The last few days I have been writing almost nonstop. As we get ready to launch the blog for popforms, I have been working hard to create enough content to keep the site stocked and interesting for the people who visit, who hopefully will want to come back again and again because what they read was just that good.
It goes without saying that on days where I’ll sometimes do 8 straight hours of writing, my brain gets a little tired.
Sometimes I finish a blog post, and don’t even take a second to look over my work and feel satisfied with the thing I just created. I just plow into the next one and start the process of making something out of nothing all over again.
I was at the doctor’s office last week, and while she poked my stomach she asked me what I did for a living. When I told her I was a writer, she said, “Oh I always imagine writers having these amazing lives, where you just sit on the porch with a glass of wine and let your thoughts flow.” And I said, “Well. Some days it’s like that.”
And some days it really is like that. Well, I don’t drink and my porch is very small, but some days I really do just kick back and let the creative process happen. And I am so lucky to have this job, and so lucky for amazing days where amazing ideas and perfect phrases just flow.
But some days it’s like working in a factory. A sentence gets cranked out. A new sentence gets typed, punctuated, and moved to the side for the next one. Because there’s not always time to wait for inspiration to strike, and you’re not always in the mood to write one more word about leadership or management or technology.
And on those days, where you simply have to write, simply have to get it done today, even though putting another single solitary new word on the page feels like it might kill you, you have to figure out a way to keep going.
And it would be nice if the work didn’t suck when you were done with it either.
So today, I thought I’d share some of my best advice for writing when you absolutely must write, but absolutely can’t write.
#1. Turn off distractions.
I’m not a big tweeter or Facebooker or even really that good at browsing the internet for weird or interesting things to look at. But when there’s an article I have to finish but don’t want to? Oh, all of a sudden I can’t get enough of my Twitter feed. 8 Ways Soda Might Be Killing You? I absolutely *must* read that right now!
So when it’s a must-write day, those sites are off limits for me. I close all tabs besides the ones I need for work, and I just don’t open any more. Luckily, I’m fairly strong-willed in this department (one of the reasons I manage to successfully work fulltime from home) and having other sites just be “not allowed” works for me not to open them. But you can also download programs or use browsers extensions that will full-on block sites you specify that you know will get you in trouble.
Another big distraction for me is Gabe. (Is that surprising for me to say? It shouldn’t be, since I did start a blog devoted to his fashion.) He works odd hours, which means he’s often home when I am working, and which means I sometimes have to leave the house to get important things done on time.
The point of this tip is: don’t rationalize with yourself. “Oh, I know I usually get distracted by XYZ thing but I’m sure I won’t today.” Yes you will. Cut it out.
#2. Don’t be perfect.
If you want to write consistently, you have to let go of the idea of making anything perfect — or, if we’re being honest, even good — on the first pass. No one who was ever good at writing didn’t do second drafts or edit their work.
When you have a deadline, the most important part is getting the whole thing done.
I think of it like this: “If something terrible happens and I have to turn this in in one hour, I want to have a whole piece that can be published if necessary.” Your boss can’t do anything with one really really good paragraph. What she can do, though, is post a complete article you wrote that’s just not your best work.
It’s better to have something so-so to turn in than nothing at all.
Plus, it’s faster to go through and edit when you have a whole piece in front of you. Odds are, your “terrible” first draft is really not that bad, and as you read it through to edit, you’ll only have to make a few major changes. You’ll read clunky sentences and reword them to improve the flow. You’ll see where your logic skips a step, and add a sentence for clarity. Making changes to an okay idea is so much faster than coming up with a brilliant idea out of thin air.
#3. Outline your piece.
I never ever used to outline my writing in advance. I resented that it used to be required for writing assignments in elementary school, as I preferred just to think about what I wanted to write, then write it, then fix it as necessary. I still don’t outline much, except for when I have to get something done quick.
Outlining makes it so you don’t have to do so much thinking while you’re writing, which means you can get the whole piece done faster. It can be informal — I’ll often just write down the three or four main points I need to hit — but it is so helpful to plan in advance what you need to get done.
It’s also nice because if you’re trying to hit a specific word count, you can even break it down into word count per section: 100 word intro, 200 words on dressing for success, 200 words on commanding a boardroom, 200 words on good communication, 100 word conclusion. Seeing the smaller word counts makes it all seem much more achievable, at least to me.
#4. Write the easiest thing first.
This might seem counterintuitive because, if it’s the easiest, why not save it for last after you’ve finished all the hard stuff? But in my experience, the easy stuff suddenly becomes the hard stuff when you’re exhausted from 5 hours of writing about something really challenging.
Writing the easy stuff first gets you in the swing of writing. You can dive right in, without delay, and quickly work through a whole post, freeing you up to get another one started. Once you start writing, it’s easier to keep writing.
I also find that my mind wanders a bit when I’m writing something that’s fairly simple or which I’m really knowledgeable about. And where does my mind wander? Often to the hard stuff. I get some of my best ideas about posts I’m totally stumped on while writing posts about easy stuff, so I always keep a notepad nearby to quickly record my great idea. That way I have it for my outline later, but I don’t have to stop what I’m working on.
#5. Don’t get up.
Taking breaks is important, but so is sticking to a hard task. I put a big jug of water on my desk and keep a snack nearby before I start any long-haul writing day. I keep my phone within reach, and I wear layers I can easily take on or off. Basically, I don’t want to be pulled away by hunger, or thirst, or cold, or for anything really, in the middle of writing.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t get up from your desk every once in a while. Stretch, look out the window, take photos of your boyfriend’s outfits. But don’t make leaving your desk or computer something you have to keep doing. Stay in the flow as long as you can and minimize opportunities for the flow to be broken.
#5a. The one caveat to this rule is when you are really stuck. When absolutely nothing is coming to mind. These moments — where you stare at the screen glassy-eyed and there’s not a peep coming from your brain — are the times for breaks. And break you should! Really break. As in, leave the house break.
A break isn’t watching TV or reading a book. Disengage your eyes and brain from the screen or any active thought, really. Take a bath, take a walk, drink a cup of tea, or play catch with your boyfriend who’s really into baseball and insists that you throw him grounders every day so he can practice fielding.
Fresh eyes can see a formerly impossible task as startlingly possible. Ideas flow! You are so smart again.
How do you write when you’re under pressure? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.