50 Strategies For Making Yourself Work

Written by Jerry Oltion
Copyright © 2001 by Jerry Oltion

Work avoidance is one of the major paradoxes of the writing profession. Generally, writers want to write (or want to have written), but all too often we find ourselves doing anything else but. We’ll mow lawns, do the dishes, polish silverware–anything to keep from facing the blank page. At the same time we know we eventually have to get to work, so we come up with all sorts of strategies for forcing ourselves to the keyboard.

Sometimes a single strategy works beautifully for an entire writer’s career (for instance: for over 40 years Fred Pohl wrote four pages a day no matter what, after which he was free to polish all the silverware he wanted), but in my own case I’ve discovered that any particular strategy only works for a couple of months before I learn to subvert it. As a result I have to keep inventing new ones. I’ve come up with quite a few (some of which I’ve stolen from other people), which I offer here for anyone who cares to try them. They’re not in any particular order, so don’t feel compelled to work your way down the list. Just try the ones that seem interesting, and remember that some of them won’t work for you at all. Also, while some of them are mutually exclusive, most of them aren’t, so you can mix & match all you like.

  • Set a quota of pages written per day. Make this realistic. The object isn’t to prove anything to anybody, but to give yourself a reasonable goal to shoot for, one you’ll actually be able to hit every day. If you go over it, that’s cool, but all you have to do each day is hit the quota. The catch: Extra pages don’t count toward the next day’s quota.
  • Set a quota of hours worked per day/week. The same applies here as with page quotas. Make it realistic.
  • Write a story or chapter a week.
  • Promise your sweetie a steady supply of bedtime stories.
  • Pay yourself an hourly wage for time worked, and don’t allow yourself leisure activities (movies, dinner out, etc.) unless you can pay for it with this writing money.
  • Have someone else pay you for writing. Use the coin of whatever realm you happen to be in: someone else cooks dinner when you finish a story, or a friend buys you a cookie, or your significant other does that kinky thing with the chocolate syrup.
  • Write to music. Put two or three CDs in the player and stay at the keyboard until they’re done. Crank it up. Boogie a little. That’s not just background noise; that’s the sound of you working.
  • Lighten up on yourself. Give yourself the freedom to write when the urge strikes, and not write when you don’t feel like it. That’s one of the attractive things about the popular conception of the writing life, right? So enjoy it!
  • Hide your wristwatch in a drawer. (Meaning: reduce your dependence on the clock. Let your inner circadian rhythms tell you when it’s time to write and when it’s not.)
  • Set a timer for a short period of time (15 minutes or so) and stay at the keyboard–no matter what–until it dings. Then do it again. Only allow yourself to get up after the timer dings, and always set the timer again if you stay at the keyboard. This will hold you in place long enough for the first impulse toward work-avoidance to pass, and you’ll often discover yourself eager to keep going when your time’s up.
  • Schedule your day’s activities–and schedule writing hours first. This doesn’t necessarily mean putting them first in the day, but putting them on the schedule itself first, so they get priority. Schedule everything: bathing, eating, sleeping, telephone time (outgoing calls, at least), walking the dog–everything. Then, if it’s not on the schedule, don’t do it. Schedule it tomorrow.
  • Form a support/nagging network of other writers.
  • Graph your hours and/or pages against those of your support group. Post the graph where you can see it when you write. Also post it where you can see it when you don’t write.
  • Challenge other writers to finish a story a week, losers to buy dinner (or dessert, or whatever) for winners.
  • Generate story ideas mechanically. Roll dice and pick characters and settings from a list. Tumble a desktop encyclopedia downstairs and write about whatever it opens to when it lands. Throw darts at your bookshelf and write a homage to whatever you hit. The goal here is to demystify “idea” as a stumbling block. Ideas are a dime a dozen once you learn how to find them. Become a supplier rather than a consumer.
  • If you’ve been sitting on an idea until you think you’re good enough to do it justice, do it now! You may be run over by a bus tomorrow. Even if you aren’t, by the time you think you’re good enough, the passion for it will be gone. Write it now! Write all your good ideas as quickly as you can after you get them. Don’t worry about getting more; they’ll come faster and faster the more you write. Before you know it, you’ll be begging people to take them, like a gardener with zucchini.
  • Outline. Plan everything you’re going to write, scene by scene, all the way through to the end. Do your research while you’re outlining, so by the time you start writing the actual story, you’re already living in that world. With a detailed enough outline, the actual writing becomes a matter of choosing the right words to describe what you’ve already decided to tell. You can concentrate on style and let the plot take care of itself, because you’ve already done that part.
  • Don’t outline. Don’t plan ahead at all. Feel the lure of the blank page. Trust your instincts and dive into the story, and don’t look back until you’re done.
  • Keep written goals, and revise them daily. (Production goals, not sales goals, which you can’t control.) Rewriting them every day helps you focus on each one and think about what you can do at the moment to further it along.
  • Unplug the TV for six months. This is a tough one, but it’s the one with the biggest potential for shifting your priorities over to writing. You can gauge your need for it by your resistance to it. If you can’t imagine giving up your favorite programs in favor of writing (or if you’re more faithful to your viewing schedule than to your writing schedule), you should probably remove the TV from the house permanently; but no matter what you do, give it six months, minimum, before you even look at it. Turn the screen to the wall. Seriously. What’s more important to you: your writing or TV? Find out.
  • Turn off the talk radio. Same as above; if you can’t give it up, you’re making it more important than your writing. Even if you think you need it for background noise, substitute some other noise that doesn’t engage the language center of your brain. That’s for writing, not for listening, when you’re at the keyboard.
