Discover Your Story (Painlessly) With This Writing Technique

A woman writing on post-its with a marker

Photo: Magnet Me

You know the ‘write a shitty first draft’ advice? It’s actually connected to a host of other practices—do your morning pages, keep a journal, use the Pomodoro technique—and today we’re going to explore another related technique.

I’m sure this technique already exists with a different name, but for the sake of this post, I’ll christen it the Hunter Gatherer Method™, because that’s what you’ll essentially be doing, and that’s going out into the literary savannahs and bringing back the food that is your writing ideas.

With this method, you can poke and prod at certain ideas, explore paths you normally wouldn’t, and piece together all your material like a jigsaw puzzle. But first, you’ll need to get some supplies.

Set yourself up for success

Before you begin, you’re going to need:

  • A comfortable pen
  • Pieces of scrap paper, the crappier the better

Okay so that was a gratuitous list, but there are reasons why you might want to follow this recipe.

The comfortable pen is for your long writing sessions, and it’s especially important if you haven’t been using pen and paper in a while. I recommend a good gel pen at least. Zebra, Uniball, or Pilot are great choices.

Next is the crappy paper. It can be loose leaf paper or a notebook an ex-colleague gave you as a farewell present that you didn’t have a reason to use (sorry, Irwin).

Why? Because you’ll be doing the equivalent of rough sketches, and you’ll want to approach the page with a sense of recklessness that only comes with a couple servings of your preferred alcoholic drink. Should you use a nice notebook, you’ll probably end up reserving it only for your most ‘worthy’ of thoughts.

Now that you’re prepared, it’s time to begin.

P

All you really need. Photo: Kelly Sikkema

Explore with words

Here’s the lowdown. You’re going to write. That’s your job as a writer. Always will. The only difference now is that you’ll be taking a non-linear route. Today, you’ll be exploring the craft itself instead of trying to write the article as a whole.

So jump right at it. Feel free to carom between the beginning and end of your story in each paragraph. Draw mind maps. Perhaps shoehorn a word you learned yesterday into a sentence. And to be honest, I didn’t even know what the word ‘carom’ meant until yesterday.

Do anything except write in a way that you typically would, and that’s to tell a story from beginning to end. This typically happens when you start off writing on a computer.

But we’re here to collect material, not produce a final product. So go ahead and have a ball. Break each idea down into paragraphs, and treat each one as its own sandbox, a standalone creation born out of a spark in your mind.

But why though

As a writer, I’ve tried a ton of different techniques just to paint the blank page in a less-intimidating light. And that’s one of the many benefits of the Hunter Gatherer Method™.

First of all, I’ve found that putting pen on paper results in better prose compared to when I start off writing on the computer. This, I feel, is because of the finality of ink compared to having the Backspace key at my disposal.

Also, when you zone in on just one paragraph at a time, it becomes much easier to play around with the words. There’s no pressure to perform, so you’re free to do anything you want.

And because it’s just a tiny piece of text, your inner editor will probably think you’re just sending a WhatsApp message or something, meaning they’ll probably leave you alone to actually explore your art. ‘Explore’ is the key word here.

To best explain this, let me inelegantly segue to the game of chess.

The writer’s gambit

Let’s say you want to imagine the million possibilities available from a certain position. It almost seems impossible, doesn’t it? But what if you’re allowed to move the pieces on the board to see what comes next? That’s much better, right?

Exploring with words work that way too. You can’t craft a story when all the different possibilities exist only as ephemeral thoughts in your mind. But once you put them down on paper, it becomes much easier to trace a path through them.

Sometimes you might end up without any such direction, but there’s always the possibility of you creating an entire article based off one sentence or paragraph that you’d put on that paper. It happens!

Anyway, I hope you liked that chess metaphor, because I got it through this very method.

A woman playing chess

Examining the board is much easier when you don’t try to do it in your head. Photo: Chase Clark

Magical moments

Now, you might feel silly when you first give the Hunter Gatherer Method™ a try. In fact, it’d be like following this guide on how to draw an owl. But I assure you that after you get through one side of an A4 page, you’ll start to see your story take form.

