What Addiction Can Teach about Writing

Have you ever been hooked on a game? Years ago, I would have hesitated to pose this question to a mainstream audience, but these days, with the large game offerings on phones, tablets, and computers, most people have been obsessed with a game at some point in time. Titles like Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and Pokemon Go have been played voraciously by millions of people in the past few years alone. 

Lately, I’ve been considering how these games influence players. If you’ve tried one of them, you know how engaging—even addicting—they can be. There’s a lesson to be had for writers who are working on their routine. 

 

The impact of addicting design

Addicting games lure players with a sense of accomplishment. Just this past weekend, I downloaded a new game to my phone. It quickly sucked me in with a string of achievements. I was hooked, and I kept playing throughout the weekend, trying to push the level of achievement higher and higher. Eventually, I realized that the game was distracting me from things I needed to be doing, so I deleted it. Later, I reinstalled it. After diving deep into the game a second time, I knew I’d become addicted. I stopped and asked myself, “What’s going on here?” I knew that games like this were tapping into something powerful, and I was convinced that it should be used for my writing habit.

 

What I’ve learned

Popular games achieve their influence by giving players a sense of accomplishment. Look at any contemporary game played by a large number of people, and you’ll probably see a game mechanic based on leveling up, earning achievements, or unlocking some other game-based reward. 

This idea of achievements or progress is the heart of what makes most games attractive. It’s the reason I keep going back to games, even when I’ve decided I should avoid them. The lure of those achievements, even if they’re artificial, is hard to resist. Something about making progress or building something deeply appeals to humans.

 

How gaming addiction relates to writing

We need to capitalize on this lure of achievement when building a habit such as writing. The same fascination that keeps us coming back to a game can also keep us returning to our writing projects. 

The key is to set up a feedback loop. With a well-designed game, the loop has already been painstakingly created. This is why we get sucked into something like a game, even if we know we should be doing something else. 

Now setting up and committing to the feedback loop in our personal routines takes forethought and commitment. Essentially, it takes a lot of front loading. When we buy a game, we’re paying for the work that someone else put into setting up the feedback loop. The benefits are short-lived, but it feels like we’ve cheated life somehow. We’re getting a sense of accomplishment without having done anything of real-life significance. 

 

The habit loop

Knowing what’s going on with artificial achievement can help us to set up authentic achievements. As you design your writing routine, focus on three elements. I first encountered these elements in Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit. These elements are used in game design, but form the basis of any habit creation. They’re as follows:

1. Prompt

2. Routine

3. Reward

Prompt is the reminder or urge to do the habit. With gaming, this sometimes takes the form of a notification or a status update from a friend. With writing, it can take the form of accountability software, accountability partners, journaling, or related routines. For example, my related routines take the form of making coffee and listening to a focusing app with music. I find that these two activities—because I’ve connected them repeatedly with writing—get me quickly into the routine. Often, a prompt reminds us of the reward that we are looking forward to if we complete the routine. In gaming, for example, we are reminded of in-game achievements that await us if we complete certain levels of actions. In writing, we may need to be reminded of a monetary or social reward that awaits. Experiment to find your ideal prompt or prompts. 

Routine is the habit itself. It’s playing the game or doing the writing. This action is the whole point of the process. The elements of prompt and reward exist to reinforce the engaging of the habit. This routine gets bookended by the other two elements to spark and reinforce the behavior.

Reward is some kind of perk that we give ourselves when we’ve completed the routine. This is built into games inherently. Things like badges, leveling up, and social sharing are all designed to keep gamers playing. In writing, we should find achievements that spur us on, similar to what happens in gaming. Oftentimes, the writing is its own reward, once we do it. Just finishing a draft can give a writer a huge boost of energy and encouragement. Many writers experience reward when they share what they’ve written with others. Sometimes, the reward is less connected to the task of writing. So if you need something completely separate, like going somewhere or buying yourself something, give that a shot.

 

Harness the power of writing routine

Adding each of these elements helps us to build a solid feedback loop. The cyclical, repetitive nature of the process grows the habit. If we combine these three elements in the establishment of a writing routine, we have a winning recipe. Game developers have long understood this, and they’ve baked these elements into their design. As I continue to refine my writing habit, I’m thinking about these characteristics. 

Whether you have experience with games or not, consider how these elements of habit creation can inform your routine. Make a deliberate effort to incorporate all three: prompt, routine, and reward. As with all personal development, be sure to continue experimenting. If you find yourself in a rut, try something different. Iterate. Once you’ve found your ideal mix, the routine will run itself. 

Is Inspiration a Trap for Writers?

Stephen Pressfield said that the Muse wanders the earth looking for someone to inspire, but she only pays attention to the person who is already at work. W. Somerset Maugham said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” 

Both of these authors understand that writers can’t wait for inspiration. If we’re serious about writing, we must write whether we feel like it or not. The feelings associated with the creative process should follow the discipline of writing, not the other way around. 

Writers offer a range of excuses for not doing their work. The excuse of not feeling inspired deceives more than any other. Anyone who has engaged in a creative endeavor knows the power of inspiration. It's a thrilling experience. And once a writer has written with inspiration at their back, that writer will always desire a repetition of the experience. It’s like getting hooked on a drug. The fact remains, however, we can't count on inspiration striking. 

Now, I have met a handful of people who appear to be in a state of continual inspiration. From what I can tell, these folks wake up every day fully conscious. They throw themselves out of bed, hit the floor running, and accomplish their goals with extraordinary focus and energy, day after day. These folks are like an eternal fountain of cheerfulness, energy, and optimism. I hate them. 

