Unstuck: The Magic of the Timed Writing

by Elizabeth Cummins Muñoz, PWC Lecturer


Alright, here we go. Six minutes, the magic number. Five is so… rounded out, so limiting. Six pushes you, just a little bit. After you push through five and make it to the end of six, it feels like nothing just to keep going. Finish that sentence. Capture that image. You know the one, the one with all the ideas that have been rolling around looking for a way to relate to each other. Some sort of logic, maybe? That’s right. Just keep writing. Whatever you do, don’t pick up that pen

Timed writing has as many uses as it does formats—from pre-writing, to brainstorming, to stream-of-conscious rambling, the kind without punctuation. It can be therapy or play or a path to discipline, a way to think things through or a reminder to sit your butt in that chair and get down to work. When you’ve been hemming and hawing about getting to work, when you’ve gone through all the snacks and checked your social media ad nauseam, watching the clock tick away, you inevitably come to the realization that it’s time to write your paper. You’ve been here before. You know you can’t get around it. You must start writing. But, how to begin?

Enter your communication tip of the day: using the timed writing session to get started and to get ahead.

What it is.

By “timed writing” (not to be confused with the dreaded “timed essay” of standardized testing fame) I’m referring to the practice of pulling out a timer and making the conscious decision to write without stopping—without staring out the window or inspecting your cuticles or checking your emails or messaging your annoying but loveable friend—until the buzzer sounds. Just write and don’t stop. I’ve found this method useful in two contexts.

#1 Freewriting to Get Going

If you’ve been staring at a blank page for a while (or if you can’t bear even to look at the page) consider making a deal with yourself: You’re going to set your timer for ten minutes and write anything and everything that comes to mind, about anything. (Come on, it’s just ten little minutes. You can do that, can’t you?). This kind of exercise works a particular sort of magic, because when you engage in this no-pressure, no-commitment writing act, you’re effectively jumping into the deep end. After ten minutes, you’re already swimming, so you may as well stay in. More importantly, you’re no longer experiencing the anxiety of “beginning.” You may even be surprised to find yourself writing about your essay topic. After all, it has been on your mind.

#2 Timed Writing to Get Ahead

Sometimes getting started can only get you so far. For more substantial writing projects, I find my writing efficiency skyrockets when I use regular, disciplined, timed writing sessions to advance. The key to making this strategy work is planning: you know how long you have to until your deadline and you pace your writing sessions out in regular intervals accordingly. This is not the time to conduct research or reorganize your outline or play with endnote citation formats in your word processor. Your job is to set the timer and write, no matter what, until it goes off. Editing can come later. I find it helpful to begin with thirty-minute writing sessions and gradually increase that time to no more than ninety minutes. As long as you write when you say you will and write until the timer goes off, you can play with the duration and the frequency to make the strategy work for you.

The beauty of this technique is the motivating power of a complete draft. Doesn’t finishing a paper make you feel just a little bit like a superhero?

Why it works.

In A Writer’s Time, Kenneth Atchity suggests that the creative parts of our brains, which he calls the “islands” of creativity, are managed by a more rational part of the mind, “the continent of reason.” Our job as writers is to negotiate with the rational continent to let the creative islands rule for a certain period of time. According to Atchity, this is “island time,” and it is the stuff of creativity. Peter Elbow follows a similar logic in an essay on “Freewriting” from Writing Without Teachers. Elbow suggests that an absolutely free timed writing session—ten minutes or more writing about anything at all that comes to mind—allows us to side-step the little editor inside of us and get to our unique voice, “the true source of power in your writing.” When we embark on a freewriting session with our topic in mind, that unedited voice begins to flirt with the subject matter, playing freely with related concepts as they come and go. In the absence of a rational editor, we allow our best ideas to surface. “Make some words,” Elbow urges, “whatever they are, and then grab hold of that line and reel in as hard as you can. Afterwards, you can throw away lousy beginnings and make new ones. This is the quickest way to get into good writing.”

I’m telling you, this timed writing thing works like magic. After all, how do you think I came up with this blog post?

Elizabeth Cummins Muñoz received her PhD in Latin American and US Hispanic Literature from the University of Houston. She has been teaching language and literature for close to two decades at the university and secondary levels, including six years at Rice in the Spanish language program. In addition to published translations and creative fiction, Cummins Muñoz’s scholarly research and publications explore the historical fiction of Greater Mexico and, more recently, negotiations of mothering identities among Hispanic immigrant nannies.