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.

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.  

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.

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! 

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.

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.

 

 

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!

 

 

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. 

 

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.  

Progress 3/10/16

Grappling with Mood and Writing

I had a revelation this past week. It was one of those times when I remembered something I’d already learned, but the idea became clearer and more significant. 

I’ve known for a few years now that I struggle with mild depression during the winter months. I live in the Pacific Northwest, where weeks at a time without sunshine are common. Starting about four years ago, I noticed that I struggled with energy, focus, and attitude during these months. 

The strangest part is that I forget it’s going to happen. Because I didn’t experience this until a few years ago, I keep assuming that it isn’t a pattern. Each of the past few winters, I grow unhappy during January and February. Then a sunny day rolls around sometime in March, and I feel amazing. This year, I’m recognizing that I’m going to probably deal with the phenomenon as long as I live in Oregon. Acknowledging that this is a factor should help me to deal with it. 

The SAD has had a major impact on my writing. After months of consistency, I’ve been unreliable in my progress for the past six weeks. I’ve struggled to get up in the mornings, to prioritize, and to take pleasure in accomplishment. 

I bought one of those lamps that simulates daylight and have been using it in the mornings. This should help me to counter-balance the lack of sunshine and get me on track during the mornings. 

Happily the weather should be shifting during the next month. I may not need to worry about it after a few more weeks. 

Progress Update 3/1/16

March 1st was the target for releasing my book on writing process. Unfortunately, it's not ready yet. 

If I hadn't set my target, I wouldn't have made the progress I did. While I need to push back my release date, I'm glad I had an aggressive target. I made better progress as a result. 

Tentatively, I'm setting my new target for April 1st. I continue to revise the draft. Revising is hard! I like drafting much more. Still, I continue to plug away at it. 

Thanks to those who have encouraged me in my progress. I look forward to hearing your feedback when the book is complete!

Progress Update 2/23/16

The Value of Distance

This week, I’m reminded of the value of distancing myself from my writing. 

I don’t mean giving up on writing; I mean setting aside a specific project for a certain amount of time. This is a technique I hadn’t used in a long time, and I’d forgotten how valuable it is.

At the end of January, I finished the first draft of my book on the writing process. I had planned to immediately do a second draft. Instead, my whole family got sick, and my schedule went up in flames. I didn’t touch the book project for two weeks. 

For the most part, I stayed consistent with my daily writing routine. (I missed three days.) My writing focused on other projects, however, and the book project sat idle. At first, I was upset about this. Later, I realized that this was a good thing.

When I went back to my book draft, I’d gained valuable distance from the project. The intervening time between finishing the first draft and starting the second had blessed me with perspective. I could see problems that I couldn’t see before. I could also sense what I’d done well. Again, this is one of those techniques that I’ve known for years, but I’d forgotten how powerful it is. 

So while I’m upset that my routine was disrupted, I’m happy about the objectivity I gained with regard to my book. Going forward, I’d like to integrate this technique of taking a break from projects more consistently. 

Progress Update 2/18/16

Disruptions to the Writing Process

This week, I continue to learn the importance of consistency.

No matter how long I’ve engaged in a writing routine, I find that something will come along and try to mess with it. This past month, I’ve dealt with a range of disruptions: 

  • Sickness in my entire family (spread over several weeks)
  • An increase in work-related obligations
  • Loss of sleep
  • Loss of energy
  • Financial headaches

I could go on, but these are enough to demonstrate. I know I’m not alone in struggling with these things. 

The point is that stuff like this will always threaten my writing. I need to be prepared, not just to have a daily commitment to my routine, but also to recognize that the unexpected will happen. Part of my routine needs to involve safeguards against those future threats. 

I’m going to be considering new ways to prevent setbacks from the unforeseeable. In the meantime, here’s to staying on track.

Progress Update 2/11/16

My progress this past week has been mediocre. As a result, I’m reminded of the absolute importance of focus. Without focus, I can’t hope to advance my writing. 

Last week, I was sick. My illness wore me out, making it difficult to write. I literally fell asleep at my keyboard more than once. This trend has continued because I’m still getting over the cold. I also made a big mistake and agreed to take on extra work for a part-time teaching position. The combination of illness plus extra work has wreaked havoc with my writing routine. 

I have done some writing every day, but I haven’t been consistent in meeting my quota. I’m reminded that I shouldn’t commit to anything that threatens my consistency. If there's doubt in my mind that I can stay steady with my writing, I need to turn down offers to do anything extra. 

