“Writing is the way to get the writing done.” Thus ends Donald Murray’s aptly titled article “How to Get the Writing Done.” The author offers nineteen suggestions that put a different spin on how to tackle the daunting task of putting words on the page. The tone of the piece is admittedly tongue in cheek, but each time I reread it, I feel inspired. I’m gearing up to submit short pieces for publication on a regular basis in 2017, so no more excuses for not getting the writing done!
- Write Now
- Purposeful Interruption
- Change Your Working Style
- Count Words, Pages, or Hours
- Work Within the Draft
- Answer the Reader’s Questions
- Make What Works Better
- Make Use of Failure
- Write in Chunks
- Write with Force; Unleash the Draft
The text of Murray’s article isn’t available online, but it does appear in the book The Craft of Revision. It’s advice that I’ve played over and over in the back of my mind through the years as well as using the article in the creative writing class for secondary students that I taught for three years.
What helps or appeals to a writer when it comes to getting the writing done will vary from day to day and project to project. In any case, the following three have served me well, and I have excerpted them for you today. I hope Murray’s advice makes you want to seek out more of his work.
Consult: Develop a writing community with which you can talk about what you may write, what you are writing—and rewriting. I have developed my own community by sharing my writing first. Then some of them share theirs. We consult on what we may write, what we are writing, what works, and what needs work. I not only receive help from the writers in my community; I hear the answers to my writing problems in what I way to them.
I have one rule for admission to my writing community: I only invite people to join who make me want to write when I finish talking to them.
Attitude: Every writer goes to the writing desk with a set of assumptions that may make the writing difficult or easy. For years I wanted to impress teachers, editors, and associates I didn’t even like. I also want to write perfect copy the first time out. But I learned to follow William Stafford’s advice:
I believe that the so-called “writing block” is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance… [O]ne should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It’s easy to write. You just shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing.
I can imagine a person beginning to feel he’s not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that’s surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I’m meeting right now… you should be more willing to forgive yourself. It doesn’t make any difference if you are good or bad today. The assessment of the product is something that happens after you’ve done it.
Write in Chunks: John Steinbeck once wrote:
When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. Then gradually I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.
All of us feel despair and hopeless when we contemplate a long writing project. I was comforted by Steinbeck’s quotation and by the answer of a woman who spent many days and nights climbing a huge rock face in California. When asked how she stuck it out, she answered: “You eat an elephant one bit at a time.” Break long writing tasks into daily bites.
So short of strapping yourself to your desk chair, what tricks do you use to get the writing done?
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Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2016.
Jeri – you’re constantly in the back of my mind telling me to join a writer’s group – good advice indeed 🙂
I think the best writing inspiration for me is a deadline!
Dan, I definitely agree about deadlines providing the necessary push to get the writing done. I try to set deadlines for my creative writing, but it’s never the same as when needed to deliver to another person.
I look at writing much like I look at procrastination. I have standards in my head and I am afraid of failing so I will avoid writing for awhile and then one day I will just drop those standards and tell myself, if I don’t practice, I will lose some of my ability and I sit down and immediately start writing. In my mind, I am just practicing the craft but it generally leads to somewhere.
Mary, viewing your writing as just practice is a great tool to use to get the writing done since as you state, it generally leads to somewhere. I can be bad about getting bogged down, but then I remind myself how useful it can be to simply write. Revision comes later.
Can’t help wondering why all human beings have to write? With the amount of self help advice being available it sounds as if it was a must.
Most people neither can nor should write. It comes naturally to you if you have the writing gift. Have written on and off throughout my life, frequently for the top publications in this world. Once I start writing I forget about time and it just flows.
When it’s something I’m not keen on writing, like Mary, I procrastinate. But that has nothing to do with the writing itself but the subject I have to write about. If authors are writing books about subjects they don’t like they will not get published. All the self help suggestions in the world will not help them succeed.
Personally read a lot and hope that even in the future authors that succeed write about subjects they are interested in and hence produce books worth reading. If they constantly have to motivate themselves to write, maybe they should do something else?:-)
Catarina, it’s great that you experience the flow of writing more often than not, but for many of us, writing motivation is greatly needed and appreciated. While writing may come more naturally to some than others, it is not necessarily a gift. Like all skills, writing is a craft that can be studied and improved upon. The art of rhetoric does not come naturally to most. I view writing as a job. If only I could wake up every day pumped to write… but that is not always the case, and so I turn to respected sages like Murray for a little motivation.
