Despite it often not feeling like it, I’m a professional writer. Between this newsletter, my book, articles and podcast scripts, my job is to get words on a page. I’ve been writing in some form or another for well over a decade now and I’ve learned a thing or two about how to actually get some writing done.
Here’s how I write consistently.
Accept that all writers love-hate writing
I’m not going to labour the point about how challenging it is to write, because reading about how hard writing is dreadfully dull. What I will say, though, is that writing doesn't get easier per se, you just start to accept that it’s a process.
I was reminded of this just this week, as I finished up an essay. For me, essay-writing is Pilates for the brain – seems easy enough at first, but then muscles you didn't even know existed are inexplicably on fire.
Starting with the very first reported essay I wrote back in 2011 (a self-consciously pretentious meditation on Occupy Wall Street, if you were wondering), I always reach a crisis point at which I think the entire argument for my thesis has collapsed. When this first happened, I stayed up all night oscillating between drafting emails to my professor explaining why I couldn’t file and desperately trying to fix the holes in my logic. Neither worked, I still had to struggle through multiple revisions until a decent essay took shape. Had I just gone to bed that night, the process would have still been painful but I wouldn’t have felt so crushingly tired.
Now, countless essays and crises later, I’ve stopped trying to avoid the inevitable. In fact, I welcome it, because it serves as a reminder that if you want to write an essay, you need to make damn sure your argument can stand up on its own. Instead, when I start to feel the foundations shake, I pinpoint exactly where the writing took a turn for the worse, leave a note for myself in the document and then walk away.
Putting your phone away helps, but only so much
It feels incredibly obvious to say that the best way to get focused work done is to put away your phone, and yet I feel like I only recently learned this myself. During a particularly critical phase of my book writing process, I handed my phone over to my partner for safe keeping. As the healthy eating rule goes, if you want to avoid temptation, remove it all together. Just like you can’t snack on chocolate if it’s not in the cupboard, you can’t scroll on Insta if there’s no phone.
The phone is the most physical manifestation of the countless distractions we battle against on a daily basis. Something I’ve come to realise is that being able to focus isn’t something that we just flip on and off. When my entire life is a series of interruptions and distractions, merely shoving my phone in a drawer when it’s ‘time to write!’ isn’t enough. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to swap my phone for a book before bed; I’ve waged war against almost all push notifications on all devices, and there’s a permanent auto-replier on my emails setting boundaries and expectations about my reply times.
And even with all those measures in place, it’s still hard to focus. If that’s you, one of the best things you can do is to learn what procrastination actually is (and what it’s not). When I discovered that procrastinating has nothing to do with avoiding work and everything to do with avoiding negative emotions, the weighted blanket of guilt that smothered me lifted.
Writing habits don’t have to be daily
My pet peeve with most lists of tips is the implicit (or sometimes, explicit) prescriptive tone. “Just do these things and you too will be successful/happy/thin/rich!”I used to read a lot of writing advice from big name authors about the importance of writing every day. I wasn’t a “real” writer because I didn’t write every day.
For me, there is no singular Writing Habit, but a series of mini practices that support specific goals. There are days when I aim for a word count and others when my writing goal is an amount of time. When I was writing my book, I went to the London Writers’ Salon Writers’ Hour every morning. I had a clear reason to be there – I wanted to kick start my day with a group writing session. When I’m writing an article, however, I don’t need that kind of accountability but I do need two consecutive, call-free writing days blocked out in the calendar. The goalposts move depending on the writing project, and that’s ok.
Writing is like moving house. There will come a point when you find yourself sitting on the floor, surrounded by the various detritus of your life, utterly convinced that there’s no way it will fit into the boxes before the movers arrive. And yet, after a tantrum, a cup of tea and shuffling a few things around, suddenly everything is packed away neatly.
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