Writing is a superpower. It allows you to convey your ideas across space and time, to anyone anywhere. Sometimes it can feel like you need to be a superhero to do it, though. Distractions, scheduling, and lack of inspiration can all get in the way.
These barriers don’t have to keep you from accomplishing the writing you want to do. I have written this blog for over nine years, along with academic papers, technical documents, and a textbook. This post describes three tips that can help you be a more productive writer.
1. Own Your Writing
The first mistake that I see many writers make is that they do all of their writing in ephemeral environments. You likely produce a fair bit of writing every week, but if you only do that in places like Facebook or Twitter you’re not creating anything of lasting value. These “feeds” value recency over quality, and neither you nor your readers will be able to preserve your writing there in a way that’s easy to return to over time.
One way to get more value out of the writing you produce is to publish it on a platform that you own. This can be your own site or an open platform like Wordpress that makes it easy to export your posts and move them later if you choose to. You do not want to be stuck on a platform like Medium that could easily get bought (like Tumblr) or lose your content after it declines in popularity (like MySpace). This blog started on Wordpress and now uses Jekyll and GitHub Pages. My book started as a Markdown document that could be converted to LaTeX later via Pandoc.
In addition to publishing, you should also think about how you create your drafts. The sweet spot here is a tool that can be used offline but also sync across devices. I like iOS apps such as iA Writer that let me edit plain-text files and sync between devices via Dropbox or iCloud. Another benefit of this system is the ability to work without distractions, which is discussed further in the next section.
2. Remove Barriers
By having a simple writing system that uses plain-text files, I have been able to write anywhere I want. I have written posts in my car sitting in a parking lot after coming up with an idea on a drive, on an exercise bike at the gym, and in a tent while camping (this post). When you don’t need any particular technology setup to get started, the barriers to entry are much lower.
There are many tools to help keep distraction at bay, but the easiest is shutting off your wi-fi. This is another reason that offline text editors are preferable. At the very least, silence your phone and don’t check email or social media feeds while you write. Don’t even Google for references or links — you can fill those in later.
If your writing is too much to be accomplished in a single sitting (such as a professional article or a book-length manuscript), you will need to make writing a habit. The best writers know that you cannot wait for inspiration to strike. As E.B. White said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
You must find a routine that works for you. I am a firm believer that anyone can wake up 30 minutes earlier and find some quiet time to write. If you are also an early morning writer, you can help yourself by setting up your writing station the night before so that it is ready to go the next day.
Often the biggest obstacle is yourself. If you are too critical of your own first draft, remember that it is best to have something to start with. Try to separate your tendency to edit from the need to get a (messy) first draft onto the page. You cannot improve what you don’t write in the first place!
Another barrier can be a lack of examples of good writing. In programming we call this “garbage in, garbage out”: a system with bad inputs will produce bad outputs. Try focus on the best writing you can get ahold of. If you are worried that you will be too influenced by what you read, pick something from a different genre or on the other side of the fiction/non-fiction divide. Some fiction writers won’t read any other fiction while they are working on a story, for example.
3. Get Feedback
Other than not writing at all, the worst result is wasted effort. Getting feedback from potential readers early and often is extremely valuable. It helps you to keep your audience in mind, fix unclear passages, and remove filler.
There are a number of places that you can get feedback depending on how you write your first draft. A text message or Slack conversation can help you figure out what questions or critiques your audience may have. A tweetstorm will help you gauge how engaging your ideas are. You might also find a trusted friend, newsletter audience, or co-author to be helpful.
Resources for Writing Productivity
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King gives you a view into the mind of one of history’s most prolific writers.
- Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee shows how to create a draft, structure a story, and revise your work.
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott deserves to be on every writer’s bookshelf.
- Writing for Software Developers by Philip Kiely is a great introduction to writing for technical audiences, and packed with interviews with some of the internet’s best writers.
- Marc Bellmare’s blog shares lots of great writing advice. This post is a good place to start.
- David Perell is both a writer and a writing teacher. His tweetstorms are a great example of getting feedback early.
- The Tobolowsky Files is an unparalleled example of audio storytelling.
- The Cortex Podcast provides productivity tips for any creative activity.
- The Writer’s Co-op Podcast discusses the challenges freelance writers face.
One danger is that reading about writing can feel like working on your craft. It’s not! Before you read one more piece of advice, go write that crummy first draft. The advice will still be there when you are done.