  • Remove all games from your computer. This is just as vital as reducing your dependence on TV or radio. The key to all these suggestions is to reduce the amount of time you spend on unproductive stuff. If you play games to relax, put them on another computer in a different part of the house, and play them outside your writing time.
  • Ditto the above for email and web surfing. Don’t allow yourself to do it until after you’ve done your writing for the day. If you’re really addicted, allow yourself to read only one email message per paragraph written. Don’t count paragraphs shorter than 50 words, either. I don’t mean add up all your short paragraphs until you get 50 words–I mean don’t count paragraphs shorter than 50 words at all. Write until you get one that’s at least 50 words long. So what if you’re in the middle of a stretch of dialog? Keep writing. (And if this email-as-reward system works for you, join a busy listserver!)
  • Reward yourself for success. Choose the reward so you’ll work hard to earn it.
  • Read a book a day (for inspiration).
  • Keep 5 (or 10 or whatever) manuscripts in the mail at all times. Choose a number that’ll make you stretch a little, but one you can realistically maintain.
  • Use every spare moment to write something, even if it’s just one sentence. An extreme version of this: don’t plan any official writing time; just use the spare moments in your day–but use them all.
  • Carry a note pad or tape recorder with you wherever you go. Use it to record ideas as well as the actual text of stories. Make it your external memory. The idea here is to keep yourself focused on writing no matter what else you’re doing.
  • Keep more than one project going at once. Switch to another the moment you slow down on one.
  • Collaborate. You’ll be less likely to slack off if someone else is counting on you to perform.
  • Switch tools. If you normally use a computer, write with pad and pencil for a while. If you normally write hard sf, write fantasy. Get out of whatever rut you might be in.
  • Change your writing environment. Rearrange your study, or go write in the library or a cafe for a while.
  • Keep yourself constantly “on.” Start another project immediately after you finish one, before you even get up to stretch your sore muscles.
  • Don’t think; just write. Keep the writing and editing processes separate. Don’t worry about clumsy bits; you can fix those later. If you’re writing on paper, intentionally cross out a few lines and re-write them so you won’t have to worry anymore about messing up the page.
  • Edit for perfect copy as you go. This one works for some people, but not for others. If you find yourself getting too critical of your new material, stop editing during your creative time. But some people discover that they build up momentum editing, and when they get to the end of what they’ve already written, they’re eager to forge ahead into new territory.
  • Write an hour for every hour you read.
  • Spend an hour a day in the library researching new ideas.
  • Rewrite a story a day. (Works best if you’ve got a lot of unsold stories lying around.)
  • Jump-start your creative juices. Start your writing day with a long walk in pleasant surroundings, or gardening, or doing something else that wakes you up and gets your mind working.
  • Identify your best hours of the day and write during those. Let other people take the leftovers for a change.
  • Paper your study walls with Playboy foldouts (or whatever else is likely to keep you in the room).
  • Evaluate everything in your life according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Air is at the top. Food and shelter are close behind. What’s next? Sex? Money? Where does writing fit in now? See if you can move it up a couple of notches. Write now, breathe later.
  • Give yourself regular days off. Most people get weekends off; why shouldn’t you? An important point: Days when you tried to write but failed don’t count as days off. Only days you’ve scheduled in advance count. Conversely, now that you’ve got regular days off, don’t use your work time for personal stuff.
  • Take up a hobby. A lot of writers started writing as a hobby, and it slowly became their passion. That’s cool, but it left an empty niche in your life where the hobby used to be. Find something else to fill it. You’ll be amazed at how much you realize you missed that kind of thing. More to the point: you’ll suddenly stop resenting your writing for not fulfilling that need, and you’ll start to enjoy it for what it is.
  • Turn writing into a hobby. Not everyone has to be a full-time writer. If you don’t want to (or can’t) write full-time, or if you can’t find another hobby that scratches the particular itch that writing did when it was a hobby, then make it one again.
  • Hack-write. Put words in a row for pay. Write anything you can get a contract for, so long as there’s money in it, but here’s the kicker: do the best job you can on it. Even if it’s something you don’t care about, do a good job anyway. You’re practicing two things here: writing on demand, and writing well.
  • Build a ritual around writing. Start well ahead of the actual act of writing, and continue the ritual after you’ve finished work. The idea is to make writing an integral part of a bigger picture. Let the cat out, make a cup of tea, feed the fish, put on some music, light a candle, write, check the mail, fix lunch, do the dishes. Doesn’t seem quite so ominous when it’s buried among all that other stuff, does it?
  • Light a candle. Make it a big, wide one. Write until the wax pool is entirely molten, as far out as it will go. Anything less will “core” the candle, wasting wax as the wick burns itself downward without using the wax from around the edge.
  • Binge! Gear up for a major writing weekend. Get your ideas ready, set a goal, and plan to work every waking hour until you’re done. Cook meals ahead of time and freeze them so you can just nuke ‘em and keep going. Tell your friends you’ll be out of touch. Turn off the phone ringer and put a message on your answering machine telling people to send the cops if they really need to talk to you that bad. Lock yourself in your study and don’t come out until you’ve committed fiction.
  • Chain the wolf to the door. Buy expensive things on credit, quit your job, etc. JUST KIDDING! (But I tried it once, and it worked, too … for a while.)

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