Writing and Editing in Layers

Your first draft is not your final draft.

Something I’ve noticed with my students and coaching clients is this shared desire to be finished with a project as quickly as possible. 

They come up with an idea on Monday and then they want to be holding a finished manuscript by Sunday. Even though they have a full-time job, or they’re studying full-time…and like, who the heck wrote a good 80,000 word novel in seven days anyway?

Okay, I know Stephen King wrote Dolores Claiborne in nine days, but he was high on coke the entire time and Claiborne– I’d argue–is far from King’s best work (at least in my opinion!). 

So many emerging writers think they can skip the revision process. They believe that once they’ve finished the first draft, all they have to do is go back and fix their grammar and punctuation and then they’re ready to go out and start soliciting agents. 

But your first draft is not your final draft. 

I totally understand that people want to get their book right the first time, but the writers who are able to do that are few and far between. Just today I was watching an instagram story by VE Schwab and she was complaining how after writing 21 novels she is still disappointed that she can’t get a story right on the first draft. 

There are many stages involved in the writing of a book and each stage requires its own set of skills. How you approach the first draft of a novel is completely different to how you conduct a structural edit, and that is different from how you conduct a line level edit. 

Something to remember is that the first draft is the version of the story that you are writing for yourself. You get to be as loose and weird and unconventional as you like. The structure can be a shooting train that is linear and chronological, or you may have thirty semi-random scenes that you then have to stitch together. 

The second draft is when you need to consider the reader. 

You need to look at the work and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. You need to consider what the genre is and how the book is meeting or subverting those tropes. You need to examine the plot to determine if it makes sense.

Oh my god — people! — your plot must make sense. You can’t spend the first five chapters following a lawyer around their firm and then introduce a spaceship!

You must look at your characters and ask yourself whether they are being consistent (within reason) and believable, or whether you are making them behave in a certain way simply out of convenience, because you don’t know how else to make the plot move forward. 

Overall, does the book work and if it doesn’t, you need to start making a plan on how to fix that. 

For myself, I get my best ideas for the book once I’ve hit draft five or six–a fact that makes me feel rather ill. 

In those initial drafts, I’m usually exploring various ideas and looking at all the different avenues I could take the book down. I’m still getting to know my characters, and with each draft I edge a little closer to what the book is really about. 

The ideas and realisation that come to me by the time I hit draft five or six I couldn’t have had during the initial outline, or before I started writing. It is only through engaging with the story and immersing myself within that world that I’m able to form more complex and dynamic ideas for the novel. 

You need to spend time with a story to figure out what it is really about. 

Once you identify what isn’t working within a book, you can start fixing it–just not all at one. 

Our brains cannot look for character inconsistencies at the same time that it’s trying to establish mood or write witty dialogue. When you’re revising the work, again we need to work in layers. It is far easier to sweep through the entire manuscript with an intense focus on dialogue, and then a separate run through with a focus on fixing the plot, and then another round that focusses on developing the setting. 

When revising, it can be useful to create a list of everything that needs to be reworked and then opting to fix the bigger more complicated issues during weeks when you have a little more head space and time, and small, simpler issues for weeks when your schedule is more strapped. 

So much of writing is rewriting, but to be honest, I’d take revision over a first draft any day. First drafts can be fun, but for me, there is so much more wonder, freedom and play that can happen when you already have a lump of clay to work with–you don’t have to go out and find your material, you already have it. 

To use another art reference… 

Don’t be in a rush to publish your first draft, because the real joy in writing comes from watching the initial impression you had of the work transform into a full, realistic, oil painting. A portrait of a story that you couldn’t see before beginning that initial draft. 


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

Need help finishing that short story, novel, memoir? No problem. The Follow-Through Formula is a free video training which unpacks the five strategies you can use to go from idea to completed project.

To access, click here to join my email newsletter and you’ll receive a thank you email containing the link to the free video training.

You’ll also receive my weekly newsletter which is sent out every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog and YouTube video as well as other inspiring goodies that I only share via email.

Genre vs Literary Fiction: Why the Debate?

Most of you probably know the difference between genre and literary fiction, but a few weeks ago I taught a creative writing workshop for high school students and only one student knew that these two ‘categories’ existed. 

Genre refers to categories of fiction that contain particular tropes. When readers pick up a science fiction book, for example, they have certain expectations around the literary features that story will have. If I say romance/crime/thriller/fantasy, you instantly have an idea in your mind about the type of story that book will be.

