Muses are unreliable. I love flashes of inspiration, those moments when I jolt awake at three AM with the realization that I have a scene in mind that demands to be written. But if I base my work ethic around waiting for inspiration, I wind up with writing’s equivalent to punctuated equilibrium: lulls without writing, followed by peaks of activity and progress.
There’s a common stereotype about the sort of writer who has brilliant ideas for future novels, but who never actually writes. These are a few of the things I do to avoid letting my writing goals turn into abstract dreams by grounding writing as an activity in my daily life.
An increasing word count is an obvious marker of spent effort, but I prefer relying on methods that allow me to compare results against intentions: checklists, experience bars, and timed writing sessions. Using a timer is particularly useful for editing, which lacks the obvious milestones offered by a first draft. (After all, good editing can often erase more than it adds.)
My personal favourite productivity tool is HabitRPG. I’m a sucker for its use of roleplaying game conventions. You can level up, die by ignoring tasks, and earn gold that can be exchanged both for real-life rewards like an hour of gaming or for armour and weapons your avatar can wear. It’s the death mechanic that motivates me particularly well; if I fail to write my daily 1,500 words, my poor character loses health. Over time, tasks that are ignored become more damaging and death more certain. I suspect this exploits the parts of my brain that were shaped by video games.
Give Yourself a Deadline
Chronic procrastinators hide from them, but deadlines really do motivate people to finish what they start. Even if you were the type of student who used to pull all-nighters before the final paper, realize that the constraints of the deadline may have provided the pressure needed to perform on so little sleep in the first place.
If you want the deadlines to stick, you may need to tie them to real consequences. Personally, I like to put off other things I enjoy (like reading a book by a favourite author or playing a new video game) until I have completed a writing task, but your choice of consequences may depend on how long you’re capable of delaying gratification.
National Novel Writing Month is my favourite. Its challenge to write 50,000 words in a single month is great way of getting into the habit of writing around 1,700 words per day. (The trick is to stick to the habit after the month has passed, which is tough to do during the December holidays.)
More generally, competitions lend a sense of urgency and provide shared deadlines. In particular, a competition with a tangible prize (money or publication) is a good example of a deadline with consequences. If you don’t sit down and write, you have no chance of winning.
Bonding with other writers is incredibly useful. Writers are often attentive readers, so a well-chosen writing group is a good source of feedback and advice. (If yours isn’t, you may need a new group.) Rivalries and reciprocity give you peers to measure yourself against.
I prefer groups that meet in person, since they’re also opportunities to practice reading out loud and the meetings themselves act as as meaningful deadlines. If I haven’t written something new in time for the next meeting, I know I won’t have anything to share with my peers. Similarly, paid writing courses offer both feedback and expensive deadlines.
I also recommend finding at least one person who loves your writing enough to nag you for more.
Forgive Your First Drafts
I’ve met a lot of writers don’t actually enjoy writing. They wince at every word they type, frequently abandon projects, and measure their drafts against internalized standards based on heavily-edited published works. It’s not a platitude to say that first drafts are rarely perfect. Relaxing your standards for a first draft allows you to have some fun. (Pressure is only useful if it motivates rather than discourages.) Earnest pleasure in the actual act of writing is a big help in finding the energy to write daily.
What tricks do you use to keep yourself writing?