Do you ever sit at the screen and know that getting words on the page will come about as easily as swallowing rusty nails? I think we all have days like this. Professionals aren’t immune to them either, if the myriad twitterverse posts on the subject are to be believed.
But we don’t all face the same battles on those days. Folks who write for the love of it – with no intent to publish – don’t have to pick up the pen on the days when it’s a struggle. This isn’t in any way meant to shade hobby writers. There shouldn’t be a pressure to commodify everything we love, and a writer needn’t have publication as an end goal in order for the time they spend writing to be meaningful, legitimate, and useful. But writing goals will change how we approach those rusty-nail days
Those of us who are trying to write professionally must adhere to deadlines. We don’t set down the pen when the words won’t come – which means we can’t wait for sweet, sweet inspiration to strike before we put words to paper.
“I just can’t write today.”
It’s so easy to fall behind on deadlines. If I go a week without writing, I’ll end up with a mountain of words that needs to come out before I’m back on schedule again. It’s incredibly daunting to watch a deficit build after days upon days of undershooting my goals, which makes it tough to re-start.
Last year was incredibly tough on me. Each time a new horror show hit the news, it sapped my productivity and put me behind my planned wordcount. Then, I’d start feeling better about the world, only to be faced with a 4-5k wordcount hole.
The hardest part about writing, is writing.
It’s writing when I can’t write: when the well of inspiration has run dry, and I struggle to get words down onto the page.
I’m 100% for the general thrust of internet advice that says if you can’t write, if this is killing you, don’t beat yourself up. I’m not saying ‘your cat died? Suck it up and write’. That’s, well. Tone-deaf at best, cruel at worst. There are going to be times when you simply cannot get words down. You know when those times are, and that’s not what I’m talking about.
This is also not a post about pushing through mental or physical health difficulties to “just write”. Folks who struggle with their health must think of their health first. Work must always come second to our physical and mental wellbeing.
I’m talking about those fringe times when nothing is particularly wrong, but you’re feeling low-energy, like your will to work has run dry. These are the moments that I want to focus on for myself, because they’re going to impact whether or not I turn work in on time.
Here’s what it comes down to:
Once we’ve cleared major obstacles from our path (obligations, commitments, health problems), can we make ourselves do the work?
There is no silver bullet for motivation
The unfortunate truth is that motivation is a unique, internal process. I can’t motivate you to sit down and write. You can’t motivate me.
To get really hokey: motivation is like happiness. It’s something we have to create for ourselves.
There are general tips and tricks to motivation, of course – ones you can find just about anywhere on the internet. I learn best when presented with specifics, though, and wanted to dedicate a post to sharing these specifics with you. When presented with evidence of others’ productivity, I always ask myself
How do they do it?
Hopefully this answers that question for you. I’d love to hear about your writing rituals in the comments – the more we compile, the more we can learn from one another’s motivation and productivity methods.
Your methods are unique to you, and that’s okay
I’m going to share two different scenarios:
- My typical daily wordcount push. I write between 1.5k and 2.5k each day when I have my head on straight – but that doesn’t mean I always want to.
- A desperate 4k push to chip away at a deficit I’ve created for myself.
These wordcounts might look nothing like yours. Maybe they’re way over or way under your averages. Don’t negatively compare yourself to them! I’m giving concrete numbers for the sake of illustrating an example and helping you calibrate your own motivational habits, not for the sake of holding up my own stats as some kind of gold standard.
(Because trust me, a gold standard they are definitely not.)
Different writers also count different kinds of words. When I say “wordcount”, I always mean fully-drafted wordcounts. I don’t count outlines, zero drafts, notes, or otherwise. I know some writers do count words on a fast-draft, zero-draft, or skeleton outline, but I won’t. I find zero drafting the most fun part of the process, so I don’t let myself get a reward until I go another step and turn that zero draft into actual prose.
That’s a personal choice. How you count words is entirely up to you. I have a friend who counts all worldbuilding, plotting, and notetaking words because he feels guilty and unproductive spending time on them if he doesn’t. That is very smart of him. Customize what ‘counts’ to guide yourself in the right direction.
If you’re interested in the kind of writing I’d count towards a daily wordcount goal, you can look at my Morning Pages – that’s the general quality and style of prose I’ll consider good enough for a first draft before moving onto the next scene.
