In this second blog on building effective writing habits, I explore what can help effective writing. I’m going to look at what happens in individual writing sessions, and use this to consider how to build good habits.
What do you need for a successful writing session?
Here are some questions to get started:
Do you set yourself writing goals or intentions? (Do these help or hinder you?)
How do you judge when you have been productive?
How sustainable is the way that you work?
Goals: By asking these questions, I’m not advocating for a rigid writing plan. However, thinking strategically about writing can help to ensure that a writing session goes well. In other words, it’s helpful to have an idea of what and how much you are aiming to write before you start the session. If you plan beforehand, you can get started as soon as possible and maximise the time you have. This means:
Setting aside some time before your writing session to plan your writing tasks.
Leaving yourself breadcrumbs when you finish a piece of writing.
I can hear the collective groan here, as we’re already so squeezed for time. However, my argument is, you don’t need to spend a long time on planning. The time you do spend on pre-planning will allow you to be more productive than if you were to scrabble about for your starting point in the writing session. So in your pre-planning session, you can ask yourself:
What do I realistically want/need to achieve in this writing session?
How can I translate this into specifics? (e.g. realistic amount of words/sentences/paragraphs; arguments I want to make, the time that I have got)
When do I work best, and can I plan my writing around that? (What tasks will I do if I feel tired?)
How will I know when I am happy with my work? (note I didn’t say finished here! It might be that we will need to rewrite things when we have an entire draft)
Indeed there might be some of your own questions that you want to add to this list.
The other thing I mentioned was breadcrumbs – a trail of clues to get you back to what you were thinking when you last worked on your writing. So in other words, when you finish a piece of writing, ensure you give yourself some time to summarise the point you have reached, and your thoughts about where you might go next.
I thoroughly recommend taking a look a Inger Mewburn’s blog on productive writing, as the key argument in this is that productivity is getting words on the page, not ‘brilliant words’, or ‘finished words’ – just words that will help us to get to where we want to go. Mewburn prompts us to think that a) we won’t be consistently producing brilliant stuff throughout the day, there are only really a few hours when we are at our best; b) don’t waste time thinking about whether the writing is any good and just get the words down. I’ve talked elsewhere about the perfectionism gremlin, and how this can inhibit writing. So firstly, we want to ensure that we separate out writing words and editing them as processes – that we need to leave our scripts for a bit of time to ‘settle’ before we come back to tinker with them. I also think this perfectionism gremlin can cause us to set expectations of our writing that are too rigid or too high. I make the point about ‘translating writing goals into specifics’ above. However, if we ask too much of ourselves, we set up a chain of negative judgements about what we are producing which can be inhibiting. Realism is important here. Focusing on quantity rather than quality can help with initial drafts. We might also want to take a self-compassionate approach to dealing with times when we don’t get quite as much done as we would like, or things don’t go to plan. This doesn’t mean we’ve failed, it means we’re learning.
What will make successful writing sustainable?
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s Rest (2016), argues that rest is a vital component of being able to work well. So if we want productivity, the best foundations for this is giving ourselves plenty of ‘recharge’ time. Self-care is a key part of a successful writing session, and of building a sustainable writing habit. Building a sustainable habit might look slightly different to each of us. It might involve giving ourselves permission to bracket off regular chunks of uninterrupted writing time; it might include loosely giving ourselves free ‘buffer time’ during our week as provisional writing slots, it might mean identifying particular places where we like to work. It might also involve building writing partnerships where we find writing buddies we can be accountable to, and who can help us celebrate our successes. So we can ask ourselves here:
What would a sustainable writing habit look like for me?
What would be the relationship between writing and everything else I am doing?
What would be happening that’s different from now?
What would I be thinking differently?
What would it mean to me to work in this way?
Putting in place what we need can help us to avoid burning out trying to get too much done, and avoid writer’s block from feeling exhausted or pressured. However, we also need to accept that there will be times, for whatever reason, when we just cannot get the words onto the page. Annie Lamott (1995: 197) has a lovely piece of advice for this: don’t spend time, she says, “staring miserably at the computer screen”. Give yourself permission to live, and ask yourself “What should I do today?” Invariably, whatever you do will “fill you back up with observations, flavours, ideas, visions” that will give energy and a new perspective for writing the next time. So sustainable writing includes planning, and getting words down: it involves being disciplined, and it’s also about being kind to ourselves.
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