Fartleks for Writers

I'm super mature.
I’m super mature.

“Fartlek” is a running term that, for once, has nothing to do with either Porta-Potties or crapping down your leg while running a marathon.

Meaning “speed play” in Swedish, fartleks are a form of speed practice used by runners when they’re training to get faster. It consists of bursts of speed during otherwise moderately paced running. These bursts of speed may be of completely random length, duration and interval. For example, I could say “I’m going to sprint toward that telephone pole,” and then two minutes later, say, “I’m going to do a flat-out quarter mile effort.” Those are part of my fartlek running workout. 

Can Fartleks Help Writers?

Obviously I think they can; otherwise, why would I waste your time? Duh.

Anyway, “speed play” in writing can be used two different ways: Gaining confidence and roughing out.

Speed Equals Confidence

Have you ever tried to write flat-out? Where your lips are moving as you’re typing, and the din of your fingers on the keyboards never ceases, and your hands and wrists feel hot, and Spell-Check is your worst enemy, but against all odds, you’ve finished that last chapter, that revision, that abstract, that dissertation, that thesis (hello, senior year of college me) in record time?

You’re fartlekking it up, on the page. And you know what? I’ll bet you that all that speedy work yielded some pretty decent sentences along the way. Certainly better than the inner critic may have told you. (Mine tells me that unless I carefully weigh every word, and correct every spelling error as soon as it happens, I’m crap-word-vomit-writing and wasting my time. This is a lie.)

Practicing this kind of speed writing can not only help you meet deadlines in timely fashion; it can also help you gain confidence in the simple flow of your brain-voice to your talky-fingers. (This turn of phrase brought to you by macaroni salad and coffee. You’re welcome.)

It’s a confidence booster. Work at least one flat-out writing session into your habits every week or so, and watch your efficiency improve over time. Ask any journalist if this is true.

Roughing It

No-filter fartlekking is that kind of writing that just needs to take up space. You’ll edit it later. Right now, you’ve got to exorcise it from your head with some needle-nose pliers. If you’re eventually going to carve a beautiful sculpture, you need the block of clay. Speed-writing during the outline and first draft stages of your work-in-progress is what I sometimes call “roughing out,” and it’s speed play at its most efficient: neither artistic nor witty, nor especially insightful. This kind of writing is the naked sketch that you’ll later cover up with beautiful paint colors. It just needs to be there. It’s job is to guide the way for the pretty words coming next.

Practice this kind of fartlekking with story ideas – you know the ones. The ones that hit you at 4am. The ones you’re repeating to yourself when you’re in the shower. Rough those out in 30 minutes or less. Can you spot the good ideas from the crappy ones? Roughing out quick word-sketches can help you sift good ideas faster, develop them more efficiently, and get them into their final form with speed and accuracy.

Plus, when your writing group asks how it’s going, you’ll find that it’s fun to say the word “fartlek” in a roomful of people. Trust me.