Literary fiction is also a genre of fiction (yeah okay, I can see how that is confusing). These stories are usually realist (though they can contain tropes found within genre fiction); they depict the minutiae of everyday life. As one high school student said, during the workshop, they’re the types of books that middle-aged women read (which isn’t true, but it made me laugh anyway. In fact, the opposite could be true as 55% of YA readers are adult women).

Some people argue that genre fiction is driven by plot (stuff happens; high stakes) whereas literary fiction is driven by character (not much happens; relatively low stakes). This black and white definition contains a seed of truth, but both genre and literary fiction – if good – should contain both internal and external conflict.

The one thing every story needs is conflict. Tension is what keeps you turning the page, whether that tension is trying to save the world or buy back the house that your deceased father left to your stepmother. 

Without conflict, you don’t have a story, you have a vignette, at best, and a poetic reflection at worst. Actually … I’m not sure there’s that bigger difference between a vignette and a poetic reflection. Anyway…

The reason why I’m talking about genre and literary fiction is that, in case you aren’t aware, there is a general opinion within literary criticism that genre books are bad (because they are ‘unoriginal’ and rely on tropes and are essentially infantile because…aliens…) and literary works are good because they are original, subtle, sophisticate, and intelligent. 

Genre books are for entertainment and literary works are art.

 Genre books are to be consumed once and literary books are to be studied, dissected and pulled apart. 

Genre books are pure story and literary books are metaphors that critique our political/social/environmental/cultural/education/economic systems.

Of course, this is a total wash.

Most science fiction and fantasy books explore social justice issues and are informed by historical facts or scientific evidence.

Many crime novels explore issues around morality and power dynamics.

Romance novels can subvert (okay … or play into) gender norms.

Horror tropes also explore morality, mortality, religion; they can also reflect on our collective fears about war, security, government, and so on.

You get the idea; genre books can be about stuff too.

So why all the judgement?

Part of the original stigma around genre books comes from the pulp novels that began in the early nineteenth century with the production of penny dreadfuls and that continued into the 1930s before dying out in the 1950s. These works became popular because prior to the eighteenth century, books were incredibly expensive. The arrival of penny dreadfuls and later the pulp magazines of the 1930s-50s were cheaply made and widely distributed. The stories were considered lowbrow because they were so formulaic. They were called pulp fiction because they were printed on cheap paper made from wood pulp and because you’d only read them once then toss them away. They were written for entertainment and without much finesse. 

Does that mean they aren’t valuable? Well I suppose that comes down to personal opinion and how you’d answer the question, ‘Why do you read?’ and ‘What are stories for?’

Do you read as a way to switch off at night, because you want to be entertained, or because it’s a way to escape the mundaneness of life? Do you read to experience different ways of seeing and doing, to challenge yourself, to feel something, or to recognise yourself? Maybe none of these. Maybe all of these, and at different points and stages of your life.

The strange thing about genre vs literary fiction is that literary fiction is held in greater esteem within the collective literary consciousness (or maybe just the New Yorker, though that too is changing) and yet, genre fiction is the bigger seller.

And look, it’s easy to dismiss or put down big sellers. Look at Twilight and Fifty Shades. Those books boomed and following that boom came a wave of criticism about how terrible both series were. They were heavily criticised because they were popular. If only 2000 copies of Twilight were sold, would there be a thousand memes making fun of it or a thousand essays that analyse how problematic the central romance is? Unlikely.

The more visible a book is the easier it is to criticise.

What is strange still, is that most readers who read widely consume both literary and genre fiction. Why? Because we need different stories at different times. Sometimes we want to read a book that has been created with the intention that it be dissected, analysed, and pulled apart. 

Sometimes we want the comfort of seeing the small, domestic, everydayness of our own lives reflected back to us, or to witness how incredibly complicated relationships can be. 

Sometimes we want to experience the thrill of high stakes, characters that pop, the wonder of living through incredibly complex problems while having no obligation to resolve them.

More and more people are writing about the value of genre fiction and more and more writers are finding ways to combine the best elements of literary fiction (a focus on language and introspection) with the best elements of genre fiction (cool stuff) to create hybrid text that defies the limitations of both categories.

What is most exciting is that there has been a significant shift in the way that genre fiction is seen. In recent years, it’s found a new level of respectability. And part of this is because we are seeing the boundaries between these two categories blur. 

