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Writers’ Panic


The hideous cloud of productivity now looms over all our lives. It seems that actual writers use productivity apps to get on with their articles and books. Helen Oyeyemi advises writers to download the Write or Die app onto their computer (or does she write on an iPhone?). In ‘kamikaze mode’, if you stop writing for more than 45 seconds it starts deleting the words you have already written. Other writers claimed they use it (‘great for those days when you simply can’t start’) or joined in with advice for getting those words down on the page. Pomodoro forces you into 25 minute slots and five minute breaks, making writing like interval training. Written? Kitten! gives you a cute kitten pic for every hundred words you get down. Stick or carrot? You decide.

So let me join in. First, I have a workaround for Write or Die: don’t write any words, and the bastard app can’t delete them. That’ll show it. Second, wonder if chucking words at a blank space is really what writers have to do to get their work done. The article talks about writers’ block. If you think you’ve got writers’ block after 45 seconds of not writing, you don’t need an app, you need someone gently to tell you that you should consider the possibility that writing is not just about writing, it’s also (and maybe mainly) about the space in between the writing, when nothing seems to be happening, or random stuff is having an incoherent party inside your head. Almost always, you do eventually start to write, and it seems that you’ve been considering after all. It’s not as comfy as writing a thousand words in half an hour, but it seems to work OK, so long as you think of it as part of a process of writing rather than writer’s block.

Journalism is different, I suppose, but maybe it shouldn’t be all that different. Sometimes people phone and ask me to write my thoughts about a current concern, and could I do it by 4 pm? I really can’t. I am slow, I need to think before I write. Actually, thinking usually has very little to do with it, if thinking means some very deliberate, logical analysis. Sometimes I need just to do nothing, or play patience or watch reruns of Dallas, or even think I can’t write this, or anything else ever again, before I write. One day, I suppose, the Dallas watching might extend and extend until I eventually notice that my deadline passed years ago. It’s a risk you take. I’ve come to think that writing is more surprise than certainty.

So is there a geek out there to make a new app for very slow people like me that actually prevents you from writing (forcing on you kittens, Twitter, solitaire, online shopping, hypnotic daydream brain-altering beats, lunch, sex, the Mail online) until you absolutely have to? Not starting isn’t the end. At least, not necessarily.


  1. conflated says:

    Fortunately, enterprising geeks have devised such a tool, preventing very slow people myself and yourself from actually writing, forcing on you kittens, Twitter, solitaire, online shopping, hypnotic daydream brain-altering beats, lunch, sex, and the Mail online, until you absolutely have to write. It’s called the Internet.

    • alex says:

      Thing is, the internet prevents you from writing by encouraging you to write. Like me writing this comment for instance. Writing but not ‘actually’ writing.

  2. Brad MacMaster says:

    Is there a corresponding value-oriented productivity app that keeps geeks focused on productively creating useful apps and avoiding time-wasting breaks to play snooker, foozball or drink beer?

  3. Phil Edwards says:

    One day, I suppose, the Dallas watching might extend and extend until I eventually notice that my deadline passed years ago. It’s a risk you take.

    Not, in my experience, when you’re reliant on the money.

    When I was freelancing, I was never tempted by applications like these – or even by simpler solutions like unplugging the modem. Generally the knowledge that I had a deadline and bills to pay was motivation enough.

    From that perspective there is an odd sort of bad faith about these apps, and the way they present the pressure to write as a quaint personal compulsion which you choose to externalise. People who are genuinely under pressure to write are, by and large, suffering from an external compulsion; perhaps the idea is to domesticate the pressure of work by pretending it’s a neurosis which you can then play at managing.

    • Mat Snow says:

      As my old chum and fellow hack Paul Du Noyer used to remark back in the pre-digital era, an immediate and infallible cure for writer’s block is the gas bill landing on your doormat.

  4. HelenDeWitt says:

    Seems like there’s a certain cargo-cultism to these apps. In my experience, the chief obstacle to serious work is the people in the biz gathering nuts and may.

    You agree to let someone or other publish a piece, they go off-radar, you try to concentrate on new work, and suddenly, out of the blue, you get an e-mail. X has made only minor corrections, and the piece will be going to the printer in two days, and anything you disagree with can’t be decided by X, it is up to Y–

    Or you agree to let someone publish an actual book, and your contract specifies that no changes can be made without author’s approval, and you make a point of asking editor, copy-editor, production manager whether there is anything they care about strongly and want to discuss, and they say No — and you get a document with thousands of “suggested” changes, most of which you veto, and you then get galleys in which most of your vetoes were overridden by the people who claimed to have no strong views on any aspect of the text. (So that’s 6 months you could have spent finishing a new book, but instead you spent all this time ascertaining that nobody cared strongly about any aspects of the text, and nobody would do anything you didn’t like, and then discovering that, contract or no contract, the text has been changed to a version preferred by people who claimed &c. &c.)

    Or you get a royalties statement according to which you are $150,000 in the red, so you will get no money from hardback sales and no money from pb sales until the publisher has recouped the $150K it has allegedly overpaid you.

    The app that would solve this sort of problem is not an app that relates to the writer’s notional inability to manage time or get words onscreen. It’s an app that would keep the Bridget Joneses of this world to heel. Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue.

    • alex says:

      As someone whose next book has just been listed on Amazon with a major error in the blurb (which was not run by me), I can relate to this..

  5. Xynthia says:

    These apps lack the human touch. I’ve always thought that it would be nice if you could hire a Writing Dominatrix–someone who would come to your house in a leather mask and stand behind the desk wielding a whip every time your hands drifted off the keyboard. Or maybe one of those fanatical buddhist monks who hit sleepy meditators with a stick. Or maybe that pimp who was married to Colette, who locked her in a room and wouldn’t give her food until she slipped a page under the door.

    What’s needed here is not electronics, but a close relationship with a sadist who cares more about your writing than you do.

  6. streetsj says:

    and there was me thinking the app was just a joke…

  7. mostlymuppet says:

    I think it’s Annie Lamott who suggests cultivating the habit of writing something every day ensuring you’ve got the muscle memory of hitting keys or putting pen to paper. I’m a fan of a site http://750words.com/ for doing something similar.

    To the author’s points regarding waiting for inspiration or your muse, I’d direct everyone to a podcast on that topic: http://5by5.tv/b2w/10

    The links in the “show notes” section of that page are particularly good as well.

    Lastly, I’ll just point out that every writer has a process that works for them. If a piece of technology, tool, writing environment, caffeinated (or alcoholic) beverage or time of day makes the words flow easier, so much the better.

  8. outofdate says:

    I’d have thought if you want to write you will, and if you don’t nothing at all — but nothing at all — is lost to humanity.

  9. klhoughton says:

    “So is there a geek out there to make a new app for very slow people like me that actually prevents you from writing (forcing on you kittens, Twitter, solitaire, online shopping, hypnotic daydream brain-altering beats, lunch, sex, the Mail online) until you absolutely have to?”

    The app exists; it’s called Freedom. (Seriously.) Cuts you off from the Internet for a personally-set period of time (>=45 minutes, iirc; 30 if I don’t).

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