I’m an admitted piddler. I’m also very good at it (due to much practice). I suppose every writing session of mine includes a certain amount of piddling. I think every writer should be, to some degree, a good piddler. The challenge is to not over-piddle and thus waste time that could be spent writing.

I’m reminded of the importance of piddling from having recently read an old interview with the late Irving Stone. If you’re not acquainted with Stone, you can see his many books on Amazon. Mostly he wrote biographical novels.

Asked about his writing routine, this is what Stone said:

“The fact that I go sit down at my desk doesn’t mean that I begin work. Sometimes I can go sit down and am absolutely obtuse. I’m dense, I’m confused. I feel lousy, I wish I had another job, and for a half-hour, hour and a half, while I piddle, I read a little bit out of a book, I read the morning paper, you know, just like every writer But at least I’m there, and when my mind clears, which hopefully it does every day, I can get some work done.”

Of course, those of us who don’t have the luxury of writing full time must allow less piddling time. Unlike Stone, we cannot afford to piddle for an hour and a half. Thirty minutes is tops. You have to earn the right to piddle for 90 minutes.

My piddling is not reading the newspaper, but I do read short stuff from other books (as apparently did Stone). I may stand and look out the window. I might go through my e-mails and delete a bunch of old ones. I might rearrange the stuff on the top of my desk. There are many useful ways to piddle. My favorite way to piddle is to work at the Starbucks café in Barnes and Noble and go browse the shelves every few minutes. Even at home, I find browsing the shelves of my personal library is a useful form of piddling.

For those of us who do piddle, we find that piddling is a useful form of procrastination. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but if you’re a writer who piddles first, you know how important piddling can be to the creative process. It gets you ready. It allows your mind to clear, just as it did for Stone. Agatha Christie used to say that washing the dinner dishes was an excellent way to plot a novel. I consider that her form of piddling (though not mine!). If I sat down and was required to launch in to my work-in-progress within seconds of opening the manuscript file, I’d likely produce nonsense. Of course, there are no real rules to piddling. There ARE days when I might very well dispense with piddling and launch into the work. Piddling is simply an option we need to be aware of, profit from, reign in when it gets out of hand, and not feel guilty about.

How do you piddle?

15 replies
  1. Joe Dallas
    Joe Dallas says:

    Solitaire is this piddler’s preference. I’m lightening fast at crashing through a few games while I’m trying to get into the writing zone. Also, a more productive form of piddle for me is re-reading everything I wrote the day before, shaping and tweaking it here and there. That gets my head more geared towards the writing. But when all else fails, there’s always peanut butter, God bless the stuff.

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  2. Jennifer Valent
    Jennifer Valent says:

    I usually take that time in between scenes. I can be working hard on something and then when that’s done, I need a mind-break. Or I’ll do it to switch gears when my brain is idling in place, getting me nowhere. I’ll get up and do something or grab a snack. Sometimes I’ll hop over to social media for a bit. Something mindless to recharge.

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  3. Jane Daly
    Jane Daly says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Before starting to write, I was a consummate piddler. Now I begin each writing session by reading my emails and checking Facebook to clear my mind. Then I set a timer for 20 minutes, write like a fiend, and when the timer goes off, I spend a few minutes piddling. Then it’s back for another 20 minutes. Piddling is necessary to keep the blood flowing to the head. Otherwise it pools in the fingers.

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  4. Kathy Boyd Fellure
    Kathy Boyd Fellure says:

    I am piddling right now, late night piddling. But it is constructive. I have cleaned out my email, checked my Pinterest boards, (Must set the timer for this one, too much temptation) answered my Facebook questions, and prepared for a lunch date with my agent tomorrow. And all this after attending a writers Christmas party where I participated in stealing books from other writers for the second time, and second writers party this week.

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  5. C. S. Lakin
    C. S. Lakin says:

    Hmmm, I don’t know if I piddle. Every single thing I do is important. Whether reading a blog post or writing or researching or editing. I have a set time in the evening to relax with my husband, but after I run at 6 a.m., everything I do contributes to advancing my projects and career in some way. Except for the scheduled maintenance of the dog, which means breaks for Frisbee and ball. Those help me and me, since I need to get up and stretch a bit.

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  6. Kathleen D. Bailey
    Kathleen D. Bailey says:

    Ah, piddling. A nice word. It’s about the same as “puttering,” which we all do when we’re stuck. For me, unless I’m in the grip of that dirty word “inspiration,” I can’t write — the regular seat-of-pants to seat-of-chair regime — until everything else is in order. The e-mails cleared out, clothes in the washer or dryer, dishes washed or at least soaking in hot water. I can’t think until the peripheral details are taken care of.
    What helps me to think, and recharge, comes from several sources: going on writing blogs, reading an old article from “The Writer” or “Writer’s Digest,” rereading a couple of pages of the last good thing I read, rereading a couple of pages of the last bad thing I read, sneaking a peek at my online “encouragement” file. All of this primes the pump. I also think about writing when I’m not physically at the desk or the yellow legal pad, so when I sit down, I am often ready to go.
    Piddling or puttering can clear out the brain for your real work. It can also be an escape mechanism. The late humorist Robert Benchley addressed this in a great little piece, “How I Get Things Done.” (The point: he didn’t.)
    Irving Stone used “hopefully” the wrong way, but I don’t suppose it matters now.
    I’m surprised Agatha Christie didn’t have a maid to do the dishes.

    Reply
  7. Kathleen D. Bailey
    Kathleen D. Bailey says:

    Hey Nick,
    Is there a way I could receive notifications when you post something? I don’t check your site every day and, like today, I’m two days late in imparting my own pearls of wisdom. Which means probably nobody will read them.
    Curious,
    Kathy Bailey

    Reply
  8. Kathleen D. Bailey
    Kathleen D. Bailey says:

    We could honor the Three P’s — piddling, puttering and procrastinating. Or maybe not.
    When you refer to piddling, I am assuming you mean the peripheral things and not the core work of writing. Kathy Boyd Fellure included a lot of work-related issues in her definition of “piddling.” She’s right, all the little details we take care of are piddling but so necessary…I’m always doing something for my writing, even if it isn’t necessarily “writing.”
    Interesting comment from Boyd Fellure — “Stealing” books? Was this some kind of a literary Yankee Swap? If so, would love to have been there.

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  9. Patrick E. Craig
    Patrick E. Craig says:

    I am piddling right now by leaving this comment. I have a chapter to finish in my new book and it’s been staring at me for two mornings in a row. I am at 1968 words of chapter 8 of The Amish Heiress and I need at least 300 more words. BUUUTT there’s Facebook, e-mail, freecell, checking this and that, leaving comments, sheesh!!!

    Reply
  10. Nick
    Nick says:

    Kathleen, I love your responses. You can subscribe to my posts. Just choose the option on the right side of the page. If you can’t find it, let me know.

    Susanne, you are blessed to be able to get into high gear right away. Many of us need some warm-up time (piddling time).

    Reply
  11. Lynn Hare
    Lynn Hare says:

    Piddling for me looks like praying over loose ends. Asking for divine, creative ideas. Wool-gathering. Dreaming of being a full-time author.

    Contemplating tradition. If I were a rich man, all day long I’d biddy biddy bum – if I were a wealthy [full-time author] man. Nick, I challenge you to take piddling to new heights. What do you say about writing a screenplay: “Piddler on the Roof”?

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