So many elements of the writer’s life are filled with uncertainty — not the least of which is the writers schedule. There is no “9 to 5”, no universally prescribed hours — and every writer has different hours of peak productivity, different temptations keeping them from the keyboard.
I myself occasionally find myself joining the ranks of the #5amwriters on Twitter – not always at 5am in my own Eastern time zone 😉 And always with large quantities of caffeine.
Because I struggle to stick to a consistent writing practice, I’m always curious about how other writers structure their days, how they are able to log hours at the keyboard, how they manage to get to the finish line.
Here’s a list of some of my writerly heroes and the habits, tips and wisdom that enable/d them to move their creative projects forward.
You get nothing from an unfinished project, and you learn nothing! Finish everything you start!Stephen J. Cannell
Steven Pressfield – fight Resistance
From one of my favorite creative life gurus, Steven Pressfield, comes the nugget that informs all others: “The battle must be fought every day.” Pressfield is the author of the seminal The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which refers to the life distractions that prevent one from applying butt to chair as Resistance. As those forces are legion, for a writer to be successful, they must be reckoned with and overcome every single day.
Jerry Seinfeld – keep the chain going
As I sometimes write humor, this advice from the iconic Seinfeld (via Lifehacker) has stuck with me — it doesn’t require a set schedule, only an “unbroken” mindset.
According to this master of his comedy domain*, “The way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.” To facilitate that, Seinfeld suggests (bullets mine) …
- “Get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on the wall where you can see it.
- Every day you write, put a big red X over that day.
- After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day.
- You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt.
- Your only job next is to not break the chain.
- DON’T BREAK THE CHAIN.”
Erma Bombeck – set disciplined hours
My earliest years were influenced by reading Bombeck’s hugely popular syndicated column “At Wit’s End” in our newspaper. According to her bio, “at the height of her popularity, 900 newspapers syndicated her column to an audience of 30 million people.” As the best-selling author of numerous books**, she was also a frequent guest on many television talk shows.
Bombeck reported that she wrote from 8:00 – 11:30 a.m. and 1:30-5:00 p.m. “five, six, seven days a week. I don’t see how I can do any less… If you’re a professional writer, you write.
“You write whether you feel like it, you write whether you’ve got an idea, you write whether it’s Pulitzer Prize material. You just do it, that’s it. Discipline is what we’re all about…
“Writing has to be a priority—there comes a time when you have to stop talking and start doing.”
Discipline likely kept her productive during her appearance schedule (something to aspire to, no?). The writer’s spirit lives on in the biannual Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference at the University of Dayton in Ohio, her alma mater.
Anne Lamott – write shitty first drafts
Many writers are already familiar with the amazing Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life*. Lamott’s writer dad, Kenneth Lamott, wrote every day from 5:30 to ~7:30am; made breakfast & read the paper, then wrote for the rest of the morning – she passes down the advice re: writing (bullets mine):
- “Do it every day for awhile.
- Do it as you would scales on the piano.
- Do it by prearrangement with yourself.
- Do it as a debt of honor.
- And make a commitment to finishing things.”
But for those who sometimes have trouble getting started because of perfectionism or other psych-the-writer-self-out headgames, my favorite piece of advice from Lamott is “… write really, really shitty first drafts.”
Stephen J. Cannell – rewrite + always finish
The late, and very prolific television writer/producer worked on and/or created some of the most iconic procedural crime shows — Columbo, Ironsides, The Rockford Files* to name a few.
The late, and very prolific television writer/producer worked on and/or created some of the most iconic procedural crime shows — Columbo, Ironsides, The Rockford Files to name a few.
This man had dyslexia folks, and wrote 5:00 – 11:00 a.m. nearly every day and purportedly felt guilty not writing even while acting, or vacationing, etc. These from him:
- “It is very important to write at the same time every day, two hours at the minimum.
- Keep going and your talent will grow, but you have to be at the keyboard for that to happen.
- Give yourself permission to be bad [aka “shitty first drafts redux”] — rewriting is part of the process.”
But the most interesting piece of advice Cannell emphatically gave is…
“Choose your projects carefully (something you love, something that will work), but NO QUITTING! You get nothing from an unfinished project, and you learn nothing! Finish everything you start!”
When we hit a bump and are tempted to gravitate towards the “shiny object” of a new and (for the moment) easier project, Cannell’s words are worth taking to the keyboard.
“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer.”Isaac Asimov
Ellen Sandler – create your writer’s identity
The television writer, TV consultant/coach and author of The TV Writer’s Workbook: A Creative Approach To Television Scripts*, echoes ▵much of what others have said, but reinforces some important points. She writes (not necessarily in this order):
“YOU HAVE TO WRITE. A LOT…
“Develop the muscles to write even when you have a lot of other demands on you… Writing, if you are a writer, is as much a part of your life as eating.
Write something even if you’re tired. Write even if you don’t really want to. Write instead of watching TV, answering emails, watching YouTube, twittering, shopping online for discount cosmetics… You develop the discipline to write when you can’t.”
“Most importantly: Be willing to WRITE BADLY…
Write when you have nothing to say; write until you find something to say. By writing all the time, you create your writer’s identity.
In a couple of months…you’ll have something finished. Once you’ve written something, you have to write something else… and something else.
“There is no other way.”
Isaac Asimov – send it out + persist
For those who write and write but show the words only under duress or maybe not at all, iconic science fiction author Asimov* has this advice:
“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one.
“If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.”
Jane Austen – write on
There is comfort in the fact that the writer’s struggles are not new, so take a page from the playbook of “the greatest novelist in the English language*”. More than two hundred years ago Jane Austen wrote in a letter to her sister Cassandra: “I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am.”
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