To get better, focus on the basics

May 8, 2018 · 7 min read

Everyone has something to say. Say it well and be heard.

There’s barely a soul on the planet who doesn’t have something to share. And when you put it in writing, it becomes something more than a random piece of your restless mind. It turns into a real thing that’s out there in the world, whether it’s on paper or online. Anyone reading your words will understand what you’re trying to say, which is a powerful connection.

But it isn’t easy. You’ve got to figure out how to get yourself into that “writing space.” You need to coax those words out, move that hefty writer’s block aside, and untangle a jumble of thoughts. Often, the life of a writer (or an aspiring one) feels unproductive, with large chunks of time spent staring in front of a blank screen or finding new ways to procrastinate, waiting for those pesky words to come. To get better, you somehow need to get past all of that and push through to a more productive rhythm where the words just flow.

Back to the basics

A lost Manhattan pedestrian once asked, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” A wise guy on the street answered: “Practice.”

You could tell the same joke to writers. Yes, talent is usually involved, but basic techniques and habits are just as important, especially when it comes to improving a writer’s output in quantity and quality. Here are 11 ways you can focus on the fundamentals and improve your productivity as a writer.

1) Don’t fight the rhythm

We all have a certain rhythm, times of the day when we hit peak energy. There’s plenty of research about circadian and ultradian rhythms, but we’re all different. You could be a morning person or a night owl. Whichever you happen to be, don’t fight it. The 24-hour clock, having been established by the rotation of the Earth, is not likely to change. So just go with it. Write when you’re at your best.

2) Build that writing habit

“Aspiring” writers often wait for the muse to arrive from on high, but people who write for a living don’t talk about inspiration very much. Listen to what they say, and you’ll find the old aphorisms are so often true: Inspiration is 90 percent perspiration. That’s why you need to make writing a priority. Take on a schedule and stick to it.

As William Faulkner famously quipped, “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.” The important thing is to build a habit and make it part of your routine. It could be only 30 minutes a day, but during that appointed time, don’t let anything stand in your way.

3) Create some real space (or headspace)

Some writers swear by having a special place to write. A certain ‘clear’ space in your office with no visible stacks of bills or to-do lists. It might be a café. Maybe it’s a nook in your house. All that matters is that you like being there and that the location signals to your brain that it’s time to start writing.

But other writers insist that the perfect place to write is anywhere. Whether it’s noise, traffic, cell phones, kids, even sirens, you need to tune it out — you can’t expect the world to stop because you have something to say.

Who’s right? They both are. Because your special writing place is between your ears. The Hindi word samadhi, the ability to find internal quiet, captures this concept well. Get your mind ready to write and the rest will follow. It’s all about finding something that works for you.

4) Bring a map

No matter where you are in the context of a writing project, it’s very helpful to know where you were yesterday and where you’d like to be tomorrow. It makes today’s work so much easier. Take a minute to review your most recent work and set a plot or content goal that describes where you’d like to be at the end of the session.

For an article, set aside some time for research or to check what others have written on the subject. In fiction, get your head into one of your characters and figure out what they’re feeling right now. When you have to stop, set your next writing session up for success by leaving yourself a note about where your draft was heading.

5) Decide if distractions are friend or foe

For writers, having a browser open is either a blessing or a curse. Be sure to at least think about it how it affects you. If you’re always glued to your phone, checking for notifications, it may be a good idea to just give your brain a break by enabling ‘do not disturbe’ mode.

On the other hand, when some writers find themselves stuck in a passage or tinkering with the same idea over and over, they need a mental jolt for few minutes. When you’re in these situations, snap out of it by taking a break. Go to a travel site and imagine that trip to Belize. Or look at the plans for your dream house. Anything that will capture enough of your attention so that you can come back to the task at hand, with fresh synapses firing.

6) Exercise your fingers

We’re not talking about a squeeze ball here (although for speed typists that might not be a bad idea). This is more about priming the pump. Free writing. Instead of digging into your work right away, start writing about anything that comes to mind. Take a cue from your immediate environment, or your life, and get those fingers flying. Why did your baseball team lose last night? Remember what you love about somebody’s new album. If you’re really struggling, you could easily do 100 words on why that plant on your desk is about to die. A few minutes of free writing can shake off the rust and get you in the groove, making it easier to slide right into the writing you’re trying to do.

7) Keep it short

If you can fill up blank pages for hours at a time, congratulations. But for most people, short bursts of creativity are the norm. Be aware of the possibility that you may do your best work in 20-minute chunks. The only way to find out is to experiment. Try writing for 15 minutes at a time with little breaks in between. Then walk the dog or check the mail, and come back to it. If you try to concentrate too hard for too long, you may not be at your best. And don’t forget, 500 words a day still adds up to 130,000 words a year. That’s a book. Or two.

8) Fire the editor

You’re probably your own worst critic. Guess what? You’re fired. Especially when you’re working in early draft mode, where you just need to focus on getting the ideas down. Nothing can ruin the flow like your inner grammar hawk. If you catch yourself making a mistake while you’re writing a rough draft, don’t worry about it. You’ll find it again later when you’re editing.

Format, spelling, grammar, templating, all of that is important, but not as important as having something interesting to say. And editing is a fruitless exercise if you never get to the end or never even get the words out in the first place. So keep going and come back to the mechanics later.

9) Be your own competition

Don’t worry about the clock or the competition. You hear athletes talk about this concept, but this level of focus is helpful for writers as well. One of the worst things you can do is to compare your work in progress to a superstar’s polished product. For now, it’s apples and oranges, and there is no comparison — just distractions that will only slow you down.

10) Focus on the little things

Every small win helps build up momentum. Journal your progress or even simpler, use a calendar to mark goals and accomplishments. When you crush it, acknowledge that in whatever way you enjoy, whether it’s treating yourself to a dessert or a purchase on Amazon. If you hit a wall and have a bad day, ask yourself why and see if there’s something there to learn.

11) Write even when you’re not writing

Keep your tools handy. Fortunately, you don’t need a chainsaw or a ladder. But a little notepad or an app such as Evernote is a good idea. You never know when something will strike you and you’ll want to hold that thought. In fact, a lot of prose is actually prepared in your unconscious mind.

Above all: when the good stuff comes to the surface, write it down.

What are your best writing productivity tips? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Written by Neal Cavanaugh on May 8, 2018.

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"Taking Note" features insights and encouragement to help you regain control of your days, lead a more satisfying life, and focus on what matters most.


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You have something to accomplish. We publish stories, tips, and tricks to help you do it.

Taking Note

"Taking Note" features insights and encouragement to help you regain control of your days, lead a more satisfying life, and focus on what matters most.

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