Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Swat Swarming "Shoulds" - Taking positive control of your writing life

I wonder if guilt is on the same strand of DNA as writing. It seems like all the writers I know fret about what they should be doing.
  • I should be writing more. 
  • I should finish that unfinished manuscript.
  • I should become competent in marketing.
  • I should blog more often.
  • I should prepare a pitch.
  • I should do another polish.
  • I should straighten out my writing receipts for taxes.
See what I mean? Writing has a lot of dimensions. They are all demanding. No one is good at each one. And manuscripts never reach perfection. Think of all that is going on:
  • Research and inspiration.
  • Drafting.
  • Rewriting.
  • Pitching and submitting.
  • Marketing and promotion.
  • Business management and records.
  • Career planning and strategy.
  • Networking.
And each of these has many facets. Writing is a complex endeavor, swarming with "shoulds." If your not careful, as my wife says, "you can should all over yourself." I know many writers who have been devoured by marketing, rewrites, research, and "writerly" activities. Real life gets in the way. Day jobs demand. And, if you're elf-publishing, you can add another list of shoulds.

Allow me to recommend to you a TED interview with Kelly McGonigal on willpower. There are many good points, but the one that resonated with me most was "self-compassion is much more motivating than self-criticism." In other words, stop haranguing yourself and give yourself a break. You won't get it all right. Nobody does, and that's okay.

On a more practical level, one thing she suggests is you bribe yourself. I pay myself for rewriting (which doesn't appeal to me) with permission to work on something new and fun. Some people use chocolate. Others, trashy novels. What do you deny yourself that might be seen as a reward for doing something positive, but difficult, for your writing life.

What you choose do is also important. McGonigal says we often start in the wrong place by asking, “What should I do?” She says the beginning that works best is,

"when you start really slowing down and asking yourself what you want for yourself and your life in the next year. What is it that you want to offer the world? Who do you want to be, what do you want more of in your life? And then asking: 'How might I get there? What would create that as a consequence?'"

She recommends a mindfulness in your goal-making, where you spend time, once you settle on where you would like to be in the future, watching to see what small things you might change or do to get there. For me, one of these was writing my ideas and notes in full sentences. (I got this from reading Ray Bradbury's advice, but I was mindful of my problem -- indecipherable notes.)

Although the article (and book) on willpower are worth your time, I'll share one more of McGonigal's recommendations. "One of the things I always encourage people to do is to not try to do things alone, and to start outsourcing their willpower a little bit."

I've seen how this works in my classes, as students cheer each other on. It becomes a bit thing to do difficult things, like writing every day in the midst of real-life challenges. I've also found mentoring is helpful since I want to set a good example.

So, here's something to try:
  1. Take ten minutes to write your list of shoulds. 
  2. Pick out one, and put the rest aside for at least on month. They are not currently interesting. 
  3. Rephrase the should as a positive. ("I should rewrite more" becomes "how can I make rewriting more fun?") 
  4. Spend a week or two looking for small opportunities that could move you toward your goal. 
  5. Then take action. 
  6. Add daily rewards and make what you are doing public to someone, preferably someone you want to demonstrate success to.
Does this appeal to you? If so, start now, or make an appointment with yourself to take on this process. And if you want to share your experiences here, they would be most welcome.


  1. My writing experience start with hard. But it more and more feel like art.
    I want to write fast but why it seems ruining my art ?

  2. Hi, Nuri This is a valid concern. When I was first writing, I sometimes tried to increase productivity by just racing to put more words on paper or by not allowing key concepts to percolate. That approach can, and often does, hurt the art. And it doesn't increase productivity.
    I've found that two basic approaches can increase writing productivity without damaging the work itself. The first is to manage bad habits that get in the way of quick starts, introduce editing at the wrong time, or lead to confusion. The second is to gradually introduce good habits, such as noting ideas in full sentences and planning for the next day's work.
    So, rather than just quickening your pace, improving your processes is the way to write faster.