How to Get Writing Done

One reason people do boring things for long periods of time is that they get paid for it.  We’re trained to make consistent, dutiful efforts when we have the right incentives.

Writing doesn’t have this incentive system.  You probably won’t get paid for what you are doing.  If you do, income will be so far down the way that it has no incentive effects.  Writing also lacks the normal positive feedback loops that work or even exercise has.  No one is patting you on the back and saying, “this stuff is amazing!” or even “thanks for taking care of photocopying those binders.” 

The one obvious feedback loop available to you – reading what you have written – should be avoided at all costs!  During the writing process, you can’t tell what is good and what’s not.  Maybe the Biblical story of Lot and his wife is actually about writing:  if you look back, you’ll be frozen into a pillar of salt and never finish that book or screenplay.  Writing requires constantly looking forward, not back. 

Here are four practices I use to writing done.

Have a regular place.  Pick a place where you can regularly do writing.  It doesn’t have to be perfect or inspirational.  For me it doesn’t even have to be all that quiet.  My best writing location is a café.  Some regulars are the Starbucks in Northampton, MA, Café Kopi in Champaign, IL or Joe on the Upper West Side.  It has to be an available place, so that when you show up, writing will happen.  (Joe is sometimes too busy, so it is only my “place” during specific hours.)  Lots of people write at home, so maybe that will work for you.  Know what your place is.  Don’t do crazy experiments on new locales – stick to what works. I wrote most of The Creative Lawyer at Starbucks on Columbus and 81st. There was a whole gang of us regulars there.

Have a ritual.  Imagine driving up to a country pond, hiking down the beach to the gangway, and getting ready to dive off the wooden pier.  Then you dive.  That’s writing.  When you go to your special place, you should be able to visualize the sequence of actions that connect you to writing.  You can’t be wondering how you will start writing or have other activities you might do first (like checking email, calling friends, paying bills, or whatever else might occupy you.)  Know what the plan looks like.  The idea is to have no discretion.

My ritual is this.  I sit down at the café, get my coffee, bring up a blank document, which I name by date and save.  Then I put on my noise-cancelling headset and turn on my playlist called “New Writing Music” and cue the song “Foundations” by Kate Nash.  My ritual involves listening to the same playlist each time.  It’s pleasant and numbs me out so I focus on making words.  (According to my iTunes library, as of today I have listened to Kate sing “Foundations” 203 times.)  Make your own ritual.  Super busy people probably need to include a specific time in their ritual.  Like, “first thing when I wake up” or “20 minutes before I go home” or “after I put the kids to sleep.”  I do best when I write in the morning, though just before dinner also works.

Track your progress.  I keep an Excel spreadsheet called “Tracking towards the finish line.”  The fields are: date, location, minutes spent writing, a few words describing what I wrote, word count for day, and a comment on how I felt in this writing episode.  This last comment is a useful way of understanding your own writing process.  Reading over your post-writing assessments after a month of two gives you insights. 

After I write, I fill in the spreadsheet for the day.  Filling in my spreadsheet is the most satisfying part of the day!  It is my positive feedback loop!  Even if I’ve written very little that day, it’s still something, and it counts.  Incidentally, my rule is that when I miss a day, I have to write “missed day” in a row by itself.  I don’t let myself  just jump from, say, August 10 to September 20 without comment.

Ignore your feelings!  You will note that my description of filling in my spreadsheet is the only place where I include the word “feeling.”  Writing isn’t about listening to your feelings.  It’s about writing despite your feelings.  Positive feelings don’t motivate you to write.  Doing the writing is what creates positive feelings. 


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