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. 

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.

 

 

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! 

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.  

 

 

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.

 

 

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.



7 Steps to Save Your Writing When You Let It Down

When You Fall off the Horse

Every writer I’ve met struggles with periods of inactivity. If you haven’t experienced this, the odds are that you will, sooner or later. Falling out of the writing habit is difficult to avoid. Because of this, we should develop a plan to deal with it. 

One reason I strongly advocate for routine is that it guards against falling out of habit. It's much more difficult to completely stop writing if we have a daily ritual. The fact remains, however, that even the most consistent of us will eventually fail.  

Knowing this, we should develop a plan to get back on track as soon as possible. The real danger doesn’t lie in missing a day or two. It lies in not resuming our routine after that day or two. 

We see it all the time. Someone who set a goal for themselves such as writing a book experiences something that interrupts the project. The writer deals with the interruption. Later, instead of picking up and resuming where they left off, the individual never finishes the project. Sometimes, the person gives up on writing completely.

Because we know this happens to writers, we should take steps to prevent this kind of outcome. If we create an action to deal with interruptions, we can be confident that we will resume as soon as possible. Several factors can help with this.

1. Think Beyond Desire

The plan must be more than an emotional drive. Too often, writers rely on sheer willpower to carry them through rough patches. This works great, until we encounter fatigue. Feelings lack consistency. We need a plan that remains viable regardless of how we feel.

2. Make It Specific

Remove uncertainty from the process of getting back on track. Develop specific actions that you will take to set yourself back on a path of consistency. Write down these steps and keep them somewhere prominent, where you will review them regularly until you know them by heart. The remaining tips below can serve as a starting point.

3. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

If you fail your daily writing target, don’t beat yourself up! It happens to the best writers. Cut yourself some slack and recognize that missing a day or two (and perhaps more if you are on vacation) is not certain death for your writing. While failing your routine isn’t ideal, it’s far less of a threat to your writing than the destruction of your confidence. So be easy on yourself. This is not a paradox. It’s entirely reasonable to hold yourself to a high standard of consistency, yet still be kind to yourself if you screw up.  

4. Get Back on Track as Soon as Possible

Resolve to get back on track as soon as possible. Don’t allow yourself to stay stuck. Do whatever is necessary to get started again. Sometimes, this means tossing yourself a softball to get an easy hit. It might take the form of giving yourself permission to write something really simple or silly. Even if what you write is unsharable—even if it’s something that goes straight into the trash, the fact that you wrote it puts you back on the right path. Keep the bar low when getting back into your routine. Perfectionism is a habit killer, and never more so than when you have fallen out of your ritual. 

5. Recognize What Distracted You

It’s important to identify the source of your habit’s interruption. Ask yourself if the source of the disruption could interfere again. If so, what can you do to work around it?

For example, if a commitment to a friend or family member interfered, determine if this could happen again. If so, figure out how to schedule future interactions with this person. That way, they’ll be satisfied that you are committing to them, and you’ll be satisfied that you have protected your writing time. 

If you were distracted by some kind of entertainment, develop a system of rewarding yourself for avoiding that distraction. Perhaps you can tell yourself that you will watch an hour of your favorite show, but only after completing your writing target for the day. It’s unrealistic for most people to completely ignore their favorite forms of relaxation, so barter an exchange between your writing and your hobby. Use the thing that could distract you as a incentive for staying on track.

6. Create a Buffer

One strategy that guards against faltering is to create lead-time between when you write and when you share. This particularly benefits writers who have committed to regularly deliver writing to an audience. If you have a blog, for example, it’s valuable to write well in advance of your posting schedule. The same principle follows if you’re traditionally published, if you’re a student writing papers, or if you’re working on a book and you've announced a deadline. By getting well ahead of the due date for your projects, you’ll always have a buffer if you fall out of habit. As mentioned before, this is valuable because it will prevent you from overreacting emotionally. If we always write at the last minute, any disruption can mess with our scheduled sharing. This in turn can have disastrous effects on our confidence. Getting ahead and staying ahead offers peace of mind, which helps us to remain confident and consistent.

7. Take a Planned Break

Sometimes, a writer simply needs a break from writing. If you’re beginning to feel that writing is a chore, it’s probably a sign that you need a vacation from writing. Sometimes, the break will just be a day or two. Other times, you might need a couple of weeks. I think it’s fine for writers to take a break, but it’s crucial to have a plan for resuming. Commit to restarting the routine when your vacation is over. Know that getting back into the swing of your habit may take a few days. Resolve to push past the inertia you may experience until you can get things rolling again. 

