Write. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. That’s the advice everybody gives. Make writing a habit. Aim for writing 2000 words a day. Use NaNoWriMo to help push you into this habit. If this is hard for you–so the advice often goes–then you’re just not “meant” to be a writer. Someone who truly wanted to be a writer would do it no matter what, right?
Yeah, that’s bullshit.
Some people are going to have amazing stories inside of them and the potential for great talent once they hone their skills, but the actual writing is hard. Maybe you’re depressed. Maybe you have PTSD. Maybe you’re on the autism spectrum. Maybe you’re trapped in poverty and can’t get your head out of the panic loop of how you’ll pay the gas bill next month. But you still want to write. Telling our stories shouldn’t just be the domain for people who are secure enough and supported enough that they can decide to make writing a habit and all the effort necessary was making that decision.
This is a guide for people who struggle to get the writing done. If you don’t struggle and this advice doesn’t apply to you, awesome. You’re lucky. Please don’t assume that those who do struggle are lazy or lack talent, okay? Cool.
To start with, are you okay? Do you feel like shit? Take care of yourself as much as possible first. It sucks that so many of us have a tax on our time and energy just to function, but neglecting ourselves and ignoring bad feelings won’t make it better.
This is where you’re going to start once your immediate safety and comfort are dealt with. When you feel conflicted or unmotivated about writing, make note of it and make note of what happened just before that feeling. If something is worrying you or you’re distracted, write it down. It only has to be detailed enough for you to keep track of what’s getting in your way. When you want to write but can’t, make note of that too. Just get a good record going so that you can see where your biggest problems are. Don’t beat yourself up over your inability to write. Just find out why it’s difficult, to the best of your ability.
Managing your time can be incredibly difficult. Maybe you work. Maybe you have kids. Maybe you’re disabled. Maybe all three, plus some other concerns. Your time is nibbled away at, leaving you with limited opportunities to write and limited energy. The journaling can help identify places where you could make more time, but there are some things you just can’t cut back on. You’ll have to manage your time carefully, then:
- Set a timer to write for a small chunk of time. Apps like Strict Workflow are useful for this. Keep your writing periods between 15 and 30 minutes at a time. Stretch for a minute or two before continuing into the next period. If you’re physically able to stand, do so. Even if you’ve set aside hours to write, take the breaks.
- Keep track of your output with your journal. Find what a reasonable output is for you in each of these writing periods. Whether you can write 70 words or 700 during a period, it really doesn’t matter. This isn’t a race. Find what you can comfortably do and make that your goal for each period.
- Divide your work up. If you have to do research or outline or any other preparation work, set up periods for those activities. Time yourself just as you would with writing, to limit obsessive preparation. Recognize your needs and fulfill them to the best of your ability.
- If you have trouble with multitasking or switching gears between activities, don’t. Have a research day. Have an outlining day. Have a writing day. Keep yourself focused in the way that works for you.
- Make checklists so you can see your progress and know where you are. Checklists for things you need to research, for chapters, for events that have to take place in the story, are all good. Don’t spend too much time on creating the checklists, however, as this can keep you from getting your work done. If you’re prone to procrastination or obsessive behaviors, set a timer for writing your checklists to self-limit the activity.
Dealing with Distraction
Limiting distractions can help immensely, especially if you have a condition that might enhance your response to them, like anxiety or ADD. Your journal and using timer apps will hopefully help you manage internal distractions, but our external environment matters a great deal as well. Here are some methods to aid in concentration:
- Create a sacred space. If you can have a home office with a closing door (or, hell, a closet you can fit a chair and a laptop into), awesome. Good for you. If you can’t, ritualizing your space can help. Pick the most secluded writing spot that you possibly can, even if circumstances still make it less than ideal, and then have a rug or another marker to lay down in your space while you’re using it. Create a visual barrier that separates your writing space from everything else. Only use your marker when you’re utilizing the writing space for work, to enhance the connection in your head.
- Keep your sacred writing space clean.
- Take breaks between timed work periods, as mentioned in the last section. When we get fatigued, we’re more likely to lose our concentration.
- Structure your schedule so that the most difficult tasks you have to take care of (research, an especially trying or triggering scene, whatever needs all your attention) can be done when you have the most energy and the least chance of being interrupted.
- Turn off the Internet or use an app that will block access during writing periods.
- If it’s safe to do so, turn off your phone. If you can’t, only answer text messages or calls related to emergencies or the specific reason you can’t turn off your phone.
- Reduce auditory distractions:
- Use a noise canceling headset or earbuds to play music. Choose music you know won’t catch your attention, like stuff without lyrics or stuff with lyrics you know so well you don’t have to think about them. (Old pop music is my go-to on this one.)
