Working from home means I can adapt myself to the capricious schedule of bread making. Dough waits for no one (and it will not rise more quickly if prodded!). I’ve loved baking since childhood, but I discovered bread more recently.
Full disclaimer: I’m an amateur baker. I’m not nurturing an ancient sourdough starter; I prefer easier breads, especially no-knead varieties that rise and ferment for hours, sometimes overnight. I’ve discovered there are lessons to be learned about the writing process from making even the easiest breads.
If you want to pause and start making some bread before you read on, I’d suggest Jim Lahey’s revolutionary no-knead bread recipe. You can find it here or with a quick search (it’s pretty much all over the internet).
Lesson One: Cultivate patience.
Breads made with yeast require patience. Yeast is a living fungus that takes its sweet time to inflate air bubbles in dough, making it rise. It also makes dough more stretchy and flavorful. In no-knead breads, more water and more time take the place of kneading to develop the gluten network (stretchiness!) in the dough. You’ll get a dense, bland loaf if you bake too early. In the meantime, you’ve got to go do other things—staying glued to the scene is like trying to watch plants grow.
There are parts of the writing process where you need to walk away for a while too.
I find it’s best to take a break between finishing a draft and starting to revise it. If you barrel straight from drafting to revising, you probably won’t make substantive, meaningful changes. After all, you’ve just been staring at the draft endlessly. You’re tired. Sadly, unlike dough, your draft won’t balloon to delicious proportions while you’re away. But ideas will likely ferment in your mind, and when you come back to your writing, you’ll bring in new ideas and a fresh perspective. How long should you take a break? It depends on your preferences and your project.
An overlooked part of the writing process is the very end, and bread has a lesson for us there as well.
Most breads need to cool after you take them out of the oven. I’m always tempted to cut into that warm loaf right away, even though I know the bread is still cooking a little on the inside. When I’m patient, I’m rewarded with a fluffier texture.
Likewise, when I feel like my writing is done, it’s tempting to just submit it and call it a day. In fact, it’s best to do one more read-through (aloud is preferable, even though it’s painful). This way, you can be your own proofreader, checking for any errors or embarrassing typos. Even though there won’t be any drastic changes, this step ensures that your writing is as polished as possible.
Lesson Two: Environment matters.
The way bread dough develops depends on its environment. For example, warmer environments speed up yeast activity, resulting in a faster rise. That’s why I take my bread dough upstairs in the winter (and when it’s especially cold, I’ve even resorted to warming it in the oven). This August, when I was making burger buns, I put them in the greenhouse-like entryway of the house to rise. It was probably too hot, because the dough doubled in size in about half the time that the recipe specified.
Similarly, the environment in which you choose to write matters. If you’re unable to concentrate, then the process could take twice as long.
Many people prefer a quiet place without a lot of distractions (say no to the phone!). I also know people who like to write in places with a lot of ambient noise, like cafés. Whatever your preference, it can be challenging to find an ideal writing environment. You might not be able to go to a public place, or maybe your whole family is sharing space. Even in frustrating scenarios, you can almost always improve your environment with small adjustments. If you’re looking for privacy and quiet, consider wearing headphones, hanging a curtain, placing a screen, or bringing a chair outside.
Lesson Three: Make it your own.
When you’re baking a cake, you often need to follow the recipe exactly to get tasty results. In my experience, bread is more forgiving. I often substitute a mixture of whole wheat and bread flour in place of all bread flour because I love the nutty taste of whole wheat. When I last made focaccia, I spread the dough in a larger pan than the recipe called for so that I could get a thinner crust for my potato topping (I was trying to imitate Roman potato pizza). Not every adjustment works, but experimentation sometimes results in delicious discoveries.
Likewise, I believe that my writing process must be my own. I love to learn how other people write, and I often try out their methods, but I only use those methods that help me bring to life the projects I envision. And though I’m recommending certain practices for writing in this very post, I also think you should feel free to tweak and re-imagine your ways of writing. You can even adjust your writing process from project to project, as different projects have different demands.
Here are some possible experiments. Maybe you will…
…do two small revision sessions instead of one big overhaul.
…free-write before you revise, instead of during brainstorming.
…make a “reverse” outline from your first draft to see the structure of your ideas better.
…record your initial ideas (such as on a voice memo) before starting a project.
…keep a progress log.
…time yourself to write in thirty-minute bursts.
There are general principles of writing; ultimately, though, you’ve got to figure out what works for you. Happy writing, and happy bread baking—I hope!
Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.
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