“Now Harry, you must know all about Muggles. Tell me, what exactly is the function of a rubber duck?“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – Film
Hello readers, and welcome back! It’s the start of another week, and that means we’ve got more Being a Better Writer to discuss as well as another week full of writing to look forward to! And coming off of a pretty good weekend as well! Good for me because I picked up several new 5-star reviews on both Colony and Axtara … and on a note unrelated to writing because E3 was this weekend and I finally got to see one game that I’m excited for the release of this year: Halo Infinite. I’m not going to geek about the game here, other than to say I’m excited, but I’m also a little relieved that there’s nothing else coming out anytime soon I’m interested. My backlog needs clearing (or I could always play another game of Stellaris … No wonder that backlog doesn’t empty quickly).
Anyway, hopefully those of you who followed E3 found something to be excited about, but for now let’s switch gears and talk writing. You know, that thing a lot of you are here for! So then, let’s begin, and begin by restating the question at the top of this post: what is the function of the rubber duck?
The answer is … well, surprisingly mundane, but it’s one of those mundane answers that can be incredibly useful. In fact, some authors swear by the rubber duck as a writing tool, finding it almost impossible to write well without one.
Which I realize to those of you who are not familiar with this usage, sounds amusing. Some of you may be picturing an author staring at their keyboard, writing away while watched by a well-worn yellow waterfowl, muttering under their breath “I can’t do it without you, Mr. Squeakers.“
And well, here’s the fun part. Those of you who may be thinking that aren’t entirely wrong. So, hit the jump, and let’s seek the answer to the question that haunted Arthur Weasley for much of his life. What is the function of a rubber duck?
And what does it have to with writing?
So, to clarify here, I am actually talking about a real rubber duck. The small, yellow, rubber squeaky thing that became synonymous with bathtime? Yes, that rubber duck. Though, I must clarify that it’s only an originator of the concept. A “rubber duck” can be a variety of other things, but … for now we’ll stick with the rubber duck. It’s iconic. It’s what this writing trick is named for. And well, it’s easy to remember.
Okay then, so what is the rubber duck, or as some people refer to it, the action of “rubber ducking?”
Well, I don’t know the exact origin of this one, but from what I’ve been told, rubber ducking in the modern sense is mostly the territory of computer programmers.
Don’t worry. This comes back to writing. And if we’re being honest—which we are—computer programming and coding is a form of writing, and just as much work as any other form of creation. Which comes with its own headaches, blocks, and stops where something just isn’t right, and the creator isn’t certain what.
Which is when the rubber duck comes into play.
See, a programmer might be working on a program, and it just won’t compile. Or some function that needs to work just isn’t. The programmer isn’t sure why, they just know that it isn’t working.
Sound familiar? Yeah, if you’ve not been there, then you haven’t written very much. Dead ends, backtracks, and putting one’s face to the keyboard are all a part of writing.
But then the programmer will do something interesting. Frustrated with the lack of progress, they’ll reach into their desk and pull out a rubber duck. They will set that rubber duck atop their monitor or their desk, they’ll look right at it, and then they’ll start to explain to the rubber duck like they would a person how frustrated they are, what they’re trying to do, what’s not going properly, etc. In no specific order. They basically vent at it.
Has this programmer lost their minds? Well no, not any more than they already have. What they’re doing is taking advantage of how we, as sapient creatures, talk about things to one another to both let off steam and to “recompile” their own view on things.
Basically, these programmers (and authors) are using the rubber duck as a “cheat” to trick themselves into venting to another “human being.” Think back on times in your life when you’ve been under a lot of pressure, or trying to figure things out, and just needed to talk to someone to “clear the air.”
All of us have done it. Sometimes we don’t need anyone to tell us a solution. We don’t even want someone to. We just need someone to vent to, so that our minds can release the constant pressure we’ve been feeling. And in doing so, in explaining to someone else what we’re going through, our own mines sort of “shuffle” everything, reorganize it so that it makes sense to the person we’re speaking to. Which, in turn, means that once we’ve vented out a good portion of that pressure, suddenly we may see our own problems in a new light due to that mental reorganization.
Venting. Clearing the air. This sort of stuff is helpful. It’s a bit like being forced to reorganize a drawer full of junk when someone else is present. Not helping, just … there. That extra presence helps us re-evaluate what the priorities are, what we’re trying to accomplish, etc.
And that process? That mental re-shuffling as we explain something to someone else. That release of frustration at something that isn’t going right that let’s us look at a project with fresh eyes?
That, to answer Arthur Weasley’s question, is the “function” of a rubber duck. To use as a stand-in for a real person in the creative process, to explain what someone is trying to accomplish, how it’s gone wrong or isn’t working, how frustrated they are, etc.
And you know what? It works.
Now, it doesn’t have to be a rubber duck. A rubber duck is good because it’s out of place and eye-catching, but it could be something else. As long as it’s something that A) breaks from the normal sphere of the workspace (IE a rubber duck “belongs” in the bath, and isn’t a common part of the desk, being brought out for the purpose of being new to the environment) and B) a creator can explain themselves to without feeling self-conscious or silly then it’s something that will work. This could be an action figure. A picture of someone, fictional or read (careful, those with stalker inclinations). A stuffed animal.
Anything that fulfills the requirements of A and B listed above. All it has to do is let you pull yourself away for a moment and explain. Vent. Let off some pent up pressure as you tell it what’s going wrong and how frustrated you are, or what you’ve tried that hasn’t worked.
Now, some of you might be thinking “But can’t I use a person for that?” And yes, you can. It’s just that a lot of creative endeavors are pretty solitary. Some of us don’t have someone around at all times we can rely on to just let us vent and kickstart this mental process. Some of us have people we could do this to, but they’re more interested in ‘fixing” things, regardless of any actual knowledge they may have to help with that. Or … maybe we write nights, when everyone is asleep.
Regardless, you can use a person for this. If you have one. The rubber duck exists partially because we don’t always have access to people for one reason or another. The rubber duck is a tool that will always be ready as long as you’ve put it back where it is supposed to be, waiting for another one-sided conversation.
But now the real question: Do you need one? Well … maybe? Maybe not. This is a physical tool in the writer’s toolbox that can come with varying levels of need. Some writers are able to simply work things through in their head given a change of scenery or a nice nap (me, I actually prefer biking to think about things or detach). Others, however, swear by their rubber duck, and spend many hours over the construction of each book conversing with them in order to more fully perceive their own stories and where they need to adjust—or not—elements.
But if this is the first you’ve heard of the concept, then maybe give it a shot. Some people prefer to use venting as a way to “reorganize” what’s in their head, and for those creatives, a rubber duck can be an insanely useful tool.
So the next time you’re stuck, give it a shot. Find something you can talk to without feeling crazy, set it up, and then explain what’s going on, where things aren’t working … whatever’s got your story in a mental bind. You may find that by explaining things to the rubber duck, you realize that a solution is right within reach.
So give it a try. If it doesn’t help, then it’s not for you. But for those writers and creatives where it does help, a rubber duck can be invaluable tool in their toolbox.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: The Rubber Duck”
One of the best in-character uses of ‘rubber-ducking’ comes from the TV show House. Gregory House *needs* a team to bounce questions off, so much so that one episode when deprived of his expert team of highly trained diagnosticians, he drafts one of the custodial crew. Doctor Buffer, as I recall, provided an excellent foil.
This is first time hearing about this but I’m almost 90% sure that the duck allows you to create serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is liquid creativity. It’s why we get so many great ideas in the shower. The mind needs to be relaxed and feels safe before it will produce the hormone.