Sarah Albee

Do you have any writing routines or habits that you’ve noticed or deliberately put in place to help you write?

My sister is married to a Russian (I promise this is relevant). When I was first getting to know him, I was impressed by his ability to take catnaps at extremely hectic family get-togethers. He explained that during his two years of mandatory military service, he learned how to fall quickly into a sound sleep for five, ten, twelve minutes, and then snap up and be wide awake, ready for his marching orders.

I think being a writer during early motherhood is similar to a soldier’s training. You are usually sleep deprived, and you don’t have a lot of leisure time. When I had a writing assignment, I trained myself to write quickly and efficiently. Any writer’s block I might once have indulged in vanished. What was initially motivated by fear of looming deadlines and ongoing financial anxiety became habitual, and then natural.

When I talk to kids, I like to compare being a writer to being an athlete, or a musician. You don’t start out able to hit fifteen-foot jumpers with consistency, or able to play a Chopin prelude at top speed. To get better—to get good–you have to practice. A lot. Take 10,000 jump shots. Play 10,000 scales. If you write—a lot—you will get better and better and better.

So to (finally) answer your question, I write every day whether I feel like it or not. Luckily, I love what I do. I get a bit impatient when I hear writers talk about how difficult writing is, how hard it is to craft sentences with clarity and style. Of course writing is hard, and there are times when I am banging my head on my keyboard, but it’s also a huge privilege to be able to say it’s what I do. I’m grateful every day.

I do think that my best, most creative time is early morning, so I try to arrange my schedule to allow mornings for my intensive writing time. Whenever possible, I use afternoons to catch up on email, blog posts, classroom Skypes, and life-maintenance stuff.

You talked about going back to closely read your work and said, “I can only check one thing at a time.”  You mentioned a ‘search and destroy’ method as well.  Can you talk about what you look for when you go back and reread your work to revise or reflect?

As I revise, I generally work big to small. By that I mean, my early drafts are efforts at establishing the general structure of the book. I get the “scaffolding” built but don’t worry about style or tone. Then I go in and work on revising section by section/chapter by chapter, again for structure and clarity. Then I look at smaller sections and sentences, and at tone. How can I say this more clearly? What words can I cut?

With each draft in later stages of revision, I begin to search for just one thing. For instance, I’ll do a search/replace for a word or phrase I fear I’ve used too much. Or I’ll look for overuse of adverbs. Or weak verbs where a stronger one will do. I begin reading the manuscript in different places, to be sure the tone throughout is reasonably consistent. Does it sound like the same voice in chapter ten as it did in chapter one?

One of the last stages is adding humor. Sometimes I’ll figure out something funny to say, or a clever turn of phrase or subtitle at a very late phase of the writing. I’m not sure why it happens so late in the process. Maybe it’s that once I’m pretty satisfied with the way a paragraph reads, and my brain is in a happy place, a joke will pop into my mind that feels just right.

You talked about reading your work to a friend or having someone read it out loud to you.  Can you talk about how that helps you as a writer?

I read my work out loud to myself a lot. And when possible, I ask someone else to read something back to me—it might be a family member or someone in my writing group. Too often, I have a voice in my head that I am sure the rest of the world hears too, but when someone reads it back to me, I hear the person read it differently.

Having someone read what you’ve written out loud to you is essential for anything that rhymes. Trust me on that one.

I loved when you talked about drafting “Often kids will go straight to the draft before they are ready. I often ask my son to just put it aside and just tell me in your own words what do you want it to say.”  Can you talk about this a bit more and how it helps the writer connect with the writing?

I’ve seen my middle-school-aged son do it—start writing before he quite knows what he wants to say–but realized I do the same thing. You can’t write clearly if you’re not thinking clearly. When this happens, I think it’s helpful to listen to your inner voice.

When my son would get bogged down in a writing passage, I would tell him to turn over his paper and just tell me, in his own words, what he wants to say in this section. Not to worry about grammar, or the perfect word, but just give me the core idea. It often worked for him. And then I adapted the same habit. If a paragraph isn’t flowing, or my meaning doesn’t seem clear, I find myself closing my computer and asking myself out loud, “What is it you’re trying to say?” Sometimes my inner voice answers quite readily.

Weirdly, this ego-talking-to-id or whatever you want to call it, works for other things. If I’ve lost my phone and am growing increasingly frantic searching for it, I sometimes hear my outer self addressing my inner self and asking, “Where do you think it is?” Sometimes the answer just emerges from the mist: “You left it in the car.” or “It’s in your other coat pocket.”

This may sound wacky—but try it sometime.

What tip or technique could you share with students that they could try in their own nonfiction writing? (It could be related to drafting, crafting, revising, rereading) These would be students in grades 4-6.

Don’t try to fix everything at once.

When I was learning how to shoot a foul shot, my coach would tell me to concentrate on one thing at a time. Following through. Bending my knees. The arc. Backspin. Placement of my off hand. You can’t think about five things at the same time. Eventually certain elements become second nature, and you achieve fluency (if you’re lucky).

When I write something, I concentrate on getting the facts right, and the structure I want. Then I re-read it and fix the verbs—use a strong one in place of a weak one. Then I read it out loud. Then I read it backwards (sentence by sentence)—this gets you to look at each sentence individually.

Time also helps. If you possibly can, write a draft and then shove it into a drawer for a day, two days, however long you can. When you come back and read something with fresh eyes, you see things you didn’t see when you were in the thick of things.