Last month, thousands of writers around the world took the ultimate writing challenge: writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days as part of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Participants wrote furiously, checking their online productivity statistics on the NaNoWriMo website. The writers tracked the number of words people wrote, without worrying too much about quality. The task was to produce a certain number of words in a finite time. It begs the question: what is writing productivity? The Internet is full of advice on how to write productively, but never defines it.
Writing is one of those activities that depend almost entirely on how your mind works. Many years of writing copy for high-tech companies have made me deadline-driven to produce high-quality, clean content on a regular basis, and the finished piece is a lot shorter than a novel. NaNoWriMo authors, after their 30-day sprint, can now come back to their work and ensure quality, and they may look at productivity in a different way. Time is no longer a factor, but attention to detail and writing quality over many hundreds of pages takes center stage. Whatever your story, (see what I did there?) your writing productivity requires discipline. Here are five tips for how I manage my writing productivity. Some may find my approach a little unorthodox so your mileage may vary.
1. Be prepared to write anywhere.
If you search the Internet for tips on how to write productively, you’ll find that many of them require you to have the perfect environment and no distractions. To me, it isn’t realistic to ask the world to stop because you’re writing. We live in a noisy world. We have to set up an internal space to write, not an external one. War reporters wrote from the trenches; news reporters churned out stories from the bullpens of newsrooms full of conversation, ringing phones, and the clattering of typewriters. Even in total isolation, the noise coming from our brains can shout over what we’re trying to write. The Hindu have a concept of samadhi in which one finds internal quiet. Practice finding that, filtering out the noise around you. When your mind is ready, your location doesn’t matter.
We live in a noisy world. We have to set up an internal space to write, not an external one.
2. Don’t seek outside approval before you’re finished.
Looking for validation too early is my #1 downfall. Some people write for attention. (Don’t believe me? Spend five minutes on Twitter.) They crave instant audience, immediate gratification. If you recognize that quality in yourself, develop some iron-clad self-control. You’ll be tempted, after you’ve written a paragraph that particularly pleases you, to show it to someone. Resist. The minute you’ve gotten your attention fix, you’ll lose interest in what you’re writing. It will be next to impossible to come back to it, and you won’t finish the story, article, report, or book you’re working on.
3. Know your body rhythms.
You probably already know the time of day you’re at your best. There are morning people and night people. (Wars could be fought over whether it’s better to work early or late, but no one would show up at the same time.) If it is at all possible, write when you feel you’re most creative. For those of us who write for a living, that isn’t always possible. I’m a night owl. My writing doesn’t start to get good until around 3:00 in the afternoon, and I can go until about 11. Those hours aren’t terribly conducive to a corporate job, so I focus everything I have on the three or four hours I’m at my best and spend the rest of the time doing other tasks. If you’re better in the morning, write then. Trying to force your body into doing something that goes against its natural rhythm may not lead to the most productive writing.
4. Use distractions wisely.
A lot of other blog posts on productive writing urge you to turn off the Internet. Your mind may work a little differently, so pay attention to your brain when it comes to using distraction as a creativity tool. You may need to look away from what you’re writing for a few minutes to flush out your thoughts and start again. The Internet is perfect. So are magazines, taking a walk, looking out the window, or my favorite, a puppy or kitty break. Distraction for productivity is a technique that requires self-control. You have to know when enough is enough and it’s time to get back to work. And a word of warning: your boss might not agree that a five-minute Facebook or YouTube break is good for your creativity. Use your judgment.
If you don’t make a mistake in the first place, you won’t have to fix it later.
5. Ideas first, grammar later. But…get to the grammar.
If you’re writing for speed, and you don’t have a natural ability to ensure proper punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, and all that other grammar-geeky stuff as you go, don’t worry about it. Yes, this is really a professional copywriter telling you not to stress about the technical points of writing. Get your ideas on paper, and let your ideas give birth to baby ideas, and say everything that your heart and brain need to say. When you’re done, it’s time to drag out your copy of Strunk and White and visit your best friends at Grammarly.com. This part can be debilitating to your writing, though, if you don’t prep up front. Take a little time to understand the basics of grammar and style. Punctuation doesn’t matter when you send text messages (unless you’re texting me) but it will make all the difference in writing productively. If you don’t make a mistake in the first place, you won’t have to fix it later. Everyone will make some errors. Take the time to read over your work carefully and fix the problems, but don’t let the errors trip up your final output.
Writing is personal. You have to know your body rhythms, brain patterns, and to understand your thoughts to be productive doing it. Defining productivity also depends entirely on your goal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 50,000-word novel or a heartfelt thank you note. If you finish it and put it in the hands of a reader, you’ve been productive.