Five Minutes’ Work

April 6, 2011

I met, recently, with a beginning writer, and he asked me if I could tell him what I knew about the habits of seasoned writers.  “Can you tell me what seasoned writers do when they write?” is how he phrased it.  I told him that I’d learned a great deal, and that, sure, I could tell him.  So I started talking about what I knew about how Virginia Woolf worked.  But he stopped me.

He told me he wasn’t talking about finding a subject, or about making a schedule, or about writing in a journal, or about how many hours a day someone like Woolf wrote, or about anything like that.  He was asking me what a seasoned writer does at the desk moment by moment by moment that might be different from what he was doing.  He wanted to learn from the “pros,” he said, and he wondered if anyone had studied that and written about it.

He said that, in many fields – dancing, ice skating, football, basketball, soccer – if you were new to the discipline, you could watch the pros, study what they do, and learn from them.  Didn’t beginning dancers watch videos of seasoned dancers to try to improve their own technique?  Of course they do.  And I recalled a dancer friend of mine telling me how he studied championship performances on tape to understand what he needed to do to improve, and he also studied the tape of his own performances.

But creating something out of nothing in private is different.  Beginning writers, painters, composers, choreographers, for example, can’t stand behind a writer writing, a painter painting, a composer composing, a choreographer choreographing and watch what they do.  Even if they could, they could never penetrate the consciousness of the creator in the moment of creation.

And so the most important information of all – what a creator does in the moment of creation – is virtually impossible, if not completely impossible, to transmit.  There is a famous video of Jackson Pollack painting that reveals his technique, yes.  And it’s said that Pollack was upset that he’d permitted the filming of himself at work because he believed it gave away his secrets, that the video had stolen his soul.  But even that video didn’t climb into Pollack’s consciousness, and couldn’t reveal how or why he did what he was doing.  There are published conversations with writers about how they created a book or a story.  (12 Short Stories and Their Making, edited by Paul Mandelbaum is one of them.)  But the writers in these books are telling us about their process after the fact; they’re telling us what they remember about the making of a work, and what they tell us, though invaluable, is not telling us anything about the moment by moment by moment work of writing.

If we took, say, five minutes of a writer’s work day, and told the writer to be conscious of what he or she was doing, could anything of importance be gleaned to tell a beginning writer?  A writer, any writer, beginning or seasoned, makes so many decisions in a mere five minutes of writing time that I’m certain it would be impossible to record just that tiny moment of a writing life.  And, we all know that watching ourselves work so that we can say something intelligible about what we’re doing as we’re working might stop us dead in our tracks. (Just like the competition ice skater, say, who when she’s skating, starts thinking about what she’s doing: the champion skater Sasha Cohen describes, in her autobiography, how this is the undoing of a skater.)

I told my writer friend all this.  And he understood.  But he didn’t let me off the hook.  He wanted me to go home, and take five minutes of a writing day, any writing day, and pay attention, in that small amount of time, to what I was doing.

Sure, I said, thinking that there’d be nothing to share.  But only, I told him, if you do the same so that we could compare notes.  I warned him that knowing what I did in five minutes wouldn’t tell him anything about what any other writer did, and so his knowing what I did would amount to knowing nothing at all.  Still, he persisted.  And so he had his homework and I had mine.

The day I decided to watch myself, I was beginning the sixth or seventh revision of a chapter of my new book.  The work I was to do on the beginning paragraph, now about 160 words long, the one I was working on, was to be a simple (or so I thought) revision of something I’d written a few years ago.  It’d taken me awhile to get the early part of this book revised and rewritten. So I hadn’t dealt with this material in a long time.  I realized that talking about revision would be different than talking about creating new material.  But I wasn’t willing to write anew just for this experiment.

My five minutes of work went something like this.  I took out my “Next To Do” list and wrote down the first thing I wanted to do – “Find the beginning.”  I found the beginning of the earlier draft I was using as the basis for this new draft (the sixth complete draft of this material) and didn’t like it.  Then I decided what to do next – “Find a more suitable beginning.”  And I did.  Then, next, “Revise the beginning.”

I was dealing with a simple “setting up” paragraph: telling the reader that my parents, newly in love, newly committed to marrying, were deciding when they would marry, sooner, as my father wanted, or later, as my mother wanted.  Nothing fancy, no pyrotechnics, though one interesting, I thought, use of a paragraph.

