As a writing coach, I sometimes find myself giving different people the same productivity lessons again and again on our training courses. Sometimes these tips seem counter-intuitive. Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to the raised eyebrows they can generate. But I keep saying them anyway because experience has shown me that they work. And whether you’re a novice novelist or an seasoned research scientist – they can work for you too.
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1. Productivity is personal – there is no ‘one way’ to get the writing done
When it comes to finding a writing process that works for you – how frequently you write, how long you write for and what keeps you going – there’s no one way to do it. There are no silver bullets that will work for everyone and no magic solutions waiting to be found. Beware anyone (gurus, writers, books, professors etc) who says there is. What works for one person might not work for others. The most important thing is to find an approach that helps you right now and not to take an approach that someone else has told you to take. Always listen carefully to those with years of writing and publishing experience, but don’t copy their process, find out how they found theirs.
2. Having lots of time to write rarely leads to lots of writing
You might think the best way to signal you’re serious about your writing is to spend hours at your desk, grinding out the words. Some writers often ‘clear the decks’ to write full-time in long un-interrupted periods of time. But, having too much time to write can be as damaging to your productivity as having too little. When you give yourself lots of time, you put yourself under pressure to produce lots of work. This can be overwhelming and lead to procrastination, which in turn triggers guilt, self-doubt and negativity. Writing is a higher brain function. It can be uplifting but it can also be depleting which is why we often say…
3. Writing less is one of the best things you can do for your productivity
As a writing coach, I see that many people feel they should be able to write in long, intense periods of time (and want to believe they can) when in fact they’re not suited to taking this approach. Whilst it’s a method that can work for ‘deep work’ personalities it doesn’t for everyone. It’s often far better for your mental wellbeing to get a few quick wins under your belt rather than try to write in overly-long, tortuous periods of time. Instead of trying and failing to write thousands of words every day, try using constraints. Write two paragraphs per day – then stop. Write in bursts of 25 minutes using a Pomodoro timer. Spend less time writing and more time outside clearing your head. Small amounts of daily writing add up over time and build the writing muscles needed for a sustained writing practice.
“What works for one person might not work for others. The most important thing is to find an approach that helps you right now.”
4. Procrastination can be conscious or unconscious – defeat it by knowing which type you experience
It’s obvious when your procrastination involves spending the afternoon on YouTube, but when your procrastination is connected to your work (or indeed is your work) it’s harder to spot and more insidious. The desire to do more reading or planning before starting to write is always strong. Sometimes this is valid and sometimes it isn’t – so how do you know? The solution is to test the assumptions you reach. Yes, you might feel you can’t continue without more research or more reading but ask yourself: can I make a small start now? Ask yourself for evidence. What’s really stopping me? Run an experiment – try to write and see what happens. If your procrastination is more obvious to you then raise the stakes and reorganise your environment to design-out procrastination triggers.
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5. Expect (and accept) that your writing practice to change over time
Often, writers remain wedded to an approach they’ve used successfully in the past but doesn’t work now. They question why that approach isn’t working as it should. They tear their hair out worrying what’s gone wrong – why they can’t write like they used to. But your writing practice will change depending on what you write, where you are in the process and who you are. Your work priorities will change, your family responsibilities will change, your life will change. How you got the writing done at one point in your life might not work now but that’s fine. Accept this and be adaptable. The key is to find a writing process that works for you right now. Don’t have a rose-tinted view of past perfection.
“Small amounts of daily writing add up over time and build the writing muscles needed for a sustained writing practice.”
6. Done is always better than perfect
Writers frequently get stuck picking over what they wrote (or failed to write) in their last session before starting up again. This can result in a negative spiral of review, disappointment, disillusionment and inaction. One way to move past these negative sticking points is to splurge words on the page without editing – highlighting places where you feel more polishing must be done but moving past them. Always adopt a non-judgmental mindset when you do this. Also, try leaving a space of at least a week between writing and editing – always come back to your words with fresh eyes not disappointed, disillusioned ones.
>> Read more: How to set a writing goal: the ultimate guide
7. Make friends with your distractions and blocks
Writing is a journey. Along the way you’ll face potholes: barriers, blocks, difficulties and distractions. The best way to cope with these is know where they are and if you can’t swerve round them, know what you’ll do if you fall in one. In short – have a plan. As a writing coach I tell people that only you know where your distractions might come from, what saps your motivation and what kills your confidence. It’s only by making friends with your personal blocks and barriers and getting to know when, where and how you get knocked off course that you’ll be in a better position to avoid them and to deal with them when they arise.
8. Prioritising your writing is easy, de-prioritising other things is hard
Your life is full of things vying for your attention, your time and your energy. It’s easy to prioritise writing over doing something that you don’t want to do. It’s far harder to prioritise it over doing something that’s important to you like another exciting opportunity coming along or spending time with family. When you prioritise one thing you have to de-prioritise something else – and that can be very difficult. It can mean making hard choices. But if you really want to write, you’ll need to decide how important your writing is compared to the other equally important things in your life.
“Leave a space of at least a week between writing and editing – always come back to your words with fresh eyes not disappointed, disillusioned ones.”
9. Dedicate less time to writing (and more to reflection)
Writers are often so focused on what they want to write that they forget to learn about themselves. If we could only give out one tip to writers it would be this: reflect on your writing practice. Reflection is powerful because it helps you spot patterns in your behaviour and understand what works and what doesn’t for you. Doing it is simple. After each writing session put aside two minutes. Then, ask yourself three simple questions: What went well about my writing session? What didn’t go so well? What would I improve on for next time?
10. When writing makes you happy, you’ll do more of it
As someone who sees themselves as being serious about their writing, you might not think you need to enjoy writing, you just need get it done. But trust me, as a writing coach who’s worked with thousands of writers over the years, enjoying the writing process is how you become productive. You’ll always find it hard to prioritise writing when it makes you feel guilty and overwhelmed. However, when it’s something you want to get back to, you’re more likely to put in the hours. Key to this is finding a personal system that suits your life and career and not becoming wedded to approaches that no longer work.