Facing the blank page, getting started, overcoming fear of failure and getting into a writing rhythm are some of the biggest hurdles a novice writer can face. But there are some surefire ways to help you give your writing the kickstart it deserves – and they’re all backed by science.
It might come as a relief to know that it’s perfectly normal to dread that flashing cursor goading you to write. In fact, not only is it normal, but putting off writing that screenplay, book or film is written into our DNA.
According to the founder of Kaizan Theory Dr Robert Maurer, director of behavioral sciences at UCLA Medical Centre, when we approach a very large goal like ‘writing a book’ our ancient physiology can kick in and we react to it with a ‘flight or fright’ response.
It seems that we’re just naturally wired to avoid threats that cause us stress and anxiety – whether that threat is a shark, some stampeding elephants or that poetry collection you’ve been grappling with. And the bigger the task and more important the goal is for you – the more it’s likely to scare and overwhelm you.
The good news is that there are some tactics to use when we’re faced with a large goal to make that goal less scary and less threatening so we’re more likely to get it done.
Here are our 5 tips – backed by science – to help you get off the starting blocks with your writing.
1. Start with a tiny goal – then build momentum
It’s good to stretch yourself but setting a goal that’s overly ambitious can mean that you lose confidence. You can still have a grand ambition but approach it in small steps. Dividing your large goal into a series of tiny steps makes the whole process far more approachable and achievable.
For example, the first step in writing a novel could be to sit at your desk for just a couple of minutes a day. Writing just a few words each day gets you into the habit of writing. When you’re starting out, don’t think about your ultimate goal, just think daily – or hourly.
Ask yourself: what’s the next small thing I can do to move my writing forwards? Then do that. Make your goals achievable but not easy-peasy. When they do become easy-peasy – make them progressively harder. That’s how you get better.
2. Schedule time
A major mistake novice writers make is that they spend way too much time and energy ‘finding the time to write’ and not enough time actually writing. This frequently means that people never get off the starting blocks because writing becomes too much of an effort and too much of an inconvenience.
Psychologist Dr Robert Boice studied writers for decades and found that the most productive writers are the most efficient schedulers. He discovered that writers become less likely to procrastinate when they find a regular slot in their diary – and commit to writing without fail in that slot. Giving yourself a specific writing time sends a signal to yourself and others that this is ‘your time’ – you’ll be interrupted less and you’ll achieve way more.
3. Challenge yourself
One way to inject a little levity into a flagging writing project is to turn it into more of a game or a challenge. For example, using the Pomodoro technique, writers splurge words in intensive 20-minute blasts followed by a five-minute break – and cake (cake is optional). Other writers prefer entering ‘extreme writing’ challenges like NaNoWriMo, NaPoWriMo and 29 Plays Later.
If all that sounds like hard work, simply changing your working environment can make your writing chore more of a treat. Some writers find that simply splashing the cash on snazzy stationery can make them look forward to writing. Alternatively, having your favourite snack or drink handy when you sit down to write can mean you associate one activity with the other and so enjoy the process a whole lot more.
4. Write anything – now
Your inner critic is simply the worst writing partner you can have – I’m not good enough, everyone else is better, my writing just plain sucks. Nine times out of ten it’s your inner critic – together with her other mate perfectionism – that blocks your writing and stops you from continuing.
Psychologists have found that one of the best ways to hoodwink your inner critic is to use an unblocking technique like freewriting – often popularized as morning pages. Freewriting involves getting words onto the page without editing and without looking back. Just the process of starting to write and exercising your creative muscle is a proven way to take the blocks out of the way and get the ideas to flow on the page.
5. Be nice to yourself
Writing regularly is hard – and that’s why you have to treat yourself to stay motivated. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a series of small treats for each day you’ve written or a bigger celebration for every chapter you complete. The key is to use small incentives to help you keep going the next day – and the next.
Crucially, never beat yourself up for missing a day’s writing – that’s a sure-fire way to kill your motivation – but do return to your goals and tweak them if you’ve been over ambitious. If you’re constantly struggling to meet your goal, change it to one you can achieve then build momentum from there. Beating yourself up for not meeting a goal is the most damaging and pointless thing you can do.