Writing Sprints for the Neurotic and Executive Functioning Impaired
One of the realities of my executive dysfunction is that I have a horrible working memory, and working memory is important for writing a story. And when writing a long series, it’s basically essential.
Now, thankfully my working memory has improved some with ADHD treatment and cortisol support. I am no longer the person staring blankly at a wall trying to remember wtf I was doing. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t read the paragraphs before I got to where I left off, start typing, and then stop because I forgot what the character was wearing, or if they just said that and am I being repetitive, or wait, is this inside or outside setting wise. Who the hell are these people again?
If I give into finding the answers to these questions — very good, important questions that should eventually be answered — I’m going to have to slog through reading again and find each answer while pissing off my eyes. I won’t be writing. When doing writing sprints, I have to embrace the concept that working memory doesn’t matter, and that all those little details (was that tentacle purple or green?) don’t matter. I can fix it all on the next draft.
Why? Because writing sprints are never the final draft.
If you go into writing sprints as the last version of your story, you’re setting yourself up to crash and burn — you know, if you can get a single word on the page first. If you think you’re rushing to write the last version of your story, that could mentally freeze you into not writing at all — not particularly helpful as a writer.
I like writing sprints for 3 types of drafting:
* the sketch draft stage where you need to flesh out an outline (notice I don’t recommend sprints for the outline phase),
* the rough draft phase where you’re fleshing out that sketch,
* the developmental drafts where you have a few scenes (or even a whole book) written but something is missing, it’s just not there yet. So you go through the process, sprinting paragraphs to entire scenes to get the final shape before the final edits.
Writing sprints bring a freedom to draft writing that other writing styles don’t. It’s not just about discipline and productivity. I can sprint thousands of words a day, but if they’re not the right words, I’m not really showing up to write. Sprints can let your creativity run wild in a very focused way that fits into a story format, focusing your energy at getting the majority of the structure filled out. Writing sprints get a book written — not plotted, not changed, not polished. Writing sprints are when you get that story out with about 90%+ of the right words. Then other aspects of the process come in to make sure you get a finished, polished story out.
So… What Is A Writing Sprint?
Writing sprints are timed bursts of writing. It’s when you focus up, set a timer, and refuse to let anything interrupt your writing until that timer goes off. I make sure I have an outline and/or rough draft written before I reach this stage. Sometimes before I start sprints, I will quickly edit or write a fresh outline up for the scene to ensure I can stay focused on the plot points.
My writing sprints have two different forms depending on what I’m doing at the time. There’s the dictation sprint, which is me talking into a headset with the dragon naturally speaking software on my laptop. Or the writing sprint, which is me typing on the laptop. Dictation is much faster, sort of. The connection between my mouth my brain compared to my fingers and my brain is much faster, which can actually be difficult if I don’t force myself to slow down. As a result, my dictation sprints are usually only 3 minutes, sometimes 5 if I’m feeling less energetic and stupid mouthed — cuz my mouth will get stupid when I’m tired. My writing sprints usually average around 6 minutes.
I make a point to have short writing sprints. I don’t want much more than 200 words by the end of each sprint. Part of this has to do with what I follow-up with, which is the editing sprint, and part of this has to do with understanding the way my brain works and supporting it as needed. I have a bad working memory. I can lose the topic, and the longer I am doing a sprint, the more likely I can stray from my focus. 200 words is more than long enough to get a point across. If that one point surpasses 200 words, it’s probably too long anyways.
Do I sometimes feel frustrated that I’m pulled out of a paragraph? Yes. Do I sometimes want to keep writing and ignore the timer completely? Absolutely. But I don’t. Even though it admittedly makes me slower and can break up my flow. I know that I cannot handle editing for long stretches at a time, so if I fail to stop my writing in a timely manner, I’m the only one to blame for my eyes screaming at me during the editing phase.
I use the clock app on my phone to time my sprints. I find it important to have something outside of my laptop to time me so that I’m not opening and closing windows all the time. When I first started sprints, I would use the timer on my laptop and I would have arrange all these windows into perfect little slices cutting the screen so that I could see everything and just click and all that, but setting it up was a pain and something would always end up moved during normal use of the laptop. It made me twitchy, focused on the wrong thing, forever fiddling to arrange them perfectly.
Now that my vision situation is worse, I just find it easier to have my work screen be focused on writing, and something off screen focus on timing. This doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with picking up the phone every time I stop a sprint, especially with my ADHD brain that does not want to work but instead wants to play, but it’s rare that I’ll actually allow myself to look at notifications or browse the Internet, etc. I stay in the clock app and only switch from timer to stopwatch depending on the sprint type.
I wasn’t joking about editing sprints; they’re absolutely part of my process no matter how asinine it might sound. I started doing editing sprints when I realized that I was spending all this time editing books instead of writing new content. While going through that process of doing the same thing over and over again I was
1) so repetitive that my brain was taking on a shape I couldn’t get out of well enough to do any other kind of writing (aka, the creative kind) and
2) bored out of my fucking skull, which was making me even slower at editing.
