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How A Kitchen Timer Can Be A Writer's Best Friend

Aug 17, 2007
When runner Roger Bannister (now Sir Roger Bannister) propelled his body across an Oxford track finish line on a blustery day in May 1954, he was reasonably confident he had achieved a four-minute mile.

The rest of the universe, however, was stunned. The world record (until then,4:01.4) had stood for nine years and sportswriters of the day had created an enormous mystique around the four-minute mark. They convinced a willing-to-believe public that it was an unreachable, unrealistic and possibly even dangerous goal.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, the Bannister story sprang to my mind this week as I was coaching a client who was thoroughly convinced that she could not write quickly. She's not alone in her passionately-held belief.

Just as people in the 1950s had persuaded themselves that a mile could not be run in four minutes, many of us have convinced ourselves that we cannot write quickly. (To put a number to it, let's say that's something like 500 words in 15 minutes.)

Of course, I've had the bad writing days too -- days when 500 words in five hours would have seemed like an achievement. You cannot write quickly when you're exhausted, dispirited or when you don't have a clue about what you want to say.

But if you have a topic you're reasonably keen on and knowledgeable about, there's no good reason why the words can't fly off your fingers, why you can't write as fast as you can type. One of the biggest barriers that stands in your way is belief. Perhaps you don't believe writing should be easy. Maybe you assume that "it can't be any good" if it comes too quickly.

To the contrary, I have often found that my fast, dash-it-off writing is often better and more engaging than my slow and heavily laboured-over text. To encourage more of the former and discourage the latter, I now regularly time myself when I write. A kitchen timer is perfect for this purpose.

But even more important, I keep a record. This is really easy to do. You can just create a table in Word. (From the drop-down menu select table/insert/table. Set up four columns and name them: Date, number of words, amount of time, and 'how I felt.')

Fill out this record for a month and you will soon see that on some days you can write like you're on fire while on other days it will be like starting your car in Detroit in the middle of February.

But the benefit of keeping this record is that you will chart your progress -- much as a runner might record his times. In doing so, you will also likely discover that, from time to time, you can write quickly. You'll also discover that the world doesn't end when you have a bad day (or even a bad week).

Incidentally, Bannister never won an Olympic medal. He finished fourth in the 1,500 metres at the 1952 Olympics. And he says he might never have broken four minutes, if not for his disappointing performance at that event. "A bit of experience with reverses shows you that you can recover from them," he said.

Wise words from someone who really understood speed.
About the Author
A former journalist, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach who helps people writer better, faster. Visit her website at http://www.publicationcoach.com where you can sign up for her free weekly newsletter on power writing.
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