I really enjoyed this. For me I jot down notes about my subject as they come to mind. All those bits of information eventually come together. I find that if I let my subconscious do it’s job it makes it easier when I ready to complete a story. Sometimes it just seems to flow and that is a beautiful thing when it does. 🙂
Susan, it really is amazing how all the messy things we jot down can eventually be wrangled into a readable form that inspires and entertains. Some may feel Murray’s advice is overly simplistic, but it’s advice I have to remind myself to take to heart when in the midst of trying to engage on social media, promote my short stories, and comment on blogs. Sometimes it’s a wonder that any writing gets done at all!
Boy Howdy, how true that is… LOL
For me writing is not a chore, it is a pleasure. It’s the editing and rewriting – that’s the chore. 🙂
Cheryl, I’m just the opposite. It’s always such a trial for me to get the initial words down, but the rewriting is the part I love. I’m not sure why… it must be the editor in me!
Why is it the most simple solution is the hardest for us to accept? For some reason the human brain has bought into the concept that everything must be much harder than it needs to be. We over think. We add unnecessary embellishments.
For most of my life when I had it in mind to write, a trip to the store for the perfect pen and a new notebook was needed. I had to have the right atmosphere and the right frame of mind. I put up requirements expecting that the perfect conditions would make for perfect words. All I really needed to do was simply do it. The simple solution was the one I least wanted to accept.
Jon, I can definitely relate to the search for the perfect pen, etc. I know I’ll never be the world’s fastest writer, but I also know that chugging away eventually results in a final product. Stephen King generally writes five pages a day, and look at how much he’s written over the years…
I can say writing is sometimes a chore and that is because I am not a writer. The hardest thing I had to do when I started to write articles for the website was to get out of the business writing habit. Still have a way to go and I admire any writer whose words flow so we can enjoy their stories.
Susan, the writing habit I’ve had to break when it comes to my fiction is getting away from “essay” voice. I wrote so many pieces where analysis and reflection took the forefront, that when it came time to get back to writing fiction, I found I’d lost some of my mojo. Even my short stories tend to go through about seven drafts before I am happy with them, so I wonder how the revisions of my book are going to go? YIKES!
“The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I’m meeting right now.” Love that quote. Great advice all around!
Adrienne, that really is a great quote, isn’t it? It ties back to learning how to live in the present, which I often forget to do.
I’m beginning to come to the realization that the best time for me to write is when the ideas start flowing. Too often, I find myself setting a time and deadline for writing and I struggle with it. I often take detours and find myself switching topics midstream. What I’m finding is that when I do take those detours and the thoughts start flowing, I can just write. I need to embrace this and not try to schedule it. Time permitting, I should try to write when it comes to me and let the rest wait.
Sherryl, I’ve tried setting time aside in the mornings to get my creative writing done, but more and more often, I am thinking I should give into creative detours a bit. After all, that’s what drew me into writing in the first place. When the writing flows, that’s when the magic feels like it’s happening.
One bite at a time – oh how true! That’s the part that makes so much sense but requires so much discipline to achieve. The tendency for me, I find, is to rush in on a good day and blitz as much as I can. Then on the days when I don’t have that level of inspiration to draw on I do something else. I don’t think it’s a good plan though. Learning to write every day seems a better way to approach your craft. I know far too many people who ‘only write when inspired’ and guess what …… So .. one bite at a time – I’m doing it (fingers crossed secretly behind back)!
Barbara, writing everyday is a great goal, and I’ve mostly hit that point, but I need to start upping my output. I know I will never be prodigious, but at least I can aim to get more writing done.
I love the advice about lowering the threshold on our standards so that we can start. That’s how I get an idea out of my head and onto paper. Years ago when I worked on Parliament Hill I would have to answer letters from constituents. They would write about any and everything. It was hard to think of intelligent things to say back to them. What do you say to someone complaining about the grass around the mailbox not being mowed often enough? I’d write down the first thing that came into my head and then revise until I had an appropriate response. I did that for thousands of letters over the years. Today my first draft still has little or nothing in common with my final copy, but it gets me going.
I also think it helps that I never consider myself a writer (just thinking about that stresses me out). I write things, but I’m not a writer, therefore, no pressure. 🙂
Debra, the ability to just start writing is one to value. I can imagine the variety of letters you had to respond to. My first drafts are usually very different from my final ones as well. I often wonder how authors who claim to write their drafts in a month or two really revise? I think most of my feelings of pressure when it comes to writing is that I spend too much time thinking about the finished product, which has taught me that I am better off freewriting and outlining before beginning a rough draft. I like to know where I’m going when I write.
