Writing Strategies that Work

Writing is fun. I genuinely enjoy it. There are times when I doubt the quality of my work, but I never see writing as wasted time.

(To be honest, though, sometimes I wonder if there is any point in writing. Note, this question is always and only ever asked through the lens of external validation, i.e. sales numbers, views, likes etc).

Days when I have spent time writing, are infinitely more satisfying than days when I don’t write. 

I write across multiple forms, and each offers their own unique rewards. Writing blogs and YouTube scripts are enjoyable, fun, and bring personal clarification; writing journal articles or working on my thesis feels progressive, useful, and mentally stimulating, but fiction writing is satisfying on a variety of levels, both emotional and mental. 

And yet, despite the fact that I enjoy writing (in various ways), that doesn’t mean that I always choose writing when I have ‘free’ time. Sometimes I’d rather read someone else’s book than write my own. Sometimes other activities are chosen for practical or pleasurable reasons. Yeah okay, that last part sounds kinda off, but I liked the alliteration. 

It also doesn’t mean that writing, itself, is always easy. Writing, especially when you are challenging yourself to grow or try something different is often uncomfortable and cognitively demanding. You may hit a flow for a couple of hundred words and then snag on a plot beat that feels off, or you suddenly become self-conscious about the character that you are writing or the scene itself. 

Writing is hard, even when it’s fun, even when we love it, so … how do we make ourselves do it?

In a video posted on his YouTube channel, Brandon Sanderson tackled this exact issue and I really liked what he had to say about the topic. His first piece of advice comes by way of a motto, ‘Do the thing that you want to have done.’ In other words, if you want to write a fantasy novel, then you need to spend time writing that fantasy novel. The book is not going to make itself; it cannot exist without your assistance. 

I love this motto for its boot-strapping pragmatism. If you want to get something done, then you have to do it. It reminds me a lot of a quote from Elizabeth Strout, ‘There’s no magic to it. When you do the work, the work gets done.’

This motto is a knife that cuts through all the BS narratives we feed ourselves; the way we victimise ourselves or act as though our days/time mysteriously get away from us. 

Really, there are only a few reasons why you haven’t written your book. Writing is either not a priority (right now); you’re not writing because you’re crippled with fear, procrastination, perfectionism; or you do not have access to the resources and support needed to write (time, money, energy, education, space, etc). Note: these are not frivolous barriers. If you are working two jobs and have three kids, with little access to important resources or support, writing isn’t going to be a priority because you’re just trying to survive. 

But some of these barriers, say fear, procrastination, and perfectionism (which are all forms of our old friend, Resistance), are within your control. You have the power to do something about these hindrances.

Okay, so you’ve sticky-tapped a post-it with this handy-dandy motto above your desk, now what? This is the part where you need to do a little self-investigation. You need to figure out what motivates you, or in other words, how can you trick yourself into writing. 

A friend recently asked me what motivates me to write and publish my work. My answer? I am more terrified of not being a writer than being a writer. In my early twenties, I spent a few years working an office job that was comfortable and paid well. It asked very little of me and I genuinely liked (and am still friends with) many of the people I worked with. I saw how easy it would be for me to just…stay there. 

And the thought–again–terrified me so much that I enrolled in a grad certificate that quickly swallowed up my mornings, evenings, and weekends. I started writing articles and publishing them on small, but professional markets. I started a blog. I started slowly (so slowly) shifting my life away from muggle work and towards magical work. 

Interestingly, this strategy also worked for Sanderson. For a while, he imagined a cubical monster was chasing him and if he didn’t write his book, he was going to get captured and turned into a salesman. 

Note: what motivates you may change over time. For Sanderson, this imaginary cubical was no longer a threat once he reached a certain level of success. However, he quickly realised that tracking his daily word count brought a lot of satisfaction as he could visually see how much closer he was to the end. 

For me, I enjoy tracking my pomodoro sessions by marking them off in my diary. Every time I complete a 25-min writing block, I draw a little square and there is something so satisfying about seeing a chain of little squares when my three or four hour session is up. 

Perhaps rewards would work for you or a daily minimum? You could write out your ‘why’ and review it before every writing session, or you could create a list of values that you review every week. Maybe listening to music makes you feel inspired or traveling to a particular location. Perhaps you’d benefit from having a pre-writing ritual (a cup of tea, a listening to a special playlist, or lighting a candle). 

What you do doesn’t matter as long as it results in you writing words. 

And finally, you need to break big goals into small steps. Rather than saying, ‘I’m going to write a book’, you instead focus on writing an outline, a scene, a chapter. It takes a long time to write a book and if you focus too much on the ultimate outcome–a published book–it will feel as though your daily efforts are meaningless and that no real progress is being made. 

And that, dear reader, is secret sauce recipe. Think about what it is you want to have done (write a book/blog/series whatever), figure out how to trick yourself into doing it, and break big goals into small steps.

There is a voice in our head that can convince us that writing is mysterious and that the reason behind why we don’t write is equally mysterious, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you need a gentle (or not so gentle) reminder that when you do the work, the work gets done. 

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

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