Maybe the stigma around genre fiction will never entirely go away, but the conversation around its value is increasing and as long as there is a market of readers willing to buy these stories, genre books aren’t going anywhere.

And at the end of the day, most of us have enough room on our bookshelf for both.


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

Need help finishing that short story, novel, memoir? No problem. The Follow-Through Formula is a free video training which unpacks the five strategies you can use to go from idea to completed project.

To access, click here to join my email newsletter and you’ll receive a thank you email containing the link to the free video training.

You’ll also receive my weekly newsletter which is sent out every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog and YouTube video as well as other inspiring goodies that I only share via email.

Starting is Harder than Finishing

A few weeks ago, I shared a blog post and video titled Five Lesser Known Writing Problems, and number one on the list was ‘Being Between Projects.’

Here, I spoke specifically about how starting energy is different to finishing energy. A lot of readers connected to this idea, so I wanted to unpack it a little further. 

Starting a new writing endeavour, whether it be a long-term project such as a novel or a short-term project like an article or essay is always a little tricky. 

Recently, I’ve become acutely aware of this as I work on my dissertation in which five chapters (not including the introduction and conclusion) will present the past three years of research.  

Even though I know what my investigation is about, every time I set down to begin work on the next chapter, my mind scatters. 

It’s similar to when you have an idea for a fiction novel or short story. 

You’ve got the basic premise figured out, and maybe you’re loosely aware of the topic you want to explore. You know you want to write about grief or female friendships, but you’re not entirely sure what the theme is. That is, you don’t yet know what you’re really trying to say, or how you’re going to say it. 

And that’s why beginnings are so tricky. We may have everything we need to begin writing– an idea, a pen, and a slither of time–but launching headfirst into an open word doc. isn’t always the best strategy. 

Obviously, this is why people create outlines or storyboards or cover their office wall in barely legible sticky-notes, because they need a little direction. We need to pull our scattered thoughts and the overwhelming number of possibilities back into something manageable. 

Beginnings are exhausting because there are so many decisions that you have to make, but outlines and sticky-notes allow you to play with all of these possibilities before you commit to a single structure. 

That being said, outlines are not fixed. 

They can be treated as a tool that is used to help you get started as if they were a map you only need to refer to when first stepping onto the track, but then abandon once you feel confident you are on your way. 

Of course, you can always tweak the outline, or completely dismantle it, as you write, because we all know that knowledge and insight is gained through the act of doing. 

Something that I’ve noticed in writing this dissertation is that the beginning of every new chapter feels impossible. Even though I understand my topic, research, and ultimate conclusion, I have no idea how to form that mass of ideas and information into a neatly constructed, accessible, and convincing argument. 

I wind up spending a couple of days word vomiting on sticky-notes and various word documents, wondering what to include and what to leave out. Eventually, something clicks, or I get sick of chasing my own tail, and I set down and just start writing. 

I give myself full permission to be bad. While other writers prefer to be as efficient as possible, I am a big supporter of Anne Lamott’s ‘shitty first draft’ philosophy. I don’t mind if I have to cut or reshape the first thousand words of throat-clearing if it leads me into a groove and argument that I can actually use. 

I use the same approach with fiction writing too. Once I’ve figured out the basic premise and story arch, I let intuition lead the way. 

While thinking about what it is you want to say can make writing easier, it is the act of writing that forces you to clarify your message. 

Beginnings are hard because your message may be simple, but the exploration of your topic may not be.  

When we speak about the theme of the novel, we can usually whittle it down to a single sentence or statement. And yet, the purpose of a novel isn’t to give us a tidy Instagram quote but an experience. We need to live through the lesson that the conclusion arrives at.   

How you are going to explore the nuances of your argument, regardless of whether you’re writing an essay, novel, or dissertation, is yet another thing that you need to figure out. (And here, we cycle back to the idea of outlines and shitty first drafts). 

Strangely, we often forget how hard beginnings are. 

We forget how researching a new topic can make us feel like we’re stepping into a very important conversation with no context. 

We forget that beginnings are about gathering materials and storing them in the linen cupboard until we eventually find a use for them.  

More than once I’ve stood on the precipitous of a new chapter while looking longingly over my shoulder at the chapter I’ve just completed; I am convinced that the last section wasn’t nearly as hard as the one I’m now faced with. And that’s true because the finishing of the last chapter was easier than beginning the next. 

But that’s okay because I’ve got an outline and a permission slip to write a shitty first draft. These maps may not lead me all the way to the top, but they’re enough to get me started. 


