If you spend enough time staring at a blank page it will, much like Nietzsche’s abyss, start staring back at you. What happens during the staring match will remain between the blank page and yourself, but the well-known truth about those moments is that one thing definitely will not happen, and that is getting your work done. You don’t have to share Nietzsche’s worldview to know that. You just need to be a writer.
The horror of the blank page, procrastination, and overediting are only some of the things that stand between the writer and productivity, and they are well known to a lot of us. They can take an hour-long work session and render it fruitless, or they can stretch an hour’s worth of work into a whole afternoon of edits, re-edits, edits of the re-edits, and so on.
But let us say “no more” to them. Let us make 2016 the year when writers broke free from the clutches of various sorts of unproductive behavior. Let us make it the year when procrastination was put to rest, and when our levels of productivity went off the charts.
First Thing’s First—Stack the Odds in Your Favor
You might have noticed that there are certain times of the day when it’s easiest for you to be productive. Some people work best in the morning, others do their best work in the afternoon, and night owls are at their best at night.
The time of day when you’ll write might not even be a matter of your preference. If you have kids in your household you might be able to work only when they are asleep. If you have a day job and you moonlight as a writer, you’ll have to write when you’re not at work.
The important thing is to determine what time works best for your writing, clear your surroundings of any distractions, and make it a routine to sit down and write every day at that time. If you make writing a routine, you will be less likely to put it off, and the work itself will eventually become more fluid.
Adopt Good Habits One Step at a Time
Now that you’ve set aside the time for writing, you should think about giving it some structure. You can start each session, for example, by doing revisions of yesterday’s work because that’s when your eyes will be the least tired and it might be easiest for you to focus. You can allocate a limited amount of time for revisions if you’re a perfectionist whose overediting messes with productivity. You can also designate one session a week that will be devoted solely to editing.
Doing small edits as you go is always welcome. You don’t want to be the person who has to scrap a whole paper because of a mistake early on that snowballed and ultimately ruined everything. It’s a good idea to tie the edits to small breaks. A four-hour writing session, for example, can be divided into four chunks of forty-five minutes, followed by a fifteen-minute break. Out of the forty-five minutes, you can write for thirty-five, do some editing for ten minutes, and then walk away for fifteen minutes. Go to the bathroom if you need to, drink some water, stretch a bit, relax, and then come back to writing.
Deal with Common Issues
The opening sentence of this article refers to a very common problem writers have—how to start writing. Opening sentences are important, no doubt about it, but if you find yourself staring at a blank page for half an hour and nothing’s coming to you, should you continue staring until something happens? Or should you, maybe, skip the whole first paragraph and start writing from the second? It is true that we should always do the hardest and most boring part of our work first, but at some point that stubbornness becomes counterproductive. When you reach that point, start writing the second paragraph and come back to the opening later. It worked for this article.
There are some things you can do to make it easier to start writing. You can, for example, start each session by writing something completely unrelated to your work. Write a diary entry, a poem, a witty shopping list—anything you perceive as less important than your work. You can do some free writing to get your creative juices flowing, which is also a great thing to do if your mind goes blank mid-session. Having a writing partner can also be very helpful.
If you’re particularly prone to procrastinating, all of the aforementioned pieces of advice should be helpful to some degree. However, procrastination is more complicated than writer’s block. It’s caused by self-esteem issues and a lack of motivation. You have to tackle it on both of those fronts. So, if you ask yourself that dreaded question—will I write anything good?—give yourself a very reasonable answer: I don’t know, but let’s find out! To stay motivated, keep reminding yourself of why you’re writing. If you write for a living, keep looking toward the payday. If you’re writing a thesis, don’t forget that you’re doing it so you can get a degree. If you’re writing your first novel, remind yourself why the world needs to hear what you have to say. Don’t stop, don’t give up, and don’t let the commitment to having a more productive 2016 become just another New Year’s resolution that goes unfulfilled.