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.

Bookshelf: 4 reference books to sharpen the details in your writing

Postcard bridge on Pennsylvania Turnpike 20_0810 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Beautiful bridge on Pennsylvania’s Turnpike in the Bedford Narrows.

One of the authors I worked with described his home as “El Rancho Indebto.” That description — from author Daniel Gray’s books, such as Adobe ImageStyler In Depth — has stuck with me even though it has been years since I’ve worked in educational publishing.

Dan had a way of twisting words to make them more interesting amid chapters on how to apply the techniques of web design and develop software expertise. I have to apologize in arrears for probably thwarting some of his descriptions. For example, I remember him writing the lesser-known “stop on a nickel,” and I might have changed it to the tired, old “stopped on a dime.”

In any case, finding the right words, the less tired words, the memorable words, can bring your writing to life. It’s a constant battle I’ve fought by seeking the telling details that deepen scenes.

In my search for the right words, I’ve accumulated a few trusted books that go beyond the thesaurus and Google searches. Books I continue to turn to include:

Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier – Struggling to describe the lights and mirrors in a setting? This reference gives you a list, along with short definitions, to help you decide if your setting has a gaslight or a torchiere. A pier glass or a looking glass. See the “Lamps and Mirrors” section.

The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs – The subtitle is “A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers.” Want to give a character a trademark ring or pendant? Scan the “Common Emblems and Symbols” chapter. Consider the implications of whether your character would wear a peaceful ankh (a “loop-topped cross”) or a human skull, “as a symbol of mortality, death’s head, memento mori.” This book is half word lists and half literary excerpts so you can see how authors have employed these details.

DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary – This book is all about images and labels. Want to know the name for that little chute between your character’s nose and lips? A philtrum. (As an aside, some believe the width of this chute is an indicator of a person’s fertility.) Need your character to encounter a horse and touch its leg or head? You might want to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock. A fetlock is a joint somewhat similar to a human’s ankle, and a forelock is the hair between a horse’s ears that often falls forward like bangs.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – This book is part of a series of emotion and setting thesauruses. Want to go beyond saying your character is upset? Look at the “Agitation” chapter and browse through the physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, and other cues to deepen your character’s responses and lead to telling details. If your character was abandoned or neglected as a child, check another book in the series, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma for examples, false beliefs, fears, potential personality traits, triggers, and more.

Why turn to books when there’s Wikipedia, Google, and other online resources? The more curated content found within these reference books (whether paper or ebook) can save you from falling into a rabbit hole (or as Dan Gray might say, a woodchuck hole) of clicks.

And speaking of clicks and tired descriptors, check your writing against the visual essay “The Physical Traits that Define Men & Women in Literature” written by Erin Davis and illustrated by Liana Sposto at The Pudding.

Davis scanned 2,000 books, including bestsellers, prize winners, and books commonly assigned in U.S. high schools and colleges. She used a language processor to see what body parts and adjectives were most commonly used to describe male and female characters. The interactive visual aspects of the Pudding essay allow you to test some of your assumptions about gender and descriptors. (Thank you to Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter for recommending this article.)