Writers like to commiserate over how hard writing is. Countless hours spent staring at blank pages, wondering what to write, and tossing away drafts into the digital waste basket unite writers. Luckily, I’ve never experienced writer’s block or an inability to put words-to-screen. My problem has more to do with focus and intention.
1. Writing isn’t hard if you treat it like a muscle
My crappy superpower is being able to deploy an iron will of routine. I may owe some part of this strength to always doing homework immediately when I came home from school. My mom always wanted me to do it before dinner, but when she was diagnosed with cancer doing homework straight away became a necessity. I had a brief window between coming home at 4:30 and my grandmother leaving for the day around 5:30.
This has carried into my adulthood as a sense of discipline and routine in just about everything I do. Wake up early, cook a breakfast of eggs, bacon, fruit, and coffee. Get to my desk and immediately tackle the hardest thing on my schedule for that day. Whatever my largest project is, that’s what I go after. Then, at the end of the day I exercise for about 60-90 minutes. My exercise streak is around 800 consecutive days now.
I also have a writing streak that I track. I try to write at least 2,000 words per day. That’s not necessarily a lot, and I don’t count emails as part of that.
I recognize some people may find this challenging, but I tend to view this level of routine and discipline as a muscle that can be flexed. Like not checking your phone every couple of minutes, you can build it up.
- Recognize when you’re most likely to succeed and strive for working during that window. Don’t tell yourself you’re going to start a new habit on a Sunday evening when you know you’ll just be sitting on the couch.
- Don’t start with 60 minutes of writing (or exercise) a day if you’ve never done it. Start by doing 20-30 minutes twice a week on set days, like Monday and Wednesday.
- Build up strength by increasing your target, either by adding more days or more time to existing days.
2. Volume is the only way to win online
You wouldn’t know it from my own website, but volume is the only way to win attention on the Internet. I know some people profess “quality over quantity”, but they’ve never tried doing something on the Internet.
There are many people who combine quantity and quality. Matthew Yglesias comes to mind. But every major publication and author produces a lot.
- In addition to consistency, write a lot. Or practice more of whatever it is you’re trying to do.
- The people who can marry quality and quantity win. I’m still trying to figure out how to do both.
3. Writing a book is a lot of fun, for probably not a lot of reward
I’ve been working on my book about the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. Truly, hours melt away when I start working on it. I can sit down at 7 or 8 am and look up at the clock and find it’s noon in a flash.
I like reading old newspapers, scouring around for old journals and diaries, calling libraries about their photo collections, and putting down a first draft. I love that feeling.
But I make no illusions this project will likely go nowhere. The vast majority of Americans don’t read. Those that do are women, and women by and large statistically don’t buy “bummers” with “600 dead and 2,000 injured in 3.5 hour long obliteration of the heartland.”
But, I continue on because I know of nothing else to do and have already started the project, so I feel some obligation to finish.
4. Revising is where work begins
Ian Fleming once remarked in an interview he never had much trouble writing. He just sorta sat down and the words flowed — sometimes 10,000 or more at a time. He’d bang out a James Bond novel in a couple of months at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica and then sell a zillion copies.
I am no Ian Fleming. I’m a “crappy first draft” kind of person, preferring instead to write something — anything — and then revise sentence-by-sentence later. I hadn’t realized this about myself before, but I think it’s because I’m writing about something I don’t know much about. Often I write things I have first-hand experience or some serious knowledge about. That’s probably how Fleming managed to write so much: he had experiences from the war coupled with the fantasy in his mind. He had his category intersection and it worked well for him.
- Find an intersection with what you know and what you like, then combine the two.
- If you, like me, don’t know what that is, my advice to myself has been, “Have you considered being a more interesting person?”
5. Focus on one topic is the hardest part
I said earlier my problem is with focus and intention. I don’t mean focus on the task, I mean focus on the category.
Most of my paying work these days comes from writing blog posts and landing pages for various people. This work is hyper-focused on SEO and “answering what people on Google want to know”. I write about one piece a day for someone, usually around 1,500 or 2,000 words.
Thing is I never find much time to write for myself. I block off Fridays for my book, but it’s a stretch sometime to get there as things spill over from the week. My problem is I can’t find a viable path to make money and focus on the sort of historical narrative nonfiction I’m really interested in.
I’m good at what I do online for clients. Their websites are stable authorities in their niches once I can get about six months of work published under their name. But my work gravitates toward what makes me money and pulls me away from what I like.
Even among my nonfiction work, I’ve been working on several magazine pieces that are in various stages of publication over the next year or so. One on the near assassination of Ulysses S. Grant, another on some big-time bank robbers, another still on the nation’s worst nursing home fire.
This is partially why my podcast recording has become so challenging. I can find the time to do it, but I can’t find a reason why anyone cares to listen yet.
The answers to this are probably very simple:
- Do less stuff.
- Do less, but better, in higher volumes of those fewer things.
- Do the work.