I used to start writing first thing in the morning. It was easiest to get the writing done before the sun rose and the responsibilities of life and work assailed me. The goal was always to just write about 500 words a day. If I did that, I would always have something to publish, something ready to share with the world. It made book writing attainable, as well. I could break anything into a 500-word chunk.
Now that I’m a dad and my kids sometimes get up before the sunrise, I find it easier to do the writing later in the morning. Most days, I get up, go to the gym, make breakfast for the family, then head off to work and spend the rest of the morning writing.
I typically write for 2-3 hours in the mornings, sometimes longer when I’m working on a book. When I have less time due to running a business, speaking, travel, etc., I’ll still try to get in at least 30-60 minutes. The goal is still just 500 words. Anything more than that is gravy.
I write books in Scrivener because I find it the easiest to jump around and organize ideas without having to incessantly scroll. That’s my style. I jump around a lot, from idea to idea, chapter to chapter. Then I go back and edit it to make it cohesive. I need a tool that satisfies that style of working.
I do most of my other writing for my blog and other outlets in a tool called Byword that I think is only available on Mac.
I do all my ideation in a tool on my phone called Drafts, which exports to Evernote.
I listen to one of three things: Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky, or the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, which I usually have on repeat while working on a book. There’s something about the monotony of listening to the same thing over and over that allows me to focus on the task at hand.
Not really. I just try to shut down all apps and distractions so that I can focus. Sometimes, I’ll clean my desk, because I find it difficult to work around clutter (even though I am excellent at creating it). The only prerequisite is coffee.
As I mentioned before, I try to write at least 500 words a day. When I’m on deadline, I may produce 5000 words, but the minimum output is always 500. It’s a small enough amount that I don’t have an excuse to avoid it, which is crucial for me. I have to feel motivated to write, which means breaking up a huge task like a book into small, achievable chunks.
At least a third of the words I write never see the light of day. With my last book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, I cut 25,000 words from a 75,000-word manuscript. I’m too much of a coward to delete them, though. They go into a file called “darlings.txt” which I never look at but makes me feel better that I never deleted them. Might use them some day, after all.
I start with an idea, always an idea. It could be a quote, a headline, a question. But I need something to provoke me to write. Typically that provocation comes from my own curating of ideas and stories around me.
Then I take one of those ideas and try to turn it into something, usually an article of some sort.
I have a process that works well for my called the 3-Bucket System, which you can read about here.
Here’s how it works.
Bucket 1 is for ideas. All day long, I capture ideas using the app Drafts. These get dumped into Evernote, where I have a folder full of ideas and prompts for when I’m feeling dry in the creativity department. You can use a notebook for this, as well. The tool doesn’t matter, as long as you aren’t just hanging onto all those ideas in your brain.
Bucket 2 is for drafts. When it’s time for me to write (usually in the morning), I’ll pull an idea out from the first bucket and start writing, usually around 500 words in one session. This process makes it easier to just start writing because I don’t have to think about what I’m going to write. I already have a prompt.
The ideas I collect function as prompts for me, but this is not just a writing exercise. It’s work. I never write something without the intent of publishing it. The best practice is the kind done in public, and the best writing is the stuff you intend to publish.
Once I’ve written about 500 words on my idea, I save it as a draft in Scrivener (if I’m working on a book) or in Byword (if it’s a blog post). Again, these are the tools I use. They don’t matter as much as the method.
Bucket 3 is for edits.
At any given time, I have a whole bunch of half-finished chapters and blog posts on my computer begging to be edited and completed. This is not an overwhelming feeling. It’s an empowering one, because when it’s time to edit, I get to choose what I want to work on. I don’t have to come up with an idea or “just write.” The point of this system is to think as little as possible and just do the next thing.
So, I pull out one of those half-completed drafts and edit it. I’ll polish up the flow and sentence structure and of course, check for grammar and spelling. At this point, the piece isn’t perfect, but it’s at least 90% done. I either schedule it for a blog post or tuck it away in another folder called “Edits” on my computer. This means the piece is done.
These are pieces of writing that are more or less ready for the world to see. The next step is to share them with an editor or publisher or post to my blog..
My goal with this system is to just move something from one bucket to the next. Every day, I capture ideas and save them to Evernote. Every day, I take one of those ideas (typically from a previous day) and draft it into a 500-word piece. And every day, I edit my work in hopes of sharing with someone.