The rest of us begin from a less advantageous position. For the typical writer, rallying the energy and focus to start the creative process will be a lifelong struggle. It’s not that we don’t enjoy the process; we just have problems with the inertia at the beginning. 

Tradition compels us to believe that the people blessed unlimited energy and inspiration are the true creatives. Similarly, tradition suggests that those of us who must exert great determination in creative endeavors are posers or fakers. Neither of these is true. Smart authors of the past frequently described their process as a mystical experience they had no control over, but in reality, they toiled over every sentence in private, usually on a daily basis.

Inspiration can take our writing to a higher level, but only if we consistently write in the first place. Take care not to use the absence of creative spark as an excuse to avoid writing. If we do the work, we are giving inspiration a chance to show up. And the more consistently we do it, the better the chances.

As Louis L’Amour said, “Start writing, no matter what. The water doesn't flow until the faucet is turned on.”

 

 

My Writing Journey--The Power of No

As I’ve sought to build my writing routine these past couple of years, a key theme has surfaced. The times I am most productive are when I am focused. And being focused relies on my ability to give certain things up.

I love good quotations. Here’s one of the best from Steve Jobs. 

“Focus means saying no.”

This week, I’ve reflected on the things I’ve had to say no to in order to build my writing habit. What surprises me is that it’s been the same things over and over again. I’d love to say that I’ve only had to say no to things once, and that then the behavior continues forever, but the reality is that my old habits usually creep back. Then I have to say no to them all over again in order to resume my writing. 

Here are some things I’ve had to say no to repeatedly:

  • Staying up late to watch shows
  • Downloading games to my iPhone
  • Sleeping in
  • Exploring new hobbies
  • Taking multiple days off from writing
  • Neglecting exercise

This isn’t meant to be a list for anyone else; it’s just for me. These are things that have significant power to distract me. When I download a new game or stay up late to watch a show, I know it will negatively impact my writing. It’s happened so many times that I know how things will pan out.

I’m certainly not bashing on taking a break from working on our goals, but I also think that we need to be very smart about our habits. During the last two weeks, I’ve made poor choices about my activities. The consequence is that my writing progress withered. 

So this next week, I’ll be refocusing on choosing the activities that I know reinforce my writing. I know that I’m happier when I keep my habits in place, so it should be a good week.

Can Pokemon Make You a Better Writer?

Growing a routine like daily writing combines two factors: things we say yes to and things we say no to. Because habit creation is complex, each of us must assess how factors will impact our routine. Some factors that strengthen my writing habit could weaken yours, and vice versa.

My Little Experiment with Monsters

Case in point: I jumped onto the Pokemon Go bandwagon last week, along with a gazillion other people who repeatedly crashed the servers. I'll admit that I let it go a little too far, taking more than one unnecessarily long walk before heading home for the night.  

The game was fun, but after rebooting the app unsuccessfully for the fifth time one night, I stopped and asked myself, "How is this impacting other areas in my life, like my writing?" 

The Importance of Selectivity for Writers

Let me be clear--I'm not bashing Pokemon or its players. We need rest. We need to unwind. Recouping our energy and creativity is integral to our ability to complete any task, especially generative ones like writing. So if Pokemon Go or Netflix or some other mainstream diversion restores you, do those things! 

Still, activities can cut both ways. The Netflix binge that gives one person the rest they need to get back to work can have the opposite effect on someone else, pushing them even further from productivity. Some of us have trouble shutting Netflix off.  

In my case, Pokemon Go was a little too distracting. Several of my friends are playing, and they have the discipline to set aside a reasonable slot of time each day. They play for that amount of time and then stop. I'm not that kind of person, at least not with Pokemon. I found myself walking to the store, sitting at dinner—or worst of all—driving sown the road, and thinking, "Wonder if there are any Pokemon around here?" 

When something occupies our mind outside of the time and space we've granted it, we're losing control of that thing. Committed writers must control their mind space. Our brains are like fertile ground for the ideas that fill our writing. The preoccupations are like weeds; they choke out the creative ideas until it’s extremely difficult to write at all. 

Be Mindful about What You Choose

Writers, let’s honestly assess what’s building our writing routine and what’s limiting it. Each of us will come to a unique set of conclusions. I had to delete Pokemon Go—that was best for my routine. For you, it could be the opposite. Maybe catching them all will restore you and fuel your creativity. The crucial thing is to make these choices deliberately. Be aware of influence: say yes to what brings out the best in you.

   

My Writing Journey--Composition at 35,000 Feet

Note: I’ve decided to change the title of the ongoing posts about my own writing habit. I’m going to switch the name from “Progress Update” to “My Writing Journey.” Instead of a date, the subtitle will relate to the topic of the post.

Last week, I tried writing during a long flight. The trip was unusual because I wasn’t with my family. Flying solo gave me the opportunity to experiment. I learned a couple of interesting things about writing on an airplane. 

Writing on a Plane Sucks

No surprise--writing on a plane can be difficult. Everybody knows about the uncomfortable seats. Using a keyboard is awkward because of the limited space. The guy seated next to me was large, and his elbows kept bumping mine because he was also trying to type. The flimsy little folding table gave me a spot for my laptop, but those tables are shaky; every time the person in front of me moved, my keyboard jumped around. In general, the other people can be distracting. If anybody beside or behind me wanted to read what I was typing, they could have, so I was a little self-conscious at times and had trouble focusing.  

Writing on a Plane Is Effective--Wah?

On the other hand, while writing on the plane was challenging, it was also worthwhile. In spite of the distractions, I made excellent progress on a couple projects. Something about the environment propelled me. 

