How do you go about writing? You’ve got a topic, you’ve made the time for it, maybe you’ve got a deadline…and you’re staring at a blank screen. What now?
I’ve been talking with a friend who is about to re-start some writing she began a few years ago. I’ve shared my 5-step blog [Writing: The Inner Edge--Part I] about stages of writing with a number of people. I’ve been speaking with clients who write professionally about their process. A colleague and friend is writing to deadline, and she and I have been talking about writing. And oh yes, I am writing a book chapter, with a deadline staring me in the face.
In light of all of that, here are my (self-taught) tricks of the trade:
1. Set goals. Goals help give us direction. SMART goals [specific, measured, action-oriented, realistic, timed], as we know, are best when they’re challenging but obtainable. Some goals relate to completing a project. Often, though, it’s critical to set shorter term goals, whether for the week, or day…or even the next two hours.
2. Have human supports. Sometimes, it’s a friend or family member or person you trust who can read what you’ve written and comment on it. Sometimes, it’s just someone who can cheer you on from the sidelines. Right now, the colleague I mentioned above and I have designated each other “Goal Buddies.” With similar self-expectations and writing burdens, we’re just checking in via email once a day: What’s your goal for today? How’d it go? What’s your goal for tomorrow?
It’s no big deal…but a wonderful way to break into the solitariness of writing, to have made a public declaration and then know that someone is benignly just paying attention.
2a. Make sure that you’re really clear with your human support what it is that you’re looking for from them: It may be “Way to go!” It may be content and punctuation editing. It’s up to you to be explicit.
3. Segment your writing: If I look at the entire book chapter I’m working on, I can feel overwhelmed. If, instead, I take a two-page section, create a temporary new document, work on this section, and then paste it back in to the real work, I can focus much more effectively on just that section rather than become distracted and overwhelmed by everything else that needs attention.
4. Easiest first. Whether it’s segmenting, or tackling a particular aspect of the writing, start with the part that—today—feels easiest to create, influence, or change. It keeps you productive and builds self-confidence (or, technically, self-efficacy: your belief that you can do something particular…like writing).
5.Keep separating the judge from the process. As I wrote before, it’s so tempting to be an editor of your work from the very beginning. But that can shut you down before you even start. There will be plenty of time, later, to review and revise.
6. Take breaks. Intentional ones, not just checking email, Facebook, YouTube. It may be short stretch breaks—there’s all the information about not sitting too long—or it may be recognizing just how long at a time you really can concentrate.
There’s a method called the “Pomodoro Technique”: 25 minutes of task focus; 5 minute break; repeat. After four cycles (two hours), take a longer break.
The particular 25 to 5 ratio may or may not work well if you’re in the middle of a deep, thought-demanding writing process. It may be better for specific tasks.
But the principle is the same: Intersperse some recovery time in with your focused time. Take a real break every once in a while.
For myself, that two hours “rule” works very well. After that, I need to do something really different for a while, before I’ve got the focus to re-engage the writing.
6a. Writing is exhausting. It seems absurd that you can become tired “just” from sitting there and writing—but it’s true.
7. Be disciplined. You do need to show up…to your screen. If you’re going to write, you can’t just wait for the Muse to inspire you. A poet who wrote daily once commented, “It helps to be there when a good idea comes along.”
8. Appreciate “pencil sharpening”. In the “good old days” of writing by hand, one could defer writing until all the pencils were sharpened to the just right point, lined up…and then write. It’s amazing how many tasks one can get done under the guise of “pencil sharpening.” True confession: This blog is a pencil sharpener in its own right. I should be working on that book chapter! But…I’m being productive in this way…and I’ll get back to that chapter.
9. Know yourself. What time of day is most productive for you? What kinds of rewards can you give yourself? Which foods and drinks help you best maintain or regain energy for writing?
10. Ride the roller coaster. It’s guaranteed: At some points your writing will look brilliant to you; at other times, it will seem dull, stupid, already-been-said. That’s just the highs and lows of writing. Get used to it.
11. Appreciate your writing self. Different aspects of ourselves want to be recognized and valued by ourselves. This kind of self-validation will give you energy for tomorrow and the next day, the next assignment, the next project.
Now, I’m back to that book chapter! See you next time.
As always, if you’ve got thoughts or questions you’d like to direct to me, feel free to contact me @ www.theperformingedge.com