You may also end up stepping into ‘the zone’, and you’ll know you’re there when your hand starts moving on its own without the need for a pause. That’s a wonderful place to be, and if you ever reach that state, just be mindful and remind yourself that that’s how being in flow feels like.

You are what you write

The best part of writing longhand is that you won’t even need to refer to what you’ve written once you’re done. Everything you put down becomes a part of you, like a book you’ve just read.

This act of creation allows you to digest your ideas even better, and the next time you actually sit down and write, you’ll find that you’ll know which way you’re headed, and that your words will come more naturally.

Believe it or not—and I certainly believe this—every time you put pen to paper, you forge new paths between your ideas, and that gives you an increased capacity to make unlikely connections.

Like Neil Gaiman once said: “Ideas come from confluence. Things come together. The right ingredients and suddenly, abracadabra!”

Ultimately, what this all means is that the gift is in the process, not the result. So you may or may not come out of the Hunter Gatherer Method™ with something for your audience, but what’s important is who you become as a writer after every practice.

And just as we always strive to finish a story one word at a time, so too should we work to become the best writer we possibly can, and that’s one writing session at a time.


p.s. In all seriousness, the term ‘Hunter Gatherer Method™sounds pretty dumb. Please substitute with another term of your choice. Also, click here to check out what my Hunter-Gatherer page for this story looked like.

54 thoughts on “Discover Your Story (Painlessly) With This Writing Technique

  1. This is a really cool way of approaching writing. I’ll try this, and if anything goes wrong, I’m coming for you!!⚔️

    Just kidding, I really enjoyed this.😁

  2. Amazing, Stu! Could definitely relate. This felt more… concrete than your emotional-type posts. Loved them anyway though.
    Even as a student, it’s been a while since I carried a pencil in my hands. Taking a picture of a written assignment is really the old style. You’ve got Word (anybody’s secret weapon) and a creative mind, so who can blame teachers for abandoning the old method.
    Writing by hand, however, really is a great thing. I liked how you insisted on handwriting. These days, people forget the sorcery of the old pen and paper.
    Thank you for this post! Was going to play Stardew Valley (because I’m a born procrastinator) but then I double-procrastinated by catching this post. Best of luck!
    P.S. caught that flex in your own Hunter-Gatherer page. Though I have to admit your handwriting is elite.

    • Lol Stardew Valley is the best way to procrastinate! That’s my method of choice too. It’s the only game I can actually enjoy and do whatever I want instead of forcing myself to reach goal after goal. I also enjoy Terraria for that.

      And thanks for procrastinating with this article! That really is a kind thing to say to a writer, I’ve found, lol.

      • Lol. I think we all shamelessly cover up reading quality articles with “procrastinating”.
        Besides, just freaked out ’cause you’re the first person in my life to admit their Stardew addiction. Heard that Terraria is a tad bit like it but I might see for myself later.
        I know you hear it every so often, but here goes nothing: Great post! (Literally my comment everywhere across the web lol.)
        Thank you anyways and keep going! You’re a fine fellow, Stu (or from what I can judge from reading an article, more or less), and the write life is a great way to be enjoying yourself (hehe).
        Best of luck!

  3. The image that stuck in my brain is when you mentioned a sandbox. I can imagine playing on a page the way a child plays in a sandbox–piling things up here, moving stuff there, throwing toys, digging holes, etc. I am going to try this method. But let’s see if I’m brave enough to do it! I definitely want to use a notebook that doesn’t cost thirty dollars, just daring me to ruin it.

    • Oh yeah, I have notebooks that are a joy to write with, but boy they don’t really serve their purpose sometimes, because a notebook is where you should take notes, and I tend to only save my fancy ones for my magnum opus, which also means that I don’t write in them at all.

      Scrap paper for the win!

      Thanks for your comment, Hetty!

