The Right Way to Write

The Right Way to Write

I can’t claim to be a writing expert. I don’t have any publications under my belt yet. But I have spent the last two years trying to make writing my full-time gig and I’ve learned quite a lot during that time. One thing I’ve consistently struggled with is my productivity. It’s great to work from home because you get to be your own boss. Unfortunately, the only person to keep you on task is yourself. In the Internet age, there’s a plethora of distractions that become huge time sinks. Many are the days I’ve berated myself for not accomplishing my goals. Most of those days, the only reason I have for leaving work unfinished (or untouched) is my own inability to stay away from Facebook, Youtube and video games.

It only takes an hour on Twitter (another fine technological distraction) to realize this is a common problem among writers. Even Neil Gaiman has mentioned on his Tumblr that he spends time answering fan questions he should spend writing (but doesn’t because Tumblr is more fascinating at the time). Determination is really the only way to overcome these obstacles; you can berate yourself all you want at the end of the day, but unless you prevent the same thing from occurring the next day, you won’t get far.

The only way to find what works for you is trial and error. After two years of searching, I think I’ve finally found my groove. After all, I wrote two novels last year in between the life interruptions of a basement being rebuilt and a major vacation. So in case my trials help another writer settle in faster, here are five tips for boosting your productivity:

Isolate Yourself
This can be tough. Not everyone has the luxury of locking themselves in a quiet room with their computer, or a notepad and pen, and not everyone works best that way. In the Internet age, even being alone in a room doesn’t mean you’re isolated if you’re surfing the web. By ‘isolation’, in this case, I mean finding a way to go into that private place from which creativity flows. Some people do this in the middle of a crowded coffee shop, using the buzz of conversation as a backdrop for that special level of creative thinking. I’ve even seen people do this in the middle of a crowded subway car.

Not everyone can drown out the hustle and bustle of everyday life wherever they happen to be. So find the place you can retreat to, find the method that works for you, and isolate yourself. For me, this means my office, with the door closed if there are other people in the house. Sometimes it means music playing in the background. Sometimes it means as close to silent as I can get. Sometimes it means turning off my instant messengers so no one can reach me.

Turn off the Internet if you have to (do it willingly instead of with programs that force you offline as I discussed before). Turn off the ringer on the phone if you have to (unless this will cause you to miss something important). Find the way to get to your writing space and go there whenever you want to get some serious work done. When life throws you into a situation you can’t overcome (crowded subway car or contractors tearing down a wall in your basement), accept that things are beyond your control and work around them. Which brings me to…

Develop a Routine
No matter how spontaneous you are, humans are creatures of habit. Schedules aren’t just for kids; they can make life easier for adults. Even if your routine is make a list of everything that needs done for the day and do it in whatever order strikes your fancy, I recommend having a routine.

Lists are helpful. I love lists. I’ve never made any secret of that. In fact if someone invented a job where they just paid me to make lists and make documents prettifying those lists and make spreadsheets of lists and databases of lists, I’d be a very happy person indeed. But I digress. Make a list. Include your writing goals for the day. Include everything that needs to get done before you can devote time to writing. If you know you won’t have time to write, make a list of everything you need to do so that you can write tomorrow. Even if it’s just a mental list (and mine often are), have one.

If you have the luxury of rearranging your day around writing, great! If you don’t, mentally organizing your day might reveal time you didn’t realize you’d have free that can be devoted for writing. That’s how I found time to write this, and many other blog entries.

Having a routine helps with my previous tip. If you have a certain place you go to or actions you take before settling down to write, it can help you get into the right frame of mind to get the work done. In fact, many writers have a ritual they perform before writing, some of them fairly elaborate. Myself, I try to get all my non-writing work out of the way as quickly as possible in the morning so I can devote a large chunk of the afternoon to writing. When I know that will prove impossible, I try to reserve a part of the evening to squeeze it in. This works for me because I don’t have a regular job, so if I stay up till 1AM, I can just sleep in the next day. My pre-writing ritual is usually as simple as making myself a cup of tea and switching off my instant messengers.

