Sometimes, when I’m writing, I like to step away from the computer so that I can—
No. Hold on, let me start again.
Sometimes, when I write, I find it’s important to take breaks from the screen. It’s easier on the eyes (and spine!), and feels refreshing to—
Wait, no. I don’t like that either. Let’s try this one more time.
Writing at the computer for long periods is hard on both the body and the mind. You can get stuck in a rut if you’re always writing in the same position, at the same desk, in the same room. That’s why I like to take my notebook and—
ARGH! I still don’t like anything I’m writing. What’s going on? Why can’t I write my way into this blog post the way I want to?
Maybe what I’m struggling with is that I’ve already been working on the computer for hours now. I think all those different introduction attempts—the focus on the eyes, the spine—reflect how I actually feel right now: my eyes are sore. My back hurts.
Time to bust out the notebook and try something new!
Your Notebook is a New Paradigm
In the social sciences, researchers talk about paradigms—frames through which every person develops viewpoints about the world.
The paradigm you subscribe to is going to influence the type of research you’re interested in, the way you conduct that research, the way you interpret and analyze the results and eventually form theories—everything.
Your computer is like a paradigm too. When you’re writing on the computer, you’re always in the same space: maybe it’s your desk in a home office, maybe your kitchen table. Even if you have something portable like a laptop, you probably have preferred areas to work in and might stick to two or three rooms at most.
And no matter where you are, or how many different computers and devices you own, you’re probably in more or less the same position—sitting up, elbows bent, looking at a screen.
That means you’re limited to whatever thought processes are possible for you in that room, in that position, looking at that screen. And that’s okay! Paradigms aren’t bad. In fact, the more paradigms there are out there, the more creative science (or art) can be.
But that means you don’t want to limit yourself to one tool.
If you’re working on your computer and really struggling with a certain passage or idea, then maybe what you need isn’t to abandon the project; maybe what you need is a paradigm shift.
How does that work?
Let’s say you’re working on a short story. There’s a passage near the end that you’re struggling with. You’re trying to describe the protagonist’s reaction to some bad news, and you keep falling back on tired clichés: gut-wrenching pain, tightness in the chest, eyes glistening with tears…you get the idea. Yawn.
You know this passage isn’t working. You’ve been coming back to it over and over again, for hours or even days or weeks, but you can’t seem to come up with anything fresh or original to say.
So step away from the computer! Grab your notebook and a pen or pencil and go somewhere new. Get comfortable and try to rewrite the same passage from scratch.
Don’t worry about “writing your way into it”—just start at the beginning of the troublesome passage. If the transition from the earlier content into this new, revised passage isn’t smooth, that doesn’t matter yet. You’ll fiddle with it later.
For now your focus is zeroed in on this exact passage and nothing else: you won’t be distracted by everything else on the page, or by how everything fits together.
You can write and rewrite as many different drafts of the passage as you want. Try different approaches—maybe in one draft, you focus a lot on sensory imagery, and in another, you focus more on the character’s inner monologue.
Maybe they won’t even really be drafts in the usual sense—maybe it’ll just be ideas. Stuff like this:
- [Character] was sad when she was looking at the birds earlier, maybe she can reflect on those birds here?
- How I felt when I learned that Grandpa died—that’s how the character feels here.
- Her pain is tied to her uncertainty about the future. She should be looking FORWARD, not BACKWARD.
You might not solve your problem immediately, but because you’re in a different position, using a different tool, in a different space, your mind is going to be able to make different sorts of connections than what it was capable of making at the computer.
Is this foolproof?
Um, nope. Nothing in writing is foolproof.
Just because the notebook introduces a new paradigm doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a better paradigm for what your story or poem needs.
But if you’re struggling with a piece of writing that’s only on your computer, then obviously that paradigm isn’t working for you either. You might as well give the notebook a shot; what have you got to lose?
Maybe you’ll find that out of six ideas or drafts you scrawled out, two are worth pursuing; you can try and revise two different versions of the piece and see which one is most promising. Maybe only one is worth pursuing.
Maybe none are worth pursuing, and that’s fine too. At least now you know. And maybe you’ll surprise yourself—some of those ideas could be adapted into other stories or poems, even if they didn’t work for the one that inspired them.
Even if you can’t figure it out yet, sometimes all a piece needs is time to simmer. You can take a break from it for now, work on something else, and come back to it in a week (or a month, or a year) with a fresh set of eyes.
You can review both your early computer drafts and your notebook scrawls with a healthy bit of objectivity and maybe you’ll discover some important connection or insight you were too close to see before.
I promise you: you’re a better writer than you think! Mix up your modes and switch from computer to notebook to change your thinking and try out new ideas in your writing.
#TheNotebookProject: Free Mini-Course and Writing Exercises!
Want access to more notebook writing tips and free writing exercises?
Join #TheNotebookProject and get immediate access to a free mini-course guiding you on how to set yourself up for using your notebook effectively AND a set of 4 new writing exercises for you to use in your writing notebook.
You'll receive 4 new writing exercises on the first Monday of each month, every month for 6 months. (That's 2 dozen different writing exercises in total!) It’s completely free for my email subscribers (Yay!) and you can sign up here to get access. The mini-course is live now!
And don’t forget that the last Friday of each month, I’ll be giving away some free notebooks during my regular weekly Facebook Lives. Next giveaway is tomorrow: Friday, August 27th, at 5pm Eastern—don’t miss out!