July 5th, 2021

Finding Your Writing Rhythm

by Karen DeBonis

For those who were born with the instinct to write, you probably figured out your writing rhythm—the ebb and flow of your writing practice, and the beat and tempo of your unique voice—early on. I wasn’t one of those kids who filled notebooks with short stories, or wrote under the covers at night by flashlight. As a teen or young adult, I never aspired to write the next great American novel or publish my prose in a magazine.

In other words, I’m not a born writer. Latecomers like me often write to the beat of someone else’s drummer until they discover their own rhythm.

Writing with a purpose

When I stepped on the writer’s path twenty years ago, it was because I had a purpose: to write a memoir about my young son’s struggle with a brain tumor. And it wasn’t even my idea—as often happens when someone experiences a life-altering experience, friends told me I “had to write my story.”

So, I began.

I wrote, took classes, read memoir, joined critique groups. It wasn’t a bad start, but I definitely took the long road to The End. This was 1999, when computers and the internet were as new and intimidating as a colicky baby.

I didn’t read writing magazines or books on craft, and I abandoned the first writing conference I attended in 2001. After only two days, I was overwhelmed with the sadness of my story.

I stopped writing. The book became a “Someday Project,” last in line behind a day job, a needy old house, and raising two sons. One of those boys was recovering from a brain tumor.

Fifteen years later, after a medical retirement, it was time to finish what I had started.

Better late than never, right?

Advice from the pros

The depth and breadth of information available to new writers is overwhelming. It’s often difficult to know where to start. Blogs like WITS, Janet Hardy’s Fiction University, Jami Gold’s and Kristen Lamb’s blogs, Elizabeth Craig’s Writer’s Knowledge Base, and Writers Helping Writers have an amazing amount of helpful information and all of them are searchable if you are looking for some specific how-to.

Take notes, bookmark pages, or print out what’s useful and put it in a notebook, but search out the tips that work best for you.

Here are the pieces of advice that many writers follow:

  • Write every day
  • Set daily and monthly word count goals
  • Participate in timed writing sessions
  • Play music before your writing session to inspire you
  • Write in a crowded coffeeshop, or outdoors, or pull the shades indoors, per Stephen King, to eliminate all distraction
  • Don’t edit as you write
  • Avoid adverbs, passive voice, unnecessary “thats,” and starting a piece with dialogue.

I tried all these tips (and failed at many). But recently, I’ve come to understand my own writing rhythms—what works and doesn’t work, what I can accept and what I can improve as I create a more harmonious life of writing.

Below are my seven – you will likely have your own.

My 7 Writing Rhythms

1. I don’t write every day.

My husband is retired, so I tell him, “I’m going to work,” when I head to the dining room, as a reminder not to read me the news headlines or his Home Depot list.

“Work” may mean writing and revising, but more often, it refers to myriad other tasks necessary in becoming a published author: reading, engaging on social media, working with critique partners, developing programs offered through my website. I usually “work” a few hours every day, but it’s not always writing.

2. My best writing happens in my head.

Creative nonfiction writers will often say they write to know what they think. I’ve experienced this, but my ah-ha moments don’t happen until my final revisions.

In the meantime, if I don’t have a good idea where I’m heading, I end up with pages and pages  of crappy writing. It doesn’t even achieve that first draft status. If I spend the time allowing story ideas to percolate in my head, there is much more clarity to those initial drafts and the work is more productive.

I’ve concluded I’m not a “pantser” or a “plotter.” Instead, I’m more of a “planner.”

3. I overthink everything.

As a memoirist, overthinking is a gift. I can unwrap deeply complex and often universal truths, as long as I have 80,000 words in which to display them. In a blog or personal essay, however, it feels like reaching into my tornado of thoughts to pull out a toothpick. I’m still learning how to be selective and brief in how deeply I dig.

4. I’m a slow writer.

In part because I overthink things,  and because I’m relatively new at my craft, it takes me f-o-r-e-v-e-r to finish a piece. I can easily take 24 hours to write a 1000-word blog, and I don’t mean it’s done in a day. I mean 24 in-my-chair hours logged over days or weeks.

Fortunately, I don’t rely on writing for income.I write mostly on spec, not on deadline, which helps my stress level enormously.

And I know speed (without sacrificing quality) is a skill I can develop.

