp: write more.”

  1. Bel L. Says:

    Great article. Have been reading the blog for a bit now and always find your posts to be either very helpful or a much needed distraction.

    I’d add to that the importance of finding a place that works for you. Sometimes where you write and what is happening around has just as much impact as your emotional/mental state. If you know you can’t write on the bus or the crowded coffee shop it’s probably best not to try it unless you need the break. I guess, in other words, find your writing bubble.

  2. Claire Says:

    Bel — Welcome! Always nice to find new readers surfacing in the comments box :)

    I guess I’m trying to say ‘get out of that mindset’ — get yourself into the habit of writing anywhere, any time if you can. However, I know how difficult that is. I am as bad as anyone for saying “I can’t write right now, I’m tired”, or “I can’t write here, it’s too noisy” or whatever. I’m actually planning a post at the moment on different people’s writing environments — I have a friend who writes at his best in a crowded place where there are lots of people-watching opportunities, whereas I often need to send my Boy into another room if I’m writing — I like to be totally on my own. Where do you write best? What conditions do you need?

  3. Love Pearl Says:

    Great post, thank you. I signed up for your feed - hope you post very soon.

  4. download Says:

    Thanks for post \o/