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

Need help finishing that short story, novel, memoir? No problem. The Follow-Through Formula is a free video training which unpacks the five strategies you can use to go from idea to completed project.

To access, click here to join my email newsletter and you’ll receive a thank you email containing the link to the free video training.

You’ll also receive my weekly newsletter which is sent out every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog and YouTube video as well as other inspiring goodies that I only share via email.

Fractured | Interview with Shayla Morgansen

This week’s video is a little different as I am interviewing my writing pal, Shayla Morgansen.

Shayla Morgansen is an editor, a lecturer in publishing studies and the author of YA urban fantasy series The Elm Stone Saga. A former teacher, she’s also completing a PhD in fanfiction studies and creative writing pedagogy.

We go deep into Shayla’s process as she share what she loves and loathes about writing, her greatest strength (and weakness), her passion for subverting YA trends, and what it feels like to be wrapping up a SIX BOOK series. She also shares the BEST analogy I’ve ever heard about the drafting process.

Basically, it’s just two gals talking shop. Enjoy.

To find out more about Shayla and the Elm Stone Saga, follow the links below.

FB: www.facebook.com/shaylamorgansenauthor/
Tw: twitter.com/ShaylaWrites
In: www.instagram.com/shaylawritesmagic/
Web: www.shaylamorgansen.com

Claiming the Title of ‘Writer’

After re-reading Elle Luna’s essay and book, The Cross-Roads Between Should and Must, I started thinking about commitment. 

So much anxiety around writing stems from our inner-critic, and our response to this criticism often manifests as procrastination, perfectionism, overachieving, comparison, and victimhood. (To read more about these five responses, click here). 

We use these exhausting tactics as a way to either prove ourselves or avoid criticism. If you don’t write a book, then no one can judge you. If your partner sees you working on your book at night and during the weekend, then they’ll finally take you and your writing seriously.   

Here’s where the idea of commitment comes in. 

When we claim the title ‘writer’ and commit to the writing life, the pressure to prove ourselves and the fear of judgement weakens.

Why? Because nothing is as powerful as a mind made up. 

Deciding that you are going to be a writer is empowering. 

Will this last forever? Probably not. 

You will continue to have self-doubt even after you declare yourself a writer because being an artist and making time for your art is uncertain and there are no guarantees. 

However, when you commit to the writing life, it does remove the angst of: Should I be a writer? 

Do I have what it takes? 

I’m not sure what to do….

And when you eliminate this internal dialogue, you can get on with the work. 

And you no longer have to concern yourself with the opinions of others because you’ve already made the decision that you’re in this for the long haul.

When we commit to the title of writer, artist, or creative, the pressure to ‘be there’ now reduces. 

So many of us refuse the title of ‘author’ or ‘writer’ until we’ve [insert lofty achievement here]. The only problem is that we keep moving the goalposts. ‘I won’t be a real writer until I publish my first essay’ becomes ‘I won’t be a real writer until I publish my first book.’ 

I won’t be a real writer until …

  • I get an agent
  • Sign with a traditional publisher
  • Become a New York Times Best Seller
  • Get a movie deal
  • Get interviewed by Oprah
  • Become friends with Stephen King.

Maybe you think denying this title is a type of motivator. That the ‘right’ to claim the title of ‘writer’ or ‘author’ will drive you to the finish line. 

Oh, dear one, it takes a lot of work to write a book and if your motivation is this flimsy you may not make it.

When you claim that you are a writer, right now, you show that your creative practise is important to you. That you are committed to the writing life. 

When you say, ‘I’m a writer, it tells us a bit about who you are and what is important to you. It clarifies your values; it shows that writing is a fundamental part of who you are regardless of internal and external goings-on. 

Committing to writing doesn’t mean that you’ll quit your day job to write full time, it means that you are committed to honouring this aspect of yourself by making time for it, thirty minutes a day or 500 words at a time. (However you want to do it).

Most of us have to do other work as a way to pay the bills, whether it be a desk job or maintaining a portfolio career that includes teaching and freelancing, but if writing is the currency that will take you where you want to go, then you need to make time for it. 

Being committed to writing means that you stick with it, even when your pitches get rejected, your short stories go unpublished, and three people come to your book launch.

Being committed to writing means staying in the chair even when it isn’t going well and your imagination has become a shrivelled prune and reorganising the walk-in-robe suddenly sounds like a thrilling adventure. (It isn’t).