Not only has my writing suffered, but my performance on the extra project has not been as strong as it could have been. I’m sure this is true, in part, because I have been frustrated by the disruption of my writing routine, which tends to set a positive tone for my day. 

I’m reminded of a great acronym for the word FOCUS: 

Follow One Course Until Successful. 

That idea of sticking to one course is huge. Most of us are so willing to move on to something new, but we really need to stay with one thing. Let that one thing reach its real potential. Refuse to move on until things are really maxed.

That's my take away for this week. If you’ve experienced a setback in your writing, I hope that this will inspire you. Press on. Don't beat yourself up. Don't dwell on the negative. If you can turn things around by doing just a little bit of writing, you’re on your way to being back in the swing. 

Progress Update 2/1/16

Yesterday marked the end of the period of time I allowed myself for my first draft on my current book project. My goal was to write at least 25,000 words. Last night, I hit 24,241. I called that good enough and went to bed. I've included a screenshot of my target word counter on Scrivener. 

(By the way, setting and achieving word counts is one of my favorite features on Scrivener. I can even tell the program to average out my contribution for each day to keep me on track. I love hearing the program making an audible "ding!" when I reach my daily target.)

Now for any of you who write regularly, you know that 25,000 words is pretty short for a book. (By comparison, National Novel Writing Month suggests 50,000 in just 30 days.) I’m keeping my target low for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to set a goal that I knew I could achieve when I started drafting in December. I work two jobs that fill most of my time six days a week. I’m only able to write for about an hour a day. So setting the bar low has helped me to stay focused. 

Also, I know that short books are often preferred by readers of practical non-fiction. I want to share a work on writing process that people will actually read and find useful, not a long book that readers will abandon after a couple of chapter.

Going forward, I need to revise. The next few weeks will be dedicated to that. I’ll be looking at the various parts and evaluating their relation to the whole. 

It’s a little weird going through the stages of the writing process with this book, given that’s the topic of the work itself. The meta quality messes with my mind sometimes. 

Stay posted for more info about the book. What are you working on?

Progress Update 1/25/16

More experimentation with dictation

I’ve had a great week. Among other things, I’ve made some progress in my experiments with dictation. While I’m not sold on my approach, I’m getting closer to a useful method. If you’re like me and have a long drive to work, using some of that to dictate is a great way to get some writing done.

I’ve settled on using an iOS app called Dragon Dictation. I’d heard of Dragon before trying it, but the reviews I read were mixed. I’m glad I gave it a shot, because it’s been the best solution I’ve used. 

Let me share some tips that have made the process work more smoothly for me. 

First, if you happen to use the app while driving, you’ll probably want something to hold your phone so you can have your hands free. I purchased a magnetic mount for my phone that makes this easy. 

Also, I’ve found that the road noise can make it difficult for the app to hear my words clearly. I improved the clarity of my voice by plugging in the earbuds that came with my phone. (The factory earbuds have a built in microphone to help with making phone calls.) Using the microphone significantly improved the clarity of my voice, and as a result, made the app much more functional. 

I’ve been impressed with how long I can talk to the app before pressing the button that transcribes my speech. With the other apps I tried (including the speech to text function native to my iPhone), I was forced to stop talking at frequent intervals to allow the app to catch up. This was frustrating for obvious reasons. Maintaining my train of thought was extremely difficult when I continually had to give the app a chance to catch up. I haven’t needed to do this with the Dragon app. To be honest, I don’t know just how long I could talk before pressing the button to record and transcribe. Every few seconds, I push the button to let the app transcribe what I’ve said. 

When I’m done driving, I just copy and paste the transcription into my Evernote app. Later, I work on it in Scrivener on my computer.

I’m looking forward to making dictation a more regular part of my commute and making more progress with my daily writing. If you’ve had luck with dictation, I’d love to hear what you did. Also, if you decide to give it a try, let me know how it works!

Progress Update 1/18/16

I’ve had a busy writing week. 

My book progress continues. I’m well over halfway in my first draft. My target is to finish the initial draft by the end of the month and then spend February revising and editing the work. 

I still haven’t settled on a name for the book. For now, I can tell you that it focuses on obstacles in the writing process. Specifically, I emphasize that writing involves two distinct mentalities, one creative and the other analytical. The key to writing more prolifically, I argue, is to manage those two mentalities well. The book offers ways of thinking and techniques to help make writing less painful and more productive. I’m not writing a handbook, so don’t suppose that it will be a list of rules about grammar or other conventions. Rather, it’s an exploration of how thinking about writing in a particular way can make it less difficult. 

