Tricking Yourself into Writing

Simple Hacks to Help You Write Every Day, with Help from J.R.R. Tolkien

Holly Lyn Walrath
Nov 28 · 7 min read
Image Courtesy Virginia State Parks

I love the above image. It’s a photograph taken at Natural Bridge State Park, where someone has carved this quote from J.R.R. Tolkien into a walking path. J.R.R. Tolkien probably never imagined the life his work has taken on after his death — that someone would take the time to carve his words in a public space. In fact, I know he didn’t.

John Hendrix, an artist, recently posted a quote from Tolkien’s diary while he was writing Lord of the Rings. It reads:

Friday 14 April: ‘I managed to get an hour or two’s writing, and have brought Frodo nearly to the gates of Mordor. Afternoon lawn-mowing. Term begins next week, and proofs of Wales papers have come. Still I am going to continue “Ring” in every salvable moment.’

This month I’m doing NaNoWriMo. It’s where you write 50,000 words (or try to!) in a month. But I don’t look at it in terms of word count, so much as getting back into a daily practice of writing. It’s clear that Tolkien had a lot of things on his plate, including teaching at Oxford College, and of course, mowing the lawn! But he still managed to write fairly regularly, if not daily.

There is a lot of pressure on new writers with advice to write daily. And I get a lot of the arguments against it. Not everyone has the capacity to write every day, or even every week. But we all, as writers, have the capacity to find salvable moments.

There’s this quote from Tolkien that I love, “I have long ceased to invent…I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.” I find my own writing follows this line. If I force writing to happen, it won’t come, or else I hate what I write. But if I wait, ideas come to me as I’m gardening or walking the dog or even working at my day job.

Here are some tips for finding the salvable moments in your writing life:

Turn off the Internet

This is my #1 go-to when I’m struggling to find time to write. I delete my Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone, make time to go into my office and turn my phone on Do Not Disturb. It can be really hard to carve out space that’s technology-free. (After all, I type up my drafts on my computer. It has the internet.) If you really fail at this, you can look into getting software that blocks your internet during certain times of the day. But if you begin to develop a Twitter-free writing existence, you’ll get a lot more done. Reward yourself with a peek at Twitter when you’ve met your goal for the day.

Make a Physical Space for Your Writing

You don’t have to write holed up in a musty, wood-walled office. But it IS nice to write in the same place every day. Why? Because as human beings, we are tied to places and spaces. Think about your desk at school. A classroom or a library has a definite aura about it. So make a writing space for you, whether it's a closet nook or the same bench outside during your lunch break each day.

Write in Different Places for Different Modes

In addition to just finding a physical space where you can plop your laptop or notebook, it’s useful to think about different places for different types of writing. For example, maybe you like to draft your pieces while lounging on the couch, but for revision, you need to be at a computer. It can also be fun to break up your writing practice by say, going outside to sit under a tree and write.

Set a Timer

If you’re busy like me, this one is easy. Break up your writing into smaller chunks. Don’t feel like you have to write several hours at a time. But if you do write better in big chunks, make space in your calendar for that. Try to test yourself by seeing how many words you can write in fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, an hour, etc. After a while, you’ll get faster at drafting in short chunks. This also helps your brain free up space: When you know time is limited, you write faster.

Write with Friends

You don’t have to do this alone. If you need accountability, you need friends! Go to literary events or your local writing center to find other writers, or meet people in Facebook groups like the Binders/NaNoWriMo groups. Set up a time when you can meet and write together. After all, this is how Kelly Link does it! This can be a digital meet-up via Skype or Google Hangouts, it can be at 5am or whenever your group can meet. Set a goal word count for the group for each meeting, or just talk about your projects to spark ideas. When you make your goals, celebrate by buying each other coffee!

Write on the Bus or Train

Struggling to find time to write? If you commute, you’re both helping the environment and giving yourself time to write. Even five minutes between stops can be a salvable writing moment.

Utilize Your Phone

I know, I just told you up there to turn off your technology. But if you’re stuck for time or ideas, your phone can be a great jumpstarter. Here are a few ways: Use your phone to time yourself and do writing sprints. Use your phone to follow Twitter bots for ideas. There are apps that can help you with your writing, like the Hemingway app that helps you revise your prose and look out for passive constructions. But take care, because being on your phone can be a major timesuck.

Lock Your Office Door

One of the best things I’ve done for my writing is to create a system with my family. I leave a door hanger on my office door that says “I’m writing, come back later.” And my family, for the most part, knows that means I’m writing and not to disturb me. It doesn’t work for every household, but it does signal to your family: This is important to me, please respect me.

Freewrite to Get Started

If you’re stuck with a white blank page, the best thing to do is just start writing. Don’t think about what you’re going to write, just begin. Start with what you saw, heard, or learned that day. Or else just write whatever pops into your head. Do this for five minutes without stopping or changing your words, don’t go back and revise. It’s a great way to free up your mind.

Give Yourself or a Friend a Pep Talk

Sometimes, you just need a pep talk. So get practiced at telling yourself, “You can do this.” Visualize yourself as a successful writer. Really, this isn’t just hokey phrasing. Sit and imagine what it would be like if you met your goals. Imagine your book. Think about what you would like your book to achieve. Think about your characters. What do you love about them? And if you can’t get it together, ask a friend to help by giving you a pep talk.

End Your Session Mid-Scene

If you’re writing a book-length project, it’s useful to end that day’s work in the middle of a scene, even in the middle of a sentence. This gives you something to do when you come back the next day. You’ll be forced to finish the sentence. It can be easy to think about ending on a chapter end, but you might find yourself stuck when you return. So give yourself something to finish.

Track Your Words

It’s easy to see how much you’ve accomplished if you track it. Create a writing bullet journal, or just log into a Word Doc when you write. Looking back at the days you’ve written in the month can show you that while it may seem like you didn’t get a lot done, you actually wrote more than you thought.

These are just some ways you can try to work salvable moments into your life. Remember, not everyone has the capacity to write every day or even every week. But we all, as writers, have the capacity to find salvable moments.

Keep writing!


Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.

Writing Hacks

Tips and tricks for writing success

Holly Lyn Walrath

Written by

I'm a writer, editor, and poet. Find me online at www.hlwalrath.com.

Writing Hacks

Tips and tricks for writing success

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