We commit to writing because it’s how we express ourselves, process information, explore complex problems and feel the satisfaction of achieving a challenging task. It’s also playful, fun, electric, emissive, stimulating, and it feels valuable. 

We commit to writing the same reason we commit to anything — because it’s important to us. 


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

Need help finishing that short story, novel, memoir? No problem. The Follow-Through Formula is a free video training which unpacks the five strategies you can use to go from idea to completed project.

To access, click here to join my email newsletter and you’ll receive a thank you email containing the link to the free video training.

You’ll also receive my weekly newsletter which is sent out every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog and YouTube video as well as other inspiring goodies that I only share via email.

UPDATE! My experience writing from ‘near’ home.

A few weeks ago I posted a blog and video that argued against the writerly defunct mode of writing from home.

Convinced by my own argument and the research that inspired the original post, I decided to give this ‘working from near home’ thing a crack.

Want to know how it went? Watch my impromptu update below!


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

Need help finishing that short story, novel, memoir? No problem. The Follow-Through Formula is a free video training which unpacks the five strategies you can use to go from idea to completed project.

To access, click here to join my email newsletter and you’ll receive a thank you email containing the link to the free video training.

You’ll also receive my weekly newsletter which is sent out every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog and YouTube video as well as other inspiring goodies that I only share via email.

Writing with Purpose

Recently, I’ve been working on a mini-series that focusses on the writing routines of non-fiction authors. While researching the first two episodes of this series, I noticed one piece of advice continued to come up: writing is easier when you have something to say. 

This may sound like it’s only relevant to non-fiction, but it’s just as important when writing fiction. 

When you first begin a writing project, you may know what it is you want to say (i.e writing from experience) or you might simply be interested in learning more about a topic. 

Often, for me, I have a loose idea of what I want to say, but it is in the act of writing and researching that the message solidifies, become more complex, or changes entirely. 

I wish I was the type of writer who could clarify their argument or idea simply by thinking about the story or essay, or by conducting research, but it is in the act of writing that I am forced to articulate the connections I’m making and it’s how I assess the strength of my argument or story. 

Is this efficient?

Not if you consider the volume of words that may wind up getting cut, but if writing is the process that helps me get to the conclusion, then maybe it is efficient. Maybe it helps me arrive at ‘The End’ sooner than I could have if I’d only thought about the story. (Obviously, if you only think about your book you’ll never finish it because you never started it!).

In the end, we all pay the same toll fee, just at different ends of the highway. Some writers spend years researching, brainstorming, and outlining before they begin writing. The result is that they produce a very good first draft. Other writers may spend the same number of years toggling between researching, thinking, writing, and editing, producing multiple drafts along the way. 

Is one better than the other? Nope. It’s just a matter of process.

So why does having something to say – no matter how you go about figuring that out – make writing easier?

#1 Because it can guide your structure. 

When you know what your ultimate conclusion is, you can walk backwards and figure out what steps (or chapters/scenes) would lead to this result.  

#2 It keeps you focussed. 

When you start wandering off the path, your message is the beacon that guides you back. It helps you stay clear on what to include and exclude. 

When working on non-fiction pieces, you can follow the basic structure of …

  1. Provide context (introduce the problem/event/scenario)
  2. Provide evidence and clarify your argument
  3. Arrive at a conclusion (and potentially give the reader an action step)

When writing fiction, you need to consider whether the overall story or the individual scenes work together to support the message or theme you are exploring. 

While it is easy to write a loose and spooling essay or story, it is much more difficult to figure out what it is you have to say. 

So, how do you have something to say?

By doing stuff. 

By living life. 

By having experiences, making mistakes, taking risks, reading books, talking to smart people, thinking deeply about big problems, and looking for connections. 

Having a writing practise will make you a better writer. You’ll learn how to start projects and most importantly how to finish them. You’ll get an understanding of sentence structure and language, of how to build an argument or craft a compelling story. It will help you figure out a process and routine that works for you. 

Writing can help you figure out your thoughts around a particular topic, but that spark of inspiration, that desperation to share an insight, story, or message will most likely come from living. 

When you know what it is you have to say, writing then becomes the container for saying it.  


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

Need help finishing that short story, novel, memoir? No problem. The Follow-Through Formula is a free video training which unpacks the five strategies you can use to go from idea to completed project.

To access, click here to join my email newsletter and you’ll receive a thank you email containing the link to the free video training.

