How a Tomato Can Make You a Better Writer

Tony seemed to be doing everything right. He set up a writing space that worked for him, he had plenty of great ideas, he carved out regular writing time, and even purchased a pound of Peruvian Tupac Amaruhe coffee from his favorite roaster. Now that he had set himself up for success, all he had to do was sit down and write that book.

It started well enough. After a rocky opening, he crafted some strong sentences and was feeling confident about where the story would go next. It wasn’t long, however, before Tony felt himself losing momentum. Something in him was resisting doing the very thing he wanted to do: write. It got so bad that after only a week of trying, he was wondering if he should give up completely.

For Tony, as for many of us, the idea of writing a book is inspiring and motivating. We might have an entire storyline and a constellation of characters in our heads, yet actually sitting down and logging the hours required to finish a book can feel overwhelming. Even ensuring we have a lot of uninterrupted writing time can add to the pressure. And yet authors do finish books. Some people write many of them – and quickly too! So how do they do it?

The secret is pacing. Writing well requires much practice and many skills but none of these matter if we don’t get the writing done both when we’re inspired and when we’d rather do anything else.

These problems of boredom and stamina were examined by an Italian productivity consultant named Francesco Cirillo. Back in the 1980s he developed something called the Pomodoro Technique. The technique advises us to break our work into 25 minute intervals. Basically, if there’s a long task that needs doing, rather than trying to power through it in one great chunk, split it into smaller pieces. Research has shown that our minds are good at focussing intently on a task for up to 25 minutes, but beyond that we need short breaks to keep our brains fresh.

As described on Wikipedia, the technique requires we use a timer (the original timer was tomato-shaped – pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato) and follow these six steps:

  1. Decide on the task to be done.

  2. Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).

  3. Work on the task until the timer rings.

  4. After the timer rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper.

  5. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 2.

  6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.

A variation on this technique was used by famous Victorian author Anthony Trollope. His process, as described in a New Yorker article, was to wake early each morning and write from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. He set his watch on the desk in front of him and “required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next.”

Using this method over the course of 35 years, Trollope managed to publish 47 novels, 18 nonfiction works, 12 short stories, 2 plays, several articles and hundreds of letters. Not bad for a guy who held down a full time senior position with the postal service. (A glance at his Wikipedia page underscores how prolific he was.)

Not all of us will manage to publish 47 novels, but completing the one we’re working on now is a major achievement, too. And the best way to reach that goal is in short bursts with regular breaks. So next time you sit down to work on your masterpiece, don’t forget to bring your tomato!

Written by Christian Fink-Jensen, FriesenPress Marketing Manager
Image adapted from Michael Mayer