Stay the Course

Sooner or later, most of us will fail in maintaining our writing routine. This isn’t a big deal. The big deal is how we handle that failure. If we allow disappointment to paralyze and prevent us from returning to our routine, we’re in trouble, but with a solid plan and a resolve to get back on track, falling out of routine is just a speed bump. Let’s focus on the long term and shake off any setbacks.

Harness Flow to Boost Writing Process

Have ever found yourself sucked so deeply into your writing that you lost sense of time and your physical surroundings? If this happened to you, it’s likely you experienced the phenomenon known as flow. The concept of flow was popularized by psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (me-HI CHICK-sent-me-HI). 

Flow is a state of concentration so strong that an individual becomes completely absorbed in an activity and loses sense of anything other than that activity. Often, the brain’s chemical byproducts during flow are similar to a drug-induced experience. As a result, flow becomes addictive for many people, such as professional athletes. (The athletic aspect of flow serves as the basis for the book The Rise of Superman, which relates the careers of certain extreme sport enthusiasts.) 

What Flow Is and What It Means for Writers

In Csikszentmihalyi’s book entitled Flow, he describes people who engage in a range of activities. Many of these activities are simple, even mundane by many people’s standards, but they can still confer an intense satisfaction. For example, he talks about a European milkmaid who for decades performs the same simple activity of walking a great distance between her house and a dairy farm, but who still finds this activity engrossing and rewarding. Csikszentmihalyi also describes people in less ordinary circumstances, but who still find deep satisfaction in an activity that many would think was rather dull. For example, he shares the story of political prisoners who entertained themselves and found fulfillment by secretly translating well-known poems into different languages as a team. 

The upshot of Csikszentmihalyi’s book is that happiness in the everyday usually doesn’t come from stereotypical sources such as wealth, fame, or influence. Instead, what Csiksgentmihalyi found was that most people experience the greatest fulfillment from consistently doing an activity that draws that them in fully, engaging and satisfying their impulse to accomplish a task. Reaching this state of flow in a preoccupation that we find rewarding can result in consistent happiness over a long span of time.

How to Use Flow in Writing

I believe this concept of flow is deeply important for anyone who wants to engage in a consistent writing ritual. If a writer can experience flow as a part of their writing process, they will be more productive and more fulfilled. What’s crucial is for the writer to develop a routine—a set of triggers—that will put them into that state of writing flow quickly and consistently.

In both Flow and The Rise of Superman, the authors describe how individuals use certain rituals to get quickly into the flow state. This is one of the reasons why I so regularly write about the importance of a writing routine. When we built key components into our writing routine, those components put us more quickly into an ideal mental status. Part of what I’m trying to help people do when I prescribe those routine components is to get them into consistent flow states. 

I’m going to share five areas that can trigger a writing flow state. If you don’t have one or more of these aspects in your routine, please consider how you can incorporate them. I’m confident that they will help you to be more consistent and more fulfilled in your writing.

The Keys to Writing Flow

1. Session prep 

Do you have a plan of action leading into your writing sessions? If you’re not consistently front-loading your writing time with similar activities, you're missing out on one of the factors that can put you into a flow state. For example, I'm a morning writer. One of the key activities leading up to my writing is breakfast. I’ve found that if I prepare my breakfast ahead of time, keep it simple, and eat it immediately before I begin writing, it puts me very quickly into a flow state. 

Here's another example: I do my best to journal the night before my morning writing session. By journaling, I’m preparing my mind for the writing that I’ll be doing. It’s a trigger that puts me in the proper state of mind to experience flow. Many people journal immediately before doing a writing session. I recommend that you experiment depending on when you're writing, but try to incorporate journaling as another part of the routine to get you into flow. 

Breakfast and journaling are just two examples. Meditation or exercise are two more. It's a process of experimentation to find the elements that should go before your writing session. Work to find those elements and do them consistently to jumpstart the routine and get into flow. 

2. Time of the day 

If you haven't found your ideal time of day for writing, find it. Every successful writer that I’ve read about or talked to has determined when they are most effective. Having found that block of time, they jealously guard and stick to it. This becomes crucial to their achieving flow states as often as possible. I happen to be best at writing in the morning, preferably quite early. Mornings are preferred by many writers, but certainly not all. 

