Top Five Things That Count as Writing That Aren't Exactly Writing

A Bonus Top Five for Everyone.

Write. Every. Damn. Day.

That’s what Stephen King says, and what many writers say—and it often sounds like what we say, as well, with our stickers and our word-count goals and whatnot. But—this is KJ specifically—I don’t write every day. Not exactly, anyway. When I am drafting or revising a specific manuscript—hell yes I’m in there every day. And then there are moments when I’m taking set time off, or when someone else is reading a draft for me and it won’t take them long enough that I should start something else but I shouldn’t mess with what I sent them because, version hell—those aren’t writing days, either.

But I’m talking about something else here. What if you’re not in a specific draft or revision? What if you’re finding your way through a project, or through a touch spot, or trying to dream up the next idea you want to spend however-long-it-takes-you-to-write-a-book with? What’s writing that isn’t writing?

  1. Thinking. That seems so obvious, but there’s thinking, and there’s pretending you’re thinking while really you’re looking at Instagram. Really thinking-thinking is a walk, or a drive, or a long shower or any session of doing something with your hands or body while your mind is elsewhere while you are deeply focused on the problem at hand (NOT on a podcast, audio-book or why your neighbor seems to be tearing down their garden shed). Cal Newport talks about the importance of this kind of thinking time in his book, Deep Work, and it takes practice to hold yourself to the task at hand but it’s definitely “writing” if you can do it—and it may save you a lot of words heading off in the wrong direction if you can think your way through ideas or structural problems.

  2. Thinking-with-a-pen-in-your-hand. This sounds the same as above, but it’s a little easier to structure and to keep yourself on task. This is writing topic or chapter outlines, book or essay ideas, character notes, “What-ifs”, a list of themes, working your way through a Save-the-Cat beat-sheet, that kind of thing. Brainstorming.

  3. Dissecting. Really analyzing someone you admire’s work for structure, word count, character appearance, interior monologue, scene-setting, expertise-ownership, chapter-length, whatever and probably taking notes.

  4. Reading your own work without a tool of any kind with which to edit it.

  5. Reflecting on what you’ve read—with or without a pen in hand—while considering what you’d like to create next. Many of us write what we like to read, so time spent creating a record of why you liked the most recent things that really struck with you is important, whether they’re short-form essays, big works of fiction or non-fiction or reads in your favorite genre (even if it’s not what you write in). Do you prefer your non-fiction with or without an auto-biographical element? Like certain tropes in your fiction, from dystopian future to hidden adoption to bookstore settings? (You can find those in every form of fiction, from fan-fic to Nobel laureates—don’t ignore the things that draw you in.) Why do you like what you like? The answer to that can help your writing in many ways.

A caveat—these only count as “writing” if—most of the time, or at least an amount of time that satisfies you—you’re actually writing. If you are, these are part of the process. If not … the top priority is to find a way to get words on the page.

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