You’ll also receive my weekly newsletter which is sent out every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog and YouTube video as well as other inspiring goodies that I only share via email.

Ryan Holiday’s Writing Routine

If you missed last week’s post which was all about Gretchen Rubin’s writing routine, then you may not realise that I am doing a mini-series on the creative practises of non-fiction authors. This week, I’m focussing on Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday is an American author whose books focus on bringing stoic philosophy into the modern-day. He is also a PR strategist, bookstore owner (yes!), and he is the host of The Daily Stoic podcast. 

Ryan takes his writing seriously, and for that reason, he has chosen to set professional work hours. He doesn’t work hurriedly to meet a deadline or wait until inspiration strikes and he doesn’t write in his pyjamas while working in bed. 

Instead, he writes every day and he treats it like work. Ryan is clearest and less likely to be interrupted in the morning so that’s when he writes. 

In treating it like a job, Ryan gets up, has a shower, gets dressed and then goes to his office, which is outside of the home, as though he were going to a conventional workplace. Ryan used to work at his home office but decided to relocate to a space above his bookstore, moving all of his books and work desk to the new location where he can write his books and blogs and recorded his podcast. 

In fact, he doesn’t even have a desk in his home anymore. 

Once he arrives at his office, he begins work on whatever writing task he has assigned himself that day, working from eight or nine until eleven or twelve. 

Three hours and he’s done. 

He finds the idea of working in a café bizarre as he values being able to stand up, pace, move around and stare. He needs to spread out his research materials, turn the music up or head out for a walk. 

In terms of structure, Ryan’s books are broken up into small sections. For each section, he creates a new Google Doc, but eventually, he joins them all together into one Word Doc, switching from writing online to offline for editing and re-writing. 

During his research phase, his favourite tool is 4×6 notecards which are stored in photo boxes. He outlines and organizes the entire book using these cards which are filed according to different parts of the project, or which subsection the thought or information is relevant to. 

Each of his books is made up of thousands of notecards which are based upon the books he’s read, interviews he has conducted, or his reflections, conclusions, or observations. 

Each card is done by hand unless the passage is especially lengthy. 

He knows that all of this research is actually starting to become something when he exports the documents from Google to Microsoft. 

Interesting, he uses music as a way to block outside noise and relax his mind. He will often pick one embarrassing song he’d never admit to listening to, and play that on repeat. There are few albums he’s been able to do this with that have the same effect as a single song to support him into getting into a state of flow. However, he considers some songs sacred. For example, he’d never use Alice in Chain’s Nutshell for this practice. (I LOVE that song!). He’ll stick with this one song until, for whatever reason, it stops working for him. 

His two pre-writing rituals include avoiding email and writing in his journal before switching over to professional writing. 

He says that he aims to figure out what he wants to say before he starts writing, rather than figuring his writing out on the page. A good day will see him write 2000 words, but because he aims to write clean content straight out the gate, it is often less than this. 

When he sits down to write, he begins by asking himself: how should this start? What is my argument? Where am I taking this? If this approach doesn’t work, he’ll start in the middle and work outwards. 

When editing, he takes a cycling approach, where he’ll write the first third, edited it, write the middle, then edit both sections together, and then write the final third.

 In this way, Ryan says, the beginning is constantly improving and by the time he gets to the end, he knows the first two thirds so well that the last comes together more easily and with less editing. 

Despite his rigorous approach, Ryan also knows when to call it quits. 

That may occur after only an hour, but he feels that it must have been a productive hour if that is how he feels exhausted. He aims to leave enough on the page that he has a beginning point the following day, stating that it’s vital to ensure you are creating as much momentum as possible for yourself, even if it’s only an illusion. In this way, he hopes to make writing as easy as possible. 

For Ryan, he says research is totally separate from writing. He may spend several months or years gathering material for a new project before he starts writing. Admittedly, he does conduct some research while writing as inconsistencies, gaps, or insufficiencies become apparent through writing. 

One of his favourite hacks is to read content that is totally different from what he is writing about as a way to forge new and unexpected connections. 

Interestingly, Ryan says that writing is easier than coming up with something to say and figuring out how best to present an argument, but he would never describe writing itself as easy. 


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

Need help finishing that short story, novel, memoir? No problem. The Follow-Through Formula is a free video training which unpacks the five strategies you can use to go from idea to completed project.

To access, click here to join my email newsletter and you’ll receive a thank you email containing the link to the free video training.