I think it had to do with the fact that I was stuck in a chair with no way to leave. It reminds me of the authors who have said that the hardest thing for writers is to just sit down or to just lock themselves in a study.  

Find an Unusual Place to Write

Being on a plane with a laptop or a notebook is essentially the same. The reason I liked writing on the plane, even though it was uncomfortable, was that it forced me to focus. This is typically the greatest battle faced by writers: we need to just sit down and focus on our craft. Anything that can distract us, will distract us.  

I encourage you to try something similar. Even if you aren't going to write on a plane, find a situation that will compel you to focus exclusively on your writing. It can be helpful to do this in a place that's different than your typical environment. Annie Dillard used to write in a tiny cabin in the woods. Some people find focus in a co-working space. I've seen people write very successfully in the library. Every writer is different. Some of us need absolute silence and stillness to focus; others benefit from the stimulation of noise and activity to drive their process. Don't assume until you've tried both. 

Try writing someplace new. Experiment. A new writing situation can stimulate your craft. I was surprised to find that writing on the plane was productive, and I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to write in a new environment.  

Struggling Writers Seldom Do This

Modern society is fascinated by success stories. Look at social media, and you’ll be inundated by examples of people who’ve turned their life around by getting in shape, improving their eating habits, or launching a successful career. Like most people, I enjoy seeing those posts, but I wish I saw more examples of what happens later. Ever notice that you don’t always hear the rest of the story? 

I suspect that’s because often the person isn’t able to maintain the behavior. Sooner or later, they fail. Not surprisingly, these folks aren’t quite as keen to share their failures online as their successes. I think that’s a shame for a couple of reasons.

Sharing failure has advantages

First, not sharing limits the person who failed. If they felt free to admit what was happening, they could grow. Acknowledging our shortcomings allows us to learn from our mistakes. 

Second, the lack of sharing negatively impacts the people who are interested in that person’s work. If you’ve been telling people about a project, but you don’t tell them when your progress halts, you’re leaving them in the dark. Sure, they’d be disappointed to hear that your work isn’t progressing, but they’ll be far more disappointed to think that you’ve dropped off the face of the earth, or worse yet, that you don’t care to keep them informed about your work. Audience can learn from the hangups, just like the person doing the work.

Sharing about setbacks benefits the person pursuing the goal as well as those who watch their progress.

Failure in writing

Whether you are a established or aspiring writer, people expect output from you. Writing isn’t the kind of work that you can con people into thinking that you’re being productive while you’re doing other things (unless you’re extremely successful and receive large advances). If you don’t write, people won’t have anything to read. They’ll know you screwed up.

Some writers find ways to cover this up. Ever notice that chronic procrastinators are also masters of making excuses? Don’t be that person. If you falter in your writing, admit it.

As much as people want quality work from you, they probably want consistent work even more. In general, it’s more important to keep the content coming than to hold out for your ideal product. This is particularly true because most people use the ideal as an excuse and don’t complete their work at all

How to do it

You don’t need to tell the whole world if you screw up, but you do need to tell somebody. Keeping it to yourself is as bad as not having anybody on board with your work in the first place. 

So the first step is to ensure that you’ve already told at least one person about your project. Do it early. Then review with them about the work on a regular basis. Above all, when you falter, tell them. Ask them for support. Get them to brainstorm with you about how to get back on track.

Notice that I said “when you falter.” While really committed writers become masters of consistency, everyone has the dry periods. If nothing else, something unavoidable will interfere: illness, financial burden, or family emergency. Have the stopgap of accountability in place, so that you will be prepared to get back on track. 

Exhibit real persistence

Anyone can post on social media about how they are starting something new. Very few can post about finishing a challenge or reaching a goal. A crucial component for being in that latter category is having a plan. Know how you will share about any lapse in your performance. Put the plan in place. Just doing that will give you greater confidence, and paradoxically, make it even less likely that you will falter.

Don’t be the person who hides their failures behind excuses, or who fails to communicate altogether. Engage with others, tell them when you’re struggling, and get back on track.

 

 

Progress Update 7/8/16

This past month, I’ve met Saturday mornings with my closest friend, a guy I’ve known for 20 years. We’ve long shared a love for books and writers. Much of our friendship has revolved around what we’ve read and written.

Our meetings over coffee are a tradition that we’ve carried on for many years, but it’s become more challenging to continue the habit as we’ve grown older and started families. The meetings have become less frequent in the last couple of years. It’s a shame.

This month, we resurrected the tradition. We’ve been sharing samples of what we’ve been writing. The camaraderie over our creative efforts has been highly encouraging. 

I’ve really missed talking with my friend about our writing. While I’d write even if I had nobody to talk to, having the sounding board of a friend or two makes a huge difference. I’m hoping that we can continue the meetings for the foreseeable future. They make a difference for both of us. 

Let me urge you, get together with one or more friends to talk about your writing. It’s great to have these discussions online, but something special happens when you also engage in person. 

When you meet a friend with your drafts and read what you’ve been working on, it’s a magical, synergistic experience. The energy and flow of ideas that result propel you forward. Weeks when you felt like quitting, you leave the meeting feeling resolved to continue. You get excellent feedback that helps you to change directions or refocus when we need to. 

Give it a shot. If you don’t have a friend, look for local writer groups—they’re everywhere. Don’t hold back from sharing—it’s the best way to grow.

Learn the Power of Focused Drafting

I’m always looking for new writing tools. Recently, I was introduced to Rough Draft. This is an app for Macs and iOS devices. You can try it for free.

