Phoning It In: Finding Time to Write in Unexpected Places

By Priya Chand

Editorial note: This piece is the first in an occasional series titled “Writing By Other Means”, in which authors share personal experiences and industry intel around different production contexts and writing tools. Contributions will be published as often as distinct perspectives emerge.

 

This piece was drafted in pieces, first on a crowded train, and then in a fairly popular café.

Five-odd years ago, my first draft setup looked like this: laptop, desk or armchair, total silence, and a minimum of two hours to focus on what I was doing.

So how did I get here?

Truthfully, I still draft better in quiet settings with lots of downtime, and it’s 100 percent how I still edit. But, as I’ve moved into a full-time desk job, picked up healthier interests to balance it out, and reloaded my travel and social calendar over the past couple of years, the choice hasn’t been between writing uncomfortably versus comfortably, it’s been between uncomfortably or not at all. So, in order to keep up with writing, I’ve had to adapt.

These are the lessons I’ve learned while snatching time to sneak in words on my phone wherever it’s safe to do so: at a doctor’s office, on a train, in line at the grocery store….

The biggest adaptation I’ve had to make is the loss of a quiet place to sit and think as I draft. Literally as I was typing (or rather swiping) this, the train conductor was explaining that kids under 11 ride free, the guys behind me were conversing, so on, and so forth.

I’m not the best at filtering noise—I can’t even write to music—so what I’ve had to do is have a very clear sense of the direction I want to go in before I draft. When I know I’ll have time to write on my phone, I start planning out what that will look like: first the overall shape of the thing, and then as the time gets close, composing sentences in my head. There’s no guarantee how much time will actually be available for writing, so I need to be able to jump in and get going—I won’t have time to figure out which direction to go, let alone big picture plotting. I’ve actually found this has overall improved my efficiency—not that I was ever a huge planner, even for longform work, but having that clear mental picture of what I want to do has eliminated a lot of staring-at-blank-page time.

The other big change I’ve had to make is embracing the shitty first draft. This works for me better anyway, but I had to learn, and especially adapt, to the implications.

For one, my sentences are ramblier, reusing words or repeating ideas (the original draft of this one had both “repetitive” and “repeating” in it). Granted, that’s a pretty easy fix. The bigger challenge is to overall cohesion. Quickly starting/stopping in distracting settings, without the time to reread prior segments and think through how the next piece should fit back in, means discontinuity in voice and overall cohesion. But I’ve found getting the relevant words on the page to be more valuable, so I’ll take the editing tradeoff, especially since it’s easy to look for these things when I’m aware of them. I even sometimes remember mid-writing stream, so I’ll toss all-caps notes into the text I’m working on.

You may wonder here: why not just edit the thing if I know what’s wrong?

Phone manufacturers, alas, did not design their devices for easy editing. Yes, I could grab the right selections, cut/paste, rewrite, insert, reorder—but given how much of this is about efficiency, I want to stay in that writing flow, and especially with that limited screen, it’s simply more efficient to wait until I’m back on a computer. I even leave in some autocorrect errors, as long as I know they’ll not be super confusing later. I’m going to go over every word later anyway, and I type faster on a keyboard.

On that note, I’ve also found it beneficial to switch media between drafting and editing. I think it’s analogous, though not identical, to what happens when you print things out: shifting the setting makes the issues stand out more clearly. And, since I’m now in the habit of mentally turning over stories even when I’m not in front of a word processor, I’m also better prepared to edit later.

It probably goes without saying, but I recommend using a text editor that saves to the cloud, in a fairly universal format (staring at you, Apple Pages). I do sometimes still draft on my computer, these days almost exclusively on Notepad++ (if it’s something with chapters, I just save each one as its own file, and plop into Scrivener when I’m ready to edit).

I won’t get into detail here, but as with all things, consider your health: take frequent breaks, adjust to a comfortable position, etc. I use a swipe keyboard because it’s less stressful on my fingers, although it does require being a good speller.

Fundamentally, writing on my phone has required me to adapt to suboptimal conditions. Stories end up compressed when I’m too distracted to hone in on details, or repetitive, as I think of better ways to communicate something, and put those down, so I can delete the extra later. But between working a desk job, being out a lot, and having an increasingly creaky body, it’s not realistic for me to expect I’ll have as much, if any, drafting time at home. I need to save that precious computer time for editing.

A process that works great at home may not be enough to compensate for the challenges of phone-based writing. I’ve trained myself to have a clear plan of what’s coming in my head, be prepared with what I want to write before committing to virtual paper, and accept that aspects of my drafting process will simply be different. But, always, that’s better than not writing at all.


Priya ChandPriya Chand majored in neuroscience and minored in art. She uses the latter at her day job in analytics and the former to write science fiction. She has work published in Clarkesworld and Analog, among others, and previously edited nonfiction for Reckoning 7. Find her online at priyachandwrites.wordpress.com.