I’ve met too many people who call themselves writers who never write. If you’re reading this post, this might be you. Do you dream of publishing a book, or posting consistently on your blog, or filling up your journal with prose? I hate to break it to you, but words don’t write themselves. You do not have to be a published author to be a writer, but you do have to write. And sadly, many who call themselves writers actually think, daydream, and talk about writing, and actually write very little.
So if this is you, fear not! I’ve been where you are. For years I said I was a writer, but I only wrote the occasional reflection or journal entry, or a short story if I was feeling particularly creative. But this year I decided to commit to writing a lot, every day. Suddenly I couldn’t stop. I once would stare at a blank page until I would finally walk away defeated. I once gave up after the first one or two sentences because they were stifled and awkward. Now I take my journal with me everywhere. I’m constantly scribbling down ideas. I go through pages and pages of looseleaf every day. My life is changed.
When you first begin writing, it’s quite challenging. You feel forced and unnatural. But as time goes on, you realize that writing is like ballet – with practice your form, flexibility, and grace naturally improves. Something clicks, and you find great freedom and joy and expression in writing.
The initial jump, the build-up of energy to overcome the static friction of your pen, will take discipline. But if you’re willing to commit, you’ll see amazing results. Today I want to help you get started on your path to a consistent, prolific, and rewarding writing life. So here are ten tips to start writing a lot TODAY!
Freewriting is a different kind of writing than what you were taught in grammar school. In school you were taught a very controlled method for writing stiff science papers and book reports that checked all the boxes – a conclusion that neatly reflects the introduction, lots of facts, some personal opinion, properly placed periods, correct capitalization, no run-ons, no life, no honesty. I find the tidy process of “research to outline to paper” dull and boring. To truly explore what your heart wants you to say, you must allow your pen to fly across the page untethered to expectations. You must put your train of thought down on the page, because you cannot make sense of it until you can see it.
Freewriting is a simple process. You sit down with a pen and paper, and you write. You write about whatever comes to mind, and you do not stop to examine your punctuation, or your wording, or even whether the writing is good. You just write.
2. Focus on the Thought
There are a few things that people who want to be writers tend to worry about when they set their daily writing goals: word count and time. I’ve tried both of these methods before, and neither worked long-term. Setting a goal of X amount of words to write per day makes it difficult to focus on the content you are writing because you are so busy keeping track of whether or not you’ve hit that number yet. It is a similar problem with time. Setting a goal for how long you want to spend writing each day might work for some, but I don’t think it does much to inspire prolific writing. I have tried setting time goals for myself every day, but I ended up spending most of that time watching the clock.
Rather than focusing on word count or time, or any other systems that you have tried to keep yourself on a writing schedule, focus on the actual thought you are writing about. When you sit down to write, I recommend that you don’t start a timer or put the word count in the corner of the screen. I recommend that you simply write, and dedicate every bit of your attention to the content that you are writing.
3. Turn off the Phone
One time I set up my laptop, opened a Google Doc, made myself a perfect cup of tea, turned on a bit of Debussy, and sat down to write. It was a cloudy day and my room was clean and I was feeling inspired. I wrote a sentence or two, then out of the corner of my eye I saw my phone light up. I got up and picked up my phone. I opened the message and replied. Then I got an email, so I read that. Then the person replied to my reply, so I replied again, and then it became a quick conversation. After the conversation, I went back to the email to reply to it. Then I might as well have checked on my game, so I went and did that. An hour later, I looked up and noticed my cold cup of tea and the empty Google Doc.
So turn off your damn phone.
4. Use the Clustering Technique
Clustering is a terrific way to brainstorm in the prewriting process. Even if you are just sitting down to freewrite, this is one of my no-fail ways to come up with a topic to write about. Here’s how you do it:
- Pick a central theme, place, or person that you might want to write about. It could be anything – Paris, your mother-in-law, money, injustice, or the library book you haven’t returned yet. Write this central subject in the middle of the page.