Train Yourself to Draft Productively

The purpose of the app, as the name suggests, is to help writers draft. I’m attracted to Rough Draft because of its philosophy. Good drafting focuses on the creation of text—that’s all. When writers do a mediocre job drafting, it’s usually because they slip into revision or editing. This is a mistake. Slipping into a different mode squanders time and energy.

Rough draft keeps writers in the drafting mode. It does this by training the writer not to make changes. If the writer attempts to go back and alter text, the app puts uses a strikethrough instead. Hitting the backspace key simply extends the strikethrough. (The exception is typos. You have a couple of seconds to correct typos without the strikethrough dynamic.)

My Experience with Rough Draft

At first, writing with the app is disorienting. Most of us have spent years fixing mistakes as we type. I was a little peeved when the app wouldn’t let me change a few words. Still, I knew why it was happening. The app was doing exactly what it was meant to do. It was pushing me away from the bad habit of correcting as I went. It was reinforcing the skill of dedicated drafting. The longer I worked with the app, the more inclined I became to focus on the next word instead of the one I’d just typed.

The picture shows a sample of me typing and altering some text. You can see the strikethrough where I tried to change some words. What you can’t see are a couple of typos that I immediately fixed. As I mentioned above, the app will let you change the typos without altering text. 

I admire what the developers accomplished with Rough Draft. Many writers know how important it is to stay in the right frame of mind when drafting, but still struggle to do it. This app can train you to stay focused. If you haven’t developed this skill, I highly recommend doing so. It’s one of the most valuable techniques I’ve learned.

The app also lets users set target word counts, use writing prompts, or change the appearance of the text.

You can download the app for free. It has also has paid full version with more features. If you try it out, please let me know! 

Progress Update 6/25/16

Yesterday, I failed to write. Consequently, I broke a nice little 10 day streak that I had going. The picture shows my progress on the Commit app. (The white lines are days I wrote. As you can see, my consistency has been spotty.)

I’m happy that I’ve been writing most days, but I want to get my consistency back up. I’m reading an excellent book right now, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. It’s about the struggle of creatives to stay consistent in their work.  

I’m not finished with the book, but my chief take-away at this point is that we can very easily sabotage creative efforts like writing. Pressfield illustrates a range of excuses that we use to avoid the actual work. I’m changing my perspective on a couple of issues as a result of this book. More on that in a future post. 

On a different note, I’m taking a break from my college teaching for the summer. This will give me more time to work on my book project and some other content for Beyond the Blinking Cursor. Stay tuned! 

If You Can't Find Your Voice

Have you found your writing voice?

A significant percentage of writers say they have not. Why is this important? As writers, we have limited tools. We can’t invent a new language or change the rules of grammar, for example. When everything else is stripped away, one thing makes writing unique: our voice.

I believe the study of voice is a crucial part of a writing habit. The search is both a blessing and a curse. Some writers find it easily; others struggle for years. Some writers discover their voice, but then lose it. They often take years to find it again. This latter scenario has been my own experience. 

How I found my writing voice, but then lost it

I became fascinated with writing in high school. After being exposed to great literature, I began to imitate writers I admired. I experimented and grew in ability. When I entered college, the standards were higher, so I stretched. The combination of urgency, criticism, and creativity led to a sweet spot. I found my voice.  

Once I’d found it, I started receiving compliments on my writing. I'd send an obligatory email, but I'd try to infuse it with some personality. Later, I'd get a reply from someone saying how much they appreciated the fact that my emails were interesting. I’d found a way to communicate that was unique. It caught people's attention, even if the subject matter was mundane. 

Fast-forward to graduate school. As a grad student, my writing came under intense scrutiny. Encouragement was sparse. The style I’d developed was questioned by my graduate instructors. They pushed me to assume a different voice. As a result of my graduate school experiences, my voice began to deteriorate. I lost confidence in my writing. I settled for bland prose.

In the years since, I’ve been searching to rediscover my voice. It’s a daily process of blending where I am in life with what I’m trying to say. The more I talk to other writers, the more convinced I become that this is a typical experience. Many of us, if not most, seem to go through stages of finding a unique voice and then losing it. The stages seem to repeat, as well. 

Writing voice and self-discovery

I used to view this phenomenon as a tragedy. What could be worse, I thought, than to find something as valuable as my writing voice and then to lose it? Well, my perception has changed. I now think of this search as just one part of an interconnected life experience. Because I believe that a good life is self-examined, I view this process of finding and losing voice as simply an extension of how mature humans observe their own growth. As we live, we change. Our voice changes with us. 

I’m embracing the challenge of finding my voice, even as it changes. I know the voice that emerges, although changed, will be better for the experience of growing. If you’re wrestling with a similar process, I hope you’ll be comforted in knowing that you’re not alone. 

Progress Update 6/15/16

Recently, I've been rediscovering the importance of doing some off-project writing. Most of us who are concerned with writing systems have one or more ongoing projects. My writing currently focuses on my book project. Perhaps you're working on something similar. 

When we have an ongoing project we want to make steady progress. We desire to complete the project and move on to something new. Sometimes, however, the best thing we can do to keep our projects going is to take a break. 

Paradoxically, taking a break to write something off-project can give us a boost in energy and motivation for the project. Writing just for pleasure is cathartic. The buzz that comes from writing just for fun can help restore our focus when we return to the project.

So this week I've been working on a little article that will probably never get published. I've written it, however, because I can sense that my brain needed a break. 

It's important for all of us to reacquaint ourselves with the fun of writing. That fun is why most of us became interested in writing in the first place. So if you are struggling with your consistency, if your progress has been lagging recently (as mine has) you may want to consider a fun writing project. Pick something purely because it excites you. Obviously, you won’t want to take on too large of a project. It should be something short, but still something fun. 

