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Posted, Nov. 30, 2004
Updated, Nov. 30, 2004

QuickLink: A74783

Writing Tool #33: Rehearsal
Procrastination can be productive.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Turn procrastination into rehearsal.

Almost all writers procrastinate, so there's a good chance that you do too. If you work in a newsroom, surrounded by professional writers and editors, you will see the delay taking many forms. The film reviewer may be checking her e-mail messages for the 10th time. The sports columnist may be watching ESPN. The city hall reporter may be staring into space.


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The word 'procrastinate' derives from the Latin word cras, meaning tomorrow. Never write today what you can put off 'til tomorrow. Procrastination is experienced by writers as a vice, not a virtue. During the process of not-writing, we begin to doubt ourselves, sacrificing the creative time when we could be drafting our stories.

But what would happen if we viewed this period of delay, not as something destructive, but as something constructive, even necessary?  What if we found a new name for procrastination?  What if we called it 'rehearsal'?

Here's what my friend and mentor Donald Murray writes about this act of re-invention:

When I first became a newspaper writing coach, I found that most of the reporters went out and covered a story, came back to the office, sat down and started to write the story. Sounds logical, doesn't it? But I had been familiar with Donald Graves's research into the writing processes of young children and he discovered that the best writers rehearsed what they were going to write before they began. I found this was also true of the best writers on newspapers. They had been writing the story in their head -- and often in their reporter's notebook -- before they went out on the story, while they were reporting, and all the way back to their desks. They were rehearsing what they might write the way we all rehearse a marriage proposal, a request for a raise, an interview for a new job.

Put simply, authors write stories in their heads. Blind poets and novelists such as Milton and Joyce did this, composing narrative passages through long nights only to be milked by  transcribers in the morning. The reporter is no different from the literary artist.

Let's imagine a reporter covering a breaking news story, say a fire at a construction site. This reporter has spent a half-day at the scene, filling a notebook with details. She must now drive a half-hour to the newsroom. There the writer will have one hour before deadline. Adrenalin kicks in. No time to procrastinate.

Thirty minutes in the car are precious. Perhaps the reporter will turn off the radio and begin writing the story in her head. Some reporters can rehearse and remember several paragraphs. More likely, she may begin to imagine the three big parts of the story, or a few key expressions, or perhaps a tentative lead: "High winds whipped a brush fire into an inferno Thursday, destroying most of a three-block condo complex on the outskirts of Ybor City."

Deadlines move most reporters to action. But too many writers wait too long to get their hands moving, until the pressures of deadline become irresistible. The alternative is to reframe the periods of inaction into forms of rehearsal. There is a Zen-like quality to such wisdom: The writer must not write in order to write. To write quickly, Grasshopper, you must write slowly.

Here the dilatory habits of writers come into play. One writer daydreams, another eats, another walks, another listens to music, another paces, another drinks and drinks then urinates, another checks favorite websites (www.poynter.org), another tidies up a desk, another talks, talks, talks. Each act of procrastination can become a time of planning and preparation. The reporter can say with conviction to the skeptical editor: "I am not procrastinating, Minion, I am rehearsing."

More debilitating than procrastination is writer's block, but even this inhibition turns out to have a creative source -- high standards. Listen to poet William Stafford:

I believe that the so-called "writing block" is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance ... One should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It's easy to write. You just shouldn't have standards that inhibit you from writing.

No standards. What could be more liberating for the writer? The wisdom of the poet's advice can be seen in the hundreds upon thousands of texts created each day in the form of e-mail messages and weblog entries. Relaxed standards are persuading a generation of online writers that they are members in good standing of what Frank Smith calls the Writing Club.

It would not be hard to make a case that the standards of most bloggers are too low, that these digital innovators would make themselves more readable and persuasive by raising their standards -- but only at the end of the process.

But thereby hangs another tool.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox

1. Many writers use reporting and research as forms of delay. They report for months or years, and then only give themselves hours to write. Here's a tip: Begin writing much earlier than you think you can. Write a summary of the day's reporting. Write a memo to yourself on what you've learned. Write a conditional lead. Let all of this writing teach you what else you need to learn.

2. Have a conversation with a writer who seems to be procrastinating. In a diplomatic and supportive way, ask open-ended questions about the writing: What are you working on? How's it going? It turns out that talking about writing can transform procrastination into rehearsal, maybe even into action.

3. Don Fry divides writers into two types: plodders and plungers. I prefer the words bleeders and speeders. If you are a plodder or a bleeder, it may be worth your time to experiment with some forms of free writing. If you are stuck, try writing for three minutes as fast as you can. The purpose is not to create a draft, but to build a bit of momentum.

4. For one month, keep a daybook. Use it to jot down ideas or capture some phrases. Tell yourself that no sentence in your daybook will appear in your story. This will help you lower your standards. Now write some memos to yourself about your story. This early writing may help you speed up your process.

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