Some of the greatest writers of all time were at the mercy of some strange superstitions.
James Joyce had to wear white. Truman Capote needed to lie down, and he couldn’t put more than two cigarettes in an ashtray. Marcel Proust could only focus in a cork-lined room. And Edgar Allan Poe felt compelled to seek approval from his cat.
They swore by these little idiosyncratic rituals and were often unable to produce work if forced to forgo them.
These may seem like weird eccentricities on the surface, but they contain valuable tips. We’ve outlined a few of the key points below and also added a few bits of advice that we think might be a touch easier to understand.
1 Sleep tight.
It’s easier said than done, but catching a solid night of z’s is brilliant prep for a strong day of writing. Sleep not only helps you store knowledge; it has also been labeled, thanks to writer and artist Debbie Millman, “The best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac.”
2 Get the setting right.
This isn’t just advice for fiction writers. Find a good writing environment: a place where the background noise is truly Goldilocks (just right), distractions have been slain, and you feel comfortable (ergonomically and psychologically). As Bob Dylan famously said, “Put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind.”
3 Surround yourself with inspiration.
For times when your muse goes on holiday, it’s incredibly useful to have something within your immediate vicinity that you find inspiring. This could be anything from a beautiful view, to the machine you’re writing about, to a bookshelf brimming with brilliant works of prose and poetry. It’s also worth mentioning that dictionaries, thesauri, and grammar guides can be surprisingly inspiring (and useful).
4 Set an intention.
As English writer Samuel Johnson believed, “A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” Committing to the task at hand is crucial, and more concretely, putting one word in front of the other and sticking to a measurable goal (two-hundred words, three pages, four chapters) is the best way to make sure you are getting things done.
5 Have a routine.
We laughed off rituals earlier, but establishing a writing routine is actually extremely beneficial. That’s because of cognitive cueing. As cognitive psychologist Ronald Kellogg explains in his book The Psychology of Writing, by carrying out certain actions only when writing, our brain begins to associate these actions with a specific state of mind. Meaning, we almost become conditioned to retrieve ideas and thoughts most relevant to what we’re writing about when we do these actions.
6 Make a plan.
There’s no greater wrecking ball for writer’s block than brainstorming and outlining. Putting your rough thoughts down on paper and finding some points of connection can make a blank page far less intimidating and can keep you on track and moving forward. It can also help to make your writing more logical and cohesive.
7 Manage your time wisely.
Studies indicate that writers are most productive when working in one- to three-hour time blocks. Slot breaks into your day to make sure you’re getting the best brain juice possible and don’t forget to leave time for ruthless editing and rewriting. Lastly, don’t be afraid to quit while you’re ahead and before you’re stuck. This was a favorite tactic of Ernest Hemingway’s (and perhaps one that also supported his regimen of “done by noon, drunk by three”).
8 Save your work constantly.
Make pressing Control+S or Command+S only slightly less automatic than blinking or swallowing. The memory of computers or tablets is not as reliable as that of paper, and there’s nothing worse than losing all of that hard work.
9 Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.
Countless authors, from William Faulkner to Stephen King, have both given and followed this advice. Essentially, no matter how much you love that one-liner, cutting conclusion, complex character, savvy subhead, or incisive intro, if it doesn’t work, have the courage to cut it. While we’re on the subject, revise ruthlessly. You’ll feel better after.
10 Get a second opinion.
Self-doubt is the eternal Achilles heel of the writer. It can incapacitate you before you even start. Having a trusted loved one or peer (or cat) who you can lean on for a second opinion can help you separate the wheat (good writing) from the chaff (poor writing).
What are your secrets for writing productively? Share them with us in the comment section below or via our Facebook and Twitter feeds.