Why writing systems stop you from feeling scared

Over the past few months we’ve been digging in to how academics and students write – the kind of tactics they use, how satisfied they feel, what holds them back and what haunts them at night. We’ve had nearly 600 people take our survey and whilst the research is amongst scholars, the findings are relevant to all writers, and one thing is clear: a writing system is key.

The research finds that people who have developed some kind of ‘system’ to help them write seem happier, more productive and less overwhelmed and scared by the writing process than those who haven’t. But what do I mean by a ‘system’?

Simple systems

For us, a ‘system’ is the combination of tactics and methods that someone typically uses to get their writing done and dusted.

It’s what you do to get your butt in the chair, to help you eek out some time from your busy day, it’s whether you write in blocks of time across a week or a month or have a daily schedule.

These systems are always very personal and often developed over years of trial and error – they can be formal or informal, they can be complicated or very simple. Some writers just do one thing that helps them write, others do loads of things.

We found that the people who were most at-ease with their writing processes (and least stressed-out in general) all had some kind of system and that the benefits were clear.

The 5 benefits of having a writing system

1 You’ll be more productive

The data shows people who are certain of their writing system produce double the amount of written publications across a lifetime than the average scholar and over three times as much as academics who are uncertain of their system.  They’re also more likely to write a wider range of publications too.

Those who struggle to find a system that works – or haven’t really thought about the topic – produce two thirds less than the average scholar over a lifetime.

2 Your satisfaction will increase

Our interim findings show that the people with a writing system are also far more likely to be highly satisfied with their writing process overall.

Those who aren’t sure what helps them write or have tried a few things but haven’t discovered anything that’s really stuck are the least satisfied – by a large margin. People who haven’t thought about the issue also reported feeling high levels of dissatisfaction.

3 Your time management will improve

Those who struggle to find a writing system or routine are also the most likely to express a strong desire to have more time for writing. Those who were more certain seemed happy with the time they had.

This might suggest that having some kind of system also helps academics to better manage their time and leaves them with about the right amount of time to get the work done.

4 You’ll cope with barriers better

Whilst writers who have a system are still plagued by daily distractions, interruptions and management/family responsibilities – they’re better able to cope with their blockers and barriers.

The people who struggle the most with what we might call ‘psychological’ barriers to writing like procrastination and feelings of overwhelm are also the people who are least likely to have developed any kind of system.

5 You’ll feel under less pressure

The research finds a strong correlation between the people with a writing system of some kind those who report feeling the least pressure to write and publish – either external or internal pressure.

Pressure to publish – and especially pressure that comes externally, from management targets – is strongly linked to high levels of dissatisfaction but when people have a system of some kind, they appear better able to cope.

Finding your writing system

These are interim findings but they point to systems and processes being key to productivity, satisfaction and career success.

What’s clear from our own work into writing process and productivity is that there’s no silver bullet.

Every writer needs to find a system and a process that works for them. But from our experience, there are a few steps every writer can take to start to find a process that works for them.

Be your best EDITOR

  • Experiment: Test and experiment with as many tactics as you can.
  • Discard: Never become wedded to any specific tactic or approach, if it doesn’t work – kill it!
  • Iterate: Combine different tactics and methods, keep calibrating them until they work.
  • Track: Make a simple note of which of these tactics worked and what didn’t.
  • Optimize: Learn from what works and refine further
  • Reflect: What aspects of your practice work well, what can you do better next time?

About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | failed academic and ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.