Unsolicited “Get-Your-Writing-Life-Moving” Advice

By Nicole Stump

Let’s be clear: writing is hard.  Regardless of good intentions, excellent ideas, and unbridled motivation, the regular routine of being in a space with an idea and communicating it to other people is difficult. This post exists to explore some habits, practices, and strategies that might create forward momentum in a writing project. Your writing project.  The thing you’re potentially procrastinating by reading this post. Let’s dig in.

Strategy #1: Set reasonable goals.

Rationale: Knowing your life, your history of habits, and your historical levels of commitment, set goals that are within reach to boost your chance of accomplishing your goal. Be realistic about the amount of energy and effort your creation will require, and have at least a lingering awareness of time that must be committed toward a task.

To put into practice:

Get a specific habit rolling. Do something writerly everyday. Maybe it’s writing a minimum of three sentences a day written in the notes of your phone. Maybe it’s completing a prompt in a Prompt-a-Day journal. Maybe it’s reading one new article that’s tangentially related to an idea you have. Whatever it is, commit to it, get into a routine, and make it a priority.

Dig into the numbers of your project. Determine the target word count and a deadline for your project. Find the number of words you need to write a day to make it possible, and systematically hack away at it. If you’re not feeling math-y, Scrivener has a goal-setting feature, where you can add manuscript target length, session targets, and deadlines to keep yourself on track. Remember to build in plenty of time for revision.

Strategy #2: Set small intentions to build to a larger goal.

Rationale: As with all things, change occurs over time. The day-to-day habits and effort builds to larger projects. Narrow the focus of your task to keep the anxiety that comes with large projects at bay.

To put into practice:

If you’re tackling a novel-length work, break down the project into shorter (like 2-week, 1 month) missions. Focus on a specific plot point/chapter(s) to develop. Set a loose deadline. Let that small chunk of novel briefly live on its own before you incorporate it into the whole. You have my 100% permission to focus exclusively on the cool/weird narrative arc of a side character’s relationship with commitment for at least a week.

Strategy #3: Get other people involved.

Rationale: Writing is a solitary process, but it doesn’t have to be isolating. Other humans exists and are doing things similar to what you’re doing.

To put into practice:

Let other people in. Get involved in a writing group.  Meet up with a buddy weekly (or every few weeks or every month) at a location that doesn’t make you cringe, and keep each other accountable. Add alcoholic beverage(s) as needed.  Look into local groups of writers or booksellers who host classes, author panels, and writing inspiration. Find a group of regulars who will eagerly await your next completed pages.  When you get stuck, reach out to your writing people. They’re be there, perhaps with snacks, definitely with support.

Strategy #4: Stir up your ways of generating ideas.

Rationale: Refreshing the ways you move into writing time could open up new possibilities as you write.

To put into practice:

Give yourself physical reminders in your writing space to help yourself get moving–have a dedicated inspiration page in your notebook, hang inspiration on your wall (I recommend neon signs that say things like “Write faster!”, have a note on your phone with stray bits of thinking. Find strategies to get writing moving.

Create a ritual around your writing time. Perhaps you dedicate an hour every morning to your project. Maybe you start every session by clearing the air to get whatever noise is in your brain out on the page before you dive into the project. Maybe you always have snack and a cat nearby. Maybe you religiously hit the two drink minimum at your favorite coffee shop. Maybe your ritual is getting the idea down immediately, and refusing to be picky about the circumstances of when and where you write. Perhaps your ritual is avoid overthinking your ritual.

Have a good list of ways to fill the blank page. This list is heavily influenced by educational thinker, Randy Bomer in his book Building Adolescent Literacy in Today’s English Classroom. Good lists don’t have an age limit–it works for adult writers too.