You may need to experiment to find your ideal time. Try writing at different times during the day, experiment with one block for several days, and then try a different time. You want to get really, truly good at that part of day. If you switch around the time, you will not be as effective, and it will be much more difficult to get into that state of flow. Once you found your ideal time, stick with it. 

3. Environment 

The stimuli that surround you have great potential for triggering flow states. Whatever influences our senses has enormous impact on our behavior. The entire school of psychology known as behaviorism is based on this concept. The classic story of Pavlov's dog serves as a great example. When thinking about environment, consider how you can spark a consistent response in yourself for optimal writing. Two key stimuli worth considering are location and sound. 

With regard to location, be aware that writers react differently depending on their personality. Some writers prefer a quiet, isolated office. Others write well when surrounded by busyness and hubbub. So if you're the kind of writer who performs best with silence and solitude, don't go to a busy coffee shop or a crowded library. 

You should also think about what sounds best inspire your writing. Don’t consider music alone. It could be the sound of water. Some people like the sound of an electric fan in the background. If you do settle on music, experiment with different types. Many people find music with lyrics distracting. Others find that it inspires. As with the other considerations, experiment to figure out which sounds work best for you. 

Once you’ve found your ideal environment, stick with it. Just being in your ideal location and your sound of choice will launch you into your writing and increase the potential for a flow state.

4. Comfort 

Be sure that the position of your body supports your writing. I’m constantly amazed by the unhealthy quality of many people’s workstations, as well as how they work at them. 

Much has been written on the importance of an ergonomic desk. If you're sitting, be certain that your seat supports your back and doesn't make you sore. Many people swear by a standing desk. If you’re unsure, look into the characteristics of optimal keyboard and monitor height. Wrist and neck strain can be prevented. You don't want to be reaching too high for the keyboard and cause strain on your wrist. Make sure that your screen is also at a good height. It's amazing how many people work at a desk while bending over a display that is too low, causing strain in their neck, back, and shoulders. Elevate your screen to eye level. It's also possible to have a screen too high. Any bodily tension, regardless of the source, causes fatigue and decreases your chance of a flow state.

5. Technology 

How you employ technology can strengthen a strong routine or destroy it. Be realistic.

If you’re using a computer, be sure that it’s reliable. Using a crummy computer can be a huge distraction. I had an old computer that I used for years, and I was so frustrated by the experience that I’d avoid writing. Eventually, I upgraded, and I now have a computer that I love. So if your technology is holding you back, please find a way to upgrade. It’s worth it.

Second, be sure that your technology isn’t distracting you. Turn off anything that might break your concentration. Don't leave social media running in the background. If you’re going to get a lot of messages or emails, turn those things off. Look into a service like freedom.to, which allows you to block particular websites and apps so you can focus on your writing.

Also, if you're using some kind of program for typing, try to find one that will maximize your focus. I love using Scrivener, partly because it has an excellent distraction-free composition mode. This composition mode blacks out the screen with the exception of a simple white page. I love this feature, and it always gets me focused on my writing. 

If you have a phone, tablet, or some other device that could distract, you must either force yourself to ignore it or take whatever measures necessary to prevent it from distracting you. Silence the phone, turn off the signal, put it in a drawer, or remove it completely from the room. Do whatever necessary to remain focused.

May the Flow Be with You

Now if you investigate each of these five areas and do your best to incorporate your best version of each of them, I believe you stand a good chance of achieving writing flow on a regular basis. These are the factors that have the greatest potential of giving you the experience of flow in writing. 

I can't stress enough how vital it is to practice.  Be open to experimentation. Your writing routine should be thought of as an iterative process. Solidify certain components of your routine and then insert something new. Make a variation on it and then solidify that variation. Constantly test the various elements of your routine until you arrive at your ideal.

Watching a page fill up with words is a magical thing. Add to that the utter absorption and rush of ideas that come with flow, and you have one of the best creative experiences. I’ve enjoyed a deep writing flow on multiple occasions. I emerged hours later having been oblivious to the passage of time. The best part may have been the euphoria that followed. Even hours after a strong flow experience, you will still be on a high of excitement over what you did with your writing. That is one of the best experiences a writer can have. If you haven't had it yet, I trust you will soon.  

