It’s a new year, it’s the same me. 2020 tested me in so many ways; from my patience and persistence, to productivity beliefs. With all the time I was left to spend with myself, I was able to take a real introspective look at my life and habits. Where I went wrong, and what things I could start implementing to fix it.
With the year we have all just gone through, I am weary of being ambitious with resolutions. So instead of setting milestone goals that could very easily be disrupted by some Zombie Apocalypse, my plan is to establish a healthy, practical, and encouraging writing mindset to reach my full potential. Where these steps will lead me, I don’t know. But I know I will go somewhere, and for this year, that is just about good enough for me.
This is a collection of my lessons learned, and the best tips and tools I have discovered to write more efficently than ever—while still not burning out and over working myself. Work smarter, not harder.
All sections are highlighted in subtitles, feel free to skim to find specific parts that may appeal to you.
My Vocal Hiatus—What Happened?
During the summer, I developed an excellent writing routine with publishing on Vocal. I published between 1-2 stories a week, nearly 50% where being staff picked, and I had found a great, free way to market them. I won a Vocal Challenge, was interviewed for Vocal’s Creator Spotlight, and I was even featured in their latest marketing campaign.
But then in September, all of that crumbled. I started college, got a part-time job, and was still recording and releasing podcast episodes weekly. I quickly went from publishing a minimum of one story a week to a maximum of one story a month.
I was at my peak, and then I plummeted.
Every time I published something new, I told myself that this would be it! This would be the story that would give me the drive to get back to a regular, productive routine. And then four weeks would go by, and I would realise that I was back at where I started.
It began to feel like quicksand; a swallowing that would only expedite the more I fought it. So I stopped fighting it; and here is what I learned.
Breaking Out of the Slump
When we fall out of a routine, a big issue we encounter is trying to emulate what we were initially doing. You had something that was working for you—and then it stopped. It should be evident that this wouldn’t work again, but we are habitual people, so we will try and fail, again.
When I decided that I finally wanted to break out of the slump (which, to be honest, wasn’t really a slump. I was still writing essays upon essays for my studies, and putting in hours at my job. But we live in a stressful Hustle Culture that only compliments passion and dying for your aspirations) I immediately went to sites like Medium and YouTube for advice.
But the problem was that all the people who were giving me advice were full-time writers who didn’t have to work around schedules. “Wake up at 5 AM and write until 10 AM!” “Write every day, at the same place, at the same time!” They all had the privilege of setting their own schedule and habits as they please.
What if I can’t wake up at 5 AM because I was up studying till midnight? Or if I have a morning shift at 6 AM? What if I don’t have set shifts, and can’t just put a timeslot down in my calendar where I will always be available?
I will not tell you to sit down at your desk every day at 8 AM and write until 12 PM. These tips I am about to lay out are adjustable to your personal situation and goals. Some might work, and others might not. But I can personally say that they have helped me remarkably in getting back on track and developing a strong, yet flexible plan for this year.
Repurpose Content & Writing You Already Have At Hand
If one of the things that are holding you back from writing consistently is that you struggle to find new things to write about or don’t have the time to do a lot of research for a new topic, then reformatting work that you have already written may be the key.By Thought Catalog on Unsplash
Suppose you are a student, for example. Do you have any essays or book/film analysis that could function as an excellent story for a non-academic audience with slight editing alterations? Or have you written a short story that you could self-publish or pitch to a literary magazine?
Say you have written an article about something pretty niche, you could go searching for websites and magazines on the topic and consider pitching it to them. It sounds odd, but the more niche it is, the more likely it is you will have your pitch accepted.
This also goes for research you may have on certain topics from some of your classes. Can your notes be reconstructed into a How-To article? Or can you use the research you’ve done for a project as the basis for an excellent essay or short story?
If you create content on other mediums such as Instagram or YouTube, you can often easily repurpose that content into a story. You can write an accompanying blog post to your video, expand on an Instagram caption in a personal essay, or use the information from a carousel that you put together as an article’s outline.
I am the co-host of a podcast called Making It: Women in Film, where my friend and I interview women in the film industry. Once we start airing our second season (Feb 5th, put it in your calendar), I will write an accompanying article with a short bio of our guest and an excerpt from the interview.
Alongside the podcast, I also curate our Instagram account, where I make lots of posts about indsutry news, recommendations, and diversity statistics. Many of these are practically mini-articles, and by merely expanding the word count, adding a bit of extra flair, I have got myself a proper article that I can publish here.
My personal goal this year is to write three pieces a week – one original, one that’s repuposed from my podcast, and a slightly altered college essay. This way, even if I don’t have the time to write something original, I know that I will at least have these two to fall back on and stay out of the slump.
Whether or not this will work for you will depend on what kind of writer you are and what you are currently working on. I adore this George R.R. Martin quote on whether you are a gardener or an architect; discovering which one you identify with the most, can really change the way you write for the better.
I outline for almost everything I write; articles, essays, scripts. It will be divided up in subtitles (like this piece is), and then have a few bullet points underneath. It’s basically a very plain PowerPoint. I rarely make these types of outlines for short stories or poetry. In those cases, I will instead jot down what I want the reader to feel at specific points and use that as a guideline.