- Circle it, and write keywords that build on the central subject. Circle them and connect them with lines. Note: These are keywords that have special meaning for you. They might point to memories you have or to subjects that you are deeply interested in.
- Create more keywords that build on each of the first keywords, and so on and on, until you fill up the page.
This is my favorite way to build on a subject in a way that helps me see what I truly want to write about. I once clustered about my grandmother, and followed the branches of my thought train until I remembered being in fourth grade and having to interview my grandmother for a homework assignment – a memory I had not visited in a very long time. The story of what happened there is quite fascinating, and I would never have remembered it without the happy practice of clustering.
5. Write Lists
A lot of times, we think we have to begin our freewriting with full-blown sentences complete with perfect descriptions and strong verbs. But I think all you need to start with are words. Sentences take a lot of effort and weigh down the brainstorming process. How do you work with only words? The answer is: lists.
Write a list of one-word descriptions that describe the old book on your shelf, write a list of things you think of when you smell your mom’s perfume, write a list of traits of the kid you liked in seventh grade. Just write. Fill up the page with words. Don’t worry about the sentences yet – just stretch. Gain the flexibility you need, so that later you can dance.
6. Be Messy
Don’t look down on your chicken scratch. You have to let yourself scrawl all over the page, because that is the only way you’ll unearth the fossils, the little treasures that are the stories inside you.
7. Bring Your Journal Everywhere
No, the Notes app on your iPhone does not count. Buy a 7×5 inch notebook for two bucks. Get a spiral-bound one, so it’ll lie flat and so that you can attach a pen to it. Never leave the house without it. Think of it as an extension of yourself. Write down everything, fill it up, cram the pages (or keep it tidy depending on your personality). Let your mind wander all over the pages. Write when you’re sitting in waiting rooms or in the passenger seat of the car or at a table in a cafe. Write when you’re at an art museum, or a park, or your grandma’s house.
You see, it’s like being a translator. You are translating thoughts into words. The more you do it, the more natural it will become. You will watch your journal fill up with thoughts, some of which will turn into essays, short stories, articles, books. You never know what will happen with the thoughts you record, so write them all.
Plus, carrying a journal around will make you feel like a writer, which will undoubtedly inspire you to prove it more than just a feeling.
8. Make a Jar of Writing Topics
Get a mason jar out of your cabinet. Tape a piece of paper to it that says, “Topics”. Now take a piece of looseleaf paper and tear it into a bunch of pieces. Write random words on all the pieces – these can be themes, people, colors, objects, places, anything – then fold them up and put them in the jar.
Don’t know what to write about today? Draw from the jar.
9. Don’t Worry About the Outcome
Remember, you want to write a LOT. The number one thing that will keep you from writing a lot is perfectionism. Perfectionism is the bane of the writer. It is the great nemesis. It will whisper in your ear to just stop, because the last few sentences you wrote didn’t make any sense. Anne Lamott describes “the idea of sh*tty first drafts”. “All good writers write them,” she says. “This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” This, I think, is an important concept to understand. The first draft is never the final draft, and that’s the way it should be.
I also think that the ratio of good sentences to bad sentences is supposed to be about 1 to 10, or at least something close to that. Everything you write is not going to be good – it can’t be. But the more you write, the more good writing you will produce. You cannot find the gems if you do not first build the mineshaft. Trust yourself, trust your process. The outcome will take care of itself – your only job is to write.
10. Have Fun
Paul the Apostle said, “If I speak in the tongues of men but have not love, I am a noisy gong and clanging cymbal.” This is true for writing as well – if you have these tips, methods, and habits but no love for writing itself, you will never be a writer. Love the craft, embrace it as an extension of yourself. Need it, crave it, relish it. Words are a powerful tool – if you feel called to harness this power, be proud of yourself! As Lin-Manuel Miranda says in Gmorning! Gnight!: “Words fail us, often, but when we put ‘em together the right way they can pull boulders out of us.”
So write, write, write, and watch the boulders form mountains.
Which of these tips are you going to try today? Have any other tricks helped you to write a lot? Also, unrelated… coffee or tea?
Answer with a comment below!