- If you use hearing aids, consider removing them while you write.
- If you have a white noise machine or can invest in one, turn it on when you’re in your writing space.
- Choose a space as far from audible distractions as possible.
- If you can, rearrange rooms to minimize audible distractions near your writing space.
- Reduce visual distractions:
- If you can’t have an office or some other enclosed space, you can also create one. Cubicle walls, a hanging sheet, a giant cardboard box around you and your computer, whatever the hell you can come up with that feels comfortable.
- Try to choose a spot for your writing space that’s away from visual distractions.
- If you can, rearrange rooms to minimize visual distractions near your writing space.
Remembering What to Do
If this isn’t something you struggle with, this might be an unfamiliar idea, but for a lot of people it can be difficult to remember what they need to do. They’ll get distracted when they go to the bathroom and start a new task, or illness or medication makes their head so foggy they have a nagging feeling there’s something that needs to get done, but they’ll be damned if they know what it is. Experiencing this doesn’t make you a bad person or one incapable of writing. It’s simply another difficulty to be dealt with. These steps may help with this:
- Utilize checklists, as mentioned in the time section. This way you’ll know what you’ve already done and what you need to do next.
- Use visual reminders, like the sacred writing space rug. Sticky notes or note cards can help you keep on top of where you are if you’ve gotten distracted. This is why walls–or even temporary walls–around your space can be doubly helpful. You can use them to hold reminders of where you are in your project.
- Color code your notes and other materials, to make it easier to see what tasks go together.
- Set aside a little bit of time for your journaling to keep track of where you are, how you’re doing and ideas you might not be able to use right now. You can refer back to it to remind yourself.
- Set up reminders and alarms for when you want to do your writing, so you don’t forget and skip.
- Don’t rely entirely on digital notes, as these won’t remind you if you don’t remember to check them in the first place. Have reminders in your physical space, where you’re likely to encounter them even when you aren’t actively thinking of them. If you’re visually impaired, jewelry or other tactile reminders might be useful.
For many people, routine is difficult. A cranky infant that needs to be cared for doesn’t know you’ve decided to write during nap time. Maybe you’re on call for work at all hours. Maybe your work schedule changes constantly, flipping you from day to swing to graveyard with little warning. Maybe you’re seriously ill and never know when you’ll have a good day or a bad day. Do the best you can and be kind to yourself when things don’t go according to plan. Some of these ideas may help:
- Have set spots for certain items, especially those related to childcare, work, leaving the house, and writing. This will reduce time and stress spent looking for them.
- Plan ahead however far you can, while recognizing that plans may change. If you can only plan ahead as far as the next day, do it. If you have a pretty good idea of what will happen every day but there’s always the chance of something messing it up, create a plan with flex time built into it for dealing with unexpected events.
- Bank time. If your schedule allows you to spend hours in the kitchen one day a week, plan a bunch of meals for the rest of the week that you can prepare and freeze ahead of time. If you have some time but can’t focus on writing, find another task that you can focus on. Get it done, so you have that time free later.
Be good to yourself. Recognize that you deserve care. You deserve time to work on things that matter to you. Be kind to yourself. Caring for yourself is just as important as any other activity when it comes to your writing. More specifically:
- Practice self-compassion. Write these exercises down if necessary. If you have a really hard time remembering to think kindly about yourself, get creative in your reminders. Put a notecard with an exercise on it on the ceiling above your bed. Put one in the fridge. Write them down on your thighs so you see them when you sit on the toilet.
- Eat well, to the best of your ability. Try to schedule eating at least a little something every four hours.
- Keep journaling. Take note of the emotional triggers that make it difficult to write and see what you can do to soothe yourself from them or avoid them entirely.
- Dismiss the advice you don’t need. If steps offered in this guide are more extreme than you need, don’t follow them. Just remember that people with value to their voices might need them. It doesn’t make anyone “better” or more “professional” just because they don’t have certain stumbling blocks in their path.
- Don’t let self-soothing activities become unhealthy, such as spending hours playing games when you need to do other things. You can use your timer apps to keep track of leisure time, too. By ensuring you do have time to relax but that you don’t let it take over your life, you can reduce a lot of stress.
- Don’t push yourself past your limits to match the expectations of others. If you’re so overwhelmed that you can only manage to write for fifteen minutes every week before you have to breathe deep and ward off a panic attack, then write for fifteen minutes a week. Just do what you can and keep writing. Don’t worry if people tell you that you need to write every day to be a writer: they’re wrong.
- Read. Watch TV. Enjoy life.
And the final bit of advice: Write.