What canoeing taught me about writing

This post first appeared on Aug. 17, 2010.

Reading time: About 3 minutes

It’s summer — and what could be better than paddling a canoe? My own paddling also made me reflect on some important rules about writing…

Our summer was late getting started in Vancouver this year but it’s been flawless. Maybe even a little too “flawless” for those who don’t like hot weather. It hit 92 degrees (33.3 C) Monday — a temperature it seldom reaches here in the temperate Pacific Northwest. Fortunately for me, my family and I spent last Thursday to Monday afternoon at Whistler Mountain. The best thing about the mountains is that they cool off at night so at least we slept easily. The second best thing is the number of lakes — so we could not only swim but also, canoe.

I’m not quite sure why I love canoeing so much, but it’s my favourite sport. As a 16-year-old, I even did a really challenging trip — the Bowron Lakes, an 80-mile chain in Northern B.C. My teacher was a young woman named Joy Thorkelson and she was tough! There was no way she was going to let anyone under her watch develop sloppy canoeing techniques.

Although I haven’t seen her for more than 30 years, and haven’t canoed rigorously for the same, when I slide my canoe in the water, the old (good) habits return immediately. I always keep my top canoeing arm straight, not bent. I paddle in time with my husband (this allows the canoe to achieve the crucial “glide” phase.) And I “feather” my paddle, which means I turn it sideways as it’s traveling through the air. This allows me to preserve strength as I “cut” the wind rather than slam the fat part of my paddle against it. Small rules, but important ones.

When you write, you need rules as well. Here are the three I suggest you make second nature:

1) Don’t edit and write at the same time. Ever. I’m producing this column on my Neo Alphasart, which I could bring to Whistler easily because it’s so tiny and light. But it has only a four-line display screen, so, believe me, it makes “not editing” very desirable. If you don’t have an Alphasmart and, worse, if you’re in love with editing while you write, then address this issue, immediately. I highly recommend you write without looking! (Look, ma, no eyes!) You can either turn off your monitor or, hang a towel over it. Don’t ever mix writing with editing — they are two entirely different jobs, using different parts of the brain. Edit later.

2) Think before you write. Many people write too early. If you’re faced with a deadline it’s natural to feel nervous with the completely necessary “not writing” stage of writing. Well, I’m here to tell you to relax. The idea for this column popped into my head during our first canoe trip of the year in July. Since then, it’s been incubating. Now, I sit early Monday morning at the kitchen table in our rented condo (while everyone else sleeps) and I’m writing easily and without hesitation. Of course the idea has been simmering at the back of my brain for more than five weeks! Waiting till the back of your brain has done the hard work may be the single best thing you can do to make writing faster and easier.

3) Mindmap. Preparing a mindmap should be a key part of your “non writing” writing process. This activity will limber up your brain and get you using the correct part of it. Just as you don’t want to canoe with a bent top arm, you don’t want to write with the logical, linear part of your brain. Instead, you want the creative part to be in charge. Mindmapping will not only help reveal your thoughts (NB: I didn’t use the verb “organize” because mindmaps are not about organizing), it will also encourage you to use the part of your brain best suited to writing.

These days, when I climb into a canoe, it’s like the disembodied voice of Joy Thorkelson takes over my paddle. I think: “straight arm, canoe in time, remember to feather.”

My hope, for you, is that when you write, you will hear my voice saying: “never edit while writing, allow yourself the time to think first and remember to mindmap.”

If you can develop these good habits so that they become second nature, then you will always be able to write quickly and easily.

What rules guide your writing practice? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by August 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of So You Think You Know English by Gordon Osmond. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.