You’ll also receive my weekly newsletter which is sent out every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog and YouTube video as well as other inspiring goodies that I only share via email.

Gretchen Rubin’s Writing Routine

Previously, I did a series that covered the writing rules of several famous authors including Octavia Butler, Natalie Goldberg, Kurt Vonnegut, and Steven King. 

I enjoyed creating this series because like all writers, I love to see how others approach writing, what types of routines they’ve crafted for themselves, and what habits or tools make getting to the blank page as easy and efficient as possible. 

The best part? Learning about the routines of others can give us ideas for our own routines.

This time I’m taking a slightly different angle by focussing strictly on the routines of non-fiction authors and this week I’m unpacking the writing routine of Gretchen Rubin. 

Gretchen Rubin is a New York based writer who explores human nature to understand how we can make our lives better. Her best-selling books include The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, Better than Before, The Four Tendencies (her personality framework as it relates to expectations [I am an Upholder]) and Outer Order, Inner Calm. 

The New York Times describes her as the queen of self-help memoir, but Gretchen prefers to think of herself as a moral essayist. 

She posts a weekly podcast with her sister called Happier with Gretchen Rubin, and is a devourer of books, sending out a regular ‘what I read this month’ newsletter to her subscribers (which often includes more than ten books!). 

Gretchen’s routine varies depending on which stage she’s in. She posts a new blog on her website almost every day and the bank of material is not that far ahead, so she is constantly working on new content for the site. When she’s working on a book, she aims to have three hours a day of original work, Monday-Friday. 

Though she has a home office, her preferred place to work is the New York Society Library, a small public library located one block away from her apartment. 

Research plays a major role in her work, and part of that includes being well-read. Gretchen reads widely: novels, memoirs, philosophy, and essays, as well as scientific and traditional journal articles. Part of her research occurs through conversation and observation, finding insight in the minutia of everyday life. 

She takes copious notes and is always trying to process information and look for connections. She carries a notebook and will often email herself notes or random thoughts. She also keeps a huge document that is sorted by subject. By copying out this content, she believes it helps cement the ideas in her brain, and she is also a big lover of profound or well-crafted quotes. 

One of her favourite things about herself is that she often becomes obsessed with a subject, conducting countless hours of research to learn more about it, sometimes for years. 

While reading, Gretchen is actively looking for content that is worth noting. If it’s a library book, she’ll mark it with a sticky note, and if she owns the book, she’ll underline important passages. 

Once she’s finished reading the book, then she goes back and copies out all of the notes. 

If it’s an especially profound quote, she will also copy it and paste it into a large file specifically designated to quotes. 

When taking or copying notes, she’s not concerned with organisation. That occurs later, once she begins outlining the book. Instead, she tags each section with a relevant key work so that she can use the search function to locate it later. 

For Gretchen, the real struggle comes once it’s time to start structuring the book. She says that the structure of a book often seems obvious once she lands on the right one, but that it doesn’t seem obvious when first beginning. 

As she says, ‘Structure is so, so, so important – and the structure must serve the meaning.’ For this reason, she can’t always figure out the structure until she’s determined what it is she really wants to say with a book. 

That being said, one of the best things about her note-taking system is that she never begins a book with a blank page, as she already has hundreds of pages to guide her thinking. 

For Gretchen, the most important thing about writing is having something to say. Once you have something to say, the writing comes much more easily, but you still have to actually write it. As she says, Many people have ideas or the intention to write, but what matters, in the end, is what is on the page.

Should Writers Work From Home?

When the pandemic yet, many workers were forced out of their office spaces and told to work from home. 

During this time, I heard many authors say in interviews and online that for them, nothing had really changed because they worked from home anyway. Rolling from the bed to the desk was nothing new to them. Several jokingly said they’d spent their entire working career preparing for this very moment. 

For some, the only thing that really changed was that they were no longer the only person home. Though this is not an insignificant fact, to a degree, maybe it is true that writers who work from home were the best prepared and the least affected during lockdowns. 

In a recent piece for the New Yorker, Cal Newport noted that historically, writing is one of the few cognitively demanding tasks that could be performed outside of a professional office or workspace. 

There is a reason why Penguin Random House doesn’t offer a workstation when you sign a publishing deal, nor does IngramSpark when you use them as a distributor for your self-published venture. 

Writers decide for themselves where they are happiest to work and for many novelists and freelance writers, that happens to be at home. 

