Monday, April 26, 2010

Writing as a Craft: Developing Discipline

I mentioned the other day that I view writing as work. (So far everyone seems to agree with me.) And as such that means if we're serious about being "writers" - pursuing publication, honing out skills, etc - we need to know how to keep working even when the muse isn't smiling at us.

This means developing habits and strategies to get you through the "dry spells". Here are the ones that work for me.

1. When in doubt, outline.

It's true that I don't always outline before I start a project. But once I see what kind of shape the story is taking I do like to sketch out my ideas. This might be just a paragraph summarizing the story-arc. Or it could be a detailed 3 page bullet-pointed breakdown of all the key plot points. Or a stack of index cards containing notes for each proposed chapter. It just depends. But when the creativity gets thin I have something to look at to remind me what should come next. That has proved invaluable on many occasions when I've opened up my document and just thought "I don't know what to say now." It's not foolproof, but it gives me a way to see where I'm at and where I should be going.

2. Set measurable goals.

I've mentioned this before, but it's really important. Set a goal that you can measure. This means number of words (or pages) per day/week/month. Giving yourself a specific amount of time to write every day/week is good too, but it won't produce the same results. Set a goal that can be quantified, something concrete. "I will write 500 words every day."

3. Keep your goals in mind.

Once you have set your goal, keep it in mind. When you sit down to write review what your goal is and how much you have already achieved that week/month. (This is important because some days you simply will not reach your goal. Other days you will write as much as you normally write in a week. By having goals that are not just daily but also weekly and monthly, you can see the overall progression even when a cold destroys the daily wordcount.) If you are ahead on the weekly wordcount at the beginning of a writing session congratulate yourself. "My typing ability is improving" or "That day off to sleep really paid off" or whatever. If you're behind, figure out how much needs to be done to catch up. (Maybe slipping in an extra session or adding a hundred words to the daily goal for the rest of the week.) If at all possible make it something achievable otherwise you may start to feel overwhelmed.

4. Write every day.

Not all of us can do this. But if you can, you should. If you can't then find the time to write as frequently as possible. Trust me, it helps.

5. Write to the limits of your capability.

An online acquaintance recently asked how much he should be writing every day. (He's in college and usually busy with schoolwork.) Unfortunately that answer depends on the individual. When my story is firmly in my head I can write 1500 words in an hour. (When it's not, well, let's just say the number isn't that big.) And I can normally find an hour a day to write. (Sometimes it's more but I try to be realistic.) So, for me, 1500 words a day is a good goal. For someone else it may seem an impossible dream. The point is you should figure out - given the best possible circumstances: gotten enough sleep, no unexpected crisis, etc - how much you can write a day. Then set that as your goal. Don't try and make some impossible to achieve and ultimately momentum killing goal that is way beyond you. And don't settle for something easy. Best case scenario is you write at the upper edge of your capability. When that starts to get easy then you raise the goal. (Or if life gets difficult, you bring it back down a bit.)

So, there are my methods for staying on track and writing even when I don't want to. What habits do you develop to keep the words flowing onto the paper?


Anne Skalitza (aka "stormie") said...

I've found that aiming for 1k words a day helps me. And that doesn't include posting on AW :D

Great post, by the way!

Jaydee Morgan said...

All good suggestions. I need to try to write everyday. I try but somedays it just doesn't happen - although even a few words would be better than none.

A.G. Carpenter said...

Stormie: 1k was my goal for a while, but my touch typing skills have improved so I raised my daily goal to match.

Jaydee: Even if you don't get to write every day it's a good practice to aim for. Studies show that people who write every day (even if the total amount of time spent writing is relatively small) are more productive overall - more papers/books/shorts published - than writers who use the "binge writing" method.

Personally, I still struggle to write for more than a couple hours at a time without a break so I prefer the daily method to the "eight hours one day a week" method that some writers aim for.