My plan is to offer some excerpts from my draft in future posts. I hope that you’ll offer some feedback, so I can revise to make the finished work as useful as possible. 

Whatever you might be writing, I hope it goes well! Please consider telling me about your project in the comments here or in an email. I’d love to hear.

Progress Update 1/10/15

This was another solid week for my writing progress. I just passed the halfway point for my target length on my book draft! I continued my writing streak—I’ve now written at least 500 words for twenty consecutive days. 

Talking as Writing

I experimented with a new writing method this week: dictation. Several people have suggested that I try dictating because I have a long work commute. While I’m not sold on the approach, I am intrigued by the possibility of greatly increasing my daily writing output. 

I’ll keep testing methods, but for now, I'll share the positive and negative outcomes.

Positives:

  • Much higher output than my morning ritual alone. On the days that I dictated for just part of my commute, I doubled or tripled my word count.
  • A greater number of supplemental ideas. Something about dictating allowed me to make some unexpected connections.

Negatives:

  • Listening to the dictation and typing out what I’d said was frustrating and surprisingly time-consuming. I tried to find an application that would to this for me, but wasn’t able to find something that worked well. (Let me know if you have a recommendation.) As it is, dictating and then typing is more time-intensive for me than just composing at the computer. 
  • The quality of the dictated draft was far inferior to what I normally compose. The dictated material was also jumbled, repetitive, and occasionally incoherent. Revising and editing these sections will be more work than the other passages.

Perhaps more practice will improve my opinion of dictating as a compositional method. For now, I’m on the fence.

 

Progress Update 1/3/16

Finding the Groove

This past week has been much smoother that the week prior. While the week of Christmas was a disaster for my family, with every person in my immediate family getting sick, this week was easy and relaxing. I stayed consistent with my writing and built on the previous week’s success. 

I’m excited to see the book draft develop. I’m on a 13 day streak of not missing a day. My word count is almost 8000. I’m on track to finish the initial draft in February—then, it will be time to revise and edit. 

Let me give another plug for the iOS app called Commit. While the $3 price is steep for what does (relative to other apps), I think it’s the best $3 I’ve spent in a long time. The brilliance of the app is its simplicity. It does only one thing: track the number of consecutive days that you have completed a specific task. One or more tasks can be saved on the app. On my app, I’ve saved the question, “Did you write 500 words today?” A big button fills the middle of the page. All I do is press that button if I’ve written my quota for the day. The only other feature is a scale at the bottom of the screen. That scale shows the unbroken chain of days that the activity has been completed. 

As simple as the app may be, it’s made a difference for me. Something about seeing that chain of successful days motivates me and makes me very unwilling to miss a session. Let’s see how far I can go!

How’s your writing? The new year is a great time to establish habits that will keep you writing steadily.

Progress Update 12/27/15

A Little Accountability

I’m happy to announce that during the past week, I’ve made great strides in my writing habit. After finalizing the topic for my book, it’s been very easy to focus on specific content and to get busy writing the draft every day. I’m very excited to continue making progress on this book. The topic is the writing process. I’m shooting for 25,000 words and a release date of March 1st. I am confident that I will make this deadline. At my current rate of writing, I will finish about a month before that for my first draft. Then, it’s just a matter of editing and determining how I want to publish the book. (More about that later.)

I need to share about a tool that has been a great help to me while shaping my ritual for the drafting of this book. I found an app called Commit by a designer named Nathan Barry. This app, while it is extremely simple (and not free), has been a big motivator in remaining consistent with my writing habit. All the app does is ask me to give a daily update on whether I completed a specific task. In the case of my book writing, I’ve programmed the app to ask me, “Did you write 500 words today?” 

In addition to helping me remain committed to the daily writing goal, the app tracks the number of consecutive days that I’ve written. This is a huge motivator. I’ve been using the app for six consecutive days at this point. I really, really don’t want to lose my writing streak, and this has helped me to stay consistent. For example, a few days back, I had written, but had not attained my goal of 500 words. Because I knew that I would lose my streak on the app, I stayed up past my usual bed time to complete my writing quota. This is a huge development! The fact that I stayed up revealed a deeper level of commitment to my goal to finish the book. The app is purely a facilitator, but as goofy and indirect as it may be, it still had an impact, and this impact goes farther than just the 500 words that day. The collective streak feeds each day that follows, and I am inspired to continue committing to those 500 words, which means that my goal to complete a book becomes increasingly likely. 

I can’t stress too strongly the difference having this app has made. If you are looking to increase your consistency, try using it or something similar. Accountability is hugely important in achieving writing goals.