As a writer, I’ve often approached the written word through an instinctual and sometimes painful process. I’ve put a lot of currency into a kind of gut feeling of what works and what does not. But now as an editor, I’m working with younger writers. In many instances, I’ve had to think about what I actually do and how to convey it. So here are some tips to consider on getting your project done.
- Ideas are cheap—but don’t always go searching for the next one. You’ll ignore the ones you already have. Write everything down, pick one and proceed. I use the memo function in my smart phone to take notes. Many never get beyond the jot-down stage. Some do. Like this one on writing.
- Research—yet know when to stop. This is one of the hardest things in the process of writing non-fiction because research and interviewing can be endless. As a writer, I’ve worked with editors who wanted more and more research and then ended up discarding it all. But I think this endless research reflects an inability to see the story. For a writer, it can also stem from a fear of actually writing. As you learn more about your project, you should begin to see a narrative structure and that should inform your research. It forces you to ignore certain paths, avoid potential dead ends and pursue the questions you really need to answer, often with a lot of research.
- Sit down. Everyone says it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at any craft and writing is no different. You actually need to write, in order to learn how to write. Early in my career, I read a lot of “how to write” books. Some were quite good, but I don’t think I remember one lesson from any of them. All the lessons I learned were from keeping my ass in the chair. When things are especially bad—whether due to distraction or procrastination — I turn on Freedom, an inexpensive software program that disconnects your computer from the Internet for a set amount of time. This tends to work.
- Pick a time of day to write. Many writers are most productive at certain times of the day. That’s true for me and that time usually starts at around 8:30 a.m. and goes until noon or so. As a staff reporter for a news agency, though, I also faced deadlines from 4:30-7 p.m. Years later, my body and mind engages in the early evening and I’m often quite productive at that time. You can tell people you’re booked during this particular period of the day (for some that isn’t a problem, if it’s in the middle of the night). Do your calls and emails in another window. That way, you’ll avoid constant interruption.
- Outline but don’t be a slave to it. I write outlines in essay form. Often, they start with a paragraph or two. Then, they grow and grow. I’ll get obsessed with a detail or explore tangents. Then I’ll pull back and consider the bigger picture. Sometimes this outline writing emerges fully formed and goes into the piece. I don’t obsess over what’s in the outline, because I’m trying to stay loose, almost free associate (more on this in another post). Nothing you write at this stage is wrong, though it might not end up in the final piece.
- At first, try not to care too much. Big projects are intimidating, especially at the beginning. One trick I use is to admit I don’t care what I write, because I know it’s going to be terrible. Since it’s going to be shit, I’m personally not invested in it. I don’t obsess about what other people think, or even what I may think. I can just write. You might surprise yourself and write five quick pages.
- Stop before you’re exhausted. Hemingway advised this:
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.
Here’s another reason to stop before you get tired: if you don’t, you might make a really bad mistake. I’ve deleted text or reworked a day’s worth of writing at the end of the day, only to find the next morning that what I had previously written was much better. I had lost my judgment. I was too tired. So stop before you get to that point. Think about what you’ll do next. And then put your writing away and do something else.