 

How to Never Run Out of Writing Material: The Bradbury Formula

If you ever hanker for inspiration from a great author, take a look at Ray Bradbury. Not only did he create many celebrated works, he was also a fascinating human being with a remarkable attitude toward life. I love reading about Bradbury, and in particular, I love to read about how he approached writing. 

In his little book on composition entitled Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury shares a secret to his incredible energy, which always bursts forth in his writing:

“Here is my formula...what do you love, and what do you hate?”

He goes on to describe how valuable an exercise it is—and how utterly reliable—to write about one's passions. This remains a surefire means of finding writing material. As long as a writer feels, that person can find something to write about. Bradbury continues later: 

“Ideas lie everywhere, like apples fallen and melting in the grass for lack of wayfaring strangers with an eye and a tongue for beauty.”

Bradbury’s formula—starting with love and hate to generate writing—has stuck with me for many years. On any given project, if I struggle to begin, I always go back to his advice. The things that I feel passionately about have formed my foundation for countless hours of writing. 

So I recommend the same approach to you. If you find yourself staring at a blank page, recall Bradbury’s formula. Can you write about something you feel strongly about? Do that. Even if the angle you take at first doesn’t work in the long run, you got started, and that's the most important thing.

Now Bradbury wasn’t stupid, and he recognizes that what we write in a passion often needs work later. He emphasizes the joy of writing about things we feel deeply about at the start, and he stresses that we should worry about fixing it at a different time:

“Today—explode—fly apart—disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and find others in the world who, reading your story, will catch fire, too?” 

Enjoying that first draft—the utter freedom of it—has become crucial to my process. I wouldn’t dream of approaching it in any other way. 

So if you find yourself stuck, I highly encourage you to do a quick brainstorm. Ask yourself, “What do I love, and what do I hate?” Write about that. Draft from passion, and the pages will come to life. 

The Sound of Consistency: Using Audio to Drive Your Writing Routine

Does a steady writing routine have a particular sound?

I’ve spent months experimenting with various kinds of background noise as I write each morning. I’ve also listened to writers at various skill levels discuss how sound impacts their routine. My conclusion is that sound can play a major role in the formation of a strong writing habit.

Now, I’d love to tell you that a certain song is the key. 

Surprise! Here it is! Just listen to “X” by Band Y.

It’s a little more complicated than that. Finding your ideal background noise, the one that gets you into a state of writing flow, will take some experimentation. As is the case with all writing process, you’ll need to pair best practice with your personality. I recommend that you try different variations for three writing sessions. See which elements do the most to promote your writing. Drop what doesn’t work. Keep and iterate what does until you hone your optimal sound. My most important tip: find sounds that you don't normally hear. If you pick noises unique to your writing, they will have a more powerful impact on your routine.  Let me share a few more specifics to get you started.

Music vs. ambient sounds

Many writers find that some kind of music forms the best audio backdrop for their writing. Some people swear that music distracts them. If you don’t get good results with music, try some kind of ambient sound. These sounds could come from a machine or an app, like the ones that play sounds from nature. You could even buy one of those desktop water fountains. Again, you should try both music and ambient sounds and see which really drives your writing. 

Lyrics—good or bad?

I’ve lost track of the number of writers who’ve told me, “I can’t listen to lyrics when I write.” I’m among this number. Lyrics invariably derail my thoughts as I write. Now, you may find that this isn’t true for you. At any rate, I recommend that if you decide that music is your best writing sound, try listening to music both with and without lyrics. See which variety best inspires your focus. 

Genres—friends in disguise

Don’t assume that just because you enjoy a particular kind of music that it will be your ideal writing noise. You may be surprised to find that music from a genre you’ve never enjoyed before actually focuses your writing. A few years back, I tried listening to a few tracks from the post-rock genre while drafting. This was a genre I’d never been interested in previously. I discovered something remarkable. While I didn’t enjoy post-rock during other activities (such as during a workout or while driving), something about the genre really motivated my writing. Bands such as Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor started to form a crucial part of my routine. I found that this kind of music stimulated my creativity in ways that my favorite genres did not. I also realized that having a unique genre that I only listened to when I wrote made the element of sound a more powerful part of my routine. So if you listen to music while writing, don’t assume that the best choice is your typical musical preference. Look for the genre that motivates the creative side of you.