I realized the solution for this was to edit as I go. So while writing sprints require a timer to keep me within a set amount of time, I keep my sessions short so I don’t have too many paragraphs to edit immediately after.
My editing sprints are completely different from writing/dictation sprints. I don’t use a timer for editing sprints, but instead the stopwatch. And the only reason I’m actually timing my editing is to keep me on track, and not because I believe there’s a certain amount of time to do this in.
I mean, if I’m honest, I enjoy comparing the metrics I enter into my sprinting spreadsheet after each session, and that gives me an idea of how well I’ve shown up for the day. I find it encouraging, which is the only reason I do it. If I found it discouraging I absolutely wouldn’t. Editing is too important to half ass… Maybe quarter ass.
If you’re curious, this is how I set up my sprinting spreadsheet. It’s gone through multiple versions over the years, this current version breaking things down by a writing week, with a cumulative total at the top (to encourage me if I miss any days starting out), and in a warmer color palette than the neon blue and pink theme I had before.
I made the functions work so it’s easy to put in the exact time amounts and it converts into minutes and seconds. You might notice that the day’s hours don’t add up to a lot, yet I’m sitting in front of the computer for these writing sprints, on average, 4 hours. Because ADHD. Because human, not robot. Because if we try to measure the productivity of humans based on metrics instead of reality, we don’t let them breathe, or play with cats, or eat, go to the bathroom, stare off into space, look things up, etc.
So to be completely real, it might look like I’m getting a lot done in a short amount of time, and maybe I could be doing more, but this is a day of writing. At least, a 4 hours day set aside for writing sprints. I don’t time the writing I do at the end of the day where I’m not focused and my ADHD meds and caffeine have worn off. I know I’m sitting there just as long, the way I’m currently editing this part of this post at 4am.
So What Is An Editing Sprint?
For me, because this is addressing my executive dysfunctions and the limits of the software I’m using if I’m dictating at the time, editing sprints are a couple of different things. The main one is for clean up.
If I dictated my writing sprints, I will still be reading and typing my editing. Dictation is a very good reason to do an editing sprint. No matter how good the software claims to be and is evolving to be, it’s going to fuck up. A lot. It’s going to need training, and if you have dragon, you will find that the more you train it, the more problems it might adopt as you go along. Editing immediately after the dictation sprints will save you hours of going “what the fuck was that supposed to mean?”
It’s honestly something I should do when dictating these blog posts, but unfortunately these blog posts require a different sort of thinking for me, and I am very bad at stopping that thinking in the middle of the process to edit. I’m not starting with an outline to keep me on track like I do when writing a story, so my poor working memory is making me rush through and keep going before I lose the thread.
Mainly, I find myself typing instead of dictating when I’m writing a story. Part of this is plain old self-consciousness considering what I write, but another big part is how my eyes are doing at the time. Generally, I like to read as I write. It helps me focus, and helps support that very wobbly working memory that I have. I need my notes/outline open next to the text I’m writing to keep me on track, meaning I need clear sight to the screen and my eyes working.
When I’m dictating, the main reason is because either my thoughts are too fast for my fingers, or my eyes are killing me, and looking at the screen just isn’t a priority. Or, in this case, I’m dictating because my back is killing me from sitting and writing yesterday, and I can’t sit in my normal spot, forcing me to stand with a set up that is so difficult lighting wise (and impossible keyboard wise), that it’s causing me eye pain. It’s something I’m going to have to solve, obviously, but not this moment.
When editing a 6 minute writing sprint, I’ll focus on the obvious cleanup that my computer is blaring at me first, such as spelling and all the missing j’s and q’s that my keyboard has decided don’t exist without slamming on them. But I may also do some developmental editing. Sometimes it will just be a different perspective of the same line, trying to stop the repetitiveness of the way I write, or to make it more clear to communicate by breaking up my many run-on sentences (so many). I might move sentences around if it makes more sense, or preserve them because they feel like they’re not on point to the current topic but I know something is coming up where it will suit better.
Sometimes it’s trying to show a scene instead of telling it, and that involves a different way of thinking for me that doesn’t blurt out in an easy flow during a writing sprint. That doesn’t mean I can’t sprint through to sketch that perspective with a rough shape. It just means that those sorts of perspectives usually need more time for me to slow down and make sure the sensory data is communicating well during the editing sprint.
There is an overwhelming desire to support my working memory during these editing sprints. It usually turns into a compromise of if I’m going to research or not. The main thing is I shouldn’t. I know how it slows me down, and I know that I can get stuck and not move to the next sprint. To avoid that, it’s really important that I stick to not stopping and reading through a bunch of text with strained eyes to get an answer that isn’t necessarily important. Instead, I have to make the habit of writing a note and then highlighting it in a not too obnoxious color — because all my old notes are in colors that scream at my eyes at the moment and I don’t want to look at them — so that I can come back to it later on a more extensive edit.