Give it a shot. Try something just for the heck of it, and then see if it doesn’t give you some extra energy for your serious writing. Be sure to tell me how it goes.

If You Have No Time to Write, Do This

“I don’t have enough time.”

That’s the number one reason people give for not writing. I’m guilty of it myself. I believe that if we can write every day, even if it's only a very short amount of time, we will have success in the long run. This can only happen if we get past the obstacles of busyness and lack of time.   

Short Sessions for Long Wins

The key is to write every day, or as close to it as possible. (I think it's good to take breaks occasionally, as long as the break does not derail your writing routine.) Even if you're writing for only 10 minutes a day, it will make a difference. Obviously, you can't make a lot of progress in that amount of time, but if you compound what you write for 10 minutes over several weeks, it becomes a significant amount of text.  

When you are just beginning a systematic routine, you will probably only be able to produce a small amount of writing in a single block of time. Once you get into the flow of that routine, however, you will be more productive in that same small block of time.  

Let's say you're writing for half an hour every day. Almost anyone can find half an hour each day. Is it ideal? Not really. An hour is better than a half hour, and two hours would be better still. But when writing is something we must squeeze into spare moments, I think a half hour is realistic. If you're smart and disciplined, you can probably find the space of half an hour at more than one point during your day, bringing your total to an hour or more.

Many people complain that they can't make progress writing in a short amount of time, such as a half hour. I agree that it’s difficult, but one can become skilled at writing in short bursts with practice. Unfortunately, most writers try writing for short amounts of time once or twice and then declare that it's impossible. Don't give up before you’ve given yourself time to learn the skill. 

Two Techniques for Effective Sessions

One important technique is to do as much planning and prewriting as possible during the times that you can’t write. If you’re driving, plan what you will write the next time you can get to your manuscript. Jot down short outlines on scraps of paper or on your smartphone. 

Another technique is to practice Hemingway’s method for ending sessions: always stop in mid-sentence. If you force yourself to stop in the middle of a sentence, while the ideas are still flowing, it’s very easy to resume writing later. We typically waste a significant amount of time warming up at the start of a session. By stopping mid-thought, you’ll always be able to jump into the writing.

Success from Writing When Time Is Short

I used to be of the opinion that I couldn’t make progress by writing if I did not have a block of time at least 90 minutes long. Now, I still find that I’m more productive if I have 90 minutes. However, I usually don't have that much time available on a given day. So the fact is, I'm far better off writing in small spurts that I complete on a daily basis. Those small sessions, compounded together, add up to a lot of writing. Even though it sometimes feels frustrating writing for those short sessions, it works. Previously, I’d go for an entire week without writing because I couldn't find my ideal block of time. Now I'm making progress on a daily basis because I have learned how to squeeze writing short amount time. 

I love the example set by Jane Austen, one of the most famous novelists of the 18th century. Part of the reason that Austen is famous is that she lived a very ordinary life. Her father was a clergyman, and she lived an ordinary woman's life for that time, along with her mother and sisters. She spent a great deal of time reading, sewing, and engaging in social activities. In that era, very few women spent large amounts of time writing fiction in solitude. As a result, Austin had to find a way to write her novels in short spurts during the day. Visitors described Austin hiding manuscripts underneath her sewing projects. She would be seen sewing in the company of her mother or her sisters, but when people weren't watching, she’d pull out the manuscript and continue writing. In other words, she found a way to squeeze writing into the spare spare moments throughout the day. 

Jane Austen authored several novels that continue to be read and celebrated to this day. If she could find a way to write in short, scattered sessions, so can we. Don’t underestimate your ability to make progress in your writing because of the limitations of time. If you really have something to write, you will find a way.  

 

 

Progress 5/24/16

Do you have a favorite stage in the writing process?

If you’re not familiar with breaking the process into stages, it might help to think of writing as prewriting, drafting, revision, and editing.

My favorite is drafting. I love to see the pages fill with words. I love to stretch for my target word count each day. I love exploring my topic with the freedom that drafting offers, knowing that I’m not yet committed to what I write.

If drafting is my favorite stage, revision is the stage I like the least. This has been reinforced recently, as I have made slow progress during the revision process with my book.

Revision stretches me more than any of the other stages. Something about the act of questioning what I’ve drafted sends me into a place of deep self doubt. It’s interesting, because I feel very confident in each of the other stages, but the need to analyze my draft seems like something I could do endlessly. I struggle to be balanced—to honestly assess the value of what I’ve written, without fiddling with it for too long. 

I’m resolved not to spend too much more time in my revision process. It’s been said before that a writer never really finishes, they just stop messing with their project. I can certainly see how that will be the case with this book.

 

 

Improve Your Writing Consistency with These Tools

Tracking Writing for consistency

One of the best techniques for improving your writing consistency is to track your progress. By using a simple method for keeping a record of your sessions, you will see the accumulated evidence of your work. Viewing this record over time will motivate you, and the desire to keep the string of successes unbroken will deter you from skipping. 

I’ve found four methods that work particularly well for tracking. Pick one and try it for a while. If it doesn’t work, try one of the others. You may even find, as I have, that using multiple methods simultaneously can help. Each approach has unique advantages. 

A calendar

The easiest way to track your progress is to use a physical calendar that you keep somewhere prominent, preferably near your writing space. Every day after you have written, put an X through the day on the calendar. Do this repeatedly and you will get to see an aggregate of Xs over the course of the month. It’s fulfilling to watch the month fill up with crossed out days, and gradually, you will become very reluctant to miss a day and ruin the look of the calendar. 

