Pretend Someone is Watching–and Other Tips to Help Your Writing

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that compared the discipline of running to the discipline of writing. That struck a nerve with some readers who have never even put on a pair of running shoes. I am following up this week with three more crucial disciplines from running that help me as a writer. Unless I follow these habits in both running and writing, I can’t get anything done.

1. Take It In Segments.

When I start my morning run, I can’t bear the thought of all that territory that lies ahead.  I follow a regular route that winds along some horse trails and streets through parks and neighborhoods near my house. However, when I’m out there, I don’t think of myself as running one long route. That would feel too overwhelming.

Instead, I run a series of segments. First there is the warm-up walk from my house to a certain driveway one street over. Then comes the segment that takes me to the end of my neighborhood. Then there is my run through the park. And so on. I can do those little segments. Each one by itself feels manageable. If I think about how far it is to the end of the run, I might be tempted to quit. I run one part, then another, and then another. Eventually, I reach the finish line.

When I’m writing, I follow a similar discipline. I don’t sit down and think of myself as writing a book. That’s too daunting. I don’t even think of writing a chapter. Instead, I think of one small part—maybe a paragraph, or scene, or anecdote—that I know I can do. I work on that. Once I finish it, I work on the next bit. Momentum builds, and so does my confidence. Before long, the ideas flow freely.

2. Pretend Someone is Watching.

This one may sound a little weird, but have you ever watched a group of kids around the neighborhood playing basketball or some other sport, and one of them is announcing every move like a TV sports announcer? Do you ever hear that announcer in your head when you’re playing sports yourself? Sometimes when I’m running, especially on days when my motivation is lacking, I pretend this is more than just some regular daily run. Instead, it’s a momentous race, and everything—say, the fate of the world, or my country—hinges on my reaching the finish line. People on all sides are cheering me on. I barely have room to run. They’re all watching. I’d better not screw this up.

With writing, I also sometimes envision an audience. Some writers I know think of specific people they are writing to. I have done that, but often I write to an idealized audience. It’s the type of reader who is leaning toward me, listening with anticipation, ready to engage my ideas. I don’t want to let that reader down. I want to hold up my end of the conversation.

Writing can be a lonely task, with just me and the computer in a quiet room. Imagining an audience reminds me that if I do this right, that pretend audience might become real if I stick to my work and get the words down on the page.

3. Get So Lost in the Work that Time Slips Away.

When I’m running, the worst thing for me to think about is the running itself. If I’m thinking about my breathing, or my feet, or my movement, that over-awareness makes the run seem much longer. The best runs are the ones in which my mind is thinking about everything except running. As I daydream or plan, the time slips by, and once I break out of that deep concentration, I might be surprised to realize that the run is half over. I may not remember much about the last mile, but I ran it anyway. The work is done.

With writing, the key is not to focus on fretful thoughts such as, “Oh, I should be writing. WIll I be able to do the writing? I am worried about the writing.” Instead, I need to let myself get close to my ideas. Let the images and language lure me in. Shut out all distractions and let my mind get absorbed in the world of the writing project. When I create conditions that help me get lost in the work, I look up an hour later to realize the paragraphs that had seemed so daunting are now on the page, and I am ready for more. That won’t happen if I’m checking Facebook every ten minutes, or writing emails, or answering text messages. I need to be surrounded only by the words. The computer. The books and other materials I need for research. A calm and energetic mind. A determination to sit there until the words begin to flow.

I wish you well as you run the race of writing.


6 thoughts on “Pretend Someone is Watching–and Other Tips to Help Your Writing

  1. This is a very helpful post. I benefit from thinking in terms of smaller tasks for my writing, and this helps a great deal. In terms of the loneliness of writing, I seem to remember Garrison Keillor writing once that when he sat down to write, he imagined being a radio announcer with a spotlight on him and a vast audience waiting for his words (something like that). Of course, that would work for the voice of “Prairie Home Companion.” Thanks for this insight.

  2. Thanks, Tom. I like Garrison Keillor’s idea. I do think it helps to envision an audience, even if you do it in the grandiose way that he does. Otherwise it’s easy to feel that you’re only writing for yourself, and it’s hard to stay motivated for that.

  3. Once again, spot on. When I’m running I like it not because of the actual running but because I can get lost and think of everything and nothing. Writing can be such a similar medium. Though an audience would make me a little stressed I think imaging the journey to be more then just a morning run is a fun experience. I often think of how natural it is to run, how every human has ran down a trail alone and felt as though they were home. Writing is the same. If I can get past the fact that I am working I can love what I am doing. I have to convince myself that this is wonderful and not a task. Lastly, segments are crucial for me. If I think about how much writing I have or how far I want to run I don’t go or start. Its like constantly checking the time when you are on a long road trip. You just curse how long it is taking rather then being in the present time experiencing the scenery. In the case of writing I can’t think about the standards a professor has. Editing can’t be apart of my initial writing. I have to just go. I don’t put page numbers or double space my papers until the end so that the paper is more of a natural progression then me stretching a topic to a certain length. I agreed with this whole entry. I totally connected to the idea of running and writing.

  4. These are great thought! I really like the comparison of running and writing.

    My mom is an avid runner, but I’ve never quite taken to the sport as much as her. In fact, being a soccer player, I’ll admit I’ve though of running “your sport is a warmup in my sport.” I realize, now, that it is also a punishment, so I guess the joke’s on me!

    I really resonated especially with your discussion of the temporal aspect to running and writing. The hardest part of running for me has always been the realization of what I am doing as I run—the painful awareness of each step. When I am able to ignore my body and think or focus on other things, then I have my best experiences running (or in any sport, really). The same goes for writing. The best things I’ve found to work for myself include a willingness to ‘just do something’ (i.e., just start writing/running) or really engage with the task so as to distract myself. It’s funny, really; usually we don’t try to distract ourselves by focusing more….

    Great post! Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  5. Dr. Bentz,

    These are very helpful tips to improve my writing. I have never been a particularly strong writer and I am always open for tips on how I can improve. I can completely relate to your tip ” Get So Lost in the Work that Time Slips Away” as this has happened numerous times, especially while writing responses or reflection papers. I will be writing and get so into my topic and put so much emotion in it that I forget what time it is and how many pages my essay is. I believe that it is at that time where ones writing is the best. It is almost impossible to get into this frame of mind for every essay (for me at least) but being passionate about what I write certainly helps. Thank you Dr. Bentz for a great semester in Lit!

  6. I find the second point of pretending someone is watching helpful for finding the motivation to start writing. If I pretend like someone is eagerly waiting to read my work and I don’t want to let them down, it is easier to begin. When I’m actually writing, however, I have the opposite problem. I need to forget that anyone else is going to read what I write. Otherwise, I become way too perfectionistic about everything I jot down. Unfortunately, I am one of those people who edits as she writes, so writing papers always takes me way too long. I suppose that is where point three comes in: relaxing and letting myself slip away into the recesses of my mind (even if it is a little scary in there) so I can write without worrying about the process. That truly is when I produce the best work. Thanks for this post!

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