Learning to Write Again

Learning to Write Again

Last week marked the first 2017 meeting of the Oxford Writing Circle. We discussed our writing resolutions and inevitably they were often something like “I want to write and read more!”

Writing more and reading more are my writing resolutions too — and old readers will know I like resolutions. Yet in 2016, I intentionally gave up freelance writing to focus on Five out of Ten and my latest adventure, Reasonably Vegan. So these resolutions raise a couple of questions: what kind of writing do we want to write, and given the fact that everyone in the Writing Circle has the same resolutions — and the same as last year’s failed promises — how can we turn our desires into virtuous habits?

Note: this essay discusses techniques that personally work for me. If you require a disclaimer that they may not work for you, consider an alternative website that treats you with less intelligence.

Defining the problem

I don’t regret moving away from freelance writing. I enjoyed the exercise of writing, and the pocket money was nice, but it ate away at valuable leisure time that I’d rather spend with friends and family, recuperating from my day job. So I don’t want to write more of anything; I want to increase my output of blog posts for Reasonably Vegan and Split Screen (no, really!), features for Five out of Ten, and short stories. I used to keep a journal but… is it just me, or are journals a refuge for the mind in bad times rather than a record of the great times? I stopped writing notes in my journal when the novelty of great dates with Jess turned into everyday great days. Whether or not a journal should be for that purpose, that seems to be how I use them, and I don’t see the sense in forcing it.

The goal is to not to write incessantly in the hope that nuggets of gold will appear. It’s to keep the fires of imagination stoked with tangible writing projects of all shapes and sizes. Projects with clear endings on the horizon. I want to look back on what I’ve written and consider it done – and as a bonus, done well. Rather than writing eclectically towards a goal I’ll never reach, which seems futile, or writing towards the goal of “a novel” that I can’t visualise right now, I want to break it all down into satisfying chunks. If my masterpiece is revealed during this work, that’s great, but I won’t flagellate myself if it never arrives.

What didn’t work

‘Write more!’ isn’t a new goal for me, the writing group, and I suspect it’s not new to writers in general. Writing for pleasure is a luxury of time and energy: always the first thing to be jettisoned when you have other priorities, always the last thing on your mind after an exhausting day. While I love writing more than any hobby, it requires a certain state of mind to get into it and enjoy it. The rough hierarchy of my attention is:

  1. Netflix: Bojack Horseman, nature documentaries
  2. Netflix: anything else
  3. Video games
  4. Reading
  5. Writing

This also explains why I never committed to a “watch more Netflix” resolution.

If the problem is a lack of time and energy, then an oft-postulated solution is to get up earlier each morning to write. Picture the scene: the sun is rising, birds are singing, you’ve got a hot mug of coffee on the desk, and you type away whistling with joie de vivre. Before you know it – your finished novel appears! All because you weren’t such a lazy bastard!

Standing up for us night owls: this idea is shit. Stay in bed. Your body and brain will thank you for it. It takes me at least three hours to warm up in the morning – I block out the first half hour of every work day for emails, task planning, and other jobs that don’t require real mental resources – and getting up earlier leaves me feeling unrested and inadequate. Night owls should embrace the night: write for an hour before bed, but set a timer so you don’t burn the midnight oil too much.

What might work

Committing to writing regularly is simply wanting to make a habit of it. Our habits are unwanted vices because they’re low energy ones: watching too much TV, neglecting exercise, mindlessly skimming social media. If we want to give ourselves more time and energy, we need to get rid of the unwanted habits and encourage the creation of newer, more productive ones.

There are some low-effort ways to do this. Deleting Facebook and Twitter off your phone takes ten seconds and will dramatically improve your phone’s battery life.1 This year, I’ve also removed the Guardian and BBC News apps along with my RSS reader. (I’ve still got Instapaper on there since that seems more ‘real food’ than ‘junk food’). In place of the news on my home screen, I added my writing app of choice, Ulysses. The only people who need Facebook and Twitter on their phone are social media professionals, and in that case they should have a work phone they can turn off at the end of their shift. Install Facebook Messenger instead and get on with what you really want to do with your life.

In thinking about how to build habits, I thought back to David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, which revolutionised the way I manage my tasks. I’d recommend reading the book but essentially, to ‘Get Things Done’ you make a comprehensive list of everything you want to do, plan a time and context in which to those things, and regularly review your list of tasks. Each of those three aspects is equally important!

I’ve started using an iOS app called Productive to track daily habits I want to build, like ‘Write an Elliott’ (i.e. 500 words per day – sorry, OWC in-joke2) or ‘Read five pages of a book’. This system is based on push notifications and good old-fashioned honesty. I find regular, nagging notifications and prompts a great way to stay motivated. Whether it’s the Apple Watch telling me to stand up, or my phone awarding me with achievements for difficult tasks like drinking water, apps work for me!

Productive also helps with the other aspects of GTD that resolutions typically forget, which is why we fail to keep them: it organises them by into contexts based on the time of day, and you continually review them.

But that’s a small piece of the overall plan. Every time I have an idea for a feature or story, I make a new task in OmniFocus along with some bullet point notes. If there are a lot of notes then I’ll write them by hand or in Drafts, then export to Ulysses. Then I’ve got a buffer of ideas ready for fleshing out. I wrote the first Elliott of this essay yesterday, and finished it off this evening.

I’m currently on a two day writing streak. I don’t know if that will withstand a full year, but I do know that I feel better prepared than ever to tackle the new year’s goals. I wonder how many words you need to write to plan a wedding?

  1. I got my mum an iPhone 5S for Christmas. We had to set up a proper data plan and thought 500mb a month was a reasonable allowance. Within one day she’d burned 50mb of it on Facebook alone. Facebook now only works over wi-fi on her phone.
  2. Kevin Elliott, one of our group members, writes 500 words a day. Apparently Joseph Conrad used to write 800 words a day, which is known as a ‘Conrad’ – a useful pomodoro equivalent for writing. Therefore the ‘Elliott’ is now the official term for a 500 word chunk.