This technique was made popular by Jerry Seinfeld, who made a goal for himself to write a new joke every day. He would put an X through the day and found over time that this habit was ingrained; he'd automatically write a joke every day. This is a great technique; I've seen people use it with regular success. I think the best part of this technique is its simplicity. 

A journal 

If you're a traditionalist, it's hard to beat a pen and paper journal. You could also employ a digital journal, either with a dedicated program like Day One, or a general text-based program like Word or Evernote.

Just a simple entry each day will help you to stay in the groove and maintain your routine. If you feel like writing at length, go for it, but I recommend keeping the entries short and uncomplicated. It may be helpful to list how many words you wrote, what specific project you worked on, and how you are feeling about your writing. 

A goal-tracking app

Thousands of habit-tracking apps are available on computer, tablet, or phone. While many of these apps are general in their focus, some of them can be tailored to focus on writing in particular. 

I use a simple app called Commit on my iPhone. This app helps me to track the number of days that I have written successively. As simple as it is, the app helps me to stay consistent. The longer I go without missing a day, the less willing I am to skip.  

Scrivener

I'm very transparent about my love the for the Scrivener program. Scrivener is sort of like Photoshop for writers, and like Photoshop, it has more features than the average user will ever employ. One of my favorite features in the program is for target word counts. This feature allows you to set an overall writing goal that you spread over a length of time (a week or a month, for example). The program will average out the number of words you need to write each day to keep you on track. Every time you reach the goal, you get a satisfying ding sound. If you don't reach the target or exceed the target in a given day, the program will adjust the number of words needed to stay on track for your goal completion date. The progress-tracking features on Scrivener are extremely helpful, particularly when writing a long work, such as a book.

Stay on track

Whatever method you choose, try keeping a record of your writing. The discipline of tracking serves as a parallel for the routine of writing, reinforcing your daily habit. You will become more connected to your work and ultimately, a stronger, more confident writer.

 

 

Progress Update 5/9/16

Getting Out of a Writing Rut and the Value of Easy Goals

Recently my writing consistency has suffered. Perhaps you’re in the same boat. 

One of the best methods to get out of the rut is to set very easy writing targets each day. Once a writer nails these easy goals, he or she can return to their typical, more challenging goals. So if your standard goal is to write a thousand words—which by the way is pretty high for someone who doesn't have much spare time—then you should set the target for fewer than one thousand when getting out of a rut. In such a case, it would be better to shoot for five hundred words, maybe even fewer.

The point is this, when we get into a rut, the most important thing is to get out. That’s where I’m at currently. I’m fighting to get back into a regular writing flow, and I understand that part of what I need to do is to set an easier target.  

Another important element for getting back on track, along with setting smaller goals, is to do some writing strictly for the fun of it. This is another piece I’ve been missing. I’ve made my writing so focused on things that I felt I needed to write that I forgot to write just for the heck of it. I think it’s vital to write occasionally strictly for fun. I’m going to be doing more of that, even if it’s just a few hundred words each week.

I’m confident that I can get back on track. My teaching should be winding down for the summer break in the next month. That will afford me more time to write.

How is your writing going? I’d love to hear!

 

 

Is Trying Too Hard Destroying Your Writing?

Perfection wants to kill your writing

One of my favorite sayings goes like this:

Perfect is the enemy of done.

I can’t think of a sentiment more appropriate for writers.

How many of us who love writing have said, “Yeah, I have a novel, but it’s not finished”? 

Or maybe you’ve said: “I’ve been working on this blog post for a few weeks now. I really need to wrap it up!”

It occurred to me recently that submitting to perfectionism can threaten our entire identity as writers. Let me explain by discussing the definition of the word writer.

Who is a writer?

Maybe you’ve noticed that people fall into two camps when it comes to calling ourselves writers. In one camp, you have people like me. I believe that anyone who writes—no matter what they write—should call themselves a writer. As long as they think of themselves that way—and they actually write stuff—then cool, they’re a writer.

But there’s a second camp that has a different opinion. This second camp says that a person should only dare to call themselves a writer if they do it professionally. Unless someone gets paid to write (preferably full time), they don’t have any business using the title, according to this view. 

Now, I used to get angry with the second camp. I felt that drawing this line between people who write just for the love of it and those who make a living writing was arrogant and elitist. Recently, I’ve modified my opinion. Let me explain why.

Fiddling our way out of an avocation

Often (but not always) those of us who haven’t made a significant amount money writing are guilty of self-indulgent perfectionism. I am a member of this group. I admit it. I’m raising my hand. “Hello, my name is Adam, and I’m a perfectionist writer.” My perfectionism has held back my writing. It’s not a good thing. 

Maybe it’s true of you, too. Perhaps you have tinkered too long with a particular project because it hasn’t turned out the way you wanted it to, but you know full well that you need to let go and share it. Maybe you have something hidden on your hard drive or in a notebook that you know you should have shown to others a long time ago. 

I’m not talking about failed attempts at writing. We all have those, and they’re an important byproduct that we throw away, just like sawdust is a byproduct at a lumber mill. I’m not talking about failed attempts; I’m talking about the projects that we finish but refuse to share because of our pride. Instead, we hide these things and fiddle with them. We fiddle because we know that the product doesn’t live up to our expectation. We refuse to acknowledge deep down inside what we already know: that none of our creations will live up to what we dream they will be. This disturbs us, we don’t like it, and so we keep on fiddling.