Consistency

One thing remains crucial after you find your best writing sound: stick with it for a long time. The most important part of maintaining a steady routine is to keep the various elements consistent. Having the same noises in your environment—especially if they are unique to your writing habit—will snap you into the routine. You remember Pavlov's dog, right? That's what you want to do to your writing brain: condition it to respond to an audible trigger.

 

These days, when I sit down to write, I immediately put on my headphones and turn on my ideal writing sound. The noises that I listen to each session have a similarity, so I’m immediately in writing mode. I have found that this helps me to get past the uncertainty that once made it difficult for me to start my writing sessions. Now, instead of staring at that blinking cursor, I get writing quickly and make rapid progress.

(If you’re curious, my current sounds of choice come from an app called Brain.fm. It’s an awesome beta product from a rising startup.)

Use These Accountability Hacks for Writing Consistency

If you’re seeking to improve your writing routine, do not neglect the power of accountability. This past year, I developed a daily writing habit. While a range of factors have contributed to my consistency, one tactic trumps all others: accountability.

I don’t particularly like the term accountability. Acknowledging that we need accountability isn’t fun, but if we can get past the humbling truth that we do better with someone (or something) holding us to our goals, we’ll be better off. Let me share a few ideas for utilizing accountability and staying on a path to more prolific writing.

Buddies

The simplest method is to find a friend who will inquire at predetermined intervals about your writing consistency. Preferably, this friend knows you well enough that the accountability process will be comfortable for both of you. In other words, this friend needs to kick you in the pants if you screw up. It’s no good having an accountability partner if they’re bashful about giving you a hard time. At the same time, you need to feel comfortable with this person offering you criticism. If you can’t handle this person’s style of feedback, the arrangement won’t succeed.

If you can’t find a close friend, you should still do your best to find a one-on-one partner. This kind of encounter has the biggest impact on behavior because we hate the idea of letting down someone who will talk to us about our goals. 

The frequency of these meetings is flexible. I recommend going for weekly. Just be sure to set a specific time and consistently attend the sessions

Forums

For a great supplement to a personal accountability partner, find an online forum that allows for accountability

Each week I post to a forum with fellow bloggers. A couple of my friends in that forum consistently offer feedback on my progress. Similarly, I post my weekly progress in an update post on beyondtheblinkingcursor.com. This process of posting weekly and getting feedback forms an important part of my process. The practice has solidified my habit. I don’t want to disappoint my friends or readers, so I’m very reluctant to miss a day. 

When sharing progress about routine, it’s better to have real numbers. Just telling a friend, “Yeah, I did good this week,” really doesn’t cut it. You need specifics. I find two things really help with this: journals and apps. 

Journals

A journal could be a physical book or some kind of digital journaling solution. I highly recommend buying something nice so that you’ll feel committed to using it. For a physical notebook, I’m partial to something leather, such as the handmade journals at Oberon Design. As far as digital journals go, many swear by something like Day1. It’s also easy enough to set up a journal on some kind of ordinary note-taking solution, such as Evernote. 

The key with keeping a journal is to make it simple and consistent. Track your progression as a writer. Write down what’s working for you and what isn’t. Note your mood and your distractions. Jot down encouraging statements for yourself. Be brutally honest. I highly recommend doing this immediately before bedtime. Pondering your habit puts you in a great frame of mind for the following day and increases your commitment.

Apps

You should also consider using an app. These will typically be a virtual accountability, because most of them do not integrate with interpersonal accountability. I find that the simplest of these are usually the best. Be wary of overly-complicated accountability apps. These tend to defeat the intended purpose. If the app you are considering contains a plethora of features, you may want to look for something more streamlined. 

A couple of apps that offer a simple reminder function for habit formation are Todoist or Commit. The list of similar apps is enormous. Try a few and stick with the one that most inspires your routine

Rewards

I need to recommend one last thing with regard to accountability and habit creation for writers: rewards. Find a way to reward yourself for consistent writing. Work this into your accountability. Tell an accountability partner about your specific writing goal for the week. (Examples include: maintaining a certain minimum word count or writing for a specific block of time.) Also mention a specific reward that you will give yourself when you achieve this goal. It shouldn’t be something that will distract you from your ritual or hurt your bank account, but choose something that you'll genuinely enjoy. This is a powerful way to reinforce your consistency. After you’ve done this, try pushing the deadline for your reward a bit further back. So, if you rewarded yourself after a week of consistency, move the reward to a period of two weeks, then three, and so on.

