Speed as an Antidote to Writer’s Block

Greed may not be good, but speed sure is. It was only when I got into this line of work that I understood the meaning of the axiom “he who hesitates is lost.” Procrastination – the fear-based inner force that wants you not to complete your projects – will latch onto any feelings of uncertainty or hesitation and amplify them until you can no longer do your work.

One method for beating procrastination, therefore, is to practice a Zenlike detachment from your work. You want to, at the appointed time, glide emotionlessly over to your desk and sit down and commence work. Just commence, without drama or hesitation.

Emotionless? You ask. What about having good feelings, like excitement? Isn’t it good to be excited over one’s work? Well, yes, but the problem with excitement is that it often linked to the expectation that you’re going to have a fantastic (<- perfectionist!) writing session – and then, if you don’t, the excitement is quickly replaced by despair. That’s an addictive cycle that ignores Flaubert’s dictum that “success must be a consequence and never a goal,” and feeds your perfectionism.

Instead of riding up and down the emotional roller coaster, therefore, practice Zen detachment. Your work should simply be your work: something you do. It’s okay to feel pride, satisfaction, and even joy, in your writing achievements – and once you relate to your work in the proper way you should start to rack up a lot of achievements. But that kind of authentic self-appreciation shouldn’t be confused with the high of an addictive emotional cycle.

Zen practitioners would probably say that the more precise aim is to be attached to your work but not to any particular outcome from it.

Let’s talk more about speed. Productive people write quickly in three senses:

(1) They write without much distraction. They don’t, for instance, stop to check their emails or text messages every few words or paragraphs. They don’t even stop to look something up – although they might make a quick note of it so that they don’t forget to look it up later. But rather than interrupt their flow, they will leave a hole in the manuscript and just keep writing.

In contrast, people who are underproductive write in fits and starts, which is not only problematic in terms of time use but constantly interrupts the creative flow.

(2) Fast writers also work relentlessly to simplify their writing (and other) tasks, so they can get them done fast and move onto something else. They don’t sacrifice quality, but – and this is important – they make a judgment as to what level of quality is required for each task. (As opposed to perfectionists, who often assume they need to achieve the maximum level of quality in all aspects of every job.) When they sit down to a project, they reflexively ask questions such as these:

  • What parts can I eliminate?
  • How can I simplify the remaining parts?
  • What resources do I have that can help me finish?
  • Whom can I enlist to help me?
  • This is yet another case where mentors are crucial, because they can help you answer those questions.

Simplifying projects is very important not just because simplifying in itself saves time, but also because you’re less likely to be afraid of, and therefore procrastinate on, simple projects compared with complex ones.

It’s easy for even adept non-procrastinators to fall into the perfectionist trap of overcomplicating their work. Recently, I was working on a query letter for a book I’m writing with a coauthor. (A query letter is what authors send to agents asking for representation.) My coauthor is kind of glamorous, so I initially thought I would include photos and his biography with the query, to strengthen the pitch. But those were holding the project up, and eventually I realized that the letter would be fine without them – plus, if the agent does indicate interest we will be more motivated to provide the rest.

For a more trivial example, it took me years to break the habit of writing formal salutations and closings on a lot of my emails. It’s not so much about saving time – although as someone who places a high value on time, and who sends a lot of emails, the accrued time savings is meaningful – it’s the head space. By eliminating the unnecessary, I am better able to focus on the important.

(3) Finally, fast writers share their drafts. Perfectionists hold onto their drafts forever, while non-perfectionists send them out quickly for feedback. “I think the middle section is weak,” they might write in their cover note, “what do you think? Can you see a way to improve it?” Whereas the perfectionist would rather die than send something out with a weak middle section, and so they hold onto the piece, compulsively revising it – or, not touching it – for weeks, months, or maybe years.

Practice writing fast; practice pruning (or eliminating) tasks; practice relaxing your quality standards; and practice showing your work early and often. Those are habits that will pay off hugely in terms of saved time and increased productivity.

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