As I started revising, I noticed that as I typed the material into a new document, I continually went back and reread everything I wrote, making changes as I went along.  After I made a change, I reread everything I’d done and found myself making another, very small change.  And so on and so on.

By the time five minutes was over, I was still working on the first paragraph, but I’d noted that I’d reread the material as it evolved, more than 15 times, but I stopped counting because it was slowing me down.  (By the time I finished my work on three pages of material later that day, I went back and reread the first paragraph and realized I it needed even more work.)

When the beginning writer and I shared notes a few days later, this is what we learned.

I decided what I would do before I started doing it.  He didn’t: he plunged in and started writing.

I reread and reread and reread as I worked on the first paragraph.  He didn’t: he kept moving his work along without revisiting it.

At one point, I read what I was working on aloud which forced a few more changes.  He didn’t; he said he didn’t even verbalize his work in his head.

As I worked, I sometimes sensed that something was wrong and then stopped and figured out how to make it right or at least better than it was.  He sometimes sensed something wasn’t working but kept going figuring he’d get to it later.

As I worked, I realized I kept checking the material against the portraits I wanted to paint of my parents; I kept checking to see if the wording I was using was representing them or misrepresenting them, but this was barely recognized as I worked.  It was as if I was checking my work with a felt sense of what I wanted.  He was writing about family, but hadn’t thought about what their portraits should be like, didn’t sense that what he was writing was working or not.

As I reread, I reworked the paragraph, making continual, sometimes tiny changes – taking out a “that”, putting the “that” back in, taking it out again; trying the material within parentheses without the parentheses, and decided to use the parentheses after all; thinking about whether repeating a word in two succeeding sentences worked or if I should change one of them (I changed one of them).  Changing the wording of something but not the sense because I wanted a sentence describing what my mother was wondering to mimic the sentence structure of what my father was wondering.  I realized that although I was calling this the “sixth draft” of my paragraph, this was inaccurate, because, in this pass, I’d gone over the wording and the sense of this paragraph at least fifteen times.

I want to emphasize that my way of working is my way of working and that someone else who’s a seasoned writer might work in a far different way.  Still, after our conversation, the writer I talked with said he’d learned a few things he found useful.

He said he’d try rereading as he worked.  He said he’d start fixing things as he went along, or, as he put it, he’d start playing with the work as he went along as I did, rather than acting as if what he put down was sacrosanct.

This writer – any writer – has to find his own way.  But he did say that he was flabbergasted by how slowly and meticulously I seemed to work.  He had no idea that a seasoned writer keeps going back over the work.  He didn’t realize how many drafts someone like me wrote, how many changes someone like me made.  He believed that somehow it got easier with time.

No, I told him, it doesn’t.










9 Responses to “Five Minutes’ Work”

  1. Darcy Says:


    I enjoyed your post today about “five minutes of work.” For me, in early drafts, I have to just keep going without thinking, as your beginning writer does. I have to get the whole of something on paper. Otherwise, I have hundreds of ideas and fragments, and far too many unfinished works.

    Later, I do more of what you describe in your later draft, going over and over a single paragraph so that there are probably fifty drafts, not just the “Draft 4” I might label the document with.

    Once I have a daily writing habit and am deeply into the manuscript, it starts “writing” in my mind. Various characters, from real life or imagined, tell their stories, or little bits of lines come to me. This is usually while walking, but it could be any time.

    I love reading about the habits of seasoned writers. It makes this solitary practice seem less so.

    Thanks, as always.

  2. Julie Raynor Says:

    No, it doesn’t.

    But it’s comforting to know that once you can climb into the work, meticulous, total immersion, it gets better. And that takes time.

    Your blog is also comforting and informative, Louise. And this like many of your posts is so interesting. It’s an understandable quest, your young writer’s, but impossible as you say. I think the closest we get to experiencing another artist’s creative process is in digesting their work, which I am always hungry to do, just as the only way we get to our own is in doing the work. It’s all, always, about that: doing the work. Not what happens to it, or us, after the fact.

    I was reading in C. 10 of “The Artist’s Way” this morning about how we choke off our creativity out of fear, which is really a lack of faith. This ties into your last post, too, about keeping ourselves in a kind of poverty of expression because it’s safe. Of course for each artist all of this is a very personal path. And the only thing is to keep going, whatever it takes, as you find your way.


