Five Ways to Make Yourself Actually Write
Whatever class I’m teaching — whether Food Writing, Genre Writing (fantasy/sci-fi/horror), or Unconventional Fiction — one of my underlying goals is helping writers sit down in front of a blank page and actually write. We spend time talking about how our writing is going, doing exercises in class, and discussing exercises that we’ve done at home, all with the ultimate goal of finding a writing practice that works for us. That practice will be different for each person, but after countless hours of staring at blank screens, I’ve come up with these five tips to help get words from our heads and onto the page:
- Set a Word Count
Ernest Hemingway wrote 500 words a day. So did Graham Greene, and he supposedly stopped writing the moment he hit the 500th word, even in the middle of a sentence. (Stopping mid-sentence made it easier for him to get started again the next day.) I started writing by word count a few years ago, and I’ve never looked back. For me, it’s a more concrete method than writing by time, and it makes me actually put words down on the page, even if I eventually go back and delete all of them. I suggest that you start at whatever word count feels comfortable for you (100? 200?), then gradually try adding 50 words every couple of weeks until you reach a real plateau. You’ll know when you’ve hit what is more or less your maximum possible output for each writing session. And remember: 500 words every day, or even every week, adds up fast.
- Or, Make a Time Goal
More traditionally, writers tend to set goals in terms of time, along the lines of, “I’m going to write for two hours today.” For me, this typically leads to one of two scenarios. One, I spend the entire time either on the Internet or cleaning my house and then feel surprised (but still relieved) when the two hours is up and I only have a paragraph or two to show for my time. The other scenario is that I spend the entire time staring fixedly at the clock on my computer/beating my head against my desk. But setting a time goal is a tried-and-true method, so if it works for you, then by all means, keep doing it! You might, however, want to look into some Internet-blocking software, like Freedom, so you’ve actually been spending your precious writing time on writing, and not on surfing the Internet.
- Keep a Schedule
Whichever way you choose to write — with a word count goal or a time goal — set a schedule and try your best to stick to it. Ideally, you would write every day, at the same time each day. (And there would also be someone there to bring you coffee, walk your dog, fan you with palm fronds, and give you constant and convincing reassurance that you are, in fact, a creative genius.) Few of us live in an ideal world, however, and you know what the reality of your world looks like. Even if you only know for sure that you have one hour a week free (Wednesdays, from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., or whatever it may be), block that time out for yourself and your writing. That is your time; it is an appointment you’ve made with yourself.
- Try This Exercise
If you’re feeling blocked (as we all sometimes do), I’ve found that this exercise, adapted from one by Patricia Hampl, is basically foolproof. Hampl calls it the “10 Minute Autobiography,” and the creative nonfiction/memoir version is just what it sounds like: you write a ten-minute version of your autobiography. But there’s a catch: try to be writing constantly, your pen always on the paper, or your fingers always tapping the keys. You can also adapt this exercise to fiction by making it the “10 Minute Autobiography/Biography of Character X,” in which you write a ten-minute version of either the character’s autobiography (in first-person) or biography (in third-person). This exercise lends itself to infinite possibilities, as you can never really exhaust your own life or the lives of your characters.
- Go Easy on Yourself
Writing can be freeing, empowering, fun, wonderful, even enjoyable…when it’s going well. But writing can be hard, especially when you’re first starting to find the routine that works for you. It’s okay to take a day off your schedule now and then, even if it’s the only day you can write that week. It’s okay if you don’t reach your 500-word goal or you only have a couple sentences of writing after you put in your hour at the computer. In fact, it’s not only okay, but it’s expected; it’s part of writing that some days will not be quite as productive. Those days are surely productive in a different way — whether it’s brainstorming, processing, or just giving yourself a rest. The important thing is not that you had an off day, but that you’re able to get back to your writing the next time you have a chance.
Claire Stanford is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her food writing has been published on Grist, GOOD, and bonappetit.com, and she is currently the editor of Eater Minneapolis and Simple, Good, & Tasty. She received her M.F.A. in creative writing (fiction) from the University of Minnesota; her fiction and criticism have been published in Bluestem, Paper Darts, and The Millions. She will be teaching Food Writing (starts March 19, 2013, six weeks long) and Writing Literary Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Horror, and Magical Realism (starts March 18, 2013, six weeks long) this spring at the Loft.