5. Silence is my muse.

Music, coffee-house chatter, people in my vicinity, even buzzing bees outdoors are distractions. I function best indoors in as much silence as possible. But, unlike Stephen King, I need visual distractions: my lavender orchid, the tray of candles I seldom light, a view of the outdoors. Like setting a scene, I arrange the room with details that move the story forward.

6. Moving my body gets me unstuck.

When I’m searching for the perfect word, or metaphor, or physical disruption to convey confusion, I can’t sit still. I have to leave my writing table to make a cup of tea or walk around the house or sharpen pencils—anything to get my body active. While I’m moving, my mind is busy (see #2 above.)

7. I break rules

When I completely eliminate the passive voice, gerunds, and adverbs, my prose seems stilted. Editors: feel free to disagree. But I recently read this article about friendships by a literary agent I follow.

I loved it so much, I read it twice. Then I realized the author broke some rules with her very first sentence: “‘You know what really drives me crazy?’ Silvia was saying…”

Not only did she open with dialogue, but, “was saying?” Should’t that be, “said,” according to the pros? And yet, the conversational style captivated me.

It’s okay to break some rules if the writing is fresh and it feels right. Editors: feel free to cut.

The benefits of tuning in to your unique rhythm.

Tuning in to my writing rhythm has been a process of self-discovery. Owning your process, whatever it may be, is empowering.

It helped me to embrace that I am a writer who doesn’t write daily, who jumps out of her seat, who overthinks. This open-minded acceptance of my  own writing path helped clarify that all-important question: What is my book about?

It’s not about my son’s brain tumor after all, at least not entirely. It’s about me. It’s the story of my deeply ingrained need to please and the life-threatening consequences for my family. And it was the months and years of overthinking that opened the door to the real story.

What are your unique rhythms of writing? How did you discover your process? Please tell us about it in the comments!

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About Karen

Karen began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she's to save herself and her son. The manuscript is currently available for representation.

A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-nine years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey at www.KarenDeBonis.com.

23 responses to “Finding Your Writing Rhythm”

  1. Dave says:

    Thank you for this.
    You have encouraged me to write my stories in my way while learning all I can from those who have gone before.

  2. I write when my body lets me. Period. I am extraordinarily productive if I have time and the brain is on - by which I mean my whole self behaves as if 'we did this every day.' I forget the many times, days often, sometimes weeks, I lose when a medical appointment takes up my energy for the day, and the aftermath is three days of not being able to think at all. And get right to work.

    I'm not scheduling anything, and still life finds a way to intrude almost daily, and use up that little bit of energy I live with before I get to do what I want to do with it. And another day goes down the drain.

    It's not so much about me - even though one of the characters has ME/CFS as I do - as the inability to write good fiction unless I'm functional.

    I've pushed, written some stuff when I can't, followed my process to produce the little chunks of dialogue or description I'm going to need - and the results are occasionally usable, but generally not.

    I'm amazed at the spirit of hope that drives me to write when things clear up for a bit, overwhelmed by it, and delighted that I still can. And very, very grateful.

    • Alicia, I'm sorry writing is such a struggle for you. I have less serious chronic health issues, and I can relate to some days (many days) being unproductive. Have you heard of "Spoon Theory?" Spoons represent energy or functional ability. You have only so many spoons in a drawer, and when the last spoon is used for, say, showering, that's it for the day. No more spoons until tomorrow. I'm amazed, too, at your spirit of hope, your doggedness, and your respect for your limitations. Keep on being an inspiration to us all.

      • Chuckling. I've known about spoon theory since it was invented.

        If I hadn't learned long ago to pace myself, to prioritize, to drop everything else, Pride's Children would have never gotten off the ground. I started it in 2000, published PURGATORY in 2015, and am still working on NETHERWORLD.

        You learn to drop EVERYTHING you possibly can.

        You learn to follow the diet which seems least worst, regardless of what anyone else (including myriad doctors) thinks is right for you.

        You learn...

        But at the same time, you're aging...

        I have a good attitude: either I can do this, or I will die trying (and failing), and it isn't up to me - as long as I don't quit. So I don't quit.

        It helps that I love the results, and that some of my reviewers have taken my breath away.

        Dogged, stubborn, persistent, nose-on-grindstone - it focuses you and humbles you and teaches you and makes you happy. What's not to like?

      • Forgot to say: what really helps is being part of an online community of writers who all try to support each other - like you and the other bloggers.

