Everybody writes differently but one thing’s the same. The writers who have a more balanced, easier and less wrung-out relationship with writing have all developed some kind of personal system to keep them going and to stop them from stalling.
Before lockdown I used to go to the gym. I never really enjoyed it, but I used to go anyway. What made it bearable was doing a few things that passed the time and made it less arduous. For example, I bought some fancy headphones to play techno, I always tried to beat the crowds (I work from home so found this easy) and mixed up my exercise routine to stop me from getting bored.
The things I did were simple and not very imaginative – but they worked for me. They helped me to keep going to the gym even though I didn’t particularly want to. Now I need to develop a system for running outside. So back to the drawing board…
I’m sharing this with you because writing anything lengthy – in fact doing anything you need to persevere with like exercise – is exactly the same.
What is a writing system?
Famously, the writer Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing, I love having written” which sums up succinctly what many of us feel about writing. Long term, it can be fulfilling but day-to-day it can be slog. Which is why you need a system to help you do it.
A writing system is built from tactics, techniques and routines. It’s more than a writing habit – it combines all the things you do to keep writing day in, day out.
Your system can be simple, complicated, quick or quirky. It can involve doing lots of things or just one big thing. Systems aren’t static. They can morph over time as your life changes.
For some, finding a system that works can be easy. But for many more, it can be hard (tortuous, even).
Also, don’t assume that systems come with age or experience either. Writers can struggle at any stage or at any age. Inexperienced writers can find a writing rhythm quickly whilst experienced writers can remain guilt-ridden and blocked for years – and vice versa.
Some writers say they don’t have a writing system or that they’ve never needed one but don’t believe them. When you grill them as we’ve done on numerous occasions it all tumbles out. Either, they’ve made their system so habitual that it has become invisible to them or, spontaneity and a complete lack of structure is their system.
If you’re interested in finding out more, here’s some research we conducted among 600 academic writers that proves it.
Every writer has a system of some kind – unique to them.
Understanding writing systems
Think of a writing system as having two parts to it. These parts are inseparable, like two sides of the same coin. There are the things you do to give your writing forward momentum and there are the things you do to stop you from stalling. Building a successful system means gaining healthy balance between them both.
So, for example, thinking about my reluctant gym-going former self. Playing loud techno worked for me because it spurred me on. Mixing up my exercise pattern made me less likely to get bored and so, more likely to keep going. Scheduling in my gym time between 10am and 3pm to avoid crowds made me dislike the experience less and wearing fancy headphones even gave me a little reward and made me look forward to going (well, sometimes).
I did these things because I know that I’m the kind of person who likes techno, gets bored quickly and doesn’t much like crowds (and at the time of writing I like crowds even less).
The point being that systems are rooted in how well we know ourselves. If you don’t know yourself – you’ll never discover what works.
Finding a system is a mix of approach and attitude.
You find your system by being experimental – by trying different tactics and noticing what works – by keeping an open mind and by being willing to throw away approaches that don’t work with no judgement.
Keep going, stop stalling
So, applied to writing rather than gym going, what kind of things could you do to keep yourself moving forwards and prevent yourself from sliding backwards?
Here’s four areas you could experiment with. Think about the questions and how you adapt your system as a result:
1. Think about how you manage your time
- Would it be helpful to you to schedule writing time in advance?
- Are you more of the spontaneous type? Can you write in unscheduled chunks of time?
- Do you prefer to block out chunks of time or write a little every day?
- Perhaps you can only work in long un-interrupted blocks of time?
2. Think about how you set goals and deadlines
- What kind of goal keeps you motivated at what stage of the writing process?
- Do you set a word count goal, a time-based goal or a practice goal? What have you tried?
- Are you realistic about what you can do given the time you have?
3. Think about how you can avoid distraction
- What people, things, responsibilities pull you away from writing?
- Do you experience negative thoughts and feelings – when do these arise?
- Is there a way you can avoid these distractions? What action could you take to identify these distractions and move round them?
4. Think about how you keep going
- Would it help you to feel accountable to other people?
- Are you motivated by rewards like a holiday once the book’s been written?
- What helps you relax, wind down or clear your head?
Writing systems: In summary
At Prolifiko, we believe that productivity is a very personal thing. There’s no one way to get the writing done there are many. But there will be some things that work for you.
It starts with getting to know your personal likes, dislikes, persuasions and proclivities. Don’t try to be something you’re not and try not to compare yourself to others. Face your fears and embrace your quirks – because everyone has them.