Writers often ponder the nature of their own calling. Why and how do we do what we do? Most of us love to write, yet somehow we manage to procrastinate. It’s been a source of wonder for me and as I’ve wrestled and succeeded and failed at it, I’ve been collecting these thoughts and observations. I hope some of them ring true for you.
1. Write Your Words, Brush Your Teeth
If you don’t brush your teeth every day, your mouth stinks and your teeth will decay. If you don’t write every day, your writing will stink and decay. Think of a word count that makes you cringe a little bit, and set that as your daily goal. It won’t even take a week of this for you to feel the difference it makes in your life. It will probably freak you out.
2. The Accidental House Cleaner
I can find excuses to do things I “need” to do instead of writing. Hey, I’ll take a walk! I’ll clean something! I’ll trim my nails! What’s funny? These are the things I used to put off so I could play games. Yes, these are all tasks I must carry out, but I’m still using them to delay writing. Which, when you think about it, is pretty weird for someone who loves writing. Thing is, once I get writing, it’s hard to stop me. Writers are so weird. Or maybe it’s just me.
3. Don’t. Stop. Don’t Stop, Don’t Stop!
I try to not let myself take too much of a break. No fiddling with Spotify playlists (AKA time sink black holes of death) or responding to Facebook or Twitter. The rule I have for myself is I can’t stop writing for more than ten seconds. This forces me to work harder to get the flow going and keep it going. You can’t stop writing no matter what. Well, if my niece falls off the couch and bonks her head, I’d stop. Otherwise, you keep that train chugging.
4. It’s Not All or Nothing — Something is Just Fine, Thank You
Words on the page are always better than no words. Shitty words are better than no words. Confused words are better than no words. Stream-of-consciousness drivel is better than no words. Something is still better than nothing.
5. The Rule of Lists: Lists Rule
One trick I use more and more is the one I’m using right now. Instead of thinking I have to write some insanely coherent article with a beginning, middle, and end, I jot down thoughts about a subject. These little islands of text can be spliced into stuff later or arranged into points or paragraphs to create a blog post or figure out where to go next with my story (those normally wouldn’t see the light of day unless I thought sharing them would be a fun thing to do on my blog).
6. No, it’s OK: I’m ‘Researching’
It’s been said that to be a great writer, one must read a lot and write a lot. One of my favorite tricks to make myself feel okay about not writing is to read about writing. I’m improving myself, I say. I’m “researching,” I say. Bullshit, I’m just putting it off.
My goal is 1000 words a day at least. Those words don’t happen when you’re reading. They happen when you’re writing. I can read about writing on my Kindle when I go for a walk on the treadmill.
7. Time vs. The Nature of Desire
When you write makes a difference, too. I want to do most of my writing at night, when others are in bed and I know I’ll not be disturbed for hours. Of course people tend to want to sleep at night. So many times I’ve thought: Finally, some time to write! About 250 words into it, I start shutting down, like HAL 9000 getting his logic boards yanked out one by one by an exhausted Dave Bowman who’d rather sleep than write.
When you really want to do something, though, goddammit you will make it happen. People always make room in their lives for what’s truly important to them. Pro tip: it’s almost never what they say is important to them. Watch what they do, not what they say.
This is what Monster energy drinks are for. Or doing some push-ups to get the blood flowing. Shit, son, slap yourself in the face if it helps.
8. Just Start Writing
When I’m stuck for words, I’ll write about how I’m stuck for words. As stupid as that sounds, it works. Anything to just open the flow. That’s all you gotta do: open the flow.
9. The Perfectionist and the Editor can Kindly Fuck Off
The perfectionist in me wants to go back and correct the typos and transpositions. The editor in me wants to find better, fewer words. Before you know it, hours have gone by and I’ve only a few hundred words. Sure, you could argue quality over quantity, and you’d have point. At least, up to a certain point, anyway. Because a daily discipline is about getting it done every day and not letting anything stop you.
You have to remind yourself that writing, editing, and rewriting are separate processes that have no business occurring simultaneously.
Luckily, I have a secret weapon to help me out with this. I do most of my writing nowadays in Draft, which has a super-nifty feature called “Hemingway Mode.” With Hemingway Mode activated, I cannot backspace or select/copy/paste text or move my insertion point at all. All I can do is keep typing. Keep writing. Typos, errors, and poor word choices are left behind to writhe in misery by the side of the road. There is no going back for them until the editing phase.
When I want to edit or rewrite I turn Hemingway Mode off. This feature of Draft is one of the best ways for me, personally, to make sure I write at least 1000 words a day. I’m using it now to capture these thoughts about the daily practice of writing, and in less than fifteen minutes I have 478 words. I plan on using Hemingway Mode for NaNoWriMo this year (the first time I will ever take part in this event). I plan on having the first draft of my current story done before November so I can start something new. And if it’s not finished I’ll come back to it in December.
10. Oh, the Pain, the Pain!
When I was a kid, I watched Lost in Space and the character on it whom I despised with the burning heat of a thousand firing booster rockets was Dr. Smith. Dr. Smith was a whimpering, complaining, selfish fool who jumped in fright at his own shadow. Whenever he had to do something he didn’t want to, he would moan: “Oh, the pain, the pain!” It was all in his head, of course.
Sometimes I’m my own worst Dr. Smith. I can spend hours and hours playing an online game just fine, but then I sit down to write and, suddenly, psychosomatic carpal tunnel syndrome! Oh, the pain! My arm! My hand! My body is totally trying to bullshit me out of doing something it knows is good for me, because good for me takes me out of my comfort zone and disrupts the equilibrium its used to. How do I know this isn’t really carpal tunnel? It’s already gone. It got caught in the act and slunk away.
11. One More
I know the headline said “10,” but you can always do more than you think you can. If you’ve ever had a personal trainer, you know the value of having someone push you beyond what you think you can do.
Because that barrier that seems so real to you is just an idea in your mind, nothing more. That personal trainer is going to get in your face and tell you, “One more.” And after you belt out one more, he’s going to say, “Oh you made that look easy, guess you got another one in you.”
And one more.
Until you can’t even hold that weight anymore and he spots you before you drop it.
When it’s just you at the keyboard, you have to be your own personal trainer. You already have the voice of your mother and other various scathing critics inside your cranium, right? Surely, there’s room for the voice of your own personal writing trainer.
You can always write more, even if it’s just a few words. That’s still more. It’s still beyond the point where you thought it was good enough and could stop. Maybe it was good enough but that’s not how you become a great writer, is it? Good enough isn’t good enough (except of course for when it is, which is the art of knowing when to stop, but that’s different). There is always more in you. And the only person who can reach down inside you and pull it out and get it onto the page is you.
Check All that Apply
Any of these sound familiar to you? Which one is your secret guilt and shame? Proclaim it for all to see! Drag it out into the light of day so you can see what a pathetic, miserable creature it is, blinking and cringing in the harsh sunlight. And then bash its head in with a rock. Because you don’t need that shit.