Again, I don’t write anything just for fun. It all has a purpose. This is what professionals do. They write for an audience, always with the intent of publishing. Anything less than that will result in something that isn’t your best work
I think we are all trying to emulate the work of those we admire. Hunter S. Thompson once confessed to copying every single word from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to see what it felt like to write that way. He also admitted to stealing more words and phrases from the Bible than any other work. So, stealing is the name of the game. The trick, I think, is to borrow widely from a variety of sources and re-arrange them into some new order that you call your “voice.”
For me, I borrowed a lot from Hemingway early on. I loved how he made terseness look eloquent. C.S. Lewis was a big influence for me in college, and I’m sure the way I construct arguments comes from his own style of nonfiction writing. For more contemporary authors, I admire how Steven Pressfield writers nonfiction in a similar manner. I am a sucker for how Seth Godin names things. I love the way Anne Lamott tells a story with a lesson and wish I could pull off comma splices as well as Abigail Thomas. And of course, Malcolm Gladwell does an incredible job weaving stories in and out of research in a way that can convince you of just about anything. James Surowiecki does it maybe even better.
I think writer’s block is a bad name for a number of real problems facing writers, most notably of which is fear. Typically when I feel blocked, I’m really afraid. And almost always, that’s because my next step feels like a leap instead of just doing the next thing. If I feel stuck, I have to ask myself what am I really afraid of and is that really my next step? For example, if I’m working on a book and start to feel stuck, it’s usually because I’m doubting myself, wondering what right I have to talk about this topic. Who am I? But that fear is misplaced. It’s not the right time to worry about that. My job right now is to write the next 500 words, not worry what the critics will be saying a year from now.
So do I think writers get stuck sometimes? Sure.
Is it some mystical force preventing you from creating your life’s work? I don’t think so. It’s you, the enemy inside that wants to sabotage you because you’re stepping into a better version of yourself and that kind of change always creates cognitive dissonance. You want to create this thing, but you are afraid of the change it might cause. That’s normal, natural even.
The way out of this mess is through.
A friend of mine who used to do long-distance running gave me some advice on dealing with pain as a writer. “What do you do about the cramps?” I asked. I was noticing they hit my in the gut usually at the three or four mile mark. I thought he’d have some great advice on how to avoid them altogether. In fact, I assumed this was the case. His answer surprised me, though. “Cramps? What do I do? I keep running, and eventually they go away. I run through the cramps.”
What do I do when I feel blocked? I write through the block. That may sound ridiculous, but even when you’re blocked you can still write. Maybe it’s not the thing you wanted to write or what you you’re capable of writing. But you can type. So that’s what I do. Anything and everything. Sometimes, it makes sense. Sometimes, it’s total nonsense. But I push through the discomfort, so that I can keep going. Momentum is a writer’s friend.
They started when I was eight years old or so and my mom read me the dictionary on long car rides. I realized then that I loved words, which was reaffirmed in sixth grade when I won the school spelling bee. Then again, just before graduating high school, my English teacher wrote on my final paper: “You should seriously consider a career in journalism or as a professional writer.”
Of course, I forgot all these things once I entered the work force and wondered why after five years of working as a marketing director for a nonprofit I felt frustrated. Parker Palmer wrote that “before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I first must listen to my life telling me who I am.” When I took the time to listen to my life, it was telling me that I was a writer.
Around that time I was having these thoughts, a friend asked me what my dream was and I reluctantly said I’d like to be a writer some day.
“Jeff,” he said, “you don’t have to want to be a writer. You are a writer. You just need to write.”
The next day, I started a blog and published a new article on it every single day for a year, because that’s what I assumed writers did. They got up every morning and write a little bit every day. So I decided to be that kind of person, which meant believing I already was a writer and then behaving like it. To this day, I believe that activity follows identity. You really have to become this thing, and then you have to do it.
It’s all the same process. From idea to draft to edit. You can’t circumvent any steps or speed the process up. The process is what it is. You either honor it or pay the price. For books, I go through a few more editing passes, but it’s essentially the same. Start with an idea, hone the idea, and then share it with the world. The more you do it, the better you get. And the best way to do it is every day.