sustain your writing – find a palate cleanser or ten

We all know what a palette cleanser is right? We’re academics so we must have encountered the ubiquitous sorbet either in chilly reality or on one of those food porn tele programmes :)? Or we’ve been to a wine tasting where we’ve been given bread to eat between glasses? A palette cleanser is something you eat /drink to clear the mouth of one taste and get ready for the next.

I think that there is often a need to do this kind of cleansing when you are writing continually, moving through one big text, or from piece to piece. It’s very easy to feel a bit bored or stale and get turned off the writing process. I think it’s as important to refresh the writing palate as it is to have a routine, and to find ways to motivate/bribe yourself.

I’m not talking about having a break here, or doing some gardening or housework, or going to the gym. I’m talking about finding ways to revitalise the thinking process and to find new intellectual energy for the next or ongoing task. It’s a kind of different mental space.

Everyone will find their own way of doing this, but I thought I’d share ten mind-cleansing activities that I use.

(1) Take a break for a couple of days. Go somewhere interesting. Get out and do stuff in the interesting place. Take a notebook but don’t plan to use it unless it is to jot down an idea that has come to you apparently from nowhere. Do no sustained writing.

(2) Go to a gallery. Think about the ideas that the artists are working with and on. Go on a tour of an exhibition. Go to the bookshop and scan the sections that you would normally leave alone.

(3) Read something academic but right out of your area. I always have a few books that are apparently nothing to do with what I’m currently doing. Right now for example I’m dipping in and out of George Mackay’s book on radical gardening.

(4) Read something that is related to your interests but of no immediate ‘use’ – I’ve also got Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias on the go.

(5) Or take four days out and read a serious piece of theory that you’ve been meaning to get to grips with but haven’t. You know that one you’ve been winging your way on so far but have been scared you’ll be found out about. Or the one everyone seems to be talking about, or ignoring, or have forgotten. Do no writing during this time. Just read…. slowly.

(6) Go to a literary festival. Watch writers on television and listen to them on the radio. Hear other writers talk about what they do and how they do it. Be amused. Be read to. Listen to the multiple ways in which language is used.

(7) Download some of those talk programmes that are on when you are working and listen to them in the car. Unlike television, good spoken word programmes are available via international podcasts. Explore other countries’ public intellectuals and public engagement approaches.

(8) Make time to meet up with people outside your discipline. Ask them about their work. Find out what they are reading and writing. You can even do this over lunch and dinner or go to the movies or the theatre with them.

(9) Take one of the ideas that you are currently working with and try to explore it through another medium – use images, sounds, movement – to investigate what it is like to think through another language. Try writing a synopsis for a fictional piece that would tackle your current academic project. Write a haiku about the point you most want to make.

(10) Do the writing equivalent of doodling. Keep a notebook or folder on your desktop or ipad for ideas. Spend some time just fantasizing about what you could write, rather than what you have to. Make a list of potential titles and killer opening sentences. (It’s surprising how often these come back and get used!)

So there’s my ten writing refreshers. I want to stress that these are not time wasters and not time out. They aren’t the same as having a break. These are activities which are designed to stimulate the mind, a kind of mini-retreat.

What can you add to this list?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, books, mental space, palette cleanser, reading, reflection, reward, theory and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to sustain your writing – find a palate cleanser or ten

  1. expatlogue says:

    Thank you! Some really great ideas here. I’m bookmarking this page for quick reference 🙂


  2. Simon McGrath says:

    Thanks, Pat, some nice ideas here. I read the Mackay book, but it took me two summers. A reflection on me, not him.


  3. Elodie says:

    Thanks Pat. It is nice to see that someone else is doing the same thing. I read novels to take a beak from scholarly reading. Also, I like to read quotes to get motivated ( on my writing and reflect on what I do.


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