 

Creating and maintaining a writing ritual will boost your confidence and creativity on a daily basis. Follow these guidelines for setting up accountability to set yourself up for success.

What to Do When You Don't Know What to Write.

Do you ever fail to start simply because you don’t know what to write about? This problem is one of the biggest culprits for why many writers get stuck. I’ve experienced how difficult this can be, but I’ve also found some techniques that help me to get past this point. I’m going to share one of those strategies in this post, but first, let’s ponder why we often freeze while staring at that blinking cursor in the first place.

Why we get stuck writing

The problem behind writers getting stuck is not that they lack enough to say. Usually, the problem is the reverse. (C’mon, give yourself some credit!) We have too much to say. We have so much to say that we don’t know how to access the information that fills our heads. We don’t know how to take that information and put it onto the page. Our minds are stymied by the task of sorting and delivering the information buried deep in our brains. We seize up. We stare at a blank screen and write nothing. I’ve heard of writers doing this for an entire day.

How to generate words easily

The solution is lies in simplifying our approach. Here is my suggestion. Write about something very particular in the the greatest detail possible. Instead of writing about a broad topic in general terms, we need to pick a small subtopic that relates to or falls beneath that broad topic. This is counterintuitive. We tend to think that a big topic will be easier to write about. On the contrary, trying to distill something large into writing is quite difficult. Another problem is the fact that even if we succeed in writing about that big topic, we’ll most likely have nothing unique or incisive to say—our writing will be filled with cliches and we’ll barely scratch the surface. I am continually reminding my students about this when they pick topics. They are amazed when they discover that writing about something specific (e.g., a song) is easier than writing about something broad (e.g., an entire musical genre).

We need to think of a specific sub-topic or detail and write about that. Get into the nitty-gritty of something that interests you. Don’t write an introduction. Don’t try to think of the ideal title or that perfect first line. Just take a breath and dive deep into the topic the same way you would jump into a pool. Write the first idea that comes to mind and go crazy with that idea. If you get stuck, pick a related idea and go crazy with that one. Your sentences will probably sound like garbage. If you’re writing now, who cares? It might take a few lines to warm up, but before long you will be writing paragraphs. Ironically, the challenge frequently becomes finding a way to stop. Why does this happen? It’s because we tend to know more than we realize. We usually have more facts, opinions, and feelings than we remember. Choosing a specific sub-topic or angle opens up all of our knowledge and feelings, and we’re able to write freely. This usually doesn’t happen when we write broadly.

Unclog your brain for more content

Let me share an example to illustrate this. Suppose you have a favorite TV series. Suppose I ask you to explain the the show. That’s all I ask you: “Explain this show.” Your brain will most likely panic, because I’ve given you almost nothing to start with. I’ve posited so broad a question that your mind doesn’t know how to go about answering it. It’s not that you lack information about your favorite show—you have loads of information. The problem is that I’ve given you no filter to screen out the unnecessary information in your head. There’s a pipe in your brain that’s getting clogged. If, on the other hand, I ask you to explain—let’s say—the primary conflict in the show, everything changes. Now I’ve given your brain a filter. Now you can unclog the pipe and sift out all the information except those details that relate to my question. Within seconds, you’ll be describing the key characters and the ongoing problem that they face in your favorite show. 

To use one of my favorite shows as an example: Breaking Bad is about the struggle a man faces when he finds that he has terminal cancer, but doesn’t know how to pay for his treatment or provide for his family when he’s dead; he turns to making illegal drugs and hazards his life and relationships as a result. 

Writing that summary of the conflict in Breaking Bad was incredibly easy, and I could go on writing about that element at length without a problem. This is because—contrary to what instinct tells us—it’s easier to write about something when we are given limitations. 