Voice Typing & Vomit Drafts
One of the most detrimental causes of “Writers Block” is that the writer overthinks what they’re writing. They’ll start writing a sentence but never finish it because they keep going back to edit it and rewrite it. An hour will go by, and just about a hundred words will be on the page. This is where vomit drafts come in.By Christin Hume on Unsplash
It is just like what it sounds—you vomit the words out on the page, keep on writing, and do not look back. You don’t start cleaning up the floor while you’re still on your knees—you wait, finish throwing up, and then you see what you can do about it. The “Write Like a Sculptor” metaphor is much nicer, but you get my point.
You can edit something terrible into something great, but you can’t edit something that doesn’t even exist. Your first draft is always going to be shit, and you need to accept that. Stop being a perfectionist, stop wanting to get it right at the first go, ’cause you won’t. And let me tell you, editing is way easier than writing. So just get the words down, no matter how poorly chosen.
Some tricks you might consider trying if you struggle with first drafts are:
The Comic Sans hack: Many writers swear that the otherwise mocked font is an exceptional tool to get the words flowing.
Writing with a white font: If you’re one of those people who just can’t help but look back while they are writing, and get stuck because they always want torewrite everything, consider making the font you are writing intowhite, and turn off the spell checker. You literally won’t be able to see the words or any potential typos you may have made until you are finished and turn it back on. This is also sometimes called “Blind Writing”.
Voice typing: This is one of my favourite newfound tools. By turning on Voice Typing, you can get all of your thoughts out verbally, and have your computer transcribe it for you. I did this for my WW84 Review—that first draft was two thousand words long, and it only took ten minutes for me to “write” it. I recommend trying this to draft essays on topics you are passionate about, but struggle to get the words down. Outlining your piece first will make this even more effective.
Writing in Sprints & Limiting Distractions
As someone who very likely has ADHD and in general just struggles to keep focused for a long period of time on one certain thing, writing in sprints has been an absolute saviour.
A very popular strategy is to use the Pomodoro Technique; a French time management technique where you work for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break and repeat. This is commonly used within a two-hour long session and is a great way to keep the momentum going. For some, this may be done putting down a 25-minute timer on an app like Forest, which will block access to all other apps while it is on.
Setting a timer for how long you will work until your next break also limits the time you can be distracted. Having the timer next to you forces you to work for it because you know that you will be rewarded at the end. While if you simply say “eh, I’m gonna sit down and write for an hour,” you will most likely end up distracting yourself for 20-30 minutes of that hour, or not even sit it all the way through.
My all-time favourite way to do writing sprints is by doing it with other people. There is a whole sub-genre on YouTube and Twitch of writers from AuthorTube doing live writing sprints. It is intensely communal, and it holds you accountable; you are doing it alongside hundreds of other people. It is wildly motivating; like a follow-along workout tutorial.
From AuthorTube, my go-to writer to write along with is Kate Cavanaugh. This month, she’s doing live sprints nearly every day across YT and Twitch (her schedule is in her community posts)! Even if you can’t make it live, you can always put it on afterwards. In fact, I’m currently writing this with this sprint from 2019! Give it a try, I can almost guarantee that you will love it.
As for limiting distractions, I have already mentioned apps such as Forest. But another one of my personal favorite ways to do this (specifically to avoid phone distractions) is by playing music from YouTube on my phone. Why? Because to keep it playing, I can’ leave the app.
Another tip I have seen much praise off is to write offline instead of online. This may be especially useful for those who use a lot of research for their writing, as you can easily fall into a rabbit hole when you initially just wanted to fact check one thing in a paragraph.
Music & Ambience
Here are some of my favourite background ambience and playlists to listen to while I am writing:
Rainy Night Coffee Shop Ambience with Relaxing Jazz Music and Rain Sounds – 8 Hours, by Calmed by Nature. Cosy, relaxing, and provides that feeling Covid has got me missing.
ADD/ADHD Intense Relief – Extended, ADHD Focus Music, ADHD Music Therapy, Isochronic Tones, by Jason Lewis – Mind Amend. This is fantastic instrumentals to get you focused and in the zone.
Optimal Focus, by Jack Edwards. Lo-fi and instrumentals, great for writing and studying.
Finding Balance With the Unbalanced
There is a lot of pressure this time of the year. Pressure to start off the year “well” and with a bang. Pressure to write ambitious New Year resolutions, to be productive and leave 2020 behind.
Truth is that to find that true balance in life that you so yearn for, you have to find balance within life at its most unbalanced. You can write down goals and dreams, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we have to be flexible. We don’t control the future, no matter how much we want to.
One of the things that always brought me down was that I would be too specific and too ambitious with my goals. “You will write a 2K+ essay during this time tomorrow and have it published the next day,” or “You will publish a story every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday!”
But then something unexpected would happen, and I wouldn’t be able to write at the said time. Or it would go up on a Tuesday instead of a Monday. In the end, I did do the core of my goal—I wrote a piece of a certain length, and I had it published. But because it wasn’t completed as planned, I felt like a failure.
This year my goals in terms of writing are much freer. And rather than having the End Goal be particular, it is the plan behind it—the methods and tools I will use—that’s detailed and thorough.
Because a goal without a plan is just a wish. And wishes don’t just come true out of thin air.
Some final words on this: Don’t be too hard on yourself if you catch yourself slipping at times—you just made it through a tumultuous year, and most likely, that turmoil is not going to end this week. Go easy, and don’t let what you love consume you to the point you hate it. Savour it and nurture it.
Happy New Year.