Featured writing tip

Photo by Project Manhattan
Photo by Project Manhattan

Priming the Pump

Julia Cameron’s morning page discipline is rightly famous; it has helped writers and people in other creative fields for thirty years. But when I experimented with morning pages, I didn’t achieve what I had hoped for.

What I wanted was some regular discipline that would do more than help me be creative in a general sense—which is what  Cameron’s morning pages are designed to do.

I also wanted something more than a technique to merely get me started, to get me past that brain-petrifying paralysis that afflicts many of us when we first sit down and try to begin a work session. Giving one a “jump start” like this is what Natalie Goldberg’s freewriting exercise is designed to do.

No, I wanted a more laser-like focus on productivity: on having something useable and at least halfway decent to show for my sweat and tears at the end of the day.

And I did come up with something—although I can’t claim that it is original or unique. Other writers and teachers before me have devised a modification of freewriting that gives it more structure by targeting a specific topic or goal for each session.

Once you do that, however, can you call it freewriting anymore? So I’m not naming my “method” that, if you can dignify what I’m doing with that formal a designation. I call it “Priming the Pump.” It’s simple, but since I’ve started using it, it’s accomplished just what I hoped it would—it has helped me produce something tangible at the end of each work day, something that moves my work forward in a measurable and substantive way. I’m quietly ecstatic about the results so far.

This method requires that you have a writing project already underway. This is not a brainstorming technique, though I suppose you could use it for that as well. There are five steps to Priming the Pump.

  1. Do a Preliminary Review of a work in progress
  2. Write down a Question of the Day
  3. Spend either a period of time [ten to fifteen minutes?] or a number of words [100 to 700?] sketching out Starting Notes about the question
  4. Seamlessly Shift into Writing actual sentences, paragraphs, and [hopefully] pages
  5. Do a Summary Review of work done. At the end of the session, write down the answer to the initial question, to see what tangible progress you’ve made

I’ve used it this week to help me claw my way out of the uncharted wasteland in the middle of a middle grade novel. I had lots of plot ideas swirling around my head, but they were confusing and contradictory and unclear. After being stalled for ages after writing the first ten chapters, I needed to blast away the fog by figuring out precisely what happens in the remaining chapters of the book. Yes, this means a dreaded outline, which I don’t always use but which I have come to think I desperately need on this particular book.

Photo by Yann Richard (Ze)

Photo by Yann Richard (Ze)


The first thing I did was briefly glance over what I had already written of the book, and the notes I’d made for what was to come: Step 1, the Preliminary Review.

From that a clear Question of the Day arose, almost asking itself: Step 2. I wrote it down on a sticky note [an electronic one] and left it floating on the screen of my laptop where it would always be visible. You could do the same thing by using a paper Post-It note, an index card, or by simply jotting down the question at the top of the page on which you’re about to write.

Photo by Jaypee

It’s important to be as specific as you can when framing your question, because that specificity will help steer you in a fruitful direction. If you simply ask yourself, “What happens next?” your mind seem even emptier of words and ideas than before. But if you ask, “What happens after the Hero finds the treasure map but before he meets the nefarious guide?” you will have a much better chance of finding the answer during your daily writing session.

I think it is also important to write down the question in twenty-words or less, and to keep it somewhere that is always visible during your writing session. Then if you start to feel lost again, you have only to glance up to find your writing “compass” right there to steer you back onto the path.  

In Step 3, I don’t think it matters whether you have a time goal for your Starting Notes, or a word goal. Do whatever works best for you. I can dash off 700 words in about 15 minutes, if I’m writing on my Macbook Air or iPad, so 700 words was the goal I set for myself.

But in practice, I found I got so quickly immersed in puzzling out the answer to my question that the goal disappeared. I would look up an hour or so later and realize I had burned up those 700 words a long time ago, and was already well into Step 4: Shift into Writing.

Work as long as you can—whether that means as long as you continue to produce useful work; as long as your poor stiff joints hold out; or as long as your dog, cat, family, or boss at your day job will let you.

I do think it’s important to know when to stop. This is going to vary with every person; we all seem to have only so many hours of good writing in us each day before the juices stop flowing. Pull the plug when you realize that are doing more harm than good by continuing to write: either producing drivel, haring off on a wild detour, or bogging down in a quagmire of confusion or needless complexity.

But before you leap up from your desk and race off to celebrate with a glass of wine, don’t forget Step 5: the Summary Review. Briefly read back over what you’ve written during the session, and write down the answer to your question of the day. Don’t skip this step, as I’ve found it helps keep you on target—and often leads to the question you’ll work on the next day. This week while I was experimenting with it, the next day’s question often arose spontaneously while I was writing, which was an unexpected gift.

Writing down the answer to your daily question also keeps your mind working. Even while you are going about the non-literary part of your life—wiping your kids’ noses, doing the taxes, vacuuming the carpet—your writer’s brain is hard at work at a subconscious level, wrestling with a thorny problem although you’re not actively thinking about it. And that will make it all the easier for you to not only get started the next time you sit down to write, but to make actual headway on whatever it is you’re writing.

That’s the crux of this “priming” method: to have useable work to show for it at the end of the day. It may be a completed outline for a novel or non-fiction article. Or it may be a page, a scene, or even an entire chapter. Yes, these pages may “only” qualify as a first draft, but a solid one: much more than what I call “word salad,” a chaotic, loose jumble of raw ideas.  

If this priming the pump method works as well for you as it has for me, then I hope you have a draft cohesive and clear enough that you can revise it without needing to either deconstruct it completely or throw it all away.

Photo by Editor5807

Photo by Editor5807

No method works for every writer, so there is no money-back guarantee for this free advice. But give it a try—you have nothing to lose but a few hours of your time.


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