When most people think about a writer, they imagine the stereotypical picture of a person hunched over a computer or notebook, scribbling or typing furiously, surrounded by mountains of research and sticky notes.
Writers, of course, know better.
While we may be writing furiously or surrounded by notes and other research chaos, writers and authors are often working on books when no one else realizes it. In fact, what many might assume is a writer slacking off or napping could potentially be an intense period of deep thought, plotting, developing characters, and even coming up with new and original works.
If you have writer’s block or just need to step away from your desk, here are a few ways you can work on your book without actually writing.
Stare out the window.
This, unsurprisingly, is when writers and authors are deep in thought. We may appear to be looking intently out the window, perhaps at the neighbor’s dog or a particularly lovely bit of shrubbery. But in fact, we are likely mulling over or unraveling some tangled thread of thought. Warn your loved ones: if there is impatient tapping of a pen or a foot, or an intense look, do not interrupt—especially if we are looking for an exact word and we just can’t quite remember what it is. Anyone who chases us off that thread might get bitten. Proceed with caution.
Go for a walk.
A walk can help writers and authors keep their bodies moving, which is a method for some of us to get the words flowing. What looks to others like a leisurely walk can in fact be a deep brainstorming session. I once went for a one-hour walk while mulling over a book idea, poking around plot and whatnot, only to eventually arrive home thinking, Oh, where did the time go? Make sure you are aware of your surroundings, especially if you are walking anywhere near cars.
This one, at least in my experience, isn’t limited to washing dishes. This extends to most chores, and the more mundane and repetitive, the better. There’s something to the idea that keeping your hands busy leaves your brain free to focus on other things. So while friends and family simply see a writer raking leaves, there is a good chance that the writer is busy mentally editing and revising their book. Or if they’re feeling extra naughty and sneaky, they’re thinking of a new one that they’re not supposed to be working on. Whatever it is, any repetitive manual task for your hands usually leaves your brain free to wander—and it’s almost worth it to do your chores.
Take a shower.
This is a tricky one for writers. Showers can be a wonderfully relaxing experience with the heat, the steam, the water. It’s great for brainstorming. The downfall of the shower magic is that writers don’t have access to their computer or a notepad in the shower. Nope, you just stand there dripping wet and either bolt for your phone to record your notes or pray that the solution to your gnarly plot mess doesn’t go flitting out of your brain while you dry off.
Jot down notes right before you fall asleep.
There is a particularly interesting phase of sleep called the hypnagogic state. Just as we fall asleep, we may hear music or voices, see strange images or flashes of light, or feel like we’re spinning or falling.
If you’re a writer, this is sometimes a really great time to get a flash of an incredible book idea or a nifty plot twist. But if you thought holding on to your ideas in the shower was hard, try it just as you’ve drifted off to sleep.
“I’ll remember it in the morning” usually fails. And for those of us stricken by flashes of insight often enough to keep a notepad or phone by the bed for notes, we face one of two challenges: jerking ourselves awake quickly enough to still have a grasp on the idea or, if note-taking is successful, deciphering our notes the next morning. Whether it’s terrible writing-in-the-dark scrawls or simply one or two infuriatingly vague words, there’s a good chance the notes you left for yourself may never be retrievable. I once woke to find I had scribbled the word “bags” on a notepad, and it haunts me to this day.
Writers can find inspiration and time to work almost anywhere. It’s one of the many gifts of our profession.
It’s not all just scribbling or typing desperately. It’s not always poring over books and notes. Because one of the best ways for a writer to work on their book is in their head. Our brains are our best computers, our favorite offices. And for most of us, writing is the absolute best kind of work—even when we're not actually writing.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.