Contrary to our romanticised notions, writers don’t just sit around all day, drink coffee and scotch and wait for inspiration to strike. Like any other job, they have to be disciplined and productive. While that does involve lots of coffee, it also requires hard work. Here’s how some famous authors have kept their nose to the grindstone.
Photo by Angelica Alzona
On Getting Started
It’s not just writers; we’ve all struggled to create something from scratch. It’s overwhelming to stare at a blank page, spreadsheet or presentation. The pressure to create something awesome makes the process it harder than it has to be.
Toni Morrison: Change Your Definition of Failure
Pay very close attention to failure, rather than get depressed or unnerved or feel ashamed. As a writer, a failure is just information…I recognise failure, which is important; some people don’t — and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s why writers need rewriting and editing…What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it. If you think of writing simply as information, you can get closer to success.
This is solid advice for not just writing, but any project, really. When you’re afraid to start, it’s usually because you’re afraid to fail. When you think of failure as a necessary part of the process, you’re motivated to start because failure has a place and a purpose.
Plus, when you reframe failure as “gathering information”, you look at your work objectively and analytically, which makes it easier to improve.
John Steinbeck: Focus on the System, Not the Goal
Sometimes it’s hard to get started because your project is so big, it’s hard to image you’ll ever finish. Here’s John Steinbeck’s trick to make a huge goal more digestible:
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
In other words, focus on the system, not the end-product. Steinbeck suggests that it helps to break up your work into smaller milestones, too.
Neil Gaiman: ‘You Learn By Finishing Things’
Perfectionism is another reason we find it hard to get started. We analyse our work to death because it has to be perfect, then we get paralysed and never start at all, or we abandon a project halfway through. Neil Gaiman has some great advice to beat perfectionist procrastination:
When people come to me and they say, “I want to be a writer, what should i do?” I say you have to write. And sometimes they say, “I’m already doing that, what else should I do?” And I say you have to finish things… You learn by finishing things.
There’s a case to be made for giving up on stuff, sure. However, when you finish something, even if it’s not perfect, you gain some valuable experience. You know what works and what to fix. The process is easier the next time around.
On Staying Focused
Once you’ve started, you have to keep going, and that requires discipline. You have to power through distractions even when you’ve plateaued and lost your initial motivation. Here’s how three famous authors have done it.
Zadie Smith: Disconnect From Distractions
Over at The Guardian, novelist Zadie Smith offers some straightforward, practical advice for writers. This one applies to almost anyone, though:
Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
I actually stumbled upon this trick myself on a flight when I couldn’t connect to Wi-Fi. I worked on an assignment offline and was surprised at how much more quickly I was able to get it done without periodically responding to an email or checking Twitter.
Obviously, if your work requires internet access, this isn’t doable. The point is, if you want to focus, it helps to do whatever you can to block out distractions.
Jerry Seinfeld: Don’t Break The Chain
Software developer Brad Isaac relayed this Jerry Seinfeld story to us (though it was attributed to Seinfeld, but in a Reddit AMA, Seinfeld said it wasn’t his idea):
He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here’s how it works. He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.” “Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.
You can implement this advice for just about anything, from finishing a novel to launching a business. It helps nip procrastination in the bud with a daily, visual cue. It also gamifies your discipline.
Raymond Chandler: Write or Get Bored
If you only work when you’re inspired, chances are, you won’t get much done. You have to make time for your projects, even projects that require creative thinking.
The problem is, we often schedule time for our projects, but then we just aren’t feeling it, so we use that time to go for a walk, check our email, call an old friend or fiddle with some other distraction.
Raymond Chandler reportedly had a rule about this. He blocked time into his schedule for writing, and if he didn’t write, his only other option was to do nothing.
In other words, write or get bored.
On Warding Off Writer’s Block
Writers get writer’s block, and if you work in any other industry, you’ve probably dealt with something similar. It’s simply a mental block that gets in the way of progress. Maybe you’re uninspired. Maybe you’re just burnt out. Either way, here’s how a few famous authors have pushed through those blocks.
Colson Whitehead: Embrace Adventure
Colson Whitehead’s advice for beating writer’s block is one of my favourites. In a satirical article at the New York Times, Whitehead suggests:
Have adventures…Keep ahead of the curve. Get out and see the world. It’s not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone. Lose a kidney in a knife fight. You’ll be glad you did.
Obviously, it’s a satirical post, but still, this is good advice! I mean, you probably don’t want to get into a knife fight, but breaks can make you surprisingly more productive. A study published in Psychological Review, for example, found that the best violinists practised no longer than 90 minutes at a time, took breaks in between and also took a 20-30 minute nap in the afternoon.
Plus, when you break out of your comfort zone and say yes to things, you find different, smarter ways to work. It’s also easier to brainstorm and harness your creativity. You learn new things and challenge your confirmation bias.
Ernest Hemingway: Stop Mid-Sentence
If you like closure, this tip might be difficult, but it’s incredibly effective: Stop writing mid-sentence. Or, if you’re not a writer, stop while you’re on a roll with whatever you’re doing. Here’s how Ernest Hemingway put it:
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.
You don’t literally have to stop mid-sentence; it’s more like mid-idea, while you’re in the middle of your flow. This trick also makes it a lot easier to get started when you come back to your work. You eliminate the pressure of the blank page and you can just jump right in.
Anne Enright: Imagine Your Death to Find the Problem
Sometimes we get stuck when we feel disconnected from our work. Maybe you’re writing a book and you no longer think it’s worth writing. Maybe the project you pitched at work now seems stupid. Here’s a trick author Anne Enright suggests to overcome this kind of block:
Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
I love this idea because you don’t abandon the project; you figure out what’s wrong with it. Rather than give up, take a moment to think about why the project doesn’t work or doesn’t excite you, then keep going. This way, it stays out of that big pile of unfinished projects.