  3. Vic Venom Says:

    God, of all the things I SHOULD do, what you said about writing a paragraph and re-reading what you just wrote, that’s it.

    I tend to become consumed with my writing, grabbing a muse and riding it until I lose it, then deciding that I’m done, I’ll re-read the entire piece. With so many paragraphs staring back at me, it’s far to easy to skip a sentence or two in my impatient zeal to finish.

    Take a breath and read. Good advice.

  4. Danielle Says:

    Like the beginning writer you spoke of, I plunge right into my work whether it’s ficiton or non fiction. I try not to get too hung up on beginnings and go right for in medias res. I do, however, go over things as I write, but I try to save that until I finish a chapter. Then I’ll leave it alone for a few minutes, a few hours, or even a day, then to back and revisit it. Although the actual work may not get better over time, I believe the technique evolves so the writing gets better over time.

  5. ashley Leavitt Says:

    I obsessively reread my work, while I am in the process of writing, when I am done writing, and again before beginning to write. It is never ending. And it seems that no matter how many times I revise or reread a piece, there are always things to be tweaked. I think it is really great if you have the opportunity to put a piece of writing down for a few days, or even weeks, to see it from a fresh, and less attached perspective. I also find that a comfortable posture is important to writing well. I stand every so often to stretch or walk around. I focus my eyes on something other than the monitor. Too, for me, especially with memoir, I like to block out the process. Meaning, sometimes I begin by collecting, and reviewing all my notes so that I have details fresh in my mind, and can easily access them as I write. Other times, this can be counterproductive. For example, if I want to get the guts of an experience on the paper, having the particulars swimming in my mind chokes this process. Whereas other times, reviewing details prior to writing may stimulate new memories and emotion that I can then run with. But generally, producing a clean clear page of writing that conveys what I intend it to, to my self and my reader, it is a VERY slow and tedious process, but I kind of like it. It can be compulsory and addictive. A good desk lamp is also very helpful. And writing is defiantly NOT like it is depicted in the movies, with paper flying everywhere and a person typing madly away over a typewriter with cigarette smoke curling around their ears. At least I don’t know anyone who that is their process.

  6. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    I agree. Writing and editing does not get easier with time. I would think it gets harder as time passed on. I know I have a problem getting attached to my sentences. When the editing time comes around it can be a slow process for me because I want to rearrange everything so it can stay. Every writer’s process is different. We all have our little quirks but rereading as we write is something that I think most writers do.

  7. Cathy Says:

    I need to concentrate on giving the artist room to breathe, while I subdue (just a little) the meticulous editor. Though I love the editor’s insistent touch – the polishing cloth and the gleam of a finely rubbed sting of words, I admit to an unfortunate habit of going over and over and over and (oops!) the same thing and forgetting about the bigger picture – *finishing the damned story*!

  8. ajuele Says:

    This post really helped me! Though I wouldn’t recommend paying attention to myself for more than five minutes at a time, through this exercise I realized that if I’m in the correct state of mind, a lot of valuable work can be done in five minutes. Like you, I edit as I re-type, and was surprised at how quickly a piece can change if I work this way. The overall paragraph may be the same, but I’ll take a word out, put it back in, or change it with a more precise word, all in a minute or two. Sometimes I work as your friend did, and just type for five minutes and save the editing for later. But more often than not my ring finger finds the “delete” key in the middle of my writing, as opposed to just at the end.

    Of course, typing is different from writing, and writing by hand, I can honestly say five minutes is barely enough time to really get going.

    But by paying attention to just five minutes’ work, I was able to really use my time wisely. Sometimes I waste five minutes just looking for the correct draft, or obsessing over some minute detail that may not be pertinent to the work as a whole. By focusing on what I did for those five productive minutes though, I was able to see that little by little, the larger work could be done.

  9. Tamara Gonzalez Says:

    I really enjoyed this post. As a beginner writer myself I’m having a lot of trouble perfecting my work. I was never the person to revise anything whether it be an essay or a memoir but as I continue on my path of writing I find myself revising more and more as I write. My revisions really give me an opportunity to add and take out some content that may not give the effect I want it to. Writing a memoir now I am having a hard time getting into a rhythm of writing and a schedule and this post really reinforced the need for a schedule in my life.

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