One of my current research projects looks at the ways in which young people value the experience of live art. We have worked with a choreographer in an intensive four day workshop and we have just moved onto some serious participatory film editing. The experience of the dance workshops sparked off an idea about writing.
One of the characteristics of dance, at any level, is the warm-up. This is not simply about getting muscles ready to work hard, making sure that they are limber and not at risk of being damaged by suddenly having to change from being still to working intensively. The warm-up is also about tuning and turning the mind – getting in touch and working in synch with the body. It is about focusing in and focusing on the body and the way in which it responds.
Other art forms have warm-ups too. Think of the way in which singers go through a particular vocal routine that exercises the full range of the voice. Consider how actors in ensembles typically do group exercises before embarking on improvisation or interpretation of scripted material. Life drawing classes too often start with rapid sketches that help people get their ‘eye-hand’ working.
So I’ve been wondering about why it is I don’t think more often about writing warm-ups. There’s certainly a need to get the brain going when you approach a writing task. Perhaps you have to remember what you did yesterday, and you often have to think about what you are going to write today. Even if you have a plan, or some kind of Tiny Text to guide you, there still seems to be some benefit in a warm-up activity.
Now of course, like most of my thoughts, the idea of a writing warm-up is hardly a new idea. There are stacks of exercises on various websites for school teachers to use with their writing classes, for creative writers to use, and even for bloggers. Try googling writing warm-up and see the load of stuff that’s out there. However, none of these seem particularly suited to academic writing, and they are especially unsuitable for those people who already know what they are writing about and just need to focus in and focus on the writing for a period of time.
I’m sure that speed-writing, perhaps using a pomodoro, might serve as a writing warm-up for some people. It’s certainly what you see advocated as a kind of universal panacea for all manner of academic writing issues, but it really isn’t suitable for everything. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for academic writers and academic writing tasks. But I have heard of people writing about their current state of mind and/or things that they are thinking about for ten or so minutes before they begin to write, just as a way of clearing their mind. And it’s not uncommon for people who run journal writing workshops to begin by asking people to write about the five topics that they think are possible journal articles and why, and then go from there.
But I’m thinking that what also might work as a warm-up – and I’m thinking of myself here as well as you – is a preparatory note–making activity. This might be specifically focused on the question of ‘what I have to write today’ or ‘what I wrote about yesterday’. I realise as I am writing this, that I do actually do this most of the time when I sit down at the computer. I often begin by writing in longhand on a note-pad which I keep next to the computer… I write a list of the things that I have to get done. I then move to the computer, and if I am writing a paper, or a chunk of something, I try to type up some specific bullet points of the various things that I have to include. At other times I begin by entering some references into Endnote and this gets my head into the content and the various arguments that I have to contend with as I go about writing that day.
But I’m sure that there are more ways to warm up your writing than this. What are your favorite ways to start off a serious writing session? What’s your equivalent to the dancers’ warm-up, the focus in and focus on?
Very interesting post! In my opinion warm up writing has to do a lot with the experience on writing. I am doing my PhD and sometimes I believe that all this procedure is nothing than a writing warm up. In particular, I start warning up by writing without thinking about an issue until arguments and possible ways to articulate them appeared. I also have to admit that warm-up is far more joyful than “serious” writing.
I’m trying to write my PhD thesis and think about it all the time, planning what to write and how to approach the next bit. I’ve eventually worked out that I know best what I’m thinking by talking about it. My most effective writing warm-ups involve me sitting on the couch alone in my study talking to myself about the day’s plans, asking questions about the ideas and coming up with answers. This is turning out to be a very time-efficient way to clarify my thinking and start writing. I wish I’d worked it out years ago.
I collect readings about topics that I am interested in. I will often start a writing session by reading. This helps me get in the zone and starts a process of responding to what I have read.
I find that all my thoughts remain nothing but ‘moving targets’ until I write them down. I need to write in order ‘to write’, in order to fix a firm referent on the page from which and around which the rest of the writing develops. In this sense, I am grateful to the computer’s delete key because it affords thinking by trial an error. So the ‘writing’ itself is part of the warm up phase, for me.
I wonder if it’s worth following the dance warm up analogy further: dancers would have a different warm up before daily class as they would before performance. If your performance is your thesis or current paper – do you need a daily class too?
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