As always, what works for me won’t work for everyone. I found my schedule by rearranging my day until I got a routine that worked for me.

Work in a Clean Space
I know someone is going to carve into me for this one. There are plenty of people who don’t need an organized desk to create. It’s true, most creative people tend to live in a state of organized chaos. They can locate everything they need in that massive pile on their desk, and if you touch it you’re messing with their system.


Not everyone can actually work in organized chaos. It took me a long time to realize my writing space stifled me. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about that. My husband and I lived in small apartments for eight years. Our computer desks were small and pressed up against each other because we didn’t have space to spread them out. Try as I did to keep my desk in that state of organized chaos, it often got out of control. I wanted space to spread out and write on paper. I wanted space for a desk lamp so I could see clearly after dark.

It’s an unfortunate fact of reality that our workspace can’t always be our ideal workspace. I got lucky; we moved to a house about a year and a half ago. Suddenly we had a whole room to set aside for our office. I got half the room and my husband got half. Suddenly I had the room to spread out and rearrange my workspace whenever it suited me. For me, this was a breath of fresh air.

I did a lot of things differently after moving into the house. I started a regular cleaning schedule. Before that, I tried to cram a month’s worth of cleaning into one weekend. It didn’t work very well. Our apartment was never as clean as I wanted it to be, and that stressed me out. Now I devote every Monday and Tuesday morning to cleaning the house and adjust my writing schedule accordingly. The lack of dust has worked wonders, not because it affects my workspace, but because I’m not worried about it all the time.

So; work in a space as clean and organized as you want it to be physically. And make sure when you settle into it, you’re able to clear your mind and focus. Mental garbage is as devastating to productivity as physical garbage. A lesson I learned the hard way.

Take Breaks
It seems this should go without saying, but it’s a tough thing to master. I used to sit myself down and force myself to avoid everything until I reached my daily writing goal. I have to get this done, I would tell myself. If I take a break now, I’ll get distracted. And so I spent whole hours accomplishing nothing and feeling bitter about all the stuff I missed out on.

This is another thing that isn’t as cut and dry as it seems. Some people can write for an hour, take a five minute break, then write for another hour without any issues. That doesn’t work for me.

I take little breaks (two minutes to check my facebook, two minutes to go grab a glass of water, ten minutes to go make tea) at random breaks in the scene I’m writing. If it took me half an hour to get the first paragraph right, I usually pause and give myself a chance to breathe. I used to worry that would break my creative flow. I find now that moment to clear my head improves my creative flow. If it takes that long to write a few sentences, it’s usually a struggle. You can’t get the words on the page to match your desires. You fight with it. You gnash your teeth. And when it finally reads the way you want it, going on to the next paragraph can be just as frustrating, because man that was harder than it should have been.

So I give myself a moment to say yeah, that was tough, but I’m past it now. I walk away. I come back and it’s like a fresh start. Sometimes I write for ten minutes and take a break. Sometimes I write for an hour and a half before I feel I need one. Sometimes a break lasts a second while I check if someone emailed me back. Sometimes a break lasts half an hour because my husband came home in the middle of it and I decided to talk to him. But those breaks detract from my work less than I thought they did. And if I give myself five minutes after I’ve written a particularly hard or heavy scene, I don’t find myself wishing I was elsewhere during the next part. These little breathers clear my head, sharpen my focus and help me feel good about my work, rather than making it a chore.

Set Reasonably Achievable Goals
Finally, know your limits and work accordingly. It sounds easy but it’s so, so hard. Everyone’s goal is to finish. Finish a novel. Finish a novel in this amount of time (a year? a month?). But the goal of writing an entire novel can seem insurmountable when you look at it from the beginning. All those things that need to happen. All those thousands of words that need to get from your brain to the page. How am I ever going to do that? How have people ever managed to do that?

And after you start it becomes why is this taking so long?