        It's far more important (as many people found out during the pandemic's worst) when you don't get out much. It was good before the plague; I hope it continues to get better as many more people realize what 'isolation' really means.

        • I don't think you have a good attitude, Alicia. You have a GREAT attitude. Since my health landed in the toilet in 2016, I've been so grateful for the distraction of writing. Many days, it saved my sanity. I wonder if you feel the same?

          • No question about it. Even my husband can tell you that I'm a different person if I've had several days of not being physically and mentally able to write!

            I'm so sorry about your health - so very glad you have writing. It's much more than a distraction - some days that and family are the only reason to keep fighting.

            The most important thing for me is to keep a commitment to the very best writing I can do, regardless of whether it takes a long time. It isn't a choice everyone can or should make - sometimes getting something, anything, out there is very much better than being a perfectionist about it - but I want to compete with the best, on merit. Sounds grandiose, I know, but otherwise, for someone like me, why bother?

            Be clear about your goals, I say. And your obstacles.

  3. This last year has been about finding a new rhythm for my writing, after retiring. I have learned that without a set schedule, I will drift towards chores at home and not focus. My writing rhythm now is:

    1) a daily writing list of "need to get done today" with the right to carry something to tomorrow if 'life' happens

    2) remove myself from the house for a few hours to someplace to write and take headphones to drown out the ambient noise (and be out of sight of looming chores!)

    3) get in my long bike rides to allow myself time to dream- this is where all my plot ideas come from

    4) step back to see the 'big picture' of what I have accomplished and know that bite-sizes are OK.

    Thanks for the great article. It is important to know what our individual needs are as writers to support our personalities and writing rhythms.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Miffie. Good point about your rhythm changing with life circumstances. When my husband started working from home last year due to Covid, and then retired as planned in June, I was dancing to a new and not always happy rhythm! Fortunately, he loves long bike rides, like you, so that's where I get a needed break. Your rhythm sounds doable, flexible, and productive. Keep up the good work!

  4. Jenny Hansen says:

    It took me a long time to figure out my most important writing rhythm: I am a scene writer. Writing time, writing word count, basic inspiration were all the easy parts for me. I've had to learn to accept crappy first drafts, and I've had to really get strong on structure, because I couldn't finish anything until I learned to embrace my innate scene writer. I can't finish stories linearly and I beat my head against the wall for years trying to make myself write start to finish.

    Being able to commit to only short scenes keeps me in the writing flow, knowing I can stitch it all together later. Sometimes I scrap a scene, but usually it's a gift from the muse that I can add in somewhere else later on.

    • That's so interesting, Jenny. I think I have the same proclivity toward writing scene, but I never thought about it before. I'd love to know more about your process, maybe in a future WITS blog?

      • Dorothy Smith Stewart says:

        I just realized that I, too, am a scene writer. I love the idea of being able to stitch them all together later. Perhaps my writing struggles come from from trying to write linearly for all these years. Thanks for introducing me to this freeing concept.

  5. dholcomb1 says:

    I let the story evolve as I write.

    denise

  6. Many thanks, Karen, for sharing your excellent words on the pathos of the craft. Please allow me to add one thing: Every writer puts down crappy first drafts. The successful ones pore through those drafts relentlessly to mine the gold, shine it up pretty, and make the words break out in three-part harmony.

  7. goldy4348 says:

    A much needed boost by WITS strong women. I’m with Alicia, crippling PAIN and brain fogs a part of life, but the writing and producing the multiple stories that are partially finished are on the table - and the Discovery tour of the amazing life that has made me realize that stopping now isn’t a choice. I must go as far as I can to complete my works. Every day is a gift-that’s why we call it the Present.

  8. Jacquolyn McMurray says:

    Like Jenny, I think and write in scenes. It is a chunking technique that helps me think about how emotions should change over the course of a scene. I'm a slow writer, but have come to terms with my process. And I do not expect myself to write every day. I schedule time at my writing desk at the beginning of the week and track word count.

  9. […] this week, Karen DeBonis did a post here at WITS about finding your writing process. In the comments, I confessed that finding mine to a long (LONG) time. I’ve tried a gajillion […]

  10. Bridgitte Rodguez says:

    Great article! I loved how you laid out your specific writing routine/rhythms. A lot of what you do is also what I do.

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