Writing and the Creative Life: Writing sprint? How about a writing walk!

If you frequent Twitter… and more specifically writers on Twitter… you may well have run across the idea of a writing sprint. I first intersected with the concept via a wonderful TV writer Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, Once Upon a Time). She explains what it’s about in an interview with Raphael Sbarge:

Raphael: You’re a prolific Tweeter, and …what is a “writing sprint”?

Jane: This is a little thing …

Raphael: Because I see you, like, “I’m going into a writing sprint!” And I always think, “What is that?” I guess I want a visual.

Jane: Yeah. It’s so silly. It’s the silliest thing in the world. It’s just a way for me to say, “Hey, I really need to write now. But I’m finding it hard to get started. I’m having too much fun here on Twitter. So what I’m going to do, is I’m going to announce on Twitter that I’m going to go write for an hour. And I won’t be tweeting. And you all know that I promised, right? So you’ll keep me honest.”

Raphael: That’s great! It’s like reverse-engineering the way Twitter actually, oftentimes kind of sucks your day away. In this case, you’re actually using it almost like a timer, right?

Jane: Yeah, exactly.

Raphael: That’s great.

Jane: So I need to do an hour’s worth of work. I think it really helps to do assignments by the time, not by the task. You get more done if you say, “I’m going to work with tremendous focus for an hour,” than you do if you say, “I’ll work until the scene is done.” Because then the scene will take an hour, where if you just say, “I’ll work for an hour,” you may get three scenes done.

But the innovative part of the sprint is that I say, “You guys at home, do the same thing. If you’ve got an hour right now, sit down with me. You’ll get that feeling of community, that feeling that you get when you’re sitting in the reference room at the library, working, and everyone around you is working, too. It’s like, “I’m not alone. There’s someone else out there working, too.” And so people work along at the same time I do, and people have started hosting their own sprints, so it’s them and their followers sprinting.

And I get people every day, saying, “I finished my dissertation.” “I wrote my screenplay.” “I finished my novel because of your sprints.” And it’s made me realize how rare it is these days for anyone to work for an hour without checking their email, sending a tweet, getting a text, getting a call. That an hour of focus has become something people haven’t had in years, and they’re getting huge amounts done. If there’s any spike in productivity this year, and the American economy, I think it will be because of the amazing people who have adopted my little Twitter trick to make myself work, because people are out there working. And I’m so thrilled to see people getting stuff done.

And it works! I discovered the Pomodoro technique which exists in the same solar system as a writing sprint: Set a timer for 30 minutes and just write. Nothing else. While the timer is ticking down, the only thing you do is write.

That’s all great. Writing sprint… Pomodoro… sometimes there’s nothing better at inducing productivity than an intentional ass-in-chair writing session allowing for no distractions.

And then there’s this:

Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, was known for his walking meetings. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also been seen holding meetings on foot. And perhaps you’ve paced back and forth on occasion to drum up ideas.

A new study by Stanford researchers provides an explanation for this.

Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter, according to a study co-authored by Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

The study found that walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. The act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.

“Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking. We finally may be taking a step, or two, toward discovering why,” Oppezzo and Schwartz wrote in the study published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

Yes, sometimes the best way to be creative is to lift one’s derriere off the chair… and go for a walk.

A person walking indoors — on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall — or walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down, one of the experiments found.

“I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me,” Oppezzo said.

The study also found that creative juices continued to flow even when a person sat back down shortly after a walk.

I have found this to be true for decades when I go for a run outside. The pattern is always pretty much the same.

The first few minutes, I am actively in touch with the various creaks and aches of my muscles and bones until I get into a running groove.

Then my mind goes to mundane matters like appointments… to-do list… obligations…

Next my mind turns to the script on which I’m working, particularly story problems, mulling them over.

And then… the nothingness of the run. Feet slapping pavement. Rhythmic huff-huff breathing in and out. Arms pumping, left, right, left, right.

Time seems to melt away. In a zone. Mind goes blank.

This can go on for 10… 15… or more minutes. It’s like I’m there… but elsewhere.

Invariably I emerge from the run not only physically uplifted… but whatever story issue I began my run with has presented some solutions.

What if I did this? What if I did that?

The same thing happens when I go for a walk.

A new perspective on a story problem.


Part of it is, I believe, a change of scenery. Just being in an environment different than plunked in front of a computer monitor can engender a new take on things.

Part of it must be about endorphins, blood circulation, oxygen intake and all the rest of what happens when we put a body into motion.

Part of it may be purely spiritual, planting ourselves in Nature, trusting that Answers will appear to our Questions, Clarity out of Chaos.

Whatever it is, while writing sprints can be hugely effective, sometimes that’s precisely what we don’t need.

Rather what we may require is to get off our asses… and engage with reality in a mobile state.

Writing sprint. Writing walk.

Both useful tools in our creative arsenal.

Writing and the Creative Life is a series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

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