This week, I’m thinking a lot about the way I get my writing done because, well, this move means I’m not getting a lot of writing done – at least not in books. But also, I’m pondering this question because in just two days 50 writers are going to arrive here on the farm for our annual retreat, and this topic is always a major conversation during these beautiful days.
If you’ve read much of my thinking about writing practices, you’ll know I just don’t subscribe to one-size-fits-all writing advice. Our individual lives, our individual schedules, our individual minds and hearts require processes and practices that are as idiosyncratic as we are.
I have, however, come upon – in my own writing life and in the lives of many of the writers I work with as an editor and coach – three things that help many of us be faithful and even productive in our writing work. They aren’t tangible things – although I do love a fast-flowing pen and lined paper. (Don’t make me show you what happens when I have to write on an unlined pages . . . just imagine that Price Is Right game with the yodeling climber.) No, these tools are much in the “practice” realm than they are in the “purchase” one.
With the women’s World Cup causing so much well-deserved and long-awaited fervor, many of us have a different kind of goal in mind just now, but I’m talking about the kind of goals that involve specific dates. Date-driven goals are my number-one tool for staying on task in the writing life. They make me accountable at least to myself but often to others as well. For example, I always announce my launch dates for books to my launch teams; that way, I have set expectations of others, and as a recovering people pleaser, I hate to disappoint.
I set three levels of goals.
- The big-time, end-of-the-line goal of when I’ll finish a book draft or publish it. This goal drives everything else, so I need to be realistic in terms of my time available, any research involved, and my own writing speed. But I also want to be ambitious. The pressure of a goal does no good if it’s too far in advance. For most folks, I suggest no more than six months for finishing a draft of a book because any longer period of time is too abstract (too many seasons pass, too many patterns of life), and we procrastinate.
- Then, using the big goal, I break that goal down by word count using the average number of words in the type of book I’m writing. (You can do the same thing for blog posts or other shorter pieces too.) So let’s say I want to write another middle grade novel to follow up on Jed and Mavis’s story. I know that middle grade books average between 40-50k words, and I want to finish the book by September 17. That means I need to write 7,500 words a week to reach that goal, leave time for me to revise, have an editor read it, and do a final proofread before loading the file to booksellers. For me, with my schedule, 7,500 weeks is not going to be easy, but it is doable.
- Finally, I use that weekly goal – in this case, 7,500 words – and break it down by the number of days I have to write each week. For me, that’s 5. So I need to write 1,500 words a day to reach that goal. I know my writing speed, and that’s easily attainable. So I’m all set. If this daily or even the weekly breakdown were too ambitious given my writing speed, my other life obligations, etc, I’d have to adjust my big goal, and there’s nothing wrong with doing that – now or in the future if it seems unattainable. Goals are tools, and it’s not helpful if we let them make us feel guilty.
The other important tool I use in writing is schedules. Schedules let me know I have made space in my days for writing, whether that’s every week day, every day of the week, or every Tuesday from 7-9pm. No schedule is right for everyone, but I do believe that a schedule is a crucial element for a writers’ work. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to let other things – dishes, dinner with friends, a volunteer opportunity, more day job work – take our writing time. Since for most of us, writing is not the primary way we make a living, it’s easy to let it slip away, especially when it feels hard. But a schedule can hold us accountable and make space for our words in our full days.
For me, schedule is easy if a bit more fluid than I’d like. I write in the evening after Milo goes to bed, OR if I’m lucky, in the morning before he wakes up. I know, though, that I’ll get an hour or two sometime during the day to write, and because I know I need to write 1,500 words 5 days a week starting next week to reach my goal, I get that time in.
You may have a life that allows a firmer schedule. (I will be happy to return to those days myself.) If so, schedule your writing time and honor it like you would any other meeting. You are meeting your words on the page, and it’s okay to say no to people, even your family, for some time each week to write. Just communicate that you’re working during that time and let them know you’d appreciate their help in holding that space for your words. It’s amazing how much people who love you will come along to support you when you give them a way to do it.
You need to schedule enough time each week to meet your weekly and (if you have them) daily word count goals. The amount of time you need depends on how fast you write, but here’s a great delight – you will begin to write more quickly the more you write.
That speed increases because as you write, you not only free up the parts of your brain that are used in writing but you also gain momentum. Momentum is the greatest tool life on earth gives to writers. It is the thing that makes it easier and easier to write the more you do it. I expect you know what I mean. If you write regularly, it’s easier to get to the page the next time.
On the flip side, if you’ve been away for a while, it’s really, really hard to get back to the page because inertia is also a powerful force. (Don’t quote me on my physics terms. It’s been 25 years since I took Ms. Kite’s physics class.) To get back into writing, you have to do a great psychological work, but fortunately, the practice of setting goals and schedules can really help with that effort.
Then, once you’re going, it’s easier to keep going. . . it really is. Monday, when I return to the page, it’ll feel like I’m Sisyphus with a big boulder going up Pike’s Peak, but then Tuesday, the boulder will be smaller, Wednesday, smaller still. By Friday, I’ll have a rhythm, and it’ll feel like kicking a pebble down a smooth, paved road. I’ve been there. I know this pattern. . . which is another gift writing gives – the ability to learn from the practice itself.
These are the three things I use to disperse the heavy weight of the prospect of writing. They help me break the work down, see it in pieces, and know I can manage it. I hope they will help you in the same way.
If you’d like, set a big goal and some weekly/daily goals and a schedule for reaching them in the comments below or email me at andi_at_andilit.com and let me know your goals and schedule. I’d be honored to hear how you’re going to get that boulder moving or how you’ve already been doing it in your writing life.
Our writing community is growing every day, and we’d love to have you join us. It’s completely free, completely supportive, and completely open to you no matter how experienced you are and no matter what you write.