500 Words, Day 27 / by dan turner

As the 500 Words of September challenge winds down, I thought I'd compile a list of tricks that, over the years, have helped me get thoughts down on paper. Many of these are of a "trick yourself" nature; make of that what you will. Also, please note that I found these to work at different times of my life, under different circumstances, and you are not me, so as always, your mileage may vary.

-- Sit in fresh air. Though the Humanities library at my college boasted probably the best collection of resources for my undergraduate thesis work, it was one of those modern, hermetically sealed buildings with recirculated air that never quite felt fresher than the average sophomore in the carrel next to you. So I hauled approximately 85 pounds of books to a lower level in the Architecture library, found a carrel in the downstairs stacks, and opened the windows. Nobody bothered me, but I could breathe and my head felt clearer.

-- Take naps. This may be great or this may be disastrous; this is perhaps the most personal one. This was also something I found during the undergrad thesis process, though I've used it later in life too, when working on 40-60 page papers. If you've been plugging away at a huge project, and your head starts becoming overwhelmed with eddies of possibilities and options and muddle, try putting your head down. If you practice this enough, you may find that you'll zone out for only a few minutes, but wake with the thing you were stuck on suddenly clear in your head. It's like a reboot for your brain. Make sure to clear away your papers; drool smears ink. (On a large scale, the iOS app Pzizz can help; a grad school classmate introduced it to me and it helped me survive those years.)

-- Walk around. Nilofer Merchant and Susan Orlean can fill you in all about the physiological advantages of pedeconferencing or walking desks, but the easier change is to just take a break every five to 15 minutes, or whenever you hit a knotty problem. You'll be surprised at how many things get solved when you're not focusing on them.

-- Prioritize, and then avoid the top priority ("Benign Neglect"). You know how I got my taxes done? I had a particularly tough piece of writing coming due. Compared to that, my taxes were such a lower cognitive and emotional load. Then I found something I less wanted to face and started writing.

-- Read something by a good but not amazing writer. We all get inspired by good prose, and we all unconsciously emulate the last writer we've read. But reading something that's so good that you can't conceive of how to match it (remember, we rarely, if ever, see the crappy draft versions), you may just throw your hands up and go play Cookie Clicker.

I realize most of this writing advice involves avoiding writing. But you're doing that already.

And that's 500 words.