Become a better writer with a little help from your friends

Eighteen months ago I established a writing group, in the hope of gaining motivation and inspiration while writing my PhD thesis – the challenge of writing 100,000 words is surely a good reason to seek out all the support and encouragement you can get!

I got the idea from Rowena Murray’s book aimed at academic writers, but am convinced that anyone keen to become a better writer – including creative writers, novelists, bloggers and songwriters – can gain lots from participating in a writing group.

Here are the some of the benefits our writing group have enjoyed:

Getting over writer’s shyness: I will admit to being terrified of letting anyone reading my work in the past. I still don’t enjoy handing over my drafts to my supervisor or to my writing group – but it has got a lot easier the more I do it

Useful feedback:  As a group we’ve developed trust – essential for giving and receiving useful feedback.  Because we take turns to share our work with the others, we all understand that honest – and sensitive – comments are the best gift you can give to someone who genuinely wants to improve as a writer.

Seeing the re-drafting process:  One challenge to any writer’s confidence is reading the work of their writing hero – and feeling inadequate in comparison.  But we usually only get to see the final, published novels, articles and songs of the people that we admire.  Sharing and reading early drafts within the writing group is an unusual privilege that reassures us that it is normal for early drafts to be mediocre and to see the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work of writers as they draft and re-draft.

Original art by Josephine Scales

A sense of urgency:  there’s nothing better than a deadline – and the promised draft your group is waiting to read – to help you overcome writers block and start producing some text.

Stretching your comfort zone: the support of your writing group can help you to challenge yourself, try new things, or experiment with techniques and ideas that might scare you.  Our group participated in AcBoWriMo (the academic version of the annual novel-writing challenge, NaNoWriMo) last year, and amazed ourselves with the amount of writing we got done together during that month.

Good company: Writing group sessions are always immediately followed by coffee and cake sessions.  While the caffeine and sugar help, the most important thing is avoiding the lonely life of a writer.  Having people to chat to who understand the emotional roller-coaster of writing, and who will celebrate your achievements and milestones (another chapter finished, a new idea brought to fruition, your first publication) is the best part of all.


Original art by Josephine Scales

Share your thoughts by hitting the ‘reply’ button – for example, have you tried a writing group?  What techniques have you used to improve your writing or overcome writer’s block?  How easy do you find it to share your early drafts with others?


Five reasons your kitchen timer is in the wrong room

Shocked by our latest gas bill, we decided to take drastic measures – it was time to shorten our showers.  A cheap digital kitchen timer serves as a useful device for our new challenge – to shower in four minutes or under.  This simple regime has already demonstrated benefits – including some unexpected ones…

 1. Save water

No surprises here – shorter showers mean less water used.  Good for the environment as well as for your water bill.

 2. Save gas

This was our main motivator – to reduce our gas bill.  Every extra minute in the shower is another minute of boiler power, heating up your morning waterfall.  Given that gas bills have doubled since 2002 and are predicted to rise by another 27% by 2020, the shower timer should lead to some significant savings.

3. Save time

Quicker showers means you save time.  You choose whether that’s extra minutes in bed, or extra minutes on your work flexi-sheet credit.

 4. Boost your energy levels

Okay, this one was unexpected.  But in order to finish your shower before the timer rings, you have to ‘gee yourself up’ and get moving, rather than mindlessly daydreaming in the bathroom.  Adjusting to a fast-moving pace stays with you for the rest of your morning routine, and we’ve found you start moving more quickly and purposely in getting dressed, eating breakfast and getting out of the house – and you start your day with more of a spring in your step.

5. The ‘sport’ factor

Yes, that’s right – its become a source of friendly competition in our household.  An unintended consequence of the shower timer has been a challenge to see who can take the quickest shower!  Perhaps we should spend the money we save on gas bills on a special prize for the winner…

So, there you have it – five reasons to move your kitchen timer to your bathroom.  And I didn’t even say “money down the drain” once (sorry).

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Making time for the important stuff in life

Who among us can honestly say we have never experienced stress and frustration at our own procrastination?

Maybe we want to do more with our evenings and weekends, like pick up that dusty guitar that’s been sitting lonely in the corner, or learn a second language, or finally do something about the fact that “there’s a novel inside me, if only I got around to writing it!”.

Ever had to stay late in the office, or bring home work at the weekend because you’d spent ages procrastinating or staring blankly at the screen, not getting anything done?  Or maybe you find yourself putting off the important things on your to do list because you don’t know where to start, and its easier to keep yourself busy with plenty of tiny and completely irrelevant errands, just so you can tick something off the to do list and gain that all-important sense of achievement.

Here are some simple techniques for getting the work stuff done faster, and freeing up time to attend to your inner guitar hero / budding author / *insert your own aspiration here!

Puree some tomatoes

Created by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is a productivity technique centred around the use of a kitchen timer (as any pizza-lover will know, “pomodoro” is Italian for tomato, and the technique was originally created using a tomato-shaped kitchen timer).

To start, you set yourself a clear goal of what you want to achieve, set a timer for 25 minutes (equal to one ‘pomodoro’) and focus on the task in hand.  When the buzzer goes off, you get a five minute break before your next 25 minute session.  After four ‘pomodoros’, you are rewarded with a longer break.

The technique also encourages you to become more aware of internal and external distractions and to resist them.  And it really works!  It is so much easier to resist checking email or Facebook constantly when you are able to tell yourself there is only 12 minutes (or whatever) until your next break.

Virtually every friend I’ve introduced this technique to in the past year has fallen in love with it.  Try it out one morning – and you’re likely to enjoy one of the most productive days you’ve ever experienced.

Detailed instructions are available on the Pomodoro Technique website.


Eat a frog

Brian Tracy’s book “Eat that Frog” encourages us to do just that – eat a ‘frog’ every morning.  The frog metaphor refers to the difficult or unappealing tasks we’ve been putting off.  We all have those, right?

The book’s philosophy is based around the saying that “if the first thing you do in the morning is to eat a live frog, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s probably the worst thing you’ll do all day”.

Tracy urges us to think critically about our goals are, how to prioritise them, and to set deadlines.  Essentially, by eating the ‘frog’ task first thing, we’re freed up from the stress and anxiety caused by the anticipation of having to tackle it.  We get the ‘worst’ jobs out of the way and prioritise the things that will actually make the biggest impact on our lives.  Rather than filling up time with insignificant but easy tasks, we use our limited time more wisely, making progress with the things that will help us move forward and achieve things in life that are really important to us.


Let me know how you get on with either of these techniques, and share any other tips for making time for what’s important in life.

Lindsey is in her final year of a Sociology PhD – essentially a four-year lesson in overcoming procrastination and getting lots done!


Original art by Josephine Scales



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