When to Write and When Not to Write
A guide for effective writing habits.
Lots of people say they want to write, but they struggle to find the time, the will, or the effort. After all, life is filled with many other commitments — to your work, your family and friends, your health — and there always seems to be so many other things to do. How, then, do you make room in an otherwise busy life to practice the writing trade?
Make no mistake, writing isn’t a gift that some people have, and others don’t. Writing well is a trade, a constant struggle, a gradual improvement in an ethereal art you can’t readily touch, measure, or observe. Even with the talents and genetic makeup of a LeBron or an Adele or a Lasha Talakhadze, it takes them hours and hours to achieve the mastery of their chosen crafts. If you don’t take the time to develop the skill you wish to improve — whether that skill is singing, lifting, or dribbling a ball — you’re never going to get there.
Writing is no different.
The one advantage that writing has over some of those other arts, is that you can do it at your own leisure. That’s both a blessing and a curse. I think the reason that basketball practice or drawing classes — or other commitments to be somewhere and do something — rarely run into questions about “finding time” or “structuring habits” is that the commitments of when and where are already taken care of: basketball practice is on a court at a time set by somebody else; the gym opens and closes at certain times; your friends or colleagues or PTs except you to turn up to your engagements.
In contrast, writing is something you do on your own, at any time of day and in almost any place. That places the burden of discipline on you — and you alone.
William Zinsser opens his classic On Writing Well with two characters on stage talking about their writing practices. The first — himself — sits down and writes at the same time every day, forcing the words like it were any other job. To him, writing is a pain, a constant struggle of gradually formulating and re-formulating ideas into ever-better versions of a core message.
His stage partner is the polar opposite: he writes when he feels like it, and only when he feels like it. He lets the words flow naturally, have them down on paper when that feels right, and goes for weeks and months without writing a word if nothing attracts him. If he ain’t feelin it, he ain’t doin it.
These may be extreme positions, exaggerated even, but here’s the larger point: either works. As does mixing them, leaning one way or the other. It’s different for different people.
Just like every other part of your life: some people eat big breakfasts, others fast and have bigger meals later in the day; some work out early in the morning, others in the afternoon, and yet others late at night; some people do their best work before the kids wake up (or after they’ve gone to bed) — others shut themselves into a room for a set amount of time and hammer it out.
Writing is the same: you need to experiment and discover what works for you. Something you only do by trying. Trying, failing, trying again; rinse and repeat.
I lean closer towards Zinsser’s opposite — writing when it feels right — but I don’t recommend it for those beginning to explore this world. For the first few years of my writing, I often worried about this routine: I rely, professionally and financially, on a trait I can’t observe or control — what if my inspiration runs out? What if I have no more topics to write about?
Gradually, I learned that this wasn’t a constraint for me. My mind generates interesting ideas way in excess of what I can put out. Knowing in advance that some days are harder than others, I gather all of them in hundreds and hundreds of Trello cards (but use whatever software of technique that works for you), filled with half-finished sentences, graphs, links to resources that I came across but would never find again were they not saved them in neatly organized form. That way, whatever I feel like, I have half-finished drafts ready to be edited — and editing is a very different skill from the creative and artful craft that is writing.
I also couple my inspiration-heavy writing with loose but meticulous routines: “loose” because I have routines, but I’m definitely not above breaking them. The rough schedule of my day goes something like this:
- I wake up early — much earlier than my body naturally wants to — because my mind is at its best for the first few hours of the day. For years, I’ve had massive breakfasts (1500 calories or so) that gets me going for most of the day. As of late, my body doesn’t seem to like that anymore: instead I have something small and tea or coffee with a cooked meal at mid-day instead.
- I usually break for a few hours in early or late afternoon: go for a walk, to the gym, go shopping. This lets me clear my mind — often with intriguing podcasts — and sets me up for working session #2.
- After dinner (or a minor meal, depending on how hungry I am), I’m back in writing mode, often between 6 PM and bedtime.
That’s the loose part of my routines; what’s the meticulous part?
Once I’m in the chair — which can be at home, or at one of the several cafés I like to frequent — the details begin:
- Comfortable chair. I really hate it when my behind starts aching because of the hard, wooden surface I might sit on. The simple, yet somewhat childish solution, is to sit on a pillow. If I’m out in public, I don’t bring a pillow (yet anyway), but use sweaters or jackets or gloves to sit on instead.
- Position. I sit up straight, rarely making use of the backrest of the chair I’m in. I love kneeling chairs, but use whatever version that works for you (exercise balls, standing desks etc). The idea, at least for me, is to straighten my back and focus on what I’m doing. Leaning back is for relaxing; I’m here for work.
- Writing gloves. Yea, I’m that ridiculous: my constant companion is a pair of Houdini “Power Wrist Gaiters”. They heat my hands, as I often get cold and cold annoys me and distracts me. They also makes it much more comfortable to rest hands against the sticky, sometimes cold, and often irritating bottom portion of my laptop keyboard.
- Noise. Only three kinds of noise are allowed for work — nothing else. First, complete silence: no distractions, nothing to poke at my attention, just pure focus on whatever I’m doing. No wonder early mornings or late nights are so tempting for me — no neighbours, no phone calls, no emails, nobody to interrupt me. Second, restaurant ambience: non-intrusive background noises from other people in a café or restaurant — white noise: not silence, but nothing sharp enough to distract me or shift my attention elsewhere. Third: noise-cancelling earphones. If neither of the above options are available, my rescuers are my treasured $200 earphones (yes, pay up for quality). A well-curated playlist with deep house or melodic trance music sets me in the mood and lets my mind focus on the one thing I’m here for, regardless of the distracting noise around me: writing.
My writing is produced with copious amounts of hot liquids (tea and coffee, often simultaneously) and occasionally dark chocolate. Sometimes I’m even so wrapped up with what I’m thinking about that I don’t notice that my body wants caffeine or that my drinks got cold. Some of the most amazing writing sessions I do involve screening out everything else — sometimes so much that I have no idea of what’s happening around me: I don’t notice people talking to me, neighbours making noise, or the raging snowstorm outside.
Those are my most cherished writing sessions. What flows through my fingers then isn’t necessarily what eventually gets published — editing is a cruel, meticulous process — but it’s the building block. You can’t edit into perfection what’s not there. First, you have to create.
Those are some of my most noticeable (and borderline-embarrassing) tricks, but they work to further the one purpose I’m after: writing. Make yourself comfortable; remove obstacles or items that would distract you or annoy you; bring whatever sweet or salty snack you think you need or your body craves — all in the service of removing practical obstacles to your writing.
Other common tricks involve turning off your phone, most certainly shutting down any and every notification that might disturb you (news, messages, alerts etc). When you write, you write, and nothing shall come in your way.
My best advice for how to practically write is to make space for your practice (and practice!). Lower the demands (Rule 2), not because you shouldn’t write the best you can but to avoid the writer’s block that happens when people aim way above their abilities. Situate the work in a setting that works for you — coffee, noise, position, clothes, time of day.
My solutions aren’t universal, but they’re getting rid of the obstacles in my life: distraction, attention, comfort, focus. You know much better than me what the distraction obstacles are to you: try new solutions to overcome them.
Which tools help you focus?