I believe myself that a good writer doesn’t really need to be told anything except to keep at it.
— Chinua Achebe
If we found it easy to follow Achebe’s advice, this article would the shortest article since records of article length began, but from experience we know the opposite is true: ‘keeping at it’ is a struggle for many writers, whether they are emerging or established. So many shiny distractions and so little time. So few rewards and so many sacrifices to be made. So many better and more popular writers and so few in the audience listening. And yet, there are writers who do keep at it. Even when it means getting up at 5am every morning for ten years before someone listens. Even when there is no one listening. They just keep at it.
How do they do it? From the many books written by famous writers on writing, and from anecdotal evidence we can conclude they keep at it because of the following seven factors:
- They know who they are as writers
- They value their own work
- They create their own writing schedule and religiously stick to it
- They practice resilience
- They keep themselves motivated
- They understand the importance of being accountable
- They know when to ask for help and from whom
Knowing where you stand in relation to these seven factors will give you the tools you need to build and sustain a flourishing creative practice.
1. Writer, Know Thyself
To get a clear picture of who you are and how you operate as a writer, take some time to answer the following questions. Jot them down in a notebook. Go into as much detail as you can.
- When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Describe how you felt the first time you wrote something
- What does it feel like when the words are flowing?
- Who is your biggest inspiration? What qualities do you most admire in this writer? What is the most important lesson you have learned from this writer?
- Who are you writing for? Describe your ideal reader, that one whose life is better because of the words you write. Give them a name, a personality, the reason why your words are so important to them. What, if any, is your responsibility to this reader?
- What is your biggest writing goal? Having written in down, say it out loud. How does that make you feel? What or who, are you waiting for, to make it happen?
- What are you most afraid of? Name it. Sit with it. Know that nearly every other writer has written the same thing. You are not alone.
- On a scale of 1 -10, how committed are you to your writing? If that number is less than 8, what is getting in your way?
- What needs to be in place for you to stay motivated and committed to your writing?
After this exercise you should be clearer about who you are as a writer and what’s important to you.
2. Valuing the Work
Let’s first get the externals out of the way. Yes, we live in a society that fails to value literature. Yes, we are operating in a market that pays most writers a pittance for their work. Yes, there is discrimination. Yes, it’s sometimes down to luck and looks. Yes, it’s true that being connected can get a manuscript to the top of the pile. Yes, there are gatekeepers. Yes, it’s really, really hard when our work is not valued.
Most of these externals are outside of our control. Wasting time moaning about them only takes energy away from the writing.* Let’s focus instead on what we can control.
*To be clear, I am not suggesting that we don’t challenge the status quo and try to change things for the better. Action is never a waste of energy. Moaning without action is.
- We can control the value we put on our own work. Ask yourself what value are you putting on your writing? What resources are you willing to invest? Too often we complain that no one values our work but we ourselves are not willing to invest energy, time or money on developing our writing skills or marketing ourselves.
- Put a price on your own work. Get comfortable asking for money and expecting professional treatment as a writer. Arm yourself with knowledge when it comes to the market and what you can expect to be paid. Words Ireland have compiled much of this information for us in their Guide Sheets For Writers. ‘The Treatment of Writers at Festivals’, ‘Rates of Pay for Writers’ and ‘ Negotiating Publishing Contracts’ all provide practical and concrete information about the market place and what you should expect in terms of payment and treatment as a professional writer.
- Adopting a professional attitude in all our dealings as writers demonstrates first to ourselves, and then to those we seek to influence, that we are serious about our writing. Professionalism shows up in many ways: approaching our writing as if were a well-paid paid job we take seriously; only submitting work that has been closely edited; respecting submission guidelines and deadlines; graciously accepting rejections; respecting timeslots when invited to read or speak on panels.
- We can choose to believe there’s intrinsic value in the action of writing that’s independent of any extrinsic value put on the work. The seminal book on how to achieve happiness ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, cites writing as a prime activity that can lead to ‘flow’- ‘a state of joy, creativity and total involvement, in which problems seem to disappear and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence.’
As writers we are likely to experience ‘flow’ when:
- We challenge ourselves, seeking always to further hone our craft.
- We are so absorbed in the process of writing and concentrating on the task at hand that time becomes meaningless and we lose our self-consciousness, finally silencing the voice of our inner judge or critic.
