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You don't have to write, to be writing

I have already tweeted about the fantastic Creative Penn podcast , which aired last week, in which Joanna Penn talks to Michaelbrent Collings. If you haven’t listened to it, you should. Why? Because Collings makes some points about writing and writer’s block that are fantastically liberating.

Most interestingly, he says that writing doesn’t have to mean sitting down, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and forming strings of words. Actually, the act of writing and the art of being a writer encompass many things that – to some – might seem like ‘daydreaming’ or ‘procrastinating’ but are actually extremely valid and necessary.

After listening to the podcast last week, I thought back to all the times I have been sitting around not contributing to my word count and feeling as though I am wasting time, or that I must be suffering from writer’s block. And I realised that on each of those occasions, while I may not have been physically producing content, I was still doing things that contributed to the creation of my story. What kind of things am I talking about? There are lots, trust me, but here are the top three:

1. Watching Netflix.


At first glance, this one seems like the biggest pile of rubbish you’ve ever heard. If your other half finds you watching Grey’s Anatomy when you should be ‘writing’, they will probably scoff and tell you to do some real work. But actually, TV and film are fantastic mediums for studying almost every aspect of novel writing. They can help you with:


In Structuring Your Novel, KM Weiland recommends using film to study structure because the form is very similar to that of a novel, but condensed into a quickly digestible 1.5 or 2 hour time slot.


Sometimes, tuning out from thinking about a stumbling block you’re experiencing is the best way to find a solution to it. You’ll be watching something and it will hit you – you'll have an ooh! moment and realise exactly what you need to do/write next. This isn’t the same as copying someone else’s work: you are simply taking inspiration from it.


TV series in particular are great for this because they tend to be quite fast paced. Use them to examine dialogue and become familiar with what sounds natural, and what doesn’t.


If you are convinced your novel needs to be set in Burma, but you can’t afford to travel there/are afraid of flying/have a day job that isn’t long-trip friendly – don’t despair! Find some documentaries and immerse yourself in them. Write notes, write down questions, and then do some more research.

* I should note that reading falls into this category too and can be used for all of these things, it just requires a more dedicated block of time. Orrr, you can try audiobooks. They are great for the daily commute, although you might find you have to stop the car and scribble some notes down mid-journey!

2. Thinking

This is actually a very necessary part of writing, but one I think we trivialise a little too much because – to an outside observer – it looks as though we’re just sitting and staring at a blank wall. It also tends to occur alongside whatever daily activities you’re carrying out. So, while it might feel as though you haven’t been ‘writing’ for several days, if you have been thinking and plotting and mulling things over in your brain then this totally counts! You are getting yourself ready to start putting together some actual words.

3. Planning

Even if you like to fly by the seat of your pants and let your story flow of its own accord, at some point you will probably need to sit down and do a little planning. You will need to think about whether scenes need moving around, whether your characters are fully developed, whether your story is missing any crucial aspects, etc. If, like me, you’re writing fantasy you’ll also need to do some world-creating and think about some rules for your place of make believe. You’ll probably also want to think about the geography of your world. All of these things contribute to your story. None of them are pointless. And all of them count as ‘writing’.

I’m sure my list could go way beyond three things, but I’ll stop there and say that the basic rule is this: if you are doing something that makes you actively think about how to progress or better your work, then it counts as ‘writing’. But the key word is actively – you have to be engaged in what you’re doing and actively making links back to your story, otherwise you really are just procrastinating!

Note: Michaelbrent Collings also says some fab things about writer’s block so check out the podcast and don’t forget you can follow me @CaraThurlbourn for authoring news and updates.

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