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Live Writing: what it is, and how to do it

For writers who are just starting out

What is ‘live’ writing?

Live writing means going out somewhere and writing ‘live’ on the spot. You can also call this technique ‘writing in situ’ or ‘writing on location’ or even ‘total immersion writing’, but I prefer the term ‘live writing’ because for me the technique also involves an element of free writing – writing without editing. There’s a performance-orientated version of live writing where you write ‘live’ in front of an audience – sort of improvised writing – it’s like that, but without the immediate audience. You write a first draft in a particular location, without editing as you go. I wrote a short story collection like this, but it could be used to create any kind of finished result.

How to do it

Live writing is a combination of three other techniques:

  1. Free writing – as I said, writing without editing as you go, writing what comes into your head.
  2. Close observation – describing the specific detail of what you can see, hear, taste, touch or smell in the location.
  3. Asking ‘what if?’ – imagining what could happen in the place you’re in, letting your imagination roam free.

When you go ‘live writing’ you want to go somewhere interesting to write. That’s the main point of the exercise. But it’s up to you to decide what’s interesting.

Write something that is inspired by the environment, or a specific part of it, but the writing doesn’t have to be about the place you’re in.

Take a notebook with you (or laptop – although this can be restrictive). Make sure there is somewhere to write and somewhere to shelter from the rain.

By the way, I am dyslexic, and I find this technique really good for letting go of the self-judgement that can come with a first draft. You don’t have to spell correctly, or punctuate or even stick to the lines of the notebook. You simply get the words down. This is not a draft to show to anyone. This is a draft for you.

When you type up your writing later, you can change whatever you like. For me, it was during the typing up stage that my stories came together. In other words, during my live writing sessions I tried to let go of the need to tell a story and to get some words down that I could play with later. Often interesting characters emerged this way.

Where to go

You could sit on a bench in your local park. You could travel somewhere – an old building, a museum, a cafe, a beach, or somewhere special near to where you live. You could even try writing on public transport: on a bus or train or ferry.

It’s good to make up some rules for yourself. Writing constraints turn the whole thing into a game, and actually make you more creative. You can, of course, break your own rules if you need to!

How I did it

When I wrote my short story collection, Unusual Places, using live writing, I wrote the stories in quirky places (mainly) in London. What were my rules? Well, I decided in advance that they should be quirky or hidden or somehow secret places, that they should be free to get in to, that there should be somewhere to get a cup of tea and shelter from the cold or rain. Those were my rules. You can find out more about how I did it by following the links from here.

I wrote one outside London’s Roman Amphitheatre, for instance, and another in the Cotton Room in the British Library, which no longer exists. I broke my own rules when I wrote at the Garden Museum as I had to pay to get in. When the place was nice enough, and suitable for writing in, I stayed for half a day or a whole day, trying to finish the first draft in one sitting. Here’s a story I started in Seven Sisters Tube Station, inspired by the ‘seven sisters’ who were supposed to have been turned into trees, although I finished it at home.

Another way to use live writing is to go there in your head. I sometimes take places that I know really well because I’ve been to them to often and put myself in those places in my imagination. I wrote ‘You Are Not Special’ about Clissold Park and Abney Park Cemetery, in Stoke Newington, North London, while I was at the Brunswick (a pub theatre in Hove).

If you do have a go at some live writing, please let me know how you get on.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,



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