Daily writing and wordcount minimums
When I say I end up with 1.5k-2.5k each day, it sounds like I’m working on a daily minimum wordcount. (It also sounds like I have an enormous wordcount range, oop.)
But I’m not working by a wordcount goal. That’s an expected range I’ve come up with after learning a lot about my writing speed and style over the past year. When I write as part of a daily habit, time is the only metric I care about. My ‘goal’ wordcount is bang on 2k. Some days I won’t hit it before time runs out. Other days I’ll exceed it. If it averages out to 10k/wk, I’m happy.
I plan to write five days a week for 2.5hrs each writing day. I don’t have my hands to the keyboard for the entirety of those 2.5 hours. Sometimes I’m outlining, sometimes I’m zero drafting, sometimes I’m staring at the screen while pulling my hair out. At the end of the week, though, I’ll make that average wordcount just by virtue of the time I spend working.
If I need to bump my weekly output upwards (hello NaNoWriMo), I’ll add more days before I add more time. Days off are sacred, but sometimes I need to get a draft done, and adding time to my 2.5 hours is a dangerous gamble.
Why? Because 2.5 hours is absolutely when I hit diminishing returns. If I could give you any single piece of advice about writing schedules, it’s this: know your point of diminishing returns and let it determine your stopping time.
YMMV. 2.5 hours might be a drop in the bucket for you. Conversely, writing for 2.5 straight hours might be literally impossible. Either way, I’m a big proponent of figuring out a schedule that works and doing your utmost to stick to it.
Scheduling your writing time effectively
As a schedule-focused person, I’m at my best when I break that 2.5 hour block into chunks. If I don’t, I end up wasting a ton of time. I might be disciplined, but I’m also incredibly susceptible to distraction.
I have a time cube with which I choose work times. I typically sprint in half hour segments. Though I put my phone out of arm’s reach, I don’t turn it off, and I won’t time my breaks between sprints unless I’m having serious difficulty focusing that day. If I’m grooving, I won’t take breaks.
Sometimes I’ll sprint with friends in my writer’s group for accountability’s sake. Depending on what I’m working on and how it’s going, I can see a 500 to 1,000 word range after a half hour of sprinting.
When I’m really struggling, I’ll put my phone across the room and write in Full Screen mode on Scrivener. I turn my volume down and all of my notifications off. If this still isn’t enough, I’ll disconnect my internet. That’s when I use the time cube to restrict my breaks – five minutes each – and refuse to let myself touch my phone or use the internet even between sprints.
Point is: you know what distracts you and pulls you away from writing. Some distractions (like your family or important phone calls) can’t be helped. Others (like twitter) absolutely can be managed – it’s a matter of figuring out how. Obviously, I’m an extreme case – I have so little self-control when I’m struggling to write that I have to unplug my router. But I do what I have to do to make sure my writing time is sacred.
If I don’t, I end up digging myself a serious, serious hole.
Hitting a high one-time wordcount goal
And getting back out of that hole is easier said than done.
If I have a deadline and need a certain number of words to hit the page to meet it, I might have to set a wordcount goal between 4k and 5k. I know folks who can write way more than that in a day – I’m not one of them. 5k is right at my maximum productivity threshold. It will take me an entire day to complete.
When I have to make up deficits, I’m often not in a good place to write in the first place. If I were in a good mindset, I wouldn’t have gotten myself into that deficit – or at least, the hole wouldn’t be so deep that I had to write 4-5k in a day.
(On the occasions when I need to ramp up productivity a tad over a longer period of time, I’ll do it by either ensuring I hit my 2k goal, or by adding an extra 500 words onto my finishing point each day.)
One-time wordcount goals are about worst-case-scenario deadline crunches.
I’m never happy about them.
But here’s how I get them done, even if it’s like pulling teeth the whole workday:
- I caffeinate as much as I want. While this isn’t the kind of long-term habit I want to start, if I need to do a serious push only once, sure, I’ll make myself that second Americano at 2pm.
- I get up early. My ‘early’ is somewhere between 7am and 8am, YMMV. I force myself to go to the gym or do some other kind of serious physical workout. Without that activity, I end up feeling like a dull, listless potato by mid-afternoon, which is a terrible headspace for me to write from.
- When I sit down to write, I try every single trick to get myself into the mood: cozy sweaters, the right music, pretty Scrivener backgrounds, cool but unreasonable font choices, etc.
- I put my phone in my kitchen – the absolute maximum range for my Bluetooth speaker. It’s a pain to go all the way into the kitchen to check twitter. This is not an accident.
