How a kitchen timer can be a writer’s best friend

If timing yourself can help bolster your confidence and spur yourself to become more prolific, why not give it a shot?

When runner Roger Bannister (now Sir Roger Bannister) propelled his body across an Oxford track finish line on a blustery day in May 1954, he was reasonably confident he had achieved a four-minute mile.

The rest of the universe, however, was stunned. The world record (until then, 4:01.4) had stood for nine years, and sportswriters of the day had created an enormous mystique around the four-minute mark. They convinced a willing-to-believe public that it was an unreachable, unrealistic, and possibly even dangerous goal.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Well, the Bannister story sprang to my mind recently as I was coaching a client who was thoroughly convinced that she could not write quickly. She’s not alone in her passionately held belief.

Just as people in the 1950s had convinced themselves that a mile could not be run in four minutes, many of us have convinced ourselves that we cannot write quickly. (To put a number to it, let’s say that’s something like 500 words in 30 minutes.)

Of course, I’ve had the bad writing days, too—days when 500 words in five hours would have seemed like an achievement. You cannot write quickly when you’re exhausted or dispirited or when you don’t have a clue about what you want to say. But if you have a topic you’re reasonably keen on and knowledgeable about, there’s no good reason why the words can’t fly off your fingers, why you can’t write as fast as you can type.

One of the biggest barriers is belief.

Perhaps you don’t believe writing should be easy. Maybe you assume that “it can’t be any good” if it comes too quickly.

To the contrary, I have often found that my fast, dash-it-off writing is often better and more engaging than my slow and heavily labored over text. To encourage more of the former and discourage the latter, I now regularly time myself when I write. A kitchen timer is perfect for this purpose.

Even more important, I keep a record. This is really easy to do. You can just create a table in Word. (From the drop-down menu select table/insert/table. Set up four columns and name them: date, number of words, amount of time, and “how I felt.”)

Fill out this record for a month, and you will soon see that on some days you can write like you’re on fire and on other days it will be like trying to start your car in Anchorage in mid-February.

The benefit of keeping this record is that you will chart your progress—much as a runner might record his times. In doing so, you will also likely discover that, from time to time, you can write quickly. You’ll also discover that the world doesn’t end when you have a bad day (or even a bad week).

To that point, Bannister never won an Olympic medal. He finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the 1952 Olympics. And he says he might never have broken four minutes if not for his disappointing performance at that event.

“A bit of experience with reverses shows you that you can recover from them,” he said.

Wise words from someone who really understood speed.

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