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Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Birth of Word Orienteering by Molly MacRae

I’m a slow writer. Not only do I like to have an outline for a novel or short story, which makes me a plotter, but I’m a plodder. I’m not complaining; the process works for me so I’m reasonably happy with it. 

I’m always on the lookout for smarter or better ways to work, though, and sometimes I dream of working faster. And sometimes I just like shiny new things. 

One of those shiny new things, new to me anyway, is word sprints. Sprints are timed bursts of focused writing that help you grow your word count—twenty minutes, half an hour, an hour of mad typing without distractions = words! 

I can see the merit in this method. The times I’ve sprinted, though, I spent so much time rewriting the sprinted words that I finished the day no farther ahead. I felt anxious, too. Maybe because I’d climbed out of my comfortable rut. Or is it possible I’m not a sprinter? If something I found on the Internet is true, about why sprinting works, then I’m probably not: “What slows you down is thinking through what you’re writing.” Well, rats. For me, part of the fun of writing is thinking it through as I go. 

I’m not irredeemably in a process rut, though. Recently, as I finished the last ten chapters of a book, I tried jogging instead of sprinting. I’d jog one day and walk the next. On jogging days, I expanded my detailed outline of a chapter with quick brushstrokes, convoluted or incomplete sentences, and by leaping over details that didn’t immediately come to mind. On walking days, I revised and polished. On walking days, I looked forward to jogging the next day as a freer form of writing. On jogging days, I looked forward to walking the next day to bring the writing into focus. I loved working like that. It was successful, too, because I turned the manuscript in three days early. Ta da! 

When I was a student at Edinburgh University back in the 70s, a student group I belonged to took part in an orienteering competition. Orienteering is a sport in which participants find their way, on foot, across unfamiliar rough country, often through deep woods, navigating between checkpoints with a map and compass. Fastest group wins. We didn’t win, but can you imagine legging it as fast as you can through a Scottish woodland with only a map and compass? We definitely did not sprint. At best we jogged and climbed and leapt over things. What a blast! We had no time to take in our surroundings, though. Just go, go, go. I would have loved to return the next day to identify the ferns, mosses, bird calls, and trees we’d passed. To smell the leaf mold. To look for squirrels, rabbits, or tiny fungi. Race through one day, walk and bring into focus the next—ideal. 

Word orienteering—the name for my new writing process! On day one, I’ll take my chapter outline (my map and compass) and I’ll dash off through the woods. 

I’ll leap over stumbling points, find my way to each checkpoint, and have the mad fun of going pell-mell. The next day I’ll go back along that raucous route, at a thoughtful stroll, and enjoy recording the details I missed. 

Writers, what new writing methods have you tried? Readers, what sports do you picture your favorite authors participating in?













Jim Jackson said...

It's an interesting approach, Molly. One I have not tried -- but then again, I don't have your outline (map and compass) to follow until after I finish my first draft.

KM Rockwood said...

Wonderful that you've found a method that works for you! We all need to do that.

I find that it's often the characters that have the most important input to how I work. Some "dictate" to me and I feel like a stenographer; some laugh at my efforts and often leave me with unfinished pieces; some need comfort and support but then help their stories unfold on the page.

Kait said...

Orienteering! Wow, I haven't thought of that, or done it, since college back in the 1970s - was it a thing then? I remember loving it though, but we didn't do it to win, just to get to the endpoint and party! We also had to find certain items along the way and collect them, or leave colored ribbons on trees that the group leader collected as evidence that we followed the path. So glad that the concept works for you and your writing style. That's half the battle in writing.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Interesting. I'll give it a try. I do my fastest and best writing after a stint of hard manual work when I think through a scene and practice the dialogue.

Grace Topping said...

Clever blog, and clever approach to writing. Right now, I'm feeling like a slug, making no headway.

Shari Randall said...

Love your process, Molly! I'm still working out what mine is - an obstacle course perhaps? Whatever it is, it involves a lot of post it n notes.

Molly MacRae said...

Thanks for reading, all! We'll see if Word Orienteering works again when I write the next book. The best laid maps and compasses . . .