- We set ourselves clear goals and feedback mechanisms for the work.
3. Designing A Tailored Writing Schedule
‘When is the best time to write?’ ‘How long should you write for?’ ‘Should you write every day?’ These questions and similar are asked regularly at workshops or forums. People read books like Stephen King’s excellent On Writing and declare that his approach is the only one that will work, and resolve to base their writing schedule on his. When that doesn’t work, they try another famous writer’s approach or ask the question again at a panel discussion until hopefully they land on an approach that suits them.
A far easier way to approach it is to begin first with yourself. You are the expert on what works for you. Ask yourself the following questions and jot down the answers in your notebook.
When is your best time to write? Are you a morning, afternoon or evening person? Are you someone who enjoys regular routine or needs variety to stay motivated?
- How much writing or writing-related activities constitutes a successful week’s writing for you? Are you a ‘word count’ or ‘by the hour’ or ‘however you like to measure it’ writer?
- What type of writing project are you engaged in? What stage in the project are you at? For example, writing the first draft of a novel might require you to commit to large blocks of time at your desk while editing a poem might be squeezed in at different times throughout the day.
- Are you a writer that needs a long lead-in time before the creative juices get going, or can you hit the ground running once you’re at your desk?
- Where is the best place for you to write? Some writers need complete silence. Others need a busy hum around them to focus. Are you a creature of habit who can only write in the same spot, or do you like a change of view?
- If you are building your writing schedule around a very busy work or home schedule, take out your diary and look at the previous month’s schedule – are there any obvious spare-time patterns emerging over a typical week? Can you envisage your writing schedule fitting in there?
- What’s your preference when it comes to designing schedules? Are you an online or page diary type? A spreadsheet type? A ‘plaster it across the wall over my desk type?’ Are you a ‘I keep it in my head’ type?
Armed with the information gleaned from your answers, design your own writing schedule based around what works best for you.
In the beginning there may be some trial and error as you bed down your schedule. It’s recommended you commit to it for at least a month before reviewing it. Even if it’s working well, a quarterly or yearly review is a good way of ensuring your writing schedule is still fit for purpose.
4. Building Resilience
As the song goes ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again’, resilience is the capacity to recover and bounce back quickly after a setback. A resilient attitude allows us to acknowledge the difficulty (whilst giving ourselves some time to wallow in it). It allows us to learn what needs to be learned, then move forward with determination and purpose.
Resilience is essential when it comes to sustaining a flourishing writing practice. The writer who magically is free from financial responsibilities; who can write all day every day to complete a perfect first draft; who effortlessly finds a publisher and a readymade audience, is the stuff of fairy tales. And yet we can find ourselves at times half believing this myth, and social media is happy to back it up with endless examples of successful writers who appear to be living the dream. The reality of course, is very different. It’s less linear, much harder and there are no guarantees. But how sweet are victories hard won!
How can we build resilience into our writing practice?
- Build into your practice measurements of success that do not depend on anyone’s say- so but your own. For example, a successful writing session may be defined by you as the feeling of satisfaction gained by writing for an hour. Or the amount of words written.
- Accept setbacks as a normal occurrence in every writing project. For example, ensure when setting deadlines that there is some room for manoeuvre. Build-in time for unforeseen delays. Life is always throwing curve balls.
- Learn to recognise the voice of your inner critic or judge. For most of us, this voice, not the perceived failure or setback, is the primary reason we experience self-doubt and stop writing.
- After the obligatory wallow, reframe rejections as a necessary step in the right direction. Reframe the setback as an opportunity for learning. Next time we may choose more carefully where we send our work, or edit more closely the work we send out.
- Celebrate the victories, however small. They sustain us when the going gets tough.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ per cent guaranteed)
— Dr Seuss
5. Staying Motivated
Staying motivated for short periods of time is rarely a problem. Feeling motivated to sit down and write occasionally is something the majority of us can do easily. But ‘short periods’ and ‘occasionally’ do not add up to a sustained and flourishing writing practice. For that we’re talking about marathon-style-motivation: the turning-up at the desk regularly to write for months or even years at a time when there is no guarantee the finishing line will ever be crossed.
