Do The Words: Productivity

A few months ago, while writing at the coffee shop, I tweeted this:

People at next table spent 2 hrs kvetching about writer’s block. In that time, I wrote 827 words, edited 2 stories. Shut up. Do the words.

It was a spur-of-the-moment tweet, dredged up from a combination of feeling productive for the work I’d just finished and being grumpy due to listening to the people at the next table loudly lamenting about their writer’s block.

People’s responses to it were varied. A few people felt like I was making light of writer’s block. Others suggested I should have helped the writers next by me with advice. But most said they were inspired by concept, by the idea that they could just “do the words.”

Before I talk about how and why to do the words, I’d like to comment on writer’s block for a moment. In my opinion there are two kinds of experiences that are sometimes termed writer’s block: The first is the kind that experienced, professional writers occasionally come up against, where they’re struggling with their current work or with their career. The second is the kind that beginning writers struggle with, where they don’t actually have a block; what they do have is a lot of fear and uncertainty and lack of knowledge about how to begin writing. The first is an expected part of a life-long career and will be overcome by the majority of writers. The second is a time-waster and procrastination technique that hopeful writers employ instead of writing. This can be overcome as well. How? By writing.

When I teach classes on being productive as a writer, I do what I call my writing infomercial, which sounds exactly like this: “You too can become an amazing writer in just 20 minutes a day!”

Scoff, right? Certainly that can’t be true. It isn’t true of exercise. Why would it be true of writing? Actually it is true of exercise in some ways. If your goal is to be healthier, then working out for 20 minutes a day will make you healthier over your lifetime than not working out. If your goal is to be a better writer, then writing for 20 minutes a day every day will make you a better writer.

What isn’t true in either case is the implication that this process is fast. If you work out for 20 minutes a day for a week, you’re not going to see much of an improvement. If you work out for 20 minutes a day for your whole life, the long-term benefits will be clear.

Ditto with writing. Twenty minutes a day for a week will net you some works. Twenty minutes a day for a year will net you some more words, and they will be better. Twenty minutes a day for 10 years, and you’re going to be an amazing writer, as promised.

Where do you want to be in ten years? Lamenting your inability to write? Or writing? Those, in my opinion, are your only two choices.

So I give you permission to write every day for 20 minutes. Write anything. Write everything. Just sit down and do the words. Do them for a whole year. Every time you don’t want to write, imagine yourself at a coffee shop at the end of the year. There are two tables. One where everyone’s complaining about not writing all year. The other where everyone’s tapping away on the keyboard, as they’ve been doing every day for the last year. Which table do you want to be sitting at? Choose.

Because this is what it takes to make a career as writer. There is no secret code that you’ll crack, no other way to level up or increase your skill, no diet-pill solution to becoming a better writer. You just have to do the words. Every day. Over time, they add up to a story, a book, two books, a career. And most importantly, they add up to you becoming the writer you always wanted to be.

Tips on Doing the Words

  • Set yourself a very doable goal. It’s better to succeed at a smaller goal than to fail at a larger one and give up completely. Twenty minutes is achievable for almost everyone, even with busy lives. You might also try using word counts as a goal.
  • If you’re just beginning, don’t worry about getting feedback, building a career or selling your work. Focus on writing.
  • If you’re in the middle of your career and are stuck or struggling to get the words down, go back to the 20 minute-a-day goal. You’ll be surprised how much better you’ll feel once you set an achievable goal and accomplish it. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get the words flowing again.
  • Make it easy to meet your goals. Find a place to write that’s fun for you. Use a word processing program that you like, keep your writing space pretty and inspirational. I don’t have a desk, because I like to write in various places, but I keep my laptop loaded with images that I like.
  • Reward yourself for achieving your goals. If there’s something particularly sticky for me, and I’m avoiding it, I’ll promise myself a reward if I’ll just sit down and tackle said thing. Usually the thing isn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be, and I get a goody afterward. Now I feel doubly good, which provides further encouragement for me to do the words in the future.

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