- If I have to, I disconnect the internet.
- I set my time cube to (preferably) 30 minutes. If I’m really struggling, I’ll sprint in 15-minute intervals.
- At each 30-minute mark, I get down on the floor (yes, the floor) and stretch my back for 5 minutes. My back hates the fact that I chose to be a writer. At this point, I’ll switch the music to pump-up tunes.
- I don’t write more than 2.5hrs at a time – aka my previously established point of diminishing returns. After 2.5hrs of elapsed writing time, I get up and leave my apartment. Maybe it’s to get that treat I promised myself (omnomnom). More often it’s to take a half hour walk and listen to a podcast. If I’ve been stuck on a plot, I might record myself speaking into my phone (I use otter.ai for voice-to-text).
- (Side note: when I was a little kid, I mostly ‘wrote’ stories by acting them out loud alone in my bedroom. I used to dress up as characters, too. Sometimes it helps to go back to whatever method we used when we were little when we’re blocked, because it’ll always come more naturally.)
- No social media. Period. At all. All day.
- Rinse and repeat until the work is done.
- I stop working the second I hit my goal. These types of writing days are super-draining on energy and creativity, so I want to spend as much time as possible at the end of the day filling my well back up again. I try to stay away from social media even after I finish writing in favor of reading, consuming media I was looking forward to, drawing, or chatting with folks in my writing group.
- Most importantly: I don’t stress, even a little, about the quality of my writing. When words come out like nails, I’m certain the writing is terrible because it feels terrible. It’s never as bad as I think it is. Even if it is … sub-par 5k on the page is better than perfect 5k in my head.
All of those ideas and habits are very specific to me and my process, of course, but you’re welcome to try any of them out! I didn’t invent my schedule organically – it came from looking at what other writers did and having a go at imitating their processes, keeping what worked for me and discarding what didn’t.
If I could give one piece of advice, though, it’d be this:
Don’t reward yourself with social media. That ish is like quicksand – once you’re on it, it’s impossible to escape. Make your Big Writing Wordcount Goal days social media free days and your life will be so much easier.
Track. Your. Progress.
Tracking progress is a vital part of my process. It gives me that boost of dopamine each time I hit my goals, and helps me gather and crunch data to tailor my writing routine to my needs.
If you’re new to tracking your progress, here’s the data I find most helpful to have on hand:
- What project I worked on
- How much I wrote
- How long I wrote
- What time of day I wrote
- How hard it was to get it out
You’re welcome to add and subtract as necessary – and use any software you need! I really like NaNoWriMo’s goal-setting for this (it tracks all of the above metrics for you), but most writing programs let you set and track goals. I’ve also seen some writers use bullet journals and excel spreadsheets to track their progress.
Over the course of several months, I figured out the following things about myself:
- I write best in half-hour sprint segments;
- 2.5 hours is usually the limit before I need a big break from work;
- I’m 5x more productive in the afternoon and evening than I am in the morning;
- I work best when I only write 5-6 days a week instead of 7;
- I’m not actually all that more productive when the words come easy than when they’re hard to get out, so letting that feeling get me down is silly;
- If I so much as sniff in the direction of Instagram during designated writing time, the whole day is a wash.
My cold, hard facts contradict two pieces of writing advice I get all the time:
- Write every day
- Your brain works best in the morning
But hey – maybe those ^ two bits of advice are the absolute lynchpin for productivity for some. I’d never knock someone else’s technique. But I’d encourage every writer to experiment in order to figure out what works best for them.
Tracking progress helped me figure out how to schedule my writing days in order to best meet my deadlines. Now I know what time in my day is sacred and when/how to wield that time for the most efficient outcome.
(I’m trying a few different things this New Year, too, based on writing advice I’ve picked up from across the internet – more on that in a future post!)
Most importantly: tracking data keeps us from lying to ourselves.
IDK how many times I’ve said “but I just write better at 2am!” to myself in order to justify a day’s worth of procrastination. Turns out: I don’t. I’m most productive in the middle of the afternoon, and I have the data to back it up. Staring at those numbers – and the huge disparity between my 2am and 2pm productivity – makes it impossible to tell myself comfortable lies. You know the ones I mean: the lies we tell to excuse ourselves from doing work, making a change, or upending a cozy routine.
Track. Your. Progress.