Obviously, this decision is partly informed by financial factors. You don’t need an office or formal workspace to write, so why spend the money on renting a co-working space when, hypothetically, you can work anywhere as long as you have a laptop or a notepad and pen?

The second is convenience. It is just too easy to wake up, go about your morning routine, and then disappear into your home office. 

No commute. Pants optional. 

You don’t have to buy a coffee every hour as payment for occupying a table in a café and you don’t have to pack up your laptop and notes every time you need to go to the bathroom if you’re working at a public library. 

And yet, despite the financial benefits and convenience of writing at home, some authors have gone to great lengths to get out of the house. 

Prior to the pandemic, Joanna Penn would take the entire morning to write at a local café. While Non-fiction author, Gretchen Rubin, has an office space in her home, she chooses to write her books at a small local library, and Ray Bradbury wrote on a typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s library. 

Maya Angelou used to rent out hotel rooms, arriving at 6:30 in the morning with nothing but a bible, yellow legal pad, and a bottle of sherry. 

TS Elliott, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, and F Scott Fitzgerald all wrote while sitting in coffee shops and cafes. 

Beloved Zen devote and writing guru Natalie Goldberg appears to write everywhere from cafes to workshops to friend’s houses to park benches and even while out walking! 

So why did all of these writers choose to work outside of the home, despite the benefits of pyjamas and free coffee and tea? 

The reason why there were so many ‘how to work from home’ articles published during 2020 is because working from home is not always the most supportive environment. 

Why? Because we associate this space with family time, nourishment, celebration, and rest. Four words we probably wouldn’t use to describe work. 

Beyond this, however, is the simple fact that houses are filled with distraction. 

Every short trip to the bathroom or kettle risks derailing productivity. 

Seeing a laundry basket full of dirty clothes, a dishwasher in need of emptying, wilting pot plants, or dusty shelves sends a signal to your easily distracted brain: you should do that, it will only take a minute. But as Newport argues, the visual cues ‘destabilizes the subtle neuronal dance required to think clearly.’  

Some people love to work from home because it means that they can complete these domestic chores in-between work tasks, but according to Newport and other academics concerned with the link between cognitive process and productivity, home may not be the most supportive space for cultivating good work. 

Maybe it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal. Does it really matter if you get up to put a load of laundry on during a scheduled break? Well, no, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. 

Instead, consider how your home is a minefield of potential distraction and even if you don’t engage in that distraction, your mind is momentarily pulled towards this urgent but unimportant domestic task and away from whatever it was you were working on. 

It takes a lot of discipline and energy to write and we don’t want to waste those finite resources on overcoming potential distractions (see: laundry, dishes, vacuuming, mowing). 

And I haven’t even begun to talk about how other people are also a form of distraction. 

Working from home is often presented as a perk and it is one of the few benefits that writers – well known or not – share. And yet, there are many writers who forego this privilege in the name of productivity. 

Perhaps the solution then is, as Newport said, to work from near home. 

For those on a shoestring budget, that may look like working from public libraries, but you’d be surprised at how creative you can get with this. I’ve spoken with writers who’ve written books in the empty spaces above bookshops, who’ve contacted their local library and requested a private space work, or who have made an arrangement with their local university. 

A lot of magic can happen when you ask and the worst is that they will say ‘no’. (And I’m pretty sure you can handle that). 

If you can afford it, then renting a desk in a co-working space or hiring a room that you can turn into a writing retreat may be a great option for you.  

Now, is this an unnecessary and privileged expense? 

You bet ya. 

But this type of grand gesture is what can elevate you from amateur to professional, or so Steven Pressfield would say. This kind of investment is a signal to yourself that writing is important to you, that you are worth backing, and that you are taking this writing practice seriously. And you never know, the cost of working in such a space could be covered by your increase in productivity. 

As with all writing advice, you need to decide what works best for you, but I do think this is an aspect of our writing routine that deserves some serious experimentation. 

Now I’d love to hear from you. Do you write from home? Do you find this space supportive or distractive? If you write at home, please share what types of locations work well for you, cafes, libraries, co-working spaces, and do you think this makes writing easier? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it because I’d love to know. 


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

Need help finishing that short story, novel, memoir? No problem. The Follow-Through Formula is a free video training which unpacks the five strategies you can use to go from idea to completed project.

To access, click here to join my email newsletter and you’ll receive a thank you email containing the link to the free video training.

You’ll also receive my weekly newsletter which is sent out every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog and YouTube video as well as other inspiring goodies that I only share via email.