Jeri when I was taking a writing course in college they suggested a free write period where you write down anything and everything on you mind for 15 minutes. This is the hardest thing for me to do as it feels unorganized.
Elizabeth, even though I’m a slow drafter, I really love to freewrite. I’ve made some great writing discoveries that way.
Sometimes the ideas flow, and sometimes they don’t. When I’m enthusiastic on a topic, I can write a lot. Unfortunately, I can’t plan on that enthusiasm or I would never put up a blog post. On my original blog, I talk about an image, usually a photo or art work that I’ve created. For my own visual creations it’s easier for me to be enthusiastic, even if I don’t have a lot of words to say.
Leora, enthusiasm certainly helps get the writing done, but I’m definitely with you in noting that we can’t always plan for enthusiasm. Sometimes, the words must be put down, regardless of how much we might feel inclined to do so.
Brilliant! And I would add – in no particular order 😀
Joanne, thanks so much for reading! Hope to see you around in the future.
Being in the habit of writing helps me–not letting me become my own worst distraction. Just writing every day, even it’s crap is enough for me to tell myself I really am a writer. When I have to polish a piece or know someone expects something from me like with my blog, deadlines help.
I want to write with force and unleash the draft more. I have horrible first drafts.
Great list, Jeri. Thanks.
Jagoda, I used to have horrible first drafts and I was so proud of them! I practiced what I taught students about getting the writing done. I wrote crappy first drafts all throughout college, but then it came time to write my first novel, and I guess I got a little to anxious. It took forever to pull of my first draft, but it was a learning experience, that is for sure. My next novel will hopefully not take as long!
Jeri — this post has been so helpful to me. William Stafford’s advice about not setting the bar too high made a light bulb go off. I think that is a real issue for me. I am so afraid of the quality slipping or that a blog post I write might not be “profound” enough. We do tend to beat ourselves up too much. As writers, let’s lighten up a little! Let’s begin to enjoy the writing and not suffer over it so much!
Jeannette, here’s to lightening up with our writing! I know I’m the type of person who likes to give myself something to fret about, and having changed to a less stressful career, I think I had to transfer some of that expectation for angst to writing my book. I may have written a pretty slow and careful first draft, but at least I never gave up.
I nominated you for the WordPress Family Award for supporting my newbie blog by visiting and commenting and liking it. I appreciate it. If you’d like to accept it, pick it up on my site. Meanwhile, I look forward to getting to know you better on your blog.
Jagoda, thank you so much for the award. Your blog has a great future ahead 🙂
Little and often is my motto. Keeping in touch with your work if not physically then at least have it in your thoughts. Plot planning is a great way to fall asleep. Keep waiting for it to continue in my dreams, but hasn’t happened yet. If you think you don’t have time, just edit one word. Anything to keep in touch makes it much easier to pick up the next time you do have some time.
Thanks Jeri .
Kathy, I totally get that about not losing touch with the draft. I did that too many times with my first draft of Lost Girl Road. At least I can try to be better as I revise, and I will certainly have a more refined approached when I get around to starting the next book.
I pretty much write it in my head first. Then once on “e-paper”, I revisit it once a day over several days before I’m ready to let it go. Even once it’s posted on the blog, I have been known to “refine” it. Thankfully, I don’t write much 🙂
Jeannette, like you, I’m a careful writing. I really envy those can can publish on a faster basis. While I can aim to gain some composing speed, I know I’ll never be too fast!
Deadlines also get me going. I love schedules too.
Krystle, I’ve recently gone to trying to scheduling fewer priority tasks in an effort to actually getting more done. So far it seems to be working because I tackle the three most-pressing tasks of the day before moving on to the lesser ones.
I am a bit different due to my health issues. I often find myself in the abyss with nothing to write – basically if you feel terrible on the inside, it is not conducive to creativity.
However, I seem to have fallen into a bit of a habit of writing as much as possible when the creativity hits. I may not write for days, but as long as I get up one post per week, that is all I can ask for.
I have set a realistic goal for myself and I think that has been good for me personally. Now if I can get better at the promotion we might be on to a winner 🙂
Becc, I too wish I could do more to properly channel creativity toward my writing when the urge hits. The thing about the process though is that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. And for that we should all be thankful 🙂
I thought a lot about the comments on attitude. With many other things lowering your standards isn’t either desirable or advisable. But I can understand how it would remove a roadblock to writing. For me the “not good enough” issues pop up after I’ve written something not before.
