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Five finger exercises for academic writing

This is a technique taken from my creative writing practice, that might be useful for academic writing.

You may remember that I wrote a post a while back about using a typewriter to stop myself over-editing. At that time, I still had my old typewriter but it was sitting on a shelf, with a decade of dust sifting through its mechanisms. It had always been pretty grimy—I bought it from a UK charity shop over twenty years ago, before typewriters were cool again, and it didn’t have a cover then. So I got inspired, and spent some weeks in the Australian autumn with some old makeup brushes and a lot of WD-40, to get all the dust and grime out. I bought new typewriter ribbon, and waited for it to arrive from overseas by the complicated and delayed modern international postal service. And then my typewriter was ready to go.

At about the same time, I had just accepted a poetry commission that involved lots of technical requirements (it needed to cover certain topics, have a particular tone, be suitable for a particular event, go well with music, and be exactly the same rhythm for all 5 verses). [Yes, that’s what my PhD was about, I do actually get to use the specialist technical bits of my PhD occasionally!] It was a lot of moving parts, and I was feeling a bit stuck and unsure where to go.

As I often do when I get stuck… I went sideways.

If you have ever learned the piano, you may have had to do ‘five finger exercises’—little pieces that are less about their musical value, and more about making you use all five fingers on your hands, to improve your technique. They are warm-ups, strengthening and skill-building exercises. They are part of the invisible part of performing music—I have never seen a concert performance of these exercises, but I’m also certain that every concert pianist I have ever paid to listen to, has done hours and hours of them in their time.

Now, on a typewriter you become very aware of the physicality of making letters appear. You need to strike the key with a certain amount of force to get the lever to go up and make a strong-enough mark on the page. My pinkie fingers are used to lightly tapping the qazp;/ keys on my lightly sprung computer keyboard, and it’s a big jump to banging out letters on a janky (if mostly lubricated) typewriter. In other words, I was back in piano-lesson land, needing to think and work hard just to get my fingers to strike the keys.

So, five finger exercises. On the one hand, if you are still two-finger typing, it might be worth you sitting down and training your hands to be able to type with all five fingers. Five-finger touch typing can help you speed up the process of transcribing text, getting words down on paper, taking notes and a whole raft of other tasks in your PhD. Over the three-plus years of your degree, you could be saving weeks of time, so it’s worth taking the weeks to learn it. There’s a bit of an on-ramp, but it doesn’t take long to get the gist and then slowly start ramping up your speed. Five-finger typing also has the benefit of spreading out the physical load across your hand, and improving your ergonomic hand set up, which really starts to matter when you have just so much text to write and re-write.

But it’s also helpful to remember that there are kinds of writing that are about warming up, or improving a specific skill, that are the invisible part of becoming a professional writer. In my workshops and in the new book (Writing Well and Being Well), I talk about generative writing, morning pages, journalling, and Tiny Texts as writing warm-ups, strengthening and skill-building exercises.

Another practice that can be helpful is to simply type out someone else’s writing, to see what they did and how they did it. Hunter S Thompson typed out the whole of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby to work out how the other novelist did it. I sometimes get students to write out (maybe by hand, to get the slowness and friction back into the process), the the whole of the first paragraph of a load of journal articles, to work out exactly how other people structure those powerful paragraphs.

What I was doing this particular time was trying to rewrite Victorian English Christmas carols into 21st-century Australia. I had the carol text up on the iPad screen, and then rewrote the text with the same rhyme and rhythm, but updating the language (so references to coldness became references to warmth etc). It was an extremely ugly, bleak and clunky project. It did not produce any good writing. It did, however, produce a lot of bad writing that I knew I did not want to include in my final work. Failed experiments are incredibly useful for identifying which forward paths are not viable. Scoping work is valuable work. I finished the day with a lot of bad poems and some clearer ideas about what would make a good poem.

So in conclusion, I was stuck and unsure where to go, so I used five-finger writing exercises to get myself unstuck, to warm up, to improve my skills and writing strengths, and to get more clarity on where I did want to go next.

It might feel like every day you write, you should be writing in a way that adds to your word-count. But sometimes it’s more productive to spend time on pre-writing just as it is to spend time on pre-research. Then, when you are writing in ways that other people will read, writing in public, performing on stage, your work is fluent, powerful, expert and professional.

I hope you find this insight into the writing process helpful, and that these exercises help you to improve your own writing and writing process. I’d love to hear about practices that you use too, so join the conversation over on Twitter.

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