Russian dolls
Michelle Harrison Michelle Harrison


How I Write

Posted on January 21, 2016, tagged as Process, Writing

Happy 2016! I felt my first post of the year should be writing related, seeing as so many of my readers ask advice on their own work. I can’t say these tips will work for everyone, but these are some of the things that work for me.


Magpie nest

Also known as an inspiration board, this is a wall or a pin board in your work space. Here you can collect shiny new ideas until you’re ready to use them, a bit like a magpie hoarding glittery items that have taken its fancy. These can be notes, news articles, postcards — anything you feel has a story behind it. Having this board is a great way to help you remember why you got excited about a particular idea in the first place.


Get out

Inspiration is all around you. Many of my ideas have come from objects in museums, landmarks, places, and even the names of streets and towns (there are some really quirky and quaint ones). It’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction, and two places in particular come to mind when I think of this: the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford which houses such gruesome things as shrunken heads, an Egyptian mummy, and a spooky collection of old items used in witchcraft. Similarly, the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, has some fascinating and blood-chilling displays; two mummified cats found beneath a doorstep to keep rodents out of a house; a ducking chair used to torture suspected witches into confessing. This is the stuff that sends my imagination into overdrive.


Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle


Dream time

You are very lucky, or a creative genius, if you can sit down to a blank page and know exactly what you’re going to write. Many writers spend weeks, or even months, thinking about their characters and daydreaming how their story might develop before they ever write a word of it. That’s not to say you have to plan out everything, but it’s about getting a feel for your story and the possibilities rather than jumping in blindly and hoping for the best.


Type your work

I use notebooks a lot, but mainly for ideas although I sometimes write bits of chapters long hand if I’m on a train and haven’t brought my laptop. When I first started writing most of it was handwritten, and I struggled with reading it back. This was nothing to do with the legibility of my writing, but the fact that writers are usually their own worst critics. Your handwriting is incredibly personal, and for me it was a constant reminder that whatever I read had been written by me. Reading back typed work makes it easier to be objective, like you are reading the words of someone else in a published book.


Change the format

This is a weird and wonderful tip given to me by my fantastic agent, Julia. She suggested changing the font and format of your work when reading it back. It sounds nuts, but it really works. If you are used to seeing your writing in double spaced Times New Roman, try changing to a different font, single spaced. Bizarre, but reading it back will give you a new perspective.


Don’t get too comfortable

Figure out exactly what working environment is best for you, especially if you have limited time. When I was up against my deadline last year, I often chose to get out of the house. Not only is a change of scene good for the brain, but I discovered I work better if I’m not too comfortable. My favourite coffee shop – within a book shop of course – is a bit chilly and the seats are hard and unforgiving. A couple of years ago I’d have dodged this, but the truth is, if I’m in a nice squashy seat feeling toasty, I get sleepy pretty fast. I could lie and blame it all on being a mum, but fact is that I’ve always been partial to a catnap. Being a bit cold and not entirely comfortable keeps me alert, and that’s what I need to be productive. Ditto the lack of distractions: there are no cats jumping on my keyboard, no housework or door bell ringing. If you know your weaknesses, eliminate them.



This is also linked to the point above. If you have only set hours to write you must make them count. Since becoming a mum I’ve learned to focus harder in the few hours I get to write, and I find I work just as well, if not better than before I had Jack and would spend an entire day writing 1000 words. Back then I’d waste time dithering, flitting back and forth between making cups of tea, going on social media and doing any real writing. Now, when I sit down to write, that’s what I do because I don’t have time to spare. Writer Cat Clarke also advocates this approach and sets herself a timer to write in short sharp bursts. She’ll write for twenty minutes, then do social media for twenty, write again for twenty, then read for twenty and so on. This is an excellent way to keep your mind on track and reward yourself for working hard.


Read it aloud

I confess, I don’t do this enough. There’s nothing like doing a public reading at a school or festival to make you feel those clunky sentences, and it could all have been avoided by reading the story aloud while it was still in progress. By saying the words out loud you’ll find out whether a sentence is too long, dull or just plain awkward, and you can fix it. This is one of my aims going forward.


So these are my top tips on how I write. If you’d like to share your own, or offer your thoughts on which of these you might try, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.



3 comments on “How I Write”

  • Kim Karanikolaou says:

    Great tips here, particicularily the one about changing the format. At the end of each day, I always email what I’ve written to myself so that I can read it through later, amazing how the different format can highlight flow problems

    My tip is, if you hit a block, move on and come back to it. Staring out of the window for hours is not productive, and sometimes coming back with fresh eyes can do the power of good.

  • Joyce says:

    I was looking at my work in aril and so I changed it to another type. It looked more mysterious after I did it. Especially the part where someone called.

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