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My 20on/10off Writing Plan & ROW80 Check-in

Fort Worth tunnel. (photo by Tui Snider)
Fort Worth tunnel. (photo by Tui Snider)

The Art of Writing is the Art of Applying the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair

One of the first online writing groups I belonged to was called A2S. This stood for “Ass to Seat,” and was our cheeky nod to Mary Heaton Vorse’s famous quote:

“The Art of Writing is the Art of Applying the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair”

While hunting for the quote’s origin, I came across a Suite 101 article by Vickie Britton in which she explains that:

“This quote is attributed to Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966), though there are many variations. Author Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) said, The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair. Same difference. The meaning is perfectly clear. If a person does not go about the task of writing and do it often, the book will never get written. (I once heard a variation of this quotation as apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and when you get up twenty years later you’ll be a writer) As Thomas Edison said, Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

But Sitting All Day is Bad for You

On the other hand, sitting for hours on end is bad for your health. If you don’t believe me, check out the statistics presented in this recent Lifehacker article, How Sitting All Day is Damaging Your Body and How You Can Counteract It . Scary, eh?

So what’s a writer to do? Like a marathon, writing well takes endurance. Unlike a marathon, you could be fat and unhealthy by the time you reach the finish line.

One of the first articles I ever posted on this blog (way back in 2007) explained how I balance the need to sit with the need to move. (Sadly, I don’t have access to my articles prior to 2009 – but that’s another story.)

It’s a simple routine, but it works great for me, and since I’ve lately met so many fabulous writers via Twitter, #commenthour and #ROW80, I figure it’s worth sharing again. In fact, I recently told Morgan Dragonwillow that I would blog about my “timer technique,” so here you go, Morgan, this post’s for you!

My 20on/10off Writing Plan

Each day, I create three to-do lists, side by side. The lists are titled: Online, Offline and Strategy. I don’t put errands here or anything else that will take me away from the house. Also, I don’t try to prioritize the lists. They are in no particular order. The main thing is to empty my brain of as many niggling little things as possible.

The Online list gets all the stuff I want to do on the computer.

The Offline list gets stuff that I want to do around the house and yard.

The Strategy list is where I devise my plan of attack. I add to the Strategy list two at a time, choosing one thing from the Online list and another from the Offline list.

Next, I set my timer for 20 minutes. After hitting the start button, I jump into my the Online task at the top of the Strategy column, charging into it at full speed. Having the timer going keeps me focused and gives me a competitive urge to “beat the clock.” Since I “only have 20 minutes,” I am not slowed down by perfectionism, hesitation, daydreaming or aimless web surfing. Silly as it sounds, it works for me!

When the 20 minutes are up, I set the timer for 10 minutes, then hop right into whatever Offline task I have chosen. When making my lists, I purposely break down the Offline tasks into small pieces. For instance, instead of writing, “do laundry,” I break this into smaller segments such as sort clothes, wash clothes, hang clothes to dry, etc.

If I get my Offline task done early, I spend that time dancing, taking photos in the backyard, playing with the cat, or whatever else. I never go back to the computer early, although one unexpected benefit of writing this way is that my best ideas often come while I am doing the Offline stuff. This makes 20on/10off healthy for my writing as well as for my physical body.

TOTH and Other Variations of 20on/10off

For me, different writing projects have different rhythms. Sometimes 15on/5off or 30on/10off feels better. I’m not overly strict about it.  The idea is not to impose some rigid routine on myself, but to be more balanced. My main goal is to get up and move twice an hour.

That said, when I’ve got a lot of writing to do and I’m feeling deadline pressed, I switch over to my TOTH routine. TOTH stands for “top of the hour,” meaning that at the top of each hour, I leap up from the computer, take several deep breaths, stretch, drink a glass of water and hop around for 5 minutes. I know it’s not the healthiest, but there are times when it is the best I can do.

My ROW80 Check-in

I’m still plugging away on my memoir. I’ve transcribed well over 60,000 words now from my diaries. The challenge now is to figure out what to keep in and what to add from the many loose diary sheets and letters I still have from that time period. I’m treating the memoir like a novel, so rather than keep every random diary entry in (no matter how well written the passage) I’m sticking within the frame of certain story threads. To my surprise, certain story threads are emerging and so I am going to weave those elements in.

My main feeling right now, however, is OVERWHELM! I’m nervous about having a manuscript ready by May, so I’m pushing myself to work on this project in every spare moment – even writing for a couple of hours without a break. So – I plan to take my own advice and stick to a 20on/10off schedule and try to take it piece by piece.

Here’s my plan: The book covers a period of 16 months. So, for each week of February, I will concentrate on a four month period. This week, I’m concentrating on the first four months worth of diaries. By the end of February, I should have a clear sense of where the book is too heavy and where it is threadbare.

