It’s hard to be a writer. I find that writers, myself included, are in a constant state of personal disappointment over their writing. For some strange reason, we writers – both new and veteran alike – have this misguided belief that anything and everything we write should be outstanding, worthy of a bestseller.
But because perfection is unattainable, we constantly seem to be engaged in a battle of self-doubt. We often sabotage our writing by doing things contrary to our goals and then feeling despair that the words are not perfect in the first draft.
Let me ask you – is there ANYTHING in your life that you were good at right off the bat? Were you an expert pianist the first time you sat at the keys? Could you run a marathon without ever having spent one second training or conditioning? Well if this is you Rainman, then don’t waste anymore of your super-human time reading any further. You’ve got Jeopardy to win. But, for the other 99.9% of you out there, the problem with your writing is not that you have no aptitude for it, but that you are probably approaching it incorrectly.
What follows are six elements that I have discovered which will help you to become a bit more productive the next time you sit down to write.
Element 1: Prepare Your Workspace
Distractions are writing killers. Having the phone ringing or always stopping to get a snack or something to drink just eats away precious writing time. Even something as ridiculous as having to waste time searching for your notes because you’ve misplaced them is the last thing you want. Heck, even just looking for a pen and paper can throw your writing juju right out the door. It’s like jumping hurdles.
I myself created a little pre-writing checklist (like airline pilots) just so that prior to starting, I to try to anticipate and eliminate any distractions that could keep me from focusing on my writing.
Even if you are going someplace else to write, having your workspace all laid out and ready before you start your writing can make a ton of difference. For example, if I am heading to the coffee shop or the library to write, I check to make sure I have my notes, any chargers I may need, plenty of supplies, and most importantly my noise-canceling headphones packed up into my writing satchel. When I get there, I get my coffee and snacks right away and then look for the most out of the way place I can find – hopefully by a window with a nice view, and then set to work.
I also recently started carrying a little notepad, like those pocket-pads they sell at the Dollar Store. I call it my “Distraction Pad”. I use it to write down random distracting thoughts that appear in the middle of my writing session, those thoughts that keep on reappearing—pick up eggs, don’t forget to call the plumber, remember that you are meeting friends for lunch on Tuesday. All sorts of “outside chatter” goes in the Distraction Pad. I write them down immediately so they don’t clutter up my mind.
Element 2: Take The First Five Minutes to Check Email and Social Media
Before I ever start to write, the first thing I do, just to get it out of the way, is give myself five minutes to check my email, Twitter, and Facebook. If I don’t check my mail before I start to write, I know myself well enough that I will be distracted and keep wondering about any messages that I may need to address.
If in the middle of my writing session I want to check my email, it’s easy to tell myself that I’ve already checked it and that nothing that may come in now can’t wait until later.
It’s important to deal with these distractions outright. These are the forces in our brain that try and sidetrack us from writing.
I allow myself five minutes to check, but I don’t let it go any longer. I don’t want to get up in the middle of my writing session and worry that there may be something important that I am missing by writing.
Element 3: Know What You Plan To Write
Knowing what you are going to write before you sit down is so important. It means that when you finally sit down and begin, you immediately engage in the task. Knowing what you will write before you sit down helps you be more productive with your allotted writing time. If you don’t know what you are going to work on before you sit down, you will waste time trying to decide what to write and you will start letting your mind wander. Trust me – I know.
Once a week I try to make a priority list. I generally have three categories:
- Urgent and Important – things that NEED to get done.
- Urgent not Important – things that are looming but I still have some time to work on
- Not Urgent not Important – things that are not necessarily targeting my writing goals.
I put my writing assignments into one of these three categories. Any writing in category 3 gets crossed off the list for this week. I only pull out this list when there is NOTHING in category 1 or 2.
Then I take all the items from list 1 and rank them in order of urgency. Item 1A is the writing assignment with the closest deadline. This is the task I need to complete.
As many of you, I have a “full-time” job, and so I only have short amounts of time available for writing. Depending on the week, I may only get a couple precious hours to write and I want to make sure I am focused and productive when I sit down.
Element 4: Set a Length of Time To Write – Then Stop
Before you start writing, choose a length of time to write; thirty minutes, one-hundred-twenty minutes. However long you feel comfortable, the important thing here is to have a defined time frame to go hard at it, then stop.
I typically write for forty-five minutes. I tried to write for ninety minutes, but I got so tired after an hour and I started to become aware that I would constantly be checking the clock after that time. I had fallen back to my grade-school days counting minutes before it was time for recess. That’s why I suggest you take a break rather than trying to push through. Better to have three-hundred good words versus five-hundred mediocre ones.
And don’t use your breaks time to check your social media accounts or check your email or stuff like that. Get off of the computer and make a physical change. Your mind changes when you make a physical change. Do a little walking. Try something that’s mentally different – like playing guitar or drawing a picture, or making yourself a sandwich. I find that mind feels so much better after I stop to take a little nap in the afternoon.
Element 5: Manage Your Expectations
Before you begin to write, you must manage your anxiety and personal expectations.
Over the years, I have learned to tell myself— “my writing will probably be crap today.” It sounds silly, but this takes the pressures off my writing. I just tell myself that what I am going to write doesn’t matter now. What matters is to get words and ideas onto the page.
Don’t let self-doubt keep you from writing, even if you are confident you know what you want.
When you have no expectations for the outcome of your writing, it will be easier to write as it will keep you from self-editing as you go along. It takes your brain out of the slog and just allows you to be free.
From now on, when you start any of your writing projects, just tell yourself –“ my writing will probably be crap.” Then you don’t have to worry about the outcome. Just let the words flow. Heck, then when you do write those really inspired lines, it’s like a gift you gave yourself. But give yourself permission to write an imperfect first draft, or second, or even fifth. You’ll know when you’ve finally got it.
Element 6: Reward Yourself
When I meet my writing goals I celebrate. Boy, do I celebrate.
Sometimes I go down to the Kwik-Shop to get a candy bar, or head out to play golf with my uncle, or even meet my folks for dinner. Last year after finishing my first novella, I treated myself to a Def Leppard concert. It can be anything that says, “Good job. You worked hard and you have every reason to treat yourself.”
Go for a jog, walk your dog, go work in the garden. Heck, even go chuck your ass in front of the television and watch the latest episodes of Game of Thrones.
Be happy you finished a certain amount of time writing. Be kind to yourself and focus on what you finished and not on what was left unsaid.
Be nice to yourself, and encourage your efforts. It works. Really.