My first novel took me nine months. At the time, I was immigrating from the US to Canada and couldn’t work. Back then, I had all the desire and passion to become a writer, but no idea how to actually do it. I used to work on five projects at once. Finally I sat down and decided to do something from beginning to end. I spent maybe two days planning. I had a vague idea of a plot, some made up demonic words and eight hours of quiet every day at the computer while my husband was at work or school. I cracked my knuckles and I spit out some 200,000 words.

After my immigration came through, I started working. I struggled to find the time to write. I struggled to find the energy and inclination to write. I had great ideas. I started to prepare another novel meant to be the one. It took me five years to write. Five years in between studying IT in college, then working IT for a company in downtown Toronto. I went through three jobs and lived in two apartments in the time it took me to write that novel. Then I realized how horrible the beginning of it was and had to start all over. Add another six months and another move, this time to another province.

In all that time, I struggled with the question why is this taking so long? No amount of accomplishment was ever good enough. Writing a chapter a week while I was working seemed a reasonable goal, but the novel still wasn’t getting finished fast enough.

I could have done better if I set myself reasonable goals. Expecting to pound out 1,000 words at the end of an eight hour work day, plus two hours of commuting, plus an hour to make dinner if it was my turn, wasn’t reasonable. There may be people who can create at the end of all that, but I’m just not one of them. Getting up early to write doesn’t work for me either (I’ve never been a morning person). But perhaps if I’d been satisfied writing 100 words a day or 500 words a day, I could have gotten through the work much faster. Because I wouldn’t have skipped as many days feeling like the task was insurmountable.

Now that I’m at home most of the time (I started tutoring students at a local school a couple months ago), and writing is my full-time thing, I can pump out a novel in two-three months, four-five if you count the prep time. And while part of it is because I have the time, a big part of it is that I’ve learned to give myself reasonable goals. On days I’m not cleaning and don’t have to leave the house for tutoring, I can easily do between 3,000 and 5,000 words. Sometimes I can easily do 6,000, once I managed 8,000 some odd words (then passed out from exhaustion). On days I clean or days I go out, I tend to do between 1,000 and 3,000 words because my writing time is cut in half.

I used to feel like interruptions to my schedule meant I couldn’t write. I was too bound to my routine back then. Now I’ve learned to be flexible. On days when real life happens, I don’t get to write. Some days I’m sick or the contractors are doing work too loud or distracting (IE whole house is shaking) and I just can’t get into that creative place. It used to be I kicked myself for not muscling through. Now I forgive myself for being human, adjust to a new schedule, with a new deadline, and move on. Being adaptable has helped me muscle through more occasions that used to leave me too frustrated to write.

And because I spend less time being frustrated, I spend more time being productive.

5 Replies to “The Right Way to Write”

  1. I hear you Beth, on the baby front!

    I have known you for years, Striker, and I am floored by how much you’ve evolved. I’m impressed, and I must admit, quite a bit jealous. You have developed a sense of discipline that I envy. I know I need to start figuring it out, but the motivation is so LOW. And the kids definitely don’t help that. I should hire you as my ass-kicking tutor in discipline. ;)

    I’m so looking forward to the next novel! I’m so glad you’ve found your groove!! <3

    1. I would say that having children makes things quite a bit different ^^;; I imagine I would struggle ten times more if I had kids. I am hoping to apply the things I’ve learned so that my writing doesn’t drop off entirely when we do have a little one in the house, but who can say until it happens?

      I don’t know about ass-kicking, but I can certainly be your cheerleader if you need one ;)

  2. I’m so envious of your ability to write that much in a day. When I was working and writing every day, I managed an average of 1500 or so words… now it’s a struggle to find time for 500. I’m home all day, but having a baby makes everything different. I long for quiet afternoon naps, when she gets to that age!

    1. 1,500 words while working is impressive to me; I couldn’t manage that. Hell 500 words with a newborn in the house is impressive as hell! Once you settle into a routine, or once the baby is a little older, I’m sure you’ll find the time again :) From our talk the other day it seems you’re already adapting to the interruptions very well. You’ll be finished with ST before you know it!

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