Looking for writing tips, hints and guides? You can get your copy of This Craft We Call Writing: Volume One for free today by subsribing to my mailing list! Over 150 pages covering everything from dialogue, characterisation, prose and plotting, to world-building, writing fight scenes and viewpoint.
Countless hours lost to daydreaming, scrolling through mundanity on the web, reading news articles on subjects I’ve never once shown an interest in. Sometimes I sit there ready to go and a thought pops into my mind. I’ve not cleaned those fish tanks in a few weeks. Another forty minutes goes by. Think of all the words that could have been written?
Procrastination is so widely discussed in the writing community I know it’s not just me that suffers from this curse. It’s in our most frustrated hours that we strive to understand why. What is procrastination? Why do we insist on delaying things?
You can look at procrastination as having two constituent parts: first, mental attitude, and second, physical distractions. Attitude is perhaps the most important, distractions being the enabler. So let’s first look at what influences our moments of procrastination.
I think the biggest reason is fear. If we do not try we cannot fail. And in delaying the act of writing we can forever in our minds picture ourselves as successful. Our fantastical dreams live on. We have not tried so we have not failed.
But in not trying we fail. And this is the flaw in the rationale. For years whenever things did not go my way, I recited the saying: “Good things come to those who wait.” Comforting, but nonsense. You must act, you must be proactive. Make opportunities for yourself. Be bold and unafraid. Stake your claim, ring fence your piece of the world. And let nobody or nothing halt you in your path.
Well that’s the theory. Reality as we know is very different. So what can do to rid ourselves of the curse?
“It was my fear of failure that first kept me from attempting the master work. Now, I’m beginning what I could have started ten years ago. But I’m happy at least that I didn’t wait twenty years.”
The very thing we fight every day is in fact a powerful source of motivation, maybe the most influential source of all. The greatest motivator for me is the thought of dying and not having finished telling my tales.
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
Put aside instant perfection
“A primary reason people don’t do new things is because they want to do them perfectly – first time. It’s completely irrational, impractical, not workable – and yet, it’s how most people run their lives.” Peter McWilliams
Wouldn’t it be great if we could write a Hugo-winning novel first time? No hours spent slaving away over characterisation, plot holes, syntax, adjectives … Maybe in another universe, but not ours.
The sooner you come to accept what you write first time round isn’t going to be special, the sooner you’ll get on writing. Editing is the most significant part of the process. The prospect seems daunting, but the more you learn about the craft, the easier editing becomes, and you may even find yourself enjoying it. So don’t beat yourself up while you’re writing your first draft. There’s ample opportunity to put things right down the line.
Approach writing like playing a game
This may sound a bit odd, but hear me out. My old lawyer job was pretty taxing and dull, so to make things a bit more enjoyable I began to approach it like a game. Tasks and deadlines became challenges instead of problems.
You can apply this to writing too. The problems with your manuscript aren’t problems, rather challenges to overcome. You can even approach it like an actual game. Write so many words and you get to level 2, 3, 4, and so on. Or look at each word, sentence or paragraph you write as a way of gaining experience points (or XP). It may not work for all of you, but for some it may be of use.
In essence you’re doing the Pavlov’s Dog, classically conditioning yourself into writing. Think of small rewards you can give yourself. A snack, cup of tea, smoke. Or if you’ve achieved a lot, a more substantial reward, like a takeaway, a few hours on the PS4, watching a bit of TV. Anything you enjoy.
In the toughest of times when your concentration is waning, you keep on rubbing your eyes, staring anywhere but the page or screen, your reward is there to keep you focused and driven. And when it comes to the reward you can enjoy it even more knowing you’ve achieved your goals and aren’t blighted by guilt for not writing.
Take on your hardest challenge first
“Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves.”
You awake, brush your teeth, shower, break your fast, and now you’re ready for the world. Resist the temptation to pick those easier jobs. As Mr Carnegie says, they’ll take care of themselves in time. Roll up your sleeves and dive head first into that bastard bit of editing that’s been breathing down your neck. You’re at your sharpest when you first awake, so take advantage of that. The later in the day you leave a big job the more likely you are to postpone it. “No point getting started on that now. I’ll do it tomorrow.” Do it now!
Work for twenty minutes
Getting going is always the hardest part, as users of Viagra can attest to. So take the pressure off your shoulders by making the challenge smaller. Twenty minutes is no big deal. You write a few paragraphs and bang, twenty minutes have gone. But now you’ve found your flow, you don’t want to stop. And next thing you know you’ve clocked an hour and six hundred words. You’ve just tricked yourself into productivity.
So those are a few ways to change your thinking. Now it’s time to tackle the enablers.
Ditch the smart phone and devices
Most of us have a smart phone, and damn can they be distracting. It’s nice to feel connected with our friends, family, and the wider world, but sometimes you need to step away for a few hours. Leave devices in another room. Lock them in a safe. Get someone in your house to hide them. If you’re expecting a call use an old brick of a phone. All you can do on one of those is play ‘Snake’.
Establish a writing area
Find your favourite corner of the house, or wherever you like to write, and piss all over it. This is your territory now. Make sure it’s free of distractions. Windows can be good and bad. I love sitting by a window. It can be a great source of inspiration, but also a powerful source of distraction too.
Ensure your writing space is away from where you relax. This is tricky for me because my house is small, which is probably why I prefer writing outside. I’m writing this outside now. It’s important to establish this distinction. Writing in bed for instance, is not a good idea, though bloody comfortable. You associate your relaxing environment with distracting things. Some fellow writers I’ve spoken to go to cafes, preferably ones without Wi-Fi, which I think is a great idea.
Wind in the web browsing
We all do it. Watching Failarmy playlists on YouTube, looking through Amazon deals knowing you don’t really want any of this shite but they may have something on page 17 of 30 worth spending £4 on.
It’s tricky to limit yourself. Turning off the Wi-Fi is one approach. “But what if I need to look up a word?!” If you really can’t trust yourself, get a dictionary and thesaurus. If you want to keep that Wi-Fi on but still aren’t trusting, you can have a look at some of these programs or add-ons for your web browsers:
- Freedom. This little app is designed to manage your distractions. You can block websites for specific periods of time. You do however have to pay for it.
- Self-Control. Mac only. Like Freedom, it allows you to block websites during specified times. Free.
- StayFocused. Google Chrome. Much the same as the above. Free.
- LeechBlock. Firefox. As above. Free.
Try listening to music without any lyrics
This may work for some of you, for others not at all. Lyrics are meant to be distracting. I tried this out and found I was a little more focused during instrumental songs. I didn’t have any opportunity to bellow out a line, disrupting my flow. I like psychedelic jams and from time to time a bit of classical, though lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Santana.
Some people pride themselves on their ability to multitask. If you’re good at it, nice one. Whenever I try I can handle it for a while but soon I grow weary and lose focus on both tasks, meaning nothing gets done. Some of you may be the same. It’s much easier to focus on one task, and in the long run, more efficient.
So there’s a few weapons to add to your arsenal the next time you go duelling with the devil that is procrastination. I’ll leave you with a few motivational quotes, starting with my favourite:
“Words are wind,” A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin.
“If and When were planted, and Nothing grew.” Proverb
“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.” Michael Landon
“Life, as it is called, is for most of us one long postponement.” Henry Miller
“Until you value yourself, you will not value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.” M. Scott Peck
A million thank you’s for reading! I’m planning to do more of a fantasy related post later in the week all to do with horses. To get a notification as soon as it goes live you can subscribe to my mailing list. When you do, you’ll get a free eBook, This Craft We Call Writing: Volume One, which is full of writing tips!