The 14 Rules of Prolific Writing
- The proper goal for all writing projects should be to “Get it done.” (Not fabulousness, comprehensiveness, to create a best seller, “revolutionize my field,” impress my advisor/family, make a fortune, etc. See Rule #13 on Quality, below.)
- Use a speedy, free-writing, free-revising technique. Aim for a large number of quick drafts where you make a few easy changes, versus a small number of “megadrafts” where you try to change every single thing that needs changing. (The latter technique wastes time and catalyzes perfectionism.) The proper number of drafts is “as many as it takes.”
- Use Anne Lamott’s “one inch picture frame” technique, from her book Bird by Bird, to avoid overwhelm: “All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph.”
- When you run into a problem, don’t stop and ponder; solve it via writing about it.
- Don’t research during your writing periods: it’s procrastination mimicking productive work.
- Don’t work linearly: view your work in two or three dimensions and use the “writercopter.”
- Expect, and soldier through, the “murky middle.” This, this, and this tell you how.|
- Avoid overworking the beginning of your project at the expense of the rest by devoting a third of your writing sessions to the beginning, a third to the middle, and a third to the end.
- Reduce your fear of showing your work by showing it “early and often.” But be selective about whom you show it to—you won’t benefit from cruel or clueless criticism.
- Don’t pathologize normal writing incidents. Everyone has bad days when they don’t get much done, and everyone produces the occasional subpar piece. When either of those happen to you, it doesn’t mean you’re an unfit writer–just normal.
- Relieve physical and mental monotony by introducing a physical component to your work. Some writers create a colorful wall chart; others, a scrapbook illustrated with magazine cutouts. Sometimes, when I’m really stuck on a piece, I print the whole thing out and do an old-school cut and paste with actual scissors and a glue stick.
- Work typically stalls for one of these four reasons: (1) perfectionism, (2) ambivalence, (3) you don’t know enough about what you’re trying to write about, or (4) you’re trying to force the writing in a direction it doesn’t want to go. If your problem is one of the last two, journaling analytically about the problem–i.e., answering the question, “Why won’t this piece do what I want?” Or, “Why can’t I figure out what to write next?”–often helps dramatically.
- Always focus on quantity, not quality: quality is an emergent property. Also read this. And remember that Flaubert said that, “Success must be a consequence and never a goal.”
- Remember that the key to joyful productivity is to exercise dominion over your creative process. Prolificness is characterized by freedom, flexibility, and an utter willingness to throw away whatever you are working on and start over. This can be a terrifying prospect to someone who is perfectionist, because perfectionism is a mindset of scarcity–not enough ideas, not enough time, not enough help, etc. Escape from that stultifying mindset, however, and you’ll find yourself in a world of abundance where nothing is wasted. (The stuff you throw out will have served its purpose in improving this project, and you’ll probably also wind up using it later.)
It is possible, in other words, to evolve to a state of near-constant inspiration and “flow,” and if you trust in yourself and the process, it won’t take long to get there.
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