I look forward to making the rounds and getting to know more of the #ROW80 crew. See you for the Sunday check-in! :)

Tui Snider
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Published inTravel Photo Essays


  1. I really like these writing strategies. I have a hard time balancing my blogging, following other blogs, my day job, and keeping up with housework. I don’t know how mom’s do it.


    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Thanks Chasing Joy,

      From where I sit it looks like you do a great job juggling everything in life. I am always on the lookout for better ways to balance things, though.

      Thanks for stopping by! :)

  2. What a grand strategy… way to make things work. (You are so creative!)

    I am glad you are enjoying the ROW80 experience. I love it, too!!

    Big hugs!

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Heya JJS!

      That’s high praise coming from someone as creative as you, thanks! :)

      Hugs back atcha!

  3. Tui,
    I love your idea of 20 on/ 10 off. But I know for me I wouldn’t get much done that way. I try to get myself out to exercise and have social interaction during my day instead so that I have both physical, mental, and social energy to burn when I go to write. I just enjoyed learning what you do so if I meet a writer in the future who could use it I could pass on something that works! Keep up with your goals! You are doing great!

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Jayrod,

      Yes – everyone’s style is different! On my days off, I rarely get online at all and just dive into the outside world as much as possible. (Although I tend to post a lot of photos from my iPhone while I’m out!)

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting on my blog. I love meeting new people here and will pop by your blog later today and say hi.


  4. I absolutely love your 20on/10off process. What a great idea to be as productive with your home stuff as well as your writing stuff AND to keep yourself moving and creative. Woot woot! Thanks so much for sharing your process.
    You’ve got a great plan in place. Here’s to knocking it out of the park!!!

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Thanks, Natalie!

      I am trying my hardest, that’s for sure!

      I’m not good with sports analogies, but I definitely wanna hit this one over the fence, slam dunk it, spike it, stuff it and if I knew more about curling or cricket I’d wanna figuratively do whatever they try to do with my writing, too. Phew! Working up a sweat with all these metaphors, yo! Yeah, baby, my game face is ON! (Um, you know, as a writer. Like we really need a game face when there’s no one watching us 99% of the time.)

      I’ll have to head over and check out your ROW80 check-in, too. :)


  5. Boyd Lemon Boyd Lemon

    I have found that I am a very productive writer while traveling–train, ship or plane. There are fewer distractions than writing at home. My first draft of my first book was written almost exclusive on the train.

    Boyd Lemon-Author of “Eat, Walk, Write: An American Senior’s Year of Adventure in Paris and Tuscany,” and “Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages,” the author’s journey to understand his role in the destruction of his three marriages. Information and excerpts: Travel blog:

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Boyd,

      Oh, yeah! Trains are wonderful! Reminds me, too, that pre-9/11, I used to ride the ferry back and forth from Seattle to a neighboring island for hours at a time, staring out at the water, reading and writing.

      Thanks for the tweet love and for stopping by and commenting! :)

  6. Tui, I love your advice about time on and time off. I think that is one of the reasons I am drawn to the #wordmongering group on twitter. I sit down for the 30min and then, when its over I run around switching up loads of laundry from wash to dryer, feed the dogs, do some dishes, make a snack, dust mop (I have a beagle – this needs to be done multiple times a day), and, well, you get the idea! I usually don’t take the full 30 to run errands, I jump back on to twitter to check in with everyone before we start a new sprint, but I get a lot more done when I make a concerted effort to use the time wisely.

    I think you have a good plan with your memoir, but pace yourself. Remember you have THREE months and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, look at how much you accomplished ALREADY! Take it piece by piece, or, as Anne Lamott wrote in her book, “bird by bird”… you’ll get there! I’m so happy you have so much content to work with!!

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Nicole,

      I get a lot of creative energy from the #wordmongering & #commenthour crews on Twitter, too. It’s great! :)

      Thanks for the encouragement. I am kinda weird when it comes to deadlines. I often turn pieces into editors a day or two before they are due because I dread being late for anything. But you are right… “bird by bird” is the best writing mantra I can have right now!

      Oh – thanks for the #NiNoCon info. I will be there! :)


  7. Wow… Love this! I actually bought a time this week but haven’t used it much. I love your idea of 20on/10off though my timing will probably be a little different. I also like the lists that you make at the beginning of the day. That I am definitely going to start doing. Thanks for the mention in your post.

    As always, love your posts!


    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Thanks again for the inspiration, Morgan! :)

      Tweeting with you helps keep my workdays upbeat and fun (and reminds me to keep drinking tea.)

      Let me know if you give the ole 20on/10off routine a try. Hope it helps you!


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