Zoom in for a better view

Here’s another example. This November, I worked on the first draft of a sci-fi novel for National Novel Writing Month. Every day, I tried to write 1667 words. If you haven't tried it, writing 1667 words of fiction every day is hard. (I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped to be.) One of the biggest challenges is simply thinking of something to write about. I came to a halt almost every morning as I tried to continue the draft. The difficulty lay in not knowing where to start (or having started, not knowing where to go next). Every time I had a moment of hesitation, I would strive to push past it as quickly as possible. I would pick something specific and go deep. At one point, I was writing about a character traveling through space to a strange planet. I had not decided what would happen when he arrived. I was going to get stuck, but I needed to keep writing. So I decided to go in depth about what I’d already been writing about: the spaceship. (This is boring to anyone who's not a fan of science fiction, I know, but the principle would work for any kind of writing.) I began to elaborate on the exterior of the ship: its size, shape, color, and material. Then I shifted to the interior: the controls, the seat, and how the pilot was positioned inside the vessel. I described how the spaceship moved. I compared it to other space vessels. Eventually, I had written enough to fill up the time I’d set aside for writing that day. In the end, I may not use all of those details about the spaceship. I may move those details to a different place in the book. Whatever I decide to do with what I wrote, the key thing is that I kept writing. I added words that I can use later and I didn’t allow myself to stop. And this is what leads to success—just start writing and keep writing.

Get busy writing

So, a key tactic for moving past the uncertainty of what to write about is to write about something specific. It’s a paradox. Unclog the pipe in your brain. Filter out the unnecessary by focusing on something small. Get into the nitty-gritty of that concept, and you will surprise yourself with the length at which you can write. 

For corollary technique, try freewriting to get related information out of your brain and onto the page. It’s my favorite tool for pushing past writing inertia.  (See my post on freewriting.

How a Morning Routine Has Changed My Writing (And Maybe My Life)

If anyone had told me when I was younger that getting up early would become one of my most important habits, I would have laughed at them.

In the not too distant past, I never rose earlier than absolutely necessary. The only exception was if I were excited about something, like going on a vacation. A few years back I took a big step in changing that mentality. The alteration happened because I was making my first attempt to create a serious writing habit. In my quest to grow as a writer, I had begun to study the lives of successful authors. I noticed that a high percentage of authors were early risers. I dreaded the idea of getting up earlier, but I decided to give it a shot.

For the first time in probably years, I willingly got up while it was still dark outside. I staggered to the kitchen and made some coffee, then staggered to my computer to write. A couple of hours later, I had made a legitimate stab at a book chapter. I was elated.

In the months following, I became consistent at this routine. Granted, it was easier for me to start than many people. I was only employed part time. My wife was working full time and we had no children. My whole morning was open, and I had a lot of flexibility. (Wow, I can hardly remember what that was like!) So creating this ritual was easier than it might have been. I wasn’t dealing with sleep deprivation, for example, or a conflicted schedule. I was able to continue in this vein for several months and I completed the rough draft of a novel. (It still needs revision--on my list!)

Not long after that, I enrolled full time in graduate school. The writing ritual was lost in the busyness of commuting, classes, and a combination of jobs. Later, a baby and a full-time job stood in the way. Then another baby. I spent the better part of six years looking back at those mornings with my coffee and novel writing and realizing that had been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. I figured there was no way to go back.

A few months ago, I reached a point of mental and physical exhaustion. I was unhappy, too. I remembered the years when I'd had more time to engage in writing, and I realized a couple of things:

1. Engaging in a regular writing habit makes me happier.
2. Any habit, including writing, only happens because I make time for it.

These two realizations convinced me that I needed to resume writing, even though I didn’t feel like I had the time or energy for it. Many of the things I’ll be posting about are strategies that I’ve discovered to help me cope with the lack of time and energy. I do want to be completely honest and admit that it’s still a struggle. I haven’t nailed it. What I can say with absolute certainty, however, is that every day I write, I am happier.

So I resurrected the early morning routine from years before. It’s been harder this time around. I need to get up even earlier, sometimes as early as 3:30am. (Not a joke.) I have a long commute and an early start to my day job, so this is necessary. I have to go to bed earlier than some elementary school kids, and I don’t get as many hours of sleep as I’d like to, but here’s the key thing: I am much more fulfilled on the days I follow my morning routine.

Yesterday was a skip day. I slept in rather than following my ritual. No joke—the whole day felt like a disaster. I was lacking energy, unfocused, and irritable. The day before, I'd thoroughly engaged in my morning routine. The benefits followed me through the day: energy, enthusiasm, cheerfulness. And of course, there was the benefit of having actually written something. 

So I'm striving to get into the flow of doing the routine every morning, even on weekends. I find that if I skip, it throws off my consistency completely. I've also found that if I'm undisciplined in this area, I tend to be unsuccessful in my other goals. 

