We’ve been working with the data visualisation specialists at The Guardian newspaper. We gave them exclusive access to tracking data from Man Booker long-listed novelist Wyl Menmuir. They used the data to tell a story about writing stories – the ups and downs, the dreams and the reality, the distraction, procrastination and ultimately the grit that it takes to finish a novel. We can all learn from this.
“I’m thinking of writing a novel and I think your website might help.” Emailed Wyl back in December 2013. I was working at a writers’ centre and had a hunch that technology could help people build a better writing habit. I had lofty dreams of a FitBit for writers and needed testers. Wyl was one of the first guinea pigs.
Not only did Wyl test the prototype, he used it to write a complete novel, tracking every step of the way from the first sentence all the way through to completion, publication and long listing for the Man Booker prize in 2016.
Wyl’s data provides an amazing glimpse inside the novel writing process. Though it’s ultimately one man’s story, there are universal truths, and his experience brings to life much of the research on how to set and achieve goals.
We also believe that this one story shows how tracking technology to help writers develop more effective practices and routines. Wyl benefited from being able to look back and understand how his writing process developed and changed over time. He could spot patterns in his behaviour and and calibrate his writing process as a result. In time, we want every writer who uses our technology to be able to gain an insight into their own writing in the same way as Wyl.
Here are some of the top takeaways to apply to your own writing.
Start. And then finish what you start
You won’t complete a novel unless you make a start. So, take that first step, write the first word, the first sentence, the first chapter. Keep going. Finish what you start.
This is something we’ve always believed and it helped to keep Wyl going. He even put it in the acknowledgements for The Many.
“to Bec and Chris for a singularly useful piece of writing advice (it’s finish what you start’, in case you’re interested)” – Wyl Menmuir, acknowledgements page of The Many
Goals are just something to aim for
You need a goal to give you direction, but you don’t have to stick to it. If there’s a better path take it. That comedy caper of yours might turn out darkest noir; that three-volume biography could end up as blog post.
Accept that your ambitions are sometimes, well, too ambitious. Wyl’s were. He planned to write 500 words a day. That meant he would have written his novel in 214 days. It took one year, 10 months and two days. But he didn’t give up. He was aiming for a complete novel and he got there. So, when the goal isn’t working, don’t quit, change the goal.
Don’t make time, find it
One of the best tools for getting things done is scheduling. It’s not a big, sexy clickbait headline, but the honest truth is that you don’t make the time, you find it.
Dig deep into your schedule and find the nooks and crannies for writing. Some of them will be good times, others will be at the ass end of the day (morning or evening depending on your preferences). But learn to schedule and soon you’ll squeeze writing into your over-busy day.
“If you want to do something big and creative, make the time to do it. Even if you’re really busy, even if you’ve other pressures, even if you need to be making money or whatever.” – Wyl Menmuir
Grit your teeth, your pen, your resolve
For most of us writing is hard. It’s not down-a-coal -mine difficult sure, but it takes time and practice to get good at it. So, keep writing. Build your grit. It might not get easier but you’ll get better the more you write.
Embrace the right sort of procrastination
Most writers excel at procrastination. I know I do. There lots you can do to overcome procrastination, so fix that mindset.
“A long walk out along the coast this morning hasn’t done wonders for the word count, but perhaps there’s stuff percolating.” – Wyl Menmuir
However, some types of procrastination are good. Wyl’s favourite writing avoidance activity was walking and we’re big fans of this too, as are many famous and successful writers.
“decided to take a Wordsworth and head out for a walk on the cliff path, which I hoped would inspire.” – Wyl Menmuir
Hold off social media, for a bit
Social media is not a good type of procrastination. It’s a temptation and time suck. Wyl installed SelfControl to keep him off the internet.
Understand your distractions and take steps to avoid them. You could make like Stephen May and use them as rewards for work achieved.
“Twitter, Facebook, Guardian crosswords – I’ll pretty much do anything other than write because most things are easier than writing.” – Wyl Menmuir
Ignore your inner critic
So many of Wyl’s comments are about self doubt. Your inner critic can be pernicious, undermining every bit of progress you make. Don’t listen to it. Keep going.
Rosie Garland gave her critic a name. It’s Mavis. Who could be scared of Mavis?
“In that state of suspecting my idea is shit, but trying to ignore myself and stick with it.” – Wyl Menmuir
“Beyond thrilled” Celebrate whatever goes well
Celebrate and give yourself rewards for anything, and everything, that works.
“May well have written the best sentence I’ve ever written and will ever write.” – Wyl Menmuir
And who knows, you might just achieve, or exceed your dream.
“So the dream has come to be – after three years if writing, I’m announcing The Many is going to be hitting the shelves.” -Wyl Menmuir
Thank you to Sally Jenkinson at Records Sound The Same for her excellent advice and for running the data queries, The Guardian data team, the team at Creative Concern including Marek, Sophie, Chris and Liz for building the original prototype. But most if all thank you to Wyl Menmuir for his blood, sweat and tears, his honesty in tracking, and to his big idea that had to be written – The Many published by Salt Publishing.