Do you ever feel like you’re putting in the hours with your writing project, but you’re not actually making any progress?
Do yourself find going back over to read what you wrote the day before, tweaking a comma here and there or moving some words around, but never actually getting the darn thing to a single reader?
Read on for seven tips to help you progress with your writing project so that you actually finish it (based on years of helping hundreds of graduate students).
1. Park on a downhill (the mountain biker me loves this one)
I woke up earlier than usual today and lay there in the dark listening for that sound that I knew was about to happen.
Yes, there it was – the glorious sound of beans being freshly ground in the coffee machine that I had set last night for 6:30 am.
‘But Lizzy, what does this have to do with writing?’ I hear you ask.
If I’m working on a piece of work that I won’t finish in one sitting, then I add to my ‘parking on a downhill’* Google doc.
This file tells me exactly where I finished the previous session and what I’ll start writing next time. It saves me wasting hours reading through what I’ve already written.
It gives me that smug feeling I have when I’ve put the coffee timer on the night before.
Don’t you love your yesterday self sometimes?
2. Put writing on the calendar
In the first writing session I hold with graduate students at my university each October, I tell them that they need to see themselves as writers. This means putting writing on the calendar.
Together in the class, we’ll pull out our diaries and plan out our writing sessions for the next week. Students start by scheduling whatever feels doable from where they are now (often starting from zero writing). So it might be 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or an hour a day. Then each day, they’ll add a minute (or 5).
I always ask for commitment if they want to try the experiment (usually 100% commit), and say that we’ll report back in the next session (accountability is good too, but that’s a topic for another post).
Inevitably, in the next session, students tell me how it was hard getting started, but that once they actually sat down, they ended up writing for longer than they had thought they would and that they even (gasp!) enjoyed the process.
3. Practice ‘free writing’ and ‘deep writing’
Separate your writing time into ‘free writing’ and ‘deep writing’ practice.
Working from an outline, use your free writing time to ‘brain dump’ ideas within each chapter or section and don’t stop to think about style or research a topic. That way, you won’t spend hours trying to get the perfect sentence and will see more progress in your work.
‘Deep writing practice’ is where you can work on honing your writing craft and shaping your text.
Like a sculptor, you need to have the rough material there first before you can perfect your piece.
4. Celebrate the small wins
Create mini milestones and then celebrate them. How are you going to treat yourself when you write that first blog post/ first page of your book? Marking the mini milestones will keep you motivated and make it easier to turn up at the page the next day.
Some ways to celebrate the small wins:
- Mark your word count in a spreadsheet (yes, sticker chart style rewards are good too).
- Go for a coffee with a friend (if you plan that in advance, it’ll push you to get your words done rather than check those phone alerts).
- Take a bath/ go for a swim/ do something else that feels like you’re treating your body.
- Order in a tasty meal.
- Text your writing accountability buddy/ spouse/ friend to share your ‘win’.
5. Practice getting your work out the door
You’re the first person I’ve ever shown my writing to
It isn’t uncommon for clients to say something like this the first time they come to me. They’ve been sitting on a draft of their book or various unpublished articles for years and have never actually shown anyone.
I totally get this. It took me ages as a business owner before I started to feel comfortable with this new kind of writing for different platforms.
But the more I practice, the easier it gets.
So before you share your book, why not practice in other ways so publishing the book feels less scary? A guest post here and there and a few emails to an email list will do wonders for your confidence. Both have for me!
6. Get the right kind of feedback on your work
Oh yes, this one. Just yesterday, when I was talking to a class of PhD students about how much I enjoy and have benefitted from writing groups, someone said that they’d been stung by getting terrible feedback from someone in a writing group. So, how can you judge the ‘quality’ of the group?
The truth is you can’t. I would never advocate giving your writing to random people for feedback. You have no idea whether the feedback will be useful or not. Instead give your writing to trusted colleagues, friends, writing partners or professionals. For me, writing groups are more about accountability than getting feedback.
If you are planning to get feedback on your writing, make sure you ask for the feedback you want.
On first drafts, ask for feedback about ideas and structure. On later drafts, ask feedback about style and transitions and on final drafts, ask for feedback on surface level errors (like typos and grammar errors).
For more about asking for the right kind of feedback on your work, check this post.
7. Allow incubation time
Finally, take some time away from the page. Often, the best writing magic happens when we’re incubating our ideas. Go for a walk or a swim, take a shower, and get a good night’s sleep. Sooner or later your writing mind will reward you with a lightbulb moment.
So there are my top tips for writing more. Let me know which you are going to try!
*Credit for this tip goes to Joan Bolker, the author of the excellent (and pretty old) book ‘Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day’. This is a gem of a book that I found when I was trying to finish an 80,000 word dissertation while juggling two under twos and working a full time job. The premise is not that you can actually write a decent dissertation in 15 minutes a day, but that you need to find a process that works for you.