• Rowan Fortune

Adding Variables to Writing

On overcoming writing procrastination.


The alleged problem of writer’s block is, in truth, often one of various different and deeper issues. Most often, in my experience (both personal and talking to others) it is, when you root down far enough, a problem of confidence and tedium. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, the introduction of external variables that are not completely under your control are a good answer to both problems. The introduction of such elements overcome issues of tedium most obviously, by starting you off on a subject in a way that can surprise you. But these variables can also help you to build confidence in your writing, because they make creative demands and challenges that in the engaging and overcoming prove and improve your existing skills.


When you get writing with any enthusiasm, tedium is rarely an issue because the writing process itself tends to assume its own momentum through imaginative associations. A good story or argument can often surprise an author in the midst of composition because their authorial input produces in lockstep with the internal rhythms and parameters of the body of writing. For example, in following a character through their narrative, their motives, quirks, loyalties, vices and virtues will open up some possibilities and close down others. There will always be a huge degree of authorial agency in every choice, but those choices operate—when the story has merit—within the greater bounds of the total work.


That is not to argue that all works have to correspond to any tired set of predictable conventions, just that the elements must cohere. Arguments can be shockingly novel, just as novels are expected to be, but if the elements do not assort into a work where each aspect serves the works larger unity, then it will likely not only feel dissatisfying, but pointlessly disjointed. This is no limitation; it is in seeking that sense of an overall unity, as in the bounds of following a character through a story you are writing, that a story can surprise the storyteller, insisting on directions they do not expect. That is why, although there is no issue with planning a story, sticking to a plan against the story’s own insistence can often produce an inferior aesthetic result, and one that is less motivating to write. The same can be said, again, of composing an argument.

So what are the different types of ‘external variables that are not completely under your control’ that can be introduced to a creative project like a philosophical argument or long narrative fiction? There are too many to list, but taken in types I will mention five, each of which functions very differently, and of which perhaps only some will be of use to you. (That is, will fit your approach to writing.) Some of these might be already known to you, and readily form a critical part of your process.


I begin with journaling because I would immediately recommend (with my biases being quite obvious) my mum’s creative writing book Writing Down Deep: an Alchemy of the Writing Life. This in fact contains elaborations of suggestions from later on in this list, but most centrally concentrates on the journal as a writer’s tool of reflection, material gathering and practical experimentation. The Russian writer Andrey Platonov’s ideas about a writing notebook in which to gather thoughts on Work, Love, Everyday Life, Personality traits, Discussions with oneself, Unexpected thoughts and findings, Random and special observations is a wonderful example of material gathering, and a subject on which I have written about before.


Collaboration is another subject on which I have previously written. However, there I was talking mostly about formal creative collaborations, in which you work directly with someone (or multiple someones) in the creation of a work. Right now I am more interested in just collaborating with people in the thinking through of ideas, whether on how to advance a story or make an argument more robust. The point is not to uncritically absorb others’ ideas, but use dialogue to generate solutions that you would not have otherwise. This seems obvious, but it is surprising how many will work (sometimes even in frustration) without recourse to the remarkably generative potentials of exchanging thoughts, hashing them out even, if affably, combatively. It is certainly not an approach for everyone, but especially with theory I realise it is the best way to make a stronger and more persuasive point.


Randomisers is the most variable of these categories. (And something else featured quite prominently in Writing Down Deep.) Indeed, randomisers can be almost anything that leaves some aspect of a work, or some potential influence, point of departure or inspiration, the result of chance. Die, cards, coins, computers are pretty obvious. Prompts can be found on cards of various types, from the archetypes of tarot to Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s one hundred worthwhile dilemmas, Oblique Strategies. A dice roll can be used to decide the weather or location of a scene, as can a coin toss. And random name, place, etc. generators are available online, even if they are not used to decide (but just prompt) these elements of a story.


Ambience encompasses all of those background details to the writing act itself. Ambience is unavoidable; sometimes it is forgotten that the writing process is necessarily an embodied process. It is produced by bodies in the world, in certain environments. The conscious consideration of ambience can be greatly beneficial, since it allows experimentation and a greater certainty not only of what specifically works, but what sets of things work. Perhaps the same ambience is not suited to every piece, or even every mood.


While there are certainly some who can in no situation tolerate music or any great amount of noise set against writing, for many it can be a matter of fine-tuning what music aids a composition. Something I discovered particularly with the use of music is that it can have dramatic consequences for the mood rendered on the page, and therefore the haphazard switching of it when writing a single scene or story can have dissonant consequences. But music is not the only aspect of ambience. Perhaps clutter aids your ability to create a story, or hinders it. Lighting can be another factor, and not just in intensity but direction and naturalness (opening up questions of when you write). And in terms of placement, public and private settings for writing can be tried, and if public, outdoor and indoor options tested.


The final variable I will mention is rituals, but this can be further subdivided between those rituals of your everyday life that are necessary to you being able to write with any calm certainty, and those rituals you might practice specific to the writing act. Montaigne was known to ritualise his reading process, doing so in a special place with certain fine clothes and no interruptions. That is an extreme example of a reading ritual, and by no means can be easily reproduced for writing (or even necessarily always be of benefit to reproduce), but the idea of having a certain ritual, be it taking a walk before a daily session or preparing a particular hot drink, has plenty of merit.

The point of this essay is not to prescribe. If anything, I hope I have intimated that the range of approaches to overcoming difficulty writing are vast, and that no one approach is universally suitable. The most important thing is to experiment, but to look beyond just your own disposition and inclination. That cannot change except through engaging, somehow, the world about you, and the you that is in the world in the shape of your aforementioned embodiedness. Such external factors, whether as journals, interpersonal collaborations or the introduction of randomising devices, rethinking ambience and adding or subtracting rituals, will give your work something to respond to creatively, potentially increasing your confidence and interest in writing.


Procrastination is usually a symptom that something is awry, and it is that, not the procrastination, that needs to be identified and changed. Adding and changing the variables involved in writing is the best means by which to so identify the source of the symptom.

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