Ken, I only wish the “not good enough” issues came at the end of the process for me. That lament really dogs me, but mainly I just need to sit down and start writing. That tends to quell that voice. The trouble is getting started though.
Good ideas to shift your habits a bit to get the words out. For me, sometimes just sitting down and forcing myself to write (good or bad) works. Other times I need to take a creative detour.
Donna, I’m fond of creative detours as well. Though like you sometimes it’s just necessary to sit down and force one’s self to write. After a bit, we get warmed up and the words at least start to flow a bit more smoothly.
Writing projects have never inspired me, they make me anxious and I lose all my words and imagination. I write only when some emotion, some situation or some statement hits me strongly. Nature and human nature has always evoked some responses from me. When words flow spontaneously, creativity is at its zenith but that doesn’t happen everyday!
Balroop, assigned writing projects can be an uninspiring as assigned books for reading. I’ve been getting better at writing when inspiration strikes and picking topics that speak to me, rather than writing on topics I feel obligated to write about.
The “Not Setting Standards” advice is interesting. Sometimes I write and I get sometimes upset when the writing is not up to my standards. I like my writing to be “perfect” when I know that’s not possible. Easing off of your standards is the best way to be able to write.
Great post and advice…. I like the three points you have highlighted, Jeri. Particularly, the third one (“Write in Chunks”) and Steinbeck’s insights concerning it.
Knowing that even the best writers could have gone through Writers’block and made it through is relieving and helps writers to keep it up, against all odds. ?? Wishing you a great week~
Aqui, nothing good happens all at once. It can be hard to keep that in mind when we see the end efforts of the work that goes into a given project and not the process that was required to reach the end point. When I think of writing a 300-page book, it seems so overwhelming. Reminding myself that a story is built scene by scene does help take some of that stress away.
The advice of John Steinbeck about writing in chunks will help me today as I try to get through a big article for a client (I’ve been putting off starting it…). Thanks for the tips and encouragement, J. Also, I look forward to reading more posts from you in 2017 ♥
Christy, you procrastinator, you! I too am looking forward to more posts from you in 2017. Best of luck in your writing endeavors.
Hi Jeri. I’ve been writing professionally for 23 years. In the early days, I could research and write about anything. For the past 7 years, I have been writing almost exclusively about my top passion: chocolate travel. When I try to write about other things now, it takes much more effort, as my brain is used to having the privilege of writing in its comfort zone and building on my knowledge and passion for my chosen field of expertise. I find it interesting how that has progressed. It is both good and bad.
Doreen, thanks for sharing how your writing process has changed over the years when it comes to becoming more specialized in the topics you write about. You have definitely found your niche and do it justice!
Ah, I wrote a thoughtful comment and alas, it didn’t go through…frick. Basically, I wanted to thank you for sharing these tips, Jeri! I haven’t heard of the book but it sounds like a great resource. I find at my desk there are many distractions but if I go to the library or coffee shop, I can focus on edits or writing new chapters (by hand). I find writing by hand really frees up my thoughts. Perfectionism will defeat us before we begin. Lowering our expectations is a really great tip as are all of these. This was a good distraction, coming to visit you Jeri. I also agree that writing is a skill that can be improved with practice like any other which means anyone who has the desire, can do it! 🙂
Lisa, I’m sorry your original comment disappeared 🙁 I’ve wondered if writing by hand would help me feel more inclined to do more creative writing. It hard to work on my own writing at my computer when I have to be at the computer all day long for other projects. But then I think about how I am left-handed with illegible cursive and how I can type much faster than I can write. In any case, I do have a journal I have been writing some poems in with a pen, and that’s been going well.
I break up my novels in small chunks. If I think about having to write a 100k word novel, I wouldn’t finish because I would be to afraid to start. One page at a time is the way to go.
Great post Jeri!
Stacy, your one page at a time comment reminds me of one of the member in my nonfiction writers group. He gave an inspirational speech at the start of one of our meetings, and he shared how every time he finished a page or batch of pages, he would print each one out and put it on a stack on his desk. That way he always had a visual reminder of the progress he was making.
Great advice Jeri. I keep promising myself I’ll get more involved with writing groups. 2017 things are going to happen! 🙂 Happy holidays.
DG, I do hope you can get more involved with writing groups in the year ahead. I am lucky to have found a great nonfiction group, but am still on the lookout for a local group for fiction critiques.