  4. I already follow this method even if I did not give it a name, or never actually thought of it as a method. I think you are right though. It is a method, and actually a good one that magically forces you to create. Word by word, sentence by sentence.
    Thank you for sharing!

    • Yeah, it does tease more ideas and words out of you than if you had something reversible like the Backspace key, doesn’t it? Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Thanks for this! I’m a little nervous to return to pen and paper. The last time I did, my hand got tired in less than 2 min!! Seriously. But ya, all the greats (including Mr Obama) subscribe to this method of writing. And now, another great (Mr Danker) is advising us to as well. Deep breath. Okay will…oh did my phone just ping? Oops gotta go! LOL!!

    • Lol but do give it a go. In fact, try comparing it to your purely typed articles and see if there’s a difference in prose. Could be pretty interesting to see. For me, I find I use words much better in longhand. Thanks for stopping by, Kelvin!

      • Actually, my writing coach once taught me a trick. Write down the Who/What/Where/When/How in your drafts in portrait mode. Flip the paper landscape for the Why. That simple action will subtly signal to your brain that you’re looking for something more/deeper. Give it a try & lemme know if it works ya?

    • Aw yis, I did indeed write with a fountain pen. And thanks for the compliment! Have been working on it for a while but haven’t been seeing progress, so I truly appreciate your external observations. Always great seeing your comment :)

  6. Thanks for this post Stuart. I really need to start writing more longhand (I do a bit). I’m a tablet/phone notes type (only started writing the past year) and still working on my skills. Need to get back to the old fashioned way and trying out these helpful tips! Thank you 😊✒

    • Sometimes it’s about finding out what works for us though. I hope longhand works better for you, but if tablets get you to write more, you should do that!

      Thanks so much for stopping by! I appreciate you adding your thoughts to the mix :)

  7. I love it! I read this coming from an artist’s mindset. Sketching on the blank page, abstract form telling you where to go next. Each mark is a signal, a direction to move forward with no forethought or predictive end result. Plus, we need more tactile practice as creators.

    • I actually think that this process is very similar to sketching too! I love that you blended your own experience into this picture and shared your thoughts here, as it’ll definitely help those who also have the artist’s mindset. Thanks for sharing, Brad!

  8. Such a great read! This part made me laugh but also want to cry a little bit lol: “As a writer, I’ve tried a ton of different techniques just to paint the blank page in a less-intimidating light.” I feel like when I talk about honing my writing process, this is actually what I mean. I’m definitely going to give this method a try. Great article!!

  9. Hunter gatherer is the perfect name. This is a great example of caveman principle. High touch (pen and paper) always works better for us than high tech (iPad). This was an interesting read. Will try this out, thank you! 😉😊

    • Aha, I see what you did there. When I journal, I feel the exact same way too—as if I’m having a conversation with myself. Thanks so much for sharing your process, and I appreciate you stopping by!

  10. Funny, I’ve heard the word “carom” before, but this is the first time I’ve seen it written. My brain was like, “What’s that?” and then “Oh, so that’s how it’s spelled!” 😅

    Your Hunter Gather Method sounds a bit like some advice I got in a creative writing class! In that case, I was specifically told to just write whatever parts of the story had me most excited right then, kind of like that Marie Kondo “Spark Joy” idea. It was incredibly freeing. I often get ideas for scenes out of order, so with that method I started writing whatever came to me first with a little space to label them for sequencing later. It also meant fewer forgotten (sounds-good-but-time-will-tell) ideas. I like your addition of more abstract elements too, like mind-maps and other meta-writing stuff. Anything to keep the words flowing, right?

    • Oh yeah, from now on, my writing will be festooned with words I’ve recently just learned, only so that I can commit them better to memory :P

      Ooh, I like the idea of going with scenes that interest you first. That really does take the dread out of writing, and if you have enough of those scenes, then the in-between scenes can start to be interesting as well!

      Amazing idea to share. I appreciate you for doing this!

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