The attitude of a committed writer

It occurred to me recently that a professional writer doesn’t have time for this. Unless a writer has had so much success that money is no longer an object (a J. K. Rowling, say), the professional must keep churning out content. When the deadline arrives, they send it off, ready or not. Because the professional writer can’t fiddle with their work past a certain point, they learn how to be comfortable with sharing product that doesn't meet their expectations. They even learn (gasp) how to cope with negative feedback from readers. 

This difference plays into the two definitions of the term writer. The reason some people are so adamant that only a professional should refer to themselves by that term has something to do (at least sometimes) with this distinction in attitude. Perhaps there’s still a degree of elitism, but the professional, by virtue of resisting perfectionism, has in a sense earned the right to a different title. 

Done is even better than perfect

Regardless of how you define the word writer, I hope you will think carefully about how perfectionism impacts your work. This has been important for me recently. I am realizing that even though I’ve spent over a year exploring the development of writing routine, I am still wrestling with a strong propensity for perfectionism. Recently, it’s held back my progress on my book. It’s also limited my work on my blog and the email workshop that I send to readers. This needs to change. I’m being honest here in the hope that openness will lead to progress, both for me and for anyone else who needs this reminder.

I leave you with another quotation, this one from Papa, the masterful Hemingway:

If anybody deserved to call himself a master, it was Hemingway, yet he didn’t. Remember this axiom. Scrawl it into your memory. Don’t allow perfectionism to convince you otherwise. Don’t fiddle with your writing. Commit to finishing so that you can move on to the next thing. Swallow your pride, share what you’ve written, and grow. 

Progress Update 4/12/16

This week, I’ve been getting back into a regular morning routine. It’s been tough, because my day job has slipped into overtime hours. Still, I find that doing my writing becomes even more important when I’m busy, tired, or stressed. I need the routine to give my day focus and energy. I’ve said it before, and I still belief it wholeheartedly: when I don’t write, I’m at odds with my own thoughts.  

Another key to maintaining both the writing routine and overall happiness is physical fitness. I’ve been neglecting exercise for a couple of months now. The results aren’t terrible because I have an active day job. I’m not in danger of getting fat. Still, I’m missing a valuable source of mental and physical stamina. This week I made progress getting back into a regular exercise schedule. My arms are sore as I type this because I was trying kettlebell swings for the first time. I can already tell that I have more energy, a better attitude, and a greater amount of creativity, thanks to just two days of exercise.

If I’m going to write consistently, I definitely need to keep exercise a part of my weekly routine. One of my excuses for not exercising is that I can’t do it as much as I’d like, so I might as well skip it. That’s a stupid reason. Even a small amount of exercise each week impacts my writing routine (not to mention the rest of my life). Just half an hour three days per week makes a big difference. And any amount is better than none. My current goal is to do at least one day per week when I am busiest, and as many as four when I’m less busy. I purchased the kettlebell to facilitate short, but effective workouts. 

Let me encourage you, if you’re a writer, but you’re not getting a moderate amount of exercise, start doing something once per a week, even if it’s just half an hour. You can increase the commitment later, but anything is infinitely better than nothing—which is what most people settle for. If you’ve been away from exercise, you’ll be amazed at the difference just a little bit will make for your writing routine. 

 

Five Tips for Finding Writing Inspiration

Increase the Likelihood of Inspiration with These Tools

One of the greatest myths about writing is the idea that the writer must wait for inspiration. I don't believe that inspiration is something that we should wait for, but it can be a valuable surprise—sort of like a bonus. So, while we shouldn’t procrastinate because we’re not feeling it, the experience of inspiration can take our work to a new level.  Here are five ideas for increasing the likelihood that inspiration will strike. 

1. Music 

Finding the music (or ambient sound) that drives your creativity and focus in writing is huge. I can’t say enough about how my music motivates my writing. The impact is so strong that when I hear certain artists, I feel an urge to write. I begin getting ideas for future projects, even if I’m not actively thinking about writing. Add music to your writing routine if you're not using it.

2. New environment 

I talk a lot about the power of environment to shape a routine and make it consistent. Something that I don’t mention as much—but which is just as true—is that experimenting with a new environment can spike creativity. Whenever I’m feel like I’m disengaging with my writing, I try writing somewhere new or surrounding myself with new stimuli.

3. Books 

It’s been said a million times before, but it’s still true: great writers are great readers. If you want a surge of creativity, read. I’m amazed by the power of a good book to keep me fired up for my own writing. The books you read don’t need to relate closely to what you are writing. As long as they inspire your creativity, they are making a difference. Some of the most inspiring books that I read are zany science-fiction. Even though I’m not writing science-fiction at this time, these books still inspire me to write.

4. Conversation 

Conversation with other people does wonders for inspiration. If you can have just one friend who will talk to you openly about your writing, you will greatly increase your creativity. If you can have several people with whom you can talk in a group or even individually, so much the better. There’s something special about bouncing your ideas off of at least one other person; it can greatly boost your creative power. 

5. Art 

Here’s a unique one. If you’ve been inspired by certain forms of art in the past, keep a mental file of those works. When you’re feeling discouraged, revisit those pieces. This can serve as a reservoir of creative energy that you tap into when needed. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the art needs to be closely related to what you’re working on. As long as it inspires you to create, it can benefit your writing. 

Here’s a personal example of art that inspires. A few years back, my wife surprised me with a large print of one of my favorite photographs. It's the feature photo for this post that you see above. A framed copy hangs near my desk. This is a shot from World War II, during The Battle of Britain. It’s a photo of a bombed out library, a casualty of Nazi air attacks. These English citizens are doing their best to continue life by browsing for books, surrounded by destruction and disorder. The photo moves me because of their commitment and vision. Every time I look at that picture, I’m inspired. 