Wonderful post Jeri, one of my favorites! My approach to writing is to think of it as a discipline, just do it every day – no excuses. Yes, of course, there are days when the writing sucks, but even there I think discipline saves me because I work to not end up in a situation where I’m up against a hard deadline if at all possible. It’s amazing how much easier it is to think when you’re not watching the clock. But, for the record, I also agree with William Stafford. 🙂
Marty, glad you enjoyed the post so much. What gets me at times if how I am so disciplined about everything except my creative writing. That just goes to show I can get the writing done, I just need to make a conscious choice to do so.
I found William Stafford’s statement most encouraging. I have felt my writing has not been up to par on many occasions whether because I compared myself to bloggers/authors or my content was not up to standard on a particular day. One thing I do know is you can only improve by writing on a regular basis.
I can accept that not everyone will like my writing style or indeed believe I have anything exceptional to share. I love to write and that is enough reason to do so. If others appreciate my content then this is a bonus.
Phoenicia, regular writing practice is the greatest gift any writer can give themselves. If you can please yourself, you’re on the write track. Appreciation from others really is a bonus, and over time, you will find plenty of people who enjoy your writing.
Good suggestions, Jeri. For me I write the best texts when I’m inspired and it just flows. You always have to keep in mind though what kind of text you are writing. There is for instance a huge difference between a journalistic article and an academic text.
Catarina, the type of text being worked on is definitely an important consideration. Thanks for the reminder 🙂
This is good advice. I’ve been pooping out when it comes to writing. Sometimes I wonder if I should bother to continue. I’ve hit a major writing roadblock, which has me guessing my future in writing.
Denise, I hope you can find your way out of your writing roadblock. As you know, I struggle greatly in that area. It’s usually just a matter of time before the block goes away, but it’s agony to wait it out at times.
Revision is the key to getting the work to pop. I’m not a master yet. hehehe
Anna, but trying is how one becomes a master. You are getting there.
Coincidently I just read Travels with Charley – which contains that Steinbeck quote. I just remind myself that I have limited time left on this earth. (works better if you’re an old lady like me!)
I finally got my creative writing juices flowing again. It took a while and it was some major life changes that got me in front of the keyboard. My recent post I did write in chunks and then put it all together. Hopefully, I can keep it going now.
I’m a great believer in the theory of “chunks.” When I was working full-time for companies and had a big project that seemed overwhelming, I always told myself to do it in chunks. When you think about it every time you write a new paragraph, you’re writing another chunk. Just keep chunking away and it will get done.
Jeri, being a part of BHB is helping me get mentored by people like you and others. Have so much to learn from you all.
From this week planning to work ahead on my writing and try and start writing short stories as well. Haven’t found any writers group to share the stuff. Hopefully, will in some time.
Thank you for sharing this post it will help me!
2009 marked the winter I Became a Grown-Up Nany and I taught myself the discipline of writing daily every morning. I have stuck with that, with the occasional lapse. On those days when I don’t roll out of bed and head straight to the computer to write, I feel off all day.
Writing is no different from any other goal–going to the gym, making a sales quota–whatever. If you want to get good at it, practice daily.
I really like the advice of “lowering your standards”. My background is more of an actress than a writer. But I’ve seen so many actors get into their own head over their performances (and yes, I’ve experienced that myself.) Trying to adhere to some imagined high standard can be emotionally draining and can definitely destroy creativity.
And I know of many writer’s groups where I live. Many people find them really helpful. And yes, picking the right type of writer for your group seems to be a big factor in the success and helpfulness of the group.
I’ve got #3 down to an art form! It’s just the other ones I need to work on… On the plus side, I found this very encouraging! I always think I must not be a “real” writer because I dread writing. Nice to know that may actually be proof that I’m just like other writers!
Great advice here, Jeri! My favorite: “It doesn’t make any difference if you are good or bad today. The assessment of the product is something that happens after you’ve done it.” I know I set my standards too high before I even set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Yet, once I start writing (and I forget my standards), I usually don’t want to stop 🙂 Good luck with your submissions in 2017!
Writing novels, I really do not feel any pressure for deadlines in my writing. I can imagine how stressful that could be.
I can apply being a business analyst during my day job. As for me, I like doing as much as possible early, writing requirement documents and use cases. This allows me to get the majority of the work done, if possible ahead of time.
Then all I got to do is refine it later.
I also agree, your attitude is important. It can make your writing easy, or hard. Make it easy, you don’t get paid extra for being hard, why do something extra for nothing.
William, I love the lines you ended your comment with. So often in life we make things hard for no good reason. That’s a lesson I am still learning to this day.