Writing is hard. All forms of it–scientific writing, creative writing, blogging. It requires that we synthesize our often muddied thoughts into clear, concise language. It means stamping our realities into letter shapes so that others can access our experiences. Which, when I think about it that way, is really stinkin’ cool. But also not the point of this blog. The point? That writing is hard. Especially when you don’t have the motivation of a paycheck or supervisor, it can be difficult to get words down on the page. So here are my tips for busting the writer’s block and just writing:
1. Set a word quota and chart it
This one has helped me the most. By setting a bottom line number for how many words you need to write each day, you have drawn a line for your day. Cross the line and you’ve been successful. Fail to cross it, and you failed. By charting it, you have a way to see your progress, and to spot trends in your productivity. Despite how simple it seems like setting a word quota should be it took some trial and error for me to get right.
I first started using this method when I did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) last November. The challenge requires that you write a certain number of words each day and enter your word count into the site’s counter. It then tracks your successes and failures, and tells you how many words you need to write before the month ends to reach the goal of 50,000 words.
At first I didn’t expect the chart to do much for me, but let me tell you–the sight of that red line showing I hadn’t met my quota spurred me to write like the dickens. I wrote more that month than I have ever written in my life.
I even wrote more than when I was working on a YA novel for my Honors project, and had to show a professor the chapters I’d finished at the end of each week. With all that writing, at the end of November I had written 50,000 words, and that was with a full time job and puppy (I know, I make that puppy stuff sound like it takes up a lot of time, but for me it really does–we’re talking multiple walks and training sessions a night… Can you tell I’m rather intense?).
Now that the month has ended, I have set a lower word count for myself–1000 words a day. After those 1000 words, I mark off the day as productive, and set my story aside to work on other things. I’m also charting my words in an excel file, so that I can graph my progress and stay accountable to my ultimate goal: finishing the novel within the next month and a half. To up my accountability, Jordan checks my graph for me. I’m not sure what he’d say if I didn’t finish my quota–probably I’d make some excuse and he’d agree it was justified–but the prospect of getting to show someone what I’ve accomplished is a motivator in itself.
2. Stop while the going is good
This one has also been really useful. When I first started writing longer pieces, I had this idea that I had to write while inspiration was ablaze in my soul and that if I wasn’t inspired the writing would be crap. Needless to say, I only got work done in bursts and I didn’t finish either of the stories I tried to write that way.
I now write until I’ve hit my 1000 word mark, and then I wait until a point in the story where I’m really excited to keep writing. At that point, I force myself to save, close my word document, and put the story away. You wouldn’t imagine what a difference it makes to open your computer the next day and have an exciting place to start.
I’ve also found that quitting while you’re in the middle of a finger-blur-phase (aka when you’re typing so quickly that your fingers are blurs) wakes up your imagination. Because you’re excited about what you’re about to write, you think about it after you’ve closed the word document. When I’ve left off at a good point, I find myself thinking through the entire next chapter, imagining scenes and crafting dialogue. That makes the next day’s work a lot easier.
My style also benefits from starting in an exciting place. I’ve find that the words come least willingly during the first five minutes of writing, or when I’ve hit a dry spell in the story. By wrapping it up when your writing has fizzled, it means that the next day you’ll have to get warmed up in the beginning while also trying to write a part that doesn’t inspire you. By ensuring that those two factors don’t align, you can help keep your voice even throughout and dramatically improve your prose.
3. Break down your rituals
I used to be one of those writers who put a lot of stock in rituals in order to get words out. I believed that I wrote best early in the morning, with a cup tea by my side, while slouched low in an armchair or in my bed. That combination (warm laptop, warm tea, slouching, sunrise) might be pleasant, but it didn’t have any real effect on my writing. I just believed that it did. I also believed that I couldn’t write while sitting up, that I couldn’t write in unfamiliar settings, and that I couldn’t write with anyone else in the room. By believing those things, I stopped myself from being as productive as I could’ve been. If I didn’t get much writing done while sitting in a cafe, or sitting at the kitchen table, I had a ready excuse for why–that the magical combination of setting and ritual hadn’t come together to make my words flow.
All of my personal writing myths have since been busted, and while I might have settings or pre-writing rituals that I prefer, I also understand that my preferences don’t translate into productivity. It took me awhile to get to that point–even after I’d figured out that it was just my attitude holding me back, I still clung to the excuses.
