The most challenging aspect of being a writer? Writing. When I find myself struggling to be productive or creative, I remind myself of these nine tips.
1. Write every day. Staying inside a project keeps me engaged, keeps my mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, I find, perhaps surprisingly, it’s easier to do something every day than to do it some days. (This may be related to the abstainer/moderator split.) “You’re just grinding out material,” a friend protested. “But that’s when I have my best ideas,” I answered.
2. Even fifteen minutes is long enough to write. For years I told myself, “If I don’t have three or four hours clear, there’s no point in starting.” Now I realize that if I’m deep in a project (see #1), even a short bit of time is long enough to get something done.
3. Remember that good ideas often come during the revision stage. I’ve found, for myself, that I need to get a beginning, middle, and an end in place, and then the more creative and complex ideas begin to form. So I try not to be discouraged by first drafts.
4. Don’t binge-write. Pulling all-nighters, wearing pajamas for days, abandoning all other priorities to finish a project—these habits lead to burn-out. Also, if you do all your writing at the last minute, you don’t get the benefit of #3.
5. Keep a commonplace book, inspiration board, scrapbook, or catch-all box to keep track of ideas and images. Not only do such collections help you remember thoughts, they create juxtapositions that stimulate creativity. My catch-all happiness document for happiness is 500 pages long, single-spaced. When I need a mental jolt, I just skip around and read random sections. It always helps.
6. Consider physical comfort. Do you have a decent desk and chair? Are you hungry? Too hot or too cold? (I now wear fingertipless gloves at my desk, because my hands are always so cold; they make me so happy.) Do you jam your shoulders up to your ears as you write? Is the light too dim or too bright? Make a salute—if you feel relief when your hand is shading your eyes, your desk is too brightly lit. Being physically uncomfortable tires you out and makes work seem harder.
7. Down with boredom. When my college roommate was writing her Ph.D. thesis, she kept a sticky note on her computer that read, “Down with boredom.” She’d vowed to construct her thesis in a way that eliminated everything she found boring. When I’m working on a book, I repeat that mantra. If something’s boring to me, I probably can’t write about it in an interesting way. I need to find a way to make that subject interesting (Secret of Adulthood: If you can’t get out of it, get into it), or find a way to leave it out altogether.
8. Stuck? Go for a walk and read a good book. Virginia Woolf noted in her diary: “The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw.”
9. At least in my experience, the most important tip for getting writing done? Have something to say! This sounds obvious, but it’s a lot easier to write when you’re trying to tell a story, explain an idea, convey an impression, give a review, or whatever. If you’re having trouble writing, forget about the writing and focus on what you want to communicate. For example, I remember flailing desperately as I tried to write my college and law-school application essays. It was horrible—until in both cases I realized I had something I really wanted to say. Then the writing came easily, and those two essays are among my favorites of things I’ve ever written.
* Now for some blatant self-promotion: The Happiness Project has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 46 weeks, which is tremendously thrilling of course. Getting to week 46 has made me think about hitting the one year mark. That would be extraordinarily thrilling. If you’re inclined to buy the book, or read it in your book group, or give it as a gift, I would so appreciate it if you’d do that sometime before March 1. Okay, end of commercial!