But I don’t always behave when it comes to things like this because I have OCD. And that’s not a term I throw around lightly, but a diagnosis, and sometimes I just can’t go forward until I have an answer to a question. It’s better to look for that answer during the editing sprints where I have a stopwatch to point out how much time I’m pissing away just to quiet my brain. It’s important to never let those questions be answered during the writing sprint phase, because then it becomes acceptable. And once my brain is like “hey, we can do this” once, it will push to do it every time. So separating these brain triggers out of the writing sprint phase is a must.
Keeping Things Novel
I like pushing my brain to think in a “show, don’t tell way” during the editing sprints phase. I like the results, and I like the challenge. One of the reasons of having the editing sprints phase was to not be bored as fuck, and finding something to keep my brain engaged so that I’ll stay focused really helps in that endeavor.
Editing is a good time to fit description that’s been glossed over, and find ways to really put the character in the scene, in the moment, and the reader with them. That can be through sensory data, having a peek into their emotional world, making sure to filter things through the character and not just the narrative voice.
My ADHD makes reading things that aren’t direct facts and info boring — I’m looking at you recipes — and when writing, I’m forced to repeat over the same scenes again and again and again. I probably exaggerate as a result, just to keep my own attention… and I’m okay with that. I get to call that my style at this point.
Editing Sprints For Works In Progress
If you’re interested in sharing your works in progress, I highly recommend adopting the editing sprint phase. It’s allowed me to have something to show subscribers before a story is complete. For my business, that’s everything. For my OCD, perfectionist vulnerable side who is terrified to put anything out that isn’t exactly what it’s supposed to be by the end, it’s a compromise that allows me to keep going.
I know stories go through drafts. I know that the writing process is a messy chaos of starts and stops where nothing connects until you do the work to make it connect. But for some reason it’s like putting a bunch of uncooked sticks on a plate and calling it a meal when I show my drafting process. Expecting people to pay me for that is just too much for me to handle. I feel like a hack. But with editing sprints, now I feel like I’ve at least cooked the sticks before serving it to people, as if to say “yes, it’s not food, but I am definitely a cook.”
Starting a subscription site not only saved me when my health got so bad that I couldn’t write for years, but it has also helped a lot in fighting the neurotic aspects of my brain. Many of my stories don’t change much past the editing sprints stage — there’s nothing innately wrong with them. The bulk of the writing is fine. But by allowing myself the opportunity to believe the stories could change drastically and still putting them out into the world as is, I’m giving myself an opportunity to let go of finding the perfect words, the perfect story form, and get on to the next writing sprints.
Okay, but when do I actually answer those important story questions I put off?
Usually at the end of my writing and editing sprints sessions, which can last for hours, easily, I will step away from the work. Maybe I’ll have a meal or just move around, feed the cats who have been waiting, see my family if they’re home at this time, and just be a person instead of a writer. This space is important. I don’t think people understand the physical wear writing takes on a body, never mind on brain, and if you don’t refuel and move and do something else, it’s not particularly healthy.
After I had my break which can also last hours — because I set my own hours and my family is a major priority — I will usually come back in the quiet hours of the night and look at my work for the day. I will expect to work for hours on the editing that follows.
I don’t do any kind of sprints at this time; my brain is not here for that shape. Instead, I look at the notes that I left for myself while rereading the work, and add more notes if I see things are missing. I’ll find all my questions and start answering them, at the same time going through and changing little things here and there, stuff I might’ve missed in my editing sprints, or things that have to change now that those questions have been answered.
The only problem I have with this current system is that I am usually tired by this time a day. My ADHD meds have worn off, meaning my focus can only be as good as it can be by the limits of my brain. I will miss things. It also means my neurosis can creep in and want to stay up even later and later, trying to get it right. I have to set hard limits with myself about these things, and when I’m tired, that’s really difficult.
That said, I find this stage is important for the next day of writing. It let’s me get the scene where it needs to be, and to be able to have some creative downtime to develop things and see the work as a whole instead of small 200 word bits that I’m looking at when doing the sprints.
It’s also good to help create a routine of posting at the end of the day, updating the website and keeping myself accountable. Honestly, that’s really what forces me to stop my neurosis at the end of the night even as it wants to flareup and be louder as my brain notices that I’m putting out an imperfect draft.
When I update the website, I’m forced to notice how fucking tired I am. The eyestrain, the many questions that every story forces me to ask again and again of is this the right direction or this, the physical exhaustion on my body from the act of typing and hunching over the screen; I can ignore these things when I in the moments writing, but not so much when I’m struggling to navigate a website with hidden menus, forgetting what tabs I need to open and where I need to go to update things.
Even though a part of me just wants to stop and wait till it’s perfect and not put anything out, updating after every writing day is important. That neurotic voice is not helpful in getting a story written. And honestly, by being tired I have worn that voice down so that it has less power over me so that I can post. Which is great. Fuck that voice.
This ended up being much longer than I was expecting, and I still have things about the writing process I want to share. I think I’ll save it for another post (cuz tired =_=), and leave this one here focused just on the sprinting stuff. Hopefully someone will find it helpful.