Do your own writing first: Motivation and productivity

Vintage postcard: Golden Temple of Jehol, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933.

“Pay yourself first.” This is common advice in employer 401K sign-up meetings and other financial planning-type sessions. They say: Save money for your future, your education, your first house, your retirement. Use automatic deductions so you never see the money as income. Watch your savings grow.

Similar advice is useful for writers. In other words, “Do your own writing first.” Instead of jumping onto social media or the daily news alerts or the work your employer has assigned you, do a bit of your own writing. Your benchmark here doesn’t need to be big.

You’ll be in good company. The American Masters documentary “Flannery,” which aired recently on PBS, noted Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor’s slow, meticulous writing and editing that led to the publication of two novels, 32 short stories, and more. Comparisons were made to Gustave Flaubert of Madame Bovary fame who wrote a paragraph a day, as well as to Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who wrote a line a day or three lines, depending on your source.

When writing for yourself first, your daily time investment doesn’t need to be big. To start, maybe 20 minutes a day will do. Or even 200 words. Others might set their bar at hours of writing or thousands of words, but the key here is to make the process automatic. Regular daily attention to writing projects—even 20 minutes, a sentence, a paragraph, or more—may not seem like much, but it adds up.

When you don’t attend to your writing in a sustained manner, you may be shocked by how much time passes between writing sessions:

  • How did 10 days pass? I swore I did something on this last week. Well, I guess that would be 10 days.
  • How can it be a month, six months, a year, two years, four years, since I worked on this? I’ve been thinking about it forever.

That “thinking about it” can be the problem. In our minds our projects come together smoothly. They make sense. It’s only when you put in time with the actual words that the beautiful piece of writing you had in your mind betrays you. Writing is messy work that requires deep thought. Once you write about what you thought, there are deeper, murkier levels that need your attention. They need your attention in writing.

Maybe that’s another bit of advice we can use: “Get it in writing.” Get your ideas, your thoughts, your inspirations in writing. Work with them on a concrete level—word by word, line by line.

I encourage you to start your day with a bit of writing, even if it is only a few minutes before you log on to daily life. If your mornings are hectic, maybe you can find time at lunch or dinner or just before you go to sleep.

A daily writing practice will keep projects moving forward. They’ll grow. You won’t have to refresh your memory each time you start to work on them. That “thinking about it” will move forward to more advanced elements. For me, daily practice means I can keep several projects going at a time: before starting my day job, after lunch, after dinner, and more, if needed.

Daily practice can include editing, research, and marketing—whatever you need to move toward your goals. That’s why I work with a time goal instead of a words-per-day or pages-per-day goal.

I remember when wearing seatbelts regularly was a novel idea in my family. Then, my mother started having us put on seatbelts every time we got into the car. She said that after a month, it would seem natural. Few of us can imagine not buckling on a seatbelt these days, and that same habit-forming aspect is what we’re going for with daily writing.

If you write a sentence, if you write a paragraph, if you write 10 pages a day like Stephen King (see Stephen King’s On Writing), the feeling you’re going for is this: When you haven’t written for yourself first, something feels off about your day.

Stop thinking about those projects and start writing. Start with a reasonable goal. You can always build, but write for yourself first. Make the process automatic. Put it in writing. Watch your projects develop and grow.

Note: The 20th anniversary edition of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was published in June 2020. Even if you’ve read his book before, including King’s 10-page/2,000-word daily writing goal referenced above, the book is worth re-reading.

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