After many years working as a writing productivity coach I’ve supported all types of writers to get the work done. While every writer is unique, there are some patterns in the problem they face. I’ve honed down a list of the most useful and effective pieces of advice – and it’s these five.
1. Be realistic about what you can achieve given your life as it is
It’s normal to want to be the very best you can be and to look to others to help you decide what ‘best’ should look like. But the ambition you have must also be grounded in reality – in terms of the time you have, the effort the writing might take, the interruptions you’re likely to face, and the emotions that might get in the way.
Simply believing you should or ought to be able to write in a certain way but repeatedly failing to do so is down-right demotivating. As someone other than Einstein apparently said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
Just because you’ve been able to write in a certain way at one point in your life doesn’t mean you should be able to so now. Your life has probably changed.
What works for one person might not work for you. Don’t compare yourself to others and how they get the writing done – everyone is different.
Before you set a writing goal, consider:
- What can and can’t you do based on your life and as it is right now?
- How long has it taken you to complete a similar task in the past?
- What kinds of things typically get in the way? How likely is it that they’ll get in the way again? What new things might hold you back?
- How could you avoid each obstacle? Are these obstacles unavoidable (if so, accept them), or can they be managed in some way?
2. Scale back and start small
It’s far better to do something small that nudges your writing forward rather than trying and failing to achieve something too big. Getting a few quick wins under your belt is far more productive and positive long term than having large, overwhelming goals that never go anywhere.
Being realistic about what you can achieve often means scaling back on what you write – either the amount of time you write for or how much you write. Initially, the steps you take can be VERY small. That’s okay. Focus on the process, not the outcome.
- Think of your small steps as temporary. You can always increase the amount you write later on.
- Don’t anticipate the large project ahead of you – this will overwhelm you. When you’ve reached the end of your writing session, zoom in and keep focussed. What will you achieve next time?
- Go step by step. One foot in front of the other. Take it slow, make it small – it all adds up.
>> Read more: How small steps lead to great progress
3. There’s no one way to get the writing done – experiment!
It’s easy to fall into rigid mental ruts about how to get the writing done. One particular favourite is to assume that the ONLY way you can get the writing done is to do it in periods of long, uninterrupted time. This is normally unrealistic, rarely true and leads to perfectionism and inaction.
Examine your assumptions. Why do you think this way? Don’t remain wedded to any particular method and as you write, keep an open mind. Try out new approaches and be ready for some of these approaches to work while others won’t. Everyone is different – the key is to experiment and test ideas until you find approaches that work.
- If you believe you can only write in long periods (but can never find any), try a different method. Have a go at writing in a few short chunks of time. Write spontaneously and grab pieces of time when you can – otherwise known as time confetti.
- If you’re certain you can’t progress without more research, more reading etc, take the 10-minute test. Try writing for 10 mins. Have a go and see whether you can write – don’t assume you can’t make progress in a few minutes.
- If your writing goal isn’t working, don’t remain wedded to it – change it. Make it smaller and more achievable.
- However you normally write, try something different. Use constraints. Write for less time, write fewer words, write against the clock or use Pomodoros.
And as you try different approaches and test out different new ways of working…
4. Keep a writing productivity diary (or build up a personal data set)
As you write, observe yourself, your beliefs, feelings and behaviours in a deliberate way. Make sure you notice the things that work for you and the things that don’t – jot them down in a diary of some sort. At the end of every writing session, make time for a few minutes of reflection. Think of this time as an investment in your writing not as a waste. Ask yourself three questions.
- What went well?
- What didn’t go so well?
- What would I change for next time?
When you do this regularly you start to spot patterns. Consider this a process of personal data gathering. By noting things down, you’re building up a picture of what actually helps and hinders you and you’re no longer relying on assumptions.
Ask yourself questions like these so you can start to learn:
- Are there any patterns to my writing and how I feel about it?
- Do I write better on certain days of the week or times of the day?
- When I find writing “hard” why do I find it hard? When it’s easier – why?
- When I have a “bad” session – what does that mean? When it’s been “good” what’s made it good?
- Are my bad and good days related to any stage in the project? When do they occur?
- When I’m anxious, what’s my inner critic saying?
- When I’m distracted or procrastinating, what am I distracted by?
5. Be kind to yourself
Writing – both the craft and the process – is hard. Our brains are hard wired to crave certainty and avoid risk but the creative process is the complete antithesis to this. Writing productivity involves trial and error, randomness and luck which in turn requires effort, grit, persistence and perseverance. These things are hard. Accept this and stop blaming yourself for finding it hard.
- Stop comparing your first draft to someone else’s published, polished version. Stop expecting the first draft to be perfect – think of the first draft as ‘draft zero’ – something to go back and edit later on.
- Accept that you’ll most likely get stuck at certain points in the writing process, don’t beat yourself up when you do but do notice where you get stuck.
- Notice the good things too. Don’t just dwell on what you might have done wrong or what you don’t like about your writing. Take time after each session to notice and celebrate what went well.
- If the writing’s not flowing, resist the temptation to keep yourself chained to your desk. Get outside more, take more breaks, nap more, exercise more, take more down time.
- Notice how far you’ve come, not just how much you’ve got left to do. When you’re half-way through, celebrate how much you’ve achieved. This will create positive associations and so, make it more likely you’ll keep going.
>> Read more: How to keep writing using rewards