Just about every day I read an article about a writer who’s written 988 books in the last three months under seventeen pen names while maintaining an active presence on every social media platform.
It’s enough to send me to bed with Netflix and a whole lot of dark chocolate.
But after a good binge, you and I still have to face the fact: it’s a crazy world we authors inhabit. And staying sane and productive without burning out is a skill we must cultivate, right up there with establishing a compelling voice and a thriving platform.
I’ve spent a big part of my career studying how writers can work with more ease and consistency, mostly because writing has always been a struggle for me (8 books with a million copies in print aren’t proof writing is easy for me, only that I’m stubborn). I hope the following suggestions for sane productivity will help you like they have me and the writers I coach.
1: Set specific writing goals that help you experience "enoughness."
If you believe that writing enough, promoting enough, being talented enough, lives out there in someone else's standard that, once you meet it, means you will… be a good writer, be successful and/or be loved, then I can promise you will always feel haunted and less than as a writer. And you may well quit before you meet your goals.
It took me getting on Oprah to realize I’d been waiting for her to tell me I was good enough. Which, obviously, she could’t do.
To experience “enoughness” as writer set and meet clear and specific goals that are dependent only on you on an average day. For example, I can write for one hour without interruption - that’s mine to decide and do. But I cannot write beautiful prose all day every day that everybody on earth will love.
When you make vague or lofty promises about your writing, you start to feel like a loser, both because you can’t control the outcome of any creative career and because if you don’t give yourself the experience of clear “wins” along the way, it won’t matter how much you get done or what accolades you win, you will always feel behind and less than. And what an awful way to live.
TAKE AWAY: Set writing goals that you can keep no matter what (no matter if the car breaks down, the kids get the flu and throw up on your computer, your last story comes back with coffee stains and a form rejection letter). Keep them reasonable and very clear.
2: When writing more or writing challenging material, give yourself extra self-care.
I’m a runner and I love / hate pushing myself on race day and on long runs. It’s exhilarating, but it also takes a lot out of me. I have to take excellent care of my body, or I’m going to get injured and not be able to run at all.
The same is true for you as a writer. When you’re pushing yourself to write more or write faster or write about personally daunting subjects - to stretch in any way out of your comfort zone - you need a measure of extra healthy self-care. Not as a reward, but as a way to soothe your nervous system and bulk up your courage.
Without this extra self-care - whether that’s getting a massage, hiking on your favorite trail, or staring out the window - you may find yourself procrastinating or straying into "shadow comforts”, a term I use for the things we do that don’t nourish us but only numb us out.
Note: this self-care doesn’t have to take a long time. It only needs to be something that delights you and you give yourself permission to luxuriate it in.
TAKE AWAY: If your writing or your deadlines are extra challenging, instead of skipping the hike or the dinner with friends, skip the laundry, the email, the vacuuming, the volunteering.
3: Resist revising as you write.
I love to revise as I write. It’s so difficult for me to leave the typos, the clunky transitions, the fluctuations between tenses. But when we fiddle with our writing as we go, we lose the flow of our thinking.
Your brain work best if you write down what you’re thinking and then, if it isn’t quite right, leave it and keep going, writing the next more accurate description or idea. When you erase first, your train of thought is interrupted. What you want to say is lost in the tidying up.
The more you do this, the more stilted your writing may become and, perversely, the less likely you are to tear things apart or start over because you spent so much time making it pretty.
Instead, try timed writing where you write without stopping. Writing teacher Peter Elbow states "can’t write a lot unless we get some pleasure from it, and pleasure is unavailable if we wince at everything bad that comes out and stop and try to fix it.” If you write something that doesn’t feel quite right leave it and keep going keep trying keep fumbling leave a trail of your words and thoughts (that was an example!) and clean it up later.
TAKE AWAY: Less fussing, more generating. Making your writing pretty is doing the right thing at the wrong time.
4: Set yourself up for your next writing session before you break for the day
This is so so helpful to help you write faster. When I teach writing retreats I call it “leaving yourself bread crumbs.” Take a moment at the end of every writing session to make a few notes to yourself about what you will write next. Write yourself a note in your document “Start with mom’s slapping me” or “Do a free write about what my panic attacks felt like.”
If your habit is to start every writing session by going back and editing, try this: copy the last two or three sentences ointo a new document along with your “bread crumb” notes and have that waiting for you on your computer screen when you start again. Do not look back at the other document, just start!
One more prepping suggestion: give yourself some daydreaming time before you jump into a new scene or section. When you’re running errands or making dinner, bring to mind what you want to write next. Visualize your characters, puzzle over your thesis. Ask your unconscious to do the prep work for you instead of expecting yourself to sit down and start writing cold.
TAKE AWAY: Prep before every writing session and see your productivity zoom with a whole lot less stress.
5: Don’t let your creative tank go bone dry.
You may think it’s a great idea to “leave it all on the field” every writing session. You may, like me, love those romantic stories of writers writing all night or forgetting to eat for days, living on air and cigarettes. But the truth is: slow, steady and healthy works much better for most of us.
Try to quit writing each day while you still have more to say, while you still want to write.
You might also consider another creative outlet that you do just for fun, completely unrelated to performing, being judged, or selling. I like to make collages. I love the tactile feeling of smushing oil pastels into paper, ripping paper, mixing colors. “Plastic” arts like painting, knitting or pottery get you out of head and allow you to play.
TAKE AWAY: Leave some desire to write in your body and heart and give yourself time and space for creative play - consider it cross training.
6: Declare “writing free zones” clearly and stick to them.
For me, when I try to write everyday or just expect myself to, I rebel. Soon I start fudging on how much time I’m putting in on my book, and writing projects like this one and teaching are allowed to encroach.
When I was a young struggling screenwriter living in LA, I worked at a big talent agency and wrote on the weekends and at night. I would almost never let myself go have fun. I’d say to all my friends, “Nope, I have to write.” I became seriously depressed and stopped writing for almost a year. I also developed a wee drinking problem. All work and no fun makes Jack a dull boy.
TAKE AWAY: Declare zones of time - whatever works for you - that you let yourself completely off the hook from writing. Perhaps nothing drains your productivity faster than demanding that you are constantly working or beating yourself for not working.
I hope you’ll try out a couple of these suggestions and make them your own. And most of all, I hope something you read here helps you thrive as a writer in all ways.
Do you already include one or more of Jennifer's suggestions in your writing routine? If you don't, is there one you'd be willing to try?
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Jennifer Louden is an author, teacher and retreat leader who’s committed to helping women bring more peace and gentleness into their lives so they can follow their heart’s desire and get their scary sh*t done while living a human-scaled life. When it comes to her human-scaled writing projects, she’s on a mission to help writers find their voice so they can stand out, attract the just-right readers, and avoid burnout. If you’re looking to find your voice, learn more here.