Engineer Inspiration

The next time you’re struggling to commit to your writing, think about these sources of inspiration. Try one or more of them. I hope they will empower your writing as they have mine. Always remember that you are ultimately in control of your writing, not your feelings,  and that inspiration, while it can be serendipitous, mostly results from the choices we make.

 

 

Progress Update 3/25/16

Here’s an update on how I'm dealing with season affective disorder. While I am still coping with some fatigue, I’m happy to report that my mood is significantly better. 

The light therapy really works! I've been using an energy light during the morning for 15 to 30 minutes. On the weekends, I also use it in the afternoon for a similar block of time.

My mood is definitely improved on the days that I use the light treatment, especially in the morning. I’ve also found that my sleep quality is better when I use the light.  

I've enjoyed incorporating the light into my morning routine. It puts me in the right mood; turning on the light flips a switch in my brain. The act of using light serves as another of those triggers in my writing routine. I can't say enough good things about the power of those routine triggers. If you haven’t started to incorporate them, add an environmental trigger to your routine. It will help you to be consistently productive.

While the light therapy has helped my sleep, I’m still struggling to get up in the morning during this season. To some extent, this results from my flaking out on my evening habits. I need to go to bed earlier, prep my morning activities the night before, and consistently journal before I sleep. These three routines play a vital part in my getting up on time consistently with energy and focus.  

Create Grit with These 5 Techniques

My Favorite Grit-building Techniques

Last week, I shared a philosophy of mental toughness. I’m convinced that creating grit is the only way writers can become consistent and make real progress in their goals. If you missed it, read that post before this one.

This week, I’m offering five specific techniques for increasing grit. I’ve used each of these. I continue to use them. They make me more determined and more successful in my writing. 

They might sound like torture. The things I list below used to intimidate me. They don’t anymore. (Well, maybe a little bit.)

You might try a couple of these if they scare you, or you might create unique challenges just for you. Find activities to build your own mental toughness. 

I promise that you can become grittier. When you do, that power will increase your effectiveness in a range of areas—not just writing. Trust me; it’s worth it. 

1. Start Difficult Conversations

Most of us are terrified of saying something wrong. Try setting aside this fear occasionally. Instead, focus on saying things that you believe need to be said, regardless of how they'll be received. 

Doing this is like stepping outside of yourself and watching the situation unfold. It’s a fascinating experience. You will learn much about yourself and about other people. 

An unexpected benefit is that the people that you speak to—even if they don't appreciate what you say—will likely respect you more. 

Please understand, I'm not encouraging you to act like a complete jerk. I’m not suggesting that you should turn off every filter and say anything that pops into your head. I’m talking about overcoming fear and bringing things into the open. 

Try speaking about topics you’ve avoided. See what happens.

2. Take on Leadership 

I discovered this one accidentally. A couple of years ago, I received an increased level of responsibility at my day job. In a few months, I went from being an average employee who took orders to being in a leadership role that required me to give instructions to as many as sixteen people. This made a huge impact on my mental toughness. 

Most of us avoid increased responsibility. To some extent, this can be wise. Added responsibility can mean increased stress and a decrease of time and energy for other things. The benefit of taking on leadership, however, is increased grit. Other benefits include improved ability to make decisions and growth in teaching ability.

3. Eat Simple foods

Often the practices that build the most grit are physical. An adjustment in our eating can make a huge impact on mental toughness. Several months ago, I simplified my breakfasts by making them the same every morning. I eat poached eggs with coffee and a green smoothie. 

Most of us fear that repeating the same food will create monotony. What I’ve found is that this practice actually simplifies my day, conserves mental energy by eliminating choice, and builds grit through an act of discipline. 

4. Fast

The flip side of eating is skipping it altogether. I while back, I started fasting for 24 hours every week. The first occasion was an accident. I was late for work. I didn’t have time to make a lunch, and I decided not to spend the time and money to go out. So I just skipped. It was a hard not to eat during my morning break; it was even harder during my lunch period, but I was also surprised by the way I felt as a result. For the rest of the day, I felt focused and strong. 

The desire to eat when we are hungry is one of our strongest natural drives. It’s difficult to resist. Perhaps that’s why it’s also one of the most powerful ways to build our mental toughness. 

If you haven’t ever fasted, give it a shot. Maybe start by just skipping lunch. Later, work your way up to a day or longer. 

5. Take Cold Showers

This one was the most difficult to adopt, but it might be my favorite. I once hated cold water, but I’ve grown to view it like an energy supplement.

Athletes have used cold treatment for years, but now people outside of sports have begun using this technique for focus and and physical benefits. Imagine resetting your nervous system to sharpen focus—that’s what a cold shower or bath can do.

Here's the deal—almost everybody fears cold therapy at first, but with practice, it gets easier. 

Try taking a shower with only the cold tap open. The first 10 seconds are brutal, but after that it gets easier. After about a full minute it doesn't really feel that cold. Focus on deep breathing and relaxation. Try thinking of it like meditation. 

The amazing part is getting out of the shower. As you towel off and adjust to the ambient temperature, you will feel incredible. Your skin will literally glow. After the cold shower is over, thinking is clearer and I have an energy boost similar to drinking caffeine. I am fully converted to this practice. 

(I should be transparent and acknowledge that cold showers are harder in the winter. I haven’t been doing them as much recently, but is still average once per week. Every time I do it, I’m glad I did.) 

Get Gritty

If you’ve read this, you already have guts. I want you to have even more. Here’s what Eleanor Roosevelt said about stretching ourselves:

That’s become a life philosophy for me. I hope it will guide you, too. Here’s to grit.