Strategies to get started (or keep going) during writing time:
  • Observations
  • Questions
  • Considering what events might mean
  • Responses to things you see/hear/read
  • Drawings, sketches, diagrams, charts
  • Photos, excerpts from articles, quotes, found poetry
  • Images that stick in your mind
  • Plans and goals
  • Journaling
  • Descriptions of places, people, things
  • Researching places, people, things
  • Experiments in other genres
  • Writing in other languages, dialects, or perspectives
  • Experiments with varying sentence structures
  • Notes about ideas for stories, scenes, posts
  • Stories from family/friends
  • Lists
  • Dreams
  • Victories
  • Free association
  • Changes to prior thinking
  • Revisiting old topics
  • Documenting information
  • Overheard, imagined, or remembered conversations
  • Interviews
  • Decision making
  • Memories

Strategy #5: Get out of a rut by restructuring/reconsidering roots of a project.

Rationale: Hitting a wall happens. Deconstruct that wall by rebuilding or reframing the project. Nobody likes walls.

To put into practice:

Write about what the project you’re creating is about. The 40 Beat Technique in screenplay writing could be a way to rethink your project.  This technique asks you to start by figuring out what the story is, who your characters are, and poking into themes and conflicts. With the background thinking considered, you then progress to an outlining method that focuses on beats, or scene ideas.  Noam Kroll’s post breaks down the thinking and includes a structure to consider plot as you outline beats.

Strategy #6: Be semi-aware of your progress.

Rationale: Know what you’ve accomplished, which atmospheres work well for you, and notice when/where/why productivity drops off.  

To put into practice:  

Give yourself some kind of minor pressure to do the thing that you want to do (even in moments where the world’s endless distractions [laundry, scrolling through Instagram, screaming incessantly into the void]  seem more appealing). If you know that the lure of the internet is strong, try writing sans electronics, setting a timer to focus (see: Pomodoro Technique), or using Scrivener’s Compose mode to hide everything but your writing task. Find a reason to have a deadline, like a critique group waiting for your completed pages.

This New York Times article discusses a modified approach to bullet journaling, which could be a source of inspiration (or frustration, depending on how you respond to Pinterest-quality/Instagram-worthy page spreads). Find a way to track your progress, like giving yourself a chart where you check yes/no for your daily writing practice (you could/should do this for flossing your teeth too, which, by the way, is super important). Look at the data about your own productivity. Makes changes periodically to help yourself move the cogs more effectively.

Strategy #7: Harvest your notebook

Rationale: There are crumbs of good stuff hidden in your old notebooks, notes in your phone, and forgotten documents in the Cloud. Collect them. Manipulate them. Bring them back to life.

To put into practice:

Take a stroll through your old writing. With time and space away from when you originally wrote it, you can steal from your own creativity and let it live again and differently in the context of your current project. You’ve already done the original work of thinking of the ideas, and now it’s the fun part–to gather, sift, and add depth and new context.  It’s the zombie-version of writing, and but less groan-inducing.

Strategy #8: Avoid burnout

Rationale: Feeling the insurmountable dread of trying to maneuver through a plot hole? Be aware of the kind of work you’ve been doing, and switch it up.

To put into practice:

There is a lot more to writing than just writing. There’s researching, outlining, generating something new, revising (in a thousand different forms–structure, character, tone, dialogue, plot), and editing. There are new projects you could try. There are old projects you could try. If the task you’re working on isn’t bringing you that Marie Kondo-sense of joy, let it rest for a minute as you tackle it from a different angle, or set it aside.

Strategy #8: Celebrate your progress.

Rationale: Small progress is still progress.

To put into practice:

Set high expectations, of course, but notice the moments of improvement, the effort that goes into each page, and the difference that your decisions are making. Positivity begets more positivity.  Share your successes with your writing group, the barista at your coffee shop, and on social media, if that’s your thing. Treat yourself to a walk around the block, an extra pump of flavor in your fancy latte, or the notebook you’ve been eyeing. Hooray.

Wherever you are in the writing process, you’re doing okay. Use your voice. Lean on your community of writers. Write the thing. 

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