Methods for the First Draft: Why Warm Ups (and Exercise) are Essential

A slender Black woman wears gray athletic clothes as she stretches on a neighborhood path, presumably for a morning run. Image by Irina L from Pixabay

When was the last time you tried to run, I don’t know, a mile?

It was back in 2015 for me. So I know that if I tried to get up a run a mile right now, it would NOT go well. If I did finish, it would be done slowly; it doesn’t make sense for me to expect anything different. If I trained for it every day, though, then I could expect to quickly run a mile next month.

When was the last time you wrote for more than 20 minutes in a single sitting? Or sat down to write at all?

Why Warm Ups (and Exercise) are Essential for Writing

If you’re like me, you only do it when you have to. And since your brain is like a muscle, it doesn’t adjust well to different and larger-than-normal tasks: like writing that first 3,000 word paper or the yearly grant. Binge writing — writing only when a large task needs to be completed immediately — leaves you mentally exhausted and requires days, if not longer, to recover from. Before long, you begin to hate the idea of writing, which leads to further procrastination and a never ending cycle of binge writing and writing hangovers.

Another difficult (and unfair) ask for muscles are rapid transitions between tasks. An athlete doesn’t sit on the couch then compete with cold muscles; they do a warm up first, mimicking the activity they’re about to perform, which prepares their muscles for strenuous activity. Warm ups enhance muscle performance and prevent injury.

Similarly, it’s unfair to expect an academic to immediately transition from demanding bench work to writing on a grant. The brain needs a warm up, too. Enhanced performance in writing means time saved, and while brain injury is unlikely, do you really want to give yourself another reason to avoid writing?

To be clear, academics are expecting too much of themselves when they: (i) Binge write (i.e., run a mile without training), and (ii) Write cold (i.e., skip a warm up activity).

What’s a Writing Warm Up?

First, let’s talk about what a writing warm up is not. It’s not:

Another task that you need to fit into your day,

Particularly complicated, or

Optional for a smooth transition to writing.

It is a thought process that requires some planning.

At its core, a writing warm up is using a low cognition task to create a mental buffer, or transition period, between one cognitively demanding task and another (e.g., tricky experiments and writing, or data analysis and writing). The exact low cognition task will vary from person to person and day to day, but it must fit one criterion: it only uses muscle memory.

Performing a low cognition task (e.g., walking, driving, washing dishes, or folding clothes) before you write allows you to begin thinking about your writing task.

Spending this five to ten minutes (or more) thinking about what you are going to write before you write it is your writing warm up. This process cognitively transitions yourself for a productive writing session. I say it takes planning because it will take effort to identify a suitable warm up task, and remember to avoid it until immediately before your writing session. It also takes some effort to avoid mental distractions during the warm up. Writing warm ups are an essential part of my writing process now. It is satisfying to open a writing project and immediately begin typing because the words are ready and waiting.

How Do You Practice Writing?

Well, like anything else, you just do it. A lot. I’m not going to dwell here because it is just like physical exercise; find a writing task and start with 20 minute sessions. For the days that you don’t have an essential writing task lined up, blogging, science-related Wikipedia entries, and/or writing prompts can help keep your skills honed between essential writing tasks.

The Bottom Line: (i) Warm up with a low cognitive task that allows you to mentally transition to writing. (ii) Exercise your writing “muscles” frequently with at least 3, 20 minute sessions per week.

More Ideas for Writing Exercise

Ada K. Hagan

I am a microbiologist with a passion for making science accessible. I hope to use my background in communications and higher education to help make scientific concepts more easily understood and make the academy more inclusive to future scientists from all backgrounds.