Without the data it gives us, we flail around in the dark, trying others’ advice and wondering why it doesn’t feel like it’s working.
You won’t always hit your goals
I wrote a post earlier this month about using New Year’s resolutions to make several smaller goals instead of one or two huge ones. The general idea: start simple, rack up easy & early wins, grow from there.
Let’s give ourselves permission to start small, with goals we can meet with our eyes shut.
When we ramp up, let’s give ourselves permission to have bad days – or weeks, or months.
Let’s build those less productive times into our schedules. We can pad deadlines so the inevitable Week From Hell doesn’t upend everything we’ve worked for.
Yet if we fall behind (and we often do): let’s forgive ourselves. It can be fixed – even if the end result isn’t quite what we imagined when we first set out. The more we beat ourselves up for failing to meet goals, deadlines, planned wordcounts, etc., the harder it becomes to sit down and do more writing.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. Let’s build healthy habits and cheer each other on along the way.
Looking for a way to get started each day? Join me for my Morning Pages writing prompts on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Morning Pages are flash fiction prompts with spec fic flavor. Write along with me, and join the craft discussion in the comments!
Mónica Bacatelo Guerra says
Loved the post. I’m curious about this bit here:
I stop working the second I hit my goal. These types of writing days are super-draining on energy and creativity, so I want to spend as much time as possible at the end of the day filling my well back up again
Do you do this even if, after struggling for 2250 words, you suddenly hit that sweet spot and find your groove in the last 250 of the batch, and they’re just screaming to get out after that?
Because I’ve been in that spot, and it led to me writing some of my best scenes.
Cameron Montague Taylor says
So — if I’m in a groove and am feeling energized by my writing on a huge-wordcount day that I only need to do once … yes, I might push all the way through until I run out of gas.
In general, on a day-to-day basis, once my timer clicks or I hit my wordcount, I stop. Even if I’m in a pretty happy flow-state … I’ll find somewhere to stop, and I’ll stop. Gotta leave something in the tank.
If words are BURNING out of me, I might push it longer, or push to zero drafting for another fifteen minutes to get the ideas out. For me, the prose itself is window-dressing, so not as important when I’m full-drafting.
The only exception to this is if I only have like, 200 words left until I hit the end of a scene. I know common writing advice says never to finish at the end of a scene, but I HATE writing scene endings, so starting with an ending is a productivity kiss-of-death for me. I’ll stretch my working time an extra fifteen minutes if it means knocking out the ending so I don’t have to deal with it the next day.
But that’s pretty much it. Unless my brain is literally on fire, I take a couple notes about where I’m going next and close the document. I’ve realized that I’m a marathon writer, not a sprint writer… and if I let myself keep sprinting, I’ll eventually wear out my brain.
(ETA: My best writing never comes out when I’m 2500 words into a day — this is also an important thing to note, so my cost of abandonment at the end of a session where I reached my daily goal is often very low!)
Mónica Bacatelo Guerra says
“Common writing advice says never to finish at the end of a scene”
It does? I tend to write scenes. Out of order scenes, from beginning to end. Stopping before that would leave me itchy all day.
Cameron Montague Taylor says
It does! But if advice fits 80% of the writing population it’s incredibly good … and that still leaves 20% of people hung out to dry.
omfg you write out of order scenes? I could never!
But again — that’s why one-size-fits-all advice is unreliable, I suppose. I think the whole ‘stop before the end’ bit works best for folks who are super slow starters. It doesn’t take me long to get into writing as long as I turn off my internet and stop checking Instagram XD
Mónica Bacatelo Guerra says
Realising I could write out of order was actually the biggest boost in writing productivity I ever had. Instead of deeply resenting every scene that stood between me and the one I really wanted to write, I started to just go ahead and write it, and it’s so liberating! Because then I only start resenting scenes if they’re being a pain, rather than for just existing, and I find joy in writing them when I want to.
Of course, yes, this means that there are entire scenes that never make it in — that are written expecting the plot to go one way, but then it goes another, or the characters’ emotional growth means they’re no longer in that headspace — but I still feel I’m richer for having written them.
Cameron Montague Taylor says
Oof I’m pretty sure if I did that, I’d never write a book! I’d get to the end of all my fun, pivotal scenes like “well, that’s sorted — what’s next?” XD
I’m glad you found what works for you, though, and that it makes the process of drafting more joyful than doing it chronologically (which I compulsively do) ever would!