So how did I kick the rituals? By necessity. My senior year of college I had so much work that it was impossible for me to only write in “perfect” settings. Instead, I found myself writing while waiting for meetings to start, writing at cafés and in lounges, and writing alongside study buddies. Once I knew I could do it, I stopped thinking about everything that was wrong and just focused on writing.
I also changed my mindset. Instead of viewing writing as something magical that occurred when I was in the right brain space, I started to think of it as something that could be done any time, as long as I stuck to it. I found that if I forced out a few sentences, then the rest would come easier. Writing was not some sort of spell that I could only cast if everything was perfect. It was just writing, and I could do it any time.
Now, I get a ton more work done because I can do it anywhere and in any situation.
4. Don’t think too much
This was another major factor in upping my daily word count and another ability that I honed through NaNoWriMo. Because I was writing so much each day (often upwards of 2000 words), I was forced not to overthink every word and sentence structure. I’ve always been a clean writer–it’s not often that I find typos in my first drafts–and this is because I’m constantly editing and weighing and pinching and stretching as I go along. That might be great for writing short articles efficiently, but it makes longer pieces extremely difficult.
I also find that it makes for less immersive prose. Because I’m writing slowly, the pace of the story also ends up being slow. Instead of allowing myself to get swept up in the story, I stay on the outside of it, making sure that the words that capture it are exactly right. I know what I’m trying to do when I write slowly and carefully–I’m trying to use language with purpose, like all those amazing writers I admire. But I’ve come to learn that the first draft really isn’t the place for it. In fact, it makes for a slow, disconnected story, and that sort of thing is a lot harder to fix after the fact.
Since NaNoWriMo, I’ve been able to give the tiny editor who lives in my brain a vacation, and instead bang it all out without her. Sure, there are a lot more typos. But so far I’ve ended up with a story that moves naturally, where the characters have developed into real people, and the plot shows itself in all the right places. I love it in a way that I’ve never loved any of my other work. I also get a ton more down on the page because I’m not working as hard for each word. Instead of 500 clean words for lots of effort, I end up with 1000 easy ones with a couple of typos.
5. Take a grammar class
Now this is one tip that I seriously scoffed at before I tried it. As in the case of many writers, I’m one of those lucky people who grammar comes naturally to (I’m also one of those people who doesn’t actually use it–the prior sentence should be phrased “I’m one of those people to whom grammar comes naturally” but yick). I didn’t want to spend my time thinking about predicates and sentence patterns.
Worse, I was genuinely afraid that by learning grammar explicitly I would somehow lose my ability to use it naturally. That it would make me lose the magic that writing held. In a blog post to one of my professors, I even wrote that learning grammar explicitly was like asking a builder to explain what all his tools did. It’s helpful for the beginner, but once your hands are so familiar with the tools that you can grab them without looking, learning the names and formal definitions is useless and confusing. I was a bit of an asshole.
I was also, of course, completely wrong. Not only did I not lose my ability to write after my grammar class, but I also had a much healthier perspective on it; I no longer believed writing was a skill that I could lose. This is the main reason that I recommend that anyone who feels insecure about their writing take a grammar course. Not only did it give me the ability to deconstruct and understand how words formed sentences, but it also gave me the language to describe writing to others, and forced me to think analytically about how the minutia of our writing affects the overall meaning/tone/style/etc of a piece–something that improved my writing greatly.
This bit of advice pairs nicely with the “breaking down your rituals” section–learning grammar is a lot like breaking down your rituals, except on a word-by-word level. It allows you to see your usual writing patterns, analyze them, and improve them.
These methods may not be for everyone. Writing is something that is extremely individual, and people do it successfully in a myriad of ways (if anything, this post might be most useful if you use it as a way to analyze how you think about writing, and how that affects what you produce). I also don’t mean to suggest that these are tips you’ve never heard before, because they aren’t. They’re pretty straightforward, and commonly found on advice blogs about writing. But for me, these tips are the way that I got myself up to my writing goals, even in the face of lack of motivation and needy puppies/hairy man monsters (see above photos). I hope they can help you too.
I’d love to hear about how you think about your writing, and how that shapes the language you use. Feel free to comment and let me know!
(Also, this blog post is proof of my new word busting abilities–it’s almost 2000 words, and I wrote it in a paltry hour! Oh word quotas, how I love you).
AFTERNOTE: A few hours after publishing this I went back and edited it. It was wordy (still is), and needed to be combed through a bit more closely. In other words, I had to be more intentional about my language, but that was fine by me. It made sense for a second draft!