Earlier in the article we posed the question ‘What needs to be in place for you to stay motivated and committed to your writing?’ How we stay motivated is personal to us, and what works for one person may not work for another; but there are general guidelines that can help us stay motivated over long periods of time.
- When the end goal is far away in the distance, break down the goal into smaller actionable ‘chunks’ or ‘steps’. For some that may mean setting weekly writing goals and targets, for others monthly or quarterly goals may suffice.
- Sharing our goals with someone we can trust can also help keep us motivated. Making them public in a contained way can also help us stay accountable.
- Plot or record your progress visually. This can be simply recording your daily or weekly word count, or adding up the hours spent in not just the writing, but in all writing related activities (a free time-tracking app like ‘Toggl’ can be a good resource).
- Carrot anyone? Rewarding ourselves for work done can be a great way of keeping ourselves motivated. A reward can be anything from a cuppa and chocolate after writing for two hours; to booking a writers retreat half way through a long project. Just a note of caution regarding our choice of rewards: depending on our personalities, we may need to choose our rewards wisely. For example, Writer A may decide to treat themselves to an episode of their favourite Netflix series and they can watch one and happily return to their writing desks refreshed and ready for action. Writer B…. well, you know what happens to Writer B. Five episodes later, they have lost the will to ever move from the couch.
6. Being Accountable
Accountability can be described as the ability to own or claim our actions and justify the reasons behind them. Whether you have an agent, editor or publisher to help keep you on the straight and narrow, or are only accountable to yourself, being accountable forms the backbone of any flourishing writing practice.
So why the struggle with being accountable? If we’re not clear about why we write and who we are ultimately writing for, staying committed to our practice can feel like something imposed upon us rather than an autonomous choice. Unless we are very clear about why we have committed to our writing, we will find it hard to stay focused and motivated. An energy- sapping emotion such as guilt or frustration can kick in and before we know it, there are a million reasons why we can’t find the time to write this week or meet that deadline.
If you’re struggling to stay accountable to your practice, taking the time to step back and take stock is a useful exercise:
- Remind yourself of the big picture: your writing goals, the intrinsic pleasure of writing, your ideal reader.
- Identify what it means to you to be accountable to the big picture. What does it look/feel like when you own your actions, and without judgement (another classic energy-sapping emotion), seek to understand the reasons behind them?
- Take an example of a recent or current action needed and reframe it in the context of your overall writing goals. Either the action is bringing you closer to your goal, or moving you further away. Staying accountable to the big picture, make your decision because you choose freely to, not for reasons imposed upon you.
7. Finding the Right Supports
Although writing itself is a solitary process, a flourishing writing practice is built on timely and appropriate supports. Knowing when to ask for help, and from whom is vital if we are to develop as writers. At the risk of harping on about the importance of knowing ourselves as writers, knowing what type of support will work for us individually is also vital. One writer may need to join a writing group before they pluck up the courage to put pen to paper, while another may need to spend a year developing confidence in their writing voice before seeking to join one.
The following broad guidelines will help to guide research into the right supports for you:
- Be clear what you need from any support. If you’re looking to attend a workshop, know the kind of writer the workshop is targeting, and what you want to come away with. Some workshops are suited to new and emerging writers; others to established writers. Some focus more on generating work and others on learning new writing techniques.
- If the support you are looking for costs money, treat the purchase like you would any important purchase. Research the organisation or person involved. Search for testimonials and recommendations. Make sure what is being offered and what is delivered is the same thing.
- Whether the support is free or not, only seek it out if you have the time to engage fully with it; otherwise it can end up being a frustrating waste of time and energy for all parties involved.
- For many writers, having one or a few close writer-friends who will both encourage and help keep them accountable, is one of the most satisfying and reliable ways of getting the support needed.
- And finally, the best support you can give yourself as a writer is to….. read!
Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.
― Lisa See
Anne Tannam is a poet and creative coach. An Associate Certified Coach (ACC) with the International Coaching Federation, her business Creative Coaching (www.creativecoaching.ie ) offers practical and effective support to writers. Anne is also co-founder of the weekly Dublin Writers’ Forum and the author of two poetry collections, Take This Life (Wordonthestreet2011), Tides Shifting Across My Sitting Room Floor (Salmon Poetry 2017) and a third forthcoming with Salmon in 2020.