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Back Alley Writing

By Jessica Albon


As I sat here thinking: I must write a post today. I must write a post today. I must write a post today. I realized that it’s not as simple as clicking my heels together three times. It’s also not as simple as pulling out my list of articles I want to write for you (which is a very, very long list, indeed!), nor is it as simple as turning to my own resources on Writer’s Block.

What do you do when the tricks don’t work?

Because, see, sometimes, as much as you might want to write something, all the tricks in the world won’t make the writing happen. Sometimes, as much as you really want to get something written… the writing refuses to happen.

So, today, I thought I’d share something with you that should only be used in cases of dire emergency. Seriously, before you try this technique out, promise me, you’ll only break it out when it’s absolutely necessary. You’ll think it’s a harmless trick… But the truth is, this one trick can keep you from ever finishing anything, ever again. (Because it’s so much fun, and because it makes editing a lot more work.)

I call it Back Alley Writing. This technique is all about following all those dark alleys that pop up as you’re writing. It’s a bit like making a great big bubble brainstorm, except you do it with complete sentences. And, when used in times of extreme stuckness, it can lead you on quite a writing adventure.

The rules of Back Alley Writing

Because your writing brain works better with parameters, there are rules:

  1. You must start with something “blank” (a new Word Doc, a blank sheet of paper, etc).
  2. You must write in complete sentences.
  3. You must not stop until you feel done.
  4. You must not write in complete paragraphs.
  5. You must NOT FINISH THE PIECE.

Rules 1-3 are probably self-explanatory. Basically, the goal is to write as much as you have to say on the topic, in whatever order your sentences come to you. Don’t worry about organization or making a point, just spit out every last sentence you can come up with.

Rules 4 and 5 are where the magic happens–they’re also why you won’t want to use this exercise too often (because between the two of them, they mean the articles you write using this approach will require a lot more editing than your writing usually does).

Most likely, the person who taught you to write spent time writing papers on a typewriter. Depending on your age, you may or may not have any experience with this yourself. Because I love typing on a typewriter, let me explain why this matters. When you start writing a sentence (or paragraph, or paper) without some general idea of where you’re going, and you’re typing on a typewriter, you can’t just backspace your way out of dead-end alleys. Rather, you wind up with a great big line of XXXs and you have to type the whole page over again for it to look neat and tidy. You can’t just change a sentence mid-way through it. You have to know where you’re headed before you start typing. So, as a result, most of us learned to write in a really linear fashion–begin at the beginning, and write each paragraph in turn, right up until you get to the end.

The genius of a computer, though, is that you no longer need to follow this structure. Write one sentence at a time and then rearrange to your heart’s content. Wrote a sentence that doesn’t have a place in the final piece? Let the delete key work its magic. Started a sentence and then decided there was a better way to say it? No worries–just erase the false start. It’s all as simple as the click of a few keys. So, when you pull this exercise out of your arsenal, whether you’re writing on a computer or not, treat each sentence as a separate entity, complete unto itself to be rearranged or deleted at will. Each sentence should NOT build on the one before, but rather it should just exist, complete for what it is.

Sure, every so often, you’ll be on a roll and a whole paragraph will just spurt out, fully formed. That’s okay, but try not to let it happen again. In fact, the more surgery your writing winds up needing when you’ve completed this exercise, the more points you win.

Remember: don’t write the ending!

And why don’t you get to finish the piece? Because again, writing an ending is all about the goal–creating something complete. But that’s not what you’re doing here. Rather, what you’re doing is creating a big travelogue of sentences to explore later. Plus, by not being allowed to write an ending, you know from the beginning that you’re not sitting down to write “an article” today. Since it won’t have an ending, you certainly can’t publish it today, which means you don’t need to write in complete paragraphs, either.

All too often, when we sit with the goal of Writing an Article Today, we keep that final destination at the forefront instead of keeping our attention on the individual pieces that make up the complete article. This can lead to stuckness because we wind up taking the process too seriously. By NOT completing the article, you can’t have your attention on the final destination. That might mean your writing takes you down a lot more dead-end alleys along the way and that you wind up exploring some mysterious places you otherwise wouldn’t have ventured. Also, yes, it will absolutely mean that your writing will require more editing to be ready for your readers.

But, remember, that’s the goal in all of this: exploring as many back alleys as possible. (And that’s also why you don’t want to make this approach a habit. There’s a lot to be said for being able to write a fully complete article in an hour or less, it’s a professional skill I believe *everyone* ought to have. But, it can get in the way of your brain’s writing process, and it can make you stuck.)

So, the next time you find yourself enmeshed in writing stuckness, explore the topic with some Back Alley Writing. You’ll be surprised at how much more fun you have and how many unexpected sights you see along the way.

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