I realize that many people hate mornings. I also understand that some people thrive working at night, when I'm rarely good at much more than a movie and popcorn. All the same, I encourage anyone serious about improving their writing habit to take a look at their morning routine. I was very surprised when I discovered that the mornings were my best time for writing. 

Also, even if you don't utilize the morning for writing, consider that the way you start your day has a profound impact on how the rest of your day unfolds. I used to wait until the last possible minute to get out of bed every day. I'd throw on some clothes and grab the simplest thing to eat I could find before running out the door. I constantly felt tired, distracted, and unfulfilled. Now that I get up earlier and follow a set of morning rituals, I am much happier, calmer, and more focused. So, I encourage you, look into ways to optimize your morning, even if you don't utilize that time for writing

In a future post, I'll share specifics about my morning habits, as well as how I approach my writing time. What about you? I'd love to hear some comments about how you start your day. 

Freewriting as a Foundation for Consistent Writing Production

Freewriting tends to polarize people. I’ve met those who refused to even try it and others who loved it from the moment I explained the concept. For my part, I shifted; I started hating it, but learned to appreciate it later. 

Whether you’re new to freewriting or you’ve been familiar with it for a long time, I beg you to give it a chance. It’s one of those experiences that may be unpleasant at first, but if you give it a chance, it will grow on you. Think of it like trying a new food: possibly weird at first, but over time it can become something you crave. My wife had a hard time getting me to try curry, but sure enough, I was wanting more the next day. (I may have gone back to the restaurant the next day for lunch. Shh.)

I’ve come to see freewriting in some form as being the foundation of all my drafting. I may not always follow all the principles each time I begin a draft, but the basic ideas of holding back self-censorship and the desire to edit are hugely valuable. 

What’s freewriting? Here’s an explanation of the basic concept for the uninitiated. 

1. Start with a blank document/page.

2. Choose a topic.

3. Set a target time for your writing (5 minutes is good when starting out). Use a timer that you cannot see to avoid distraction.

4. Write on the topic for the full time. 

5. Do not stop writing until the time is up. Keep your your fingers typing or your pen moving the entire time.

6. Do not censor your writing. Write whatever pops into your head, no matter how absurd, boring, or irrelevant. 

7. Stop when the time is up. Take a break before doing more writing.

I’ve bolded the text for steps 5 and 6 because they are the most crucial part of the approach. They are also the part that people tend to skip or avoid. Needless to say, don’t avoid these steps

The whole point of freewriting is to produce ideas off the top of your head—to get the stuff that’s lurking in your brain out so you can examine it. If you stop to reconsider what your writing a couple of undesirable things will happen:

1. You’ll slow down. Don't do it! We never want to slow down when drafting. Get the words. Fill the pages with words. The focus at this stage is to move the ideas out of your head and to create as much material to work with later as possible.

2. You’ll want to revise. Don’t do it! The time to nit-pick will come, but for Pete’s sake, let it wait. Let your drafting be drafting and let your revision be revision. If you try to combine them, neither one will be as good. 

For most people, avoiding the tendency to slow down and revise is hard. Persevere, friends! I was introduced to freewriting as a college freshman. I hated it. Everything that I produced was choppy, unfocused, and embarrassing to read. Only after being forced to perform freewrites in classes multiple times did I begin to understand the value. Freewriting doesn’t create a beautiful, polished writing product. It creates the raw materials crucial for your later stages in writing. 

Think of it like manufacturing something, such as a car. Before the car can be finished with paint and upholstery, it needs to have the engine installed, the drivetrain assembled, the chassis welded, and a host of other steps. Before any of those steps can be completed, however, the materials need to be obtained. Metals, plastics, leather or cloth—any number of items are dug from the ground, formed through a chemical process, or derived from plants and animals. This first step of obtaining the raw materials relates to the first part in writing: getting content out of your head. Your brain is akin to the mine in the ground, the laboratory, or the farm. You need to get the raw materials out so they can be worked with. This is what freewriting does for the the author: it provides the raw material that becomes the finished text.

 

In the next post on freewriting, I'll talk about how to boost your writing ritual after completing a freewrite.

(Funny side note: my drafting program is attempting to autocorrect the word freewriting. It thinks I’m trying to say ferreting. So if you should happen to see a word that describes hunting things out like a long, skinny rodent, you’ll know what happened.)