by Amanda C. Bauch, Senior Editor for Harper Horizon
You’ve been staring at the screen for several minutes. Or maybe it’s been several hours. Who knows, as we’re living on Lockdown Standard Time (LST)?
You sit up straight and take a deep breath. Okay, now I’ll start, you think. Suddenly, you feel a pressing need to scrub the grout in your shower. Or rearrange your pantry. Or . . . anything but write.
Trust me: I’ve been there, pretty much every time I’ve started a writing project. I experienced something similar when I sat down to write this inaugural Horizon newsletter article. Everything but getting this drafted seemed more pressing.
Being a productive writer is challenging under normal circumstances, never mind in our current season of global pandemics and social unrest.
As Horizon’s Senior Editor & Chief Cheerleader of Authors, I want to share seven tips to help keep you writing not only during this season but also when we emerge on the other side.
1. Journal or Free Write
Things we need to buy at the grocery store, calls we need to make, bills we need to pay—all the detritus of daily life can stymie our creative flow. And sometimes we have more concerning, heavy things on our minds.
One of the most effective ways to reclaim some of your mental bandwidth is to free write or journal. If you’re unfamiliar with free writing, it entails either handwriting or typing whatever comes to mind, usually for a set amount of time. (If you’re not used to the practice, I recommend starting with five minutes, then increasing the time by five-minute increments as you get more comfortable.) One of the keys to free writing is that you disregard grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And sometimes you might write nothing more than, “I have no idea what to write about, but my editor said I should try this, so here I am,” over and over again.
As for journaling, this can take the shape of whatever meets your needs. You can write three things you’re grateful for, to put yourself in a more positive frame of mind. You can make a list of your top three accomplishments for the day, to remind yourself that you can take care of business. You can ruminate on how much you hate guacamole. (Yes, I know—I’m the only human being on the face of the planet who doesn’t like avocado.) Or you can pen that letter you’ve never had the courage to write, which could free up both mental and emotional energy.
2. Ditch Perfectionism
Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. I can’t tell you how many times my writing sprees have been foiled by a comma fixation or a struggle to find the right word to describe something. I can get hung up on minutiae with the best of them. However, when I judge and criticize my words, even as I write them, I remind myself of this sage advice from Jane Smiley: “All the first draft has to do is exist.” No one ever has to see your first draft but you. Consider this piece of wisdom permission to simply get your ideas on the page—judgment free.
3. Try to New Approach to Drafting
At Parnassus Books here in Nashville, I had the privilege of hearing Michael Ondaatje read from his novel Warlight. (Ondaatje is best known for his novel The English Patient, which was made into an Academy Award–winning film.) During the Q&A session, Ondaatje revealed that he writes longhand, on stacks of notepads. The crowd’s collective jaw dropped. I was excited to hear this, as I still handwrite many of my early drafts. (Some research indicates that handwriting has cognitive benefits over typing.) And I still lug around an old electronic Smith Corona typewriter, which I sometimes use for drafting.
So consider mixing up the way you write: handwrite, type on a typewriter, record your thoughts on your phone and type them up later, use dictation software—you can write many ways other than sitting at your computer.
4. Change Your Scenery
Along with changing the way you write, you can change where you write—and do both at the same time! You can take a notepad into the woods or to the beach. Record yourself on your phone as you’re going for a walk around your neighborhood. (You might get some strange looks, but writers are often viewed as peculiar, so you need to get used to that anyway.)
If you truly prefer to work on your computer, we’re blessed that most modern devices are portable. If you’re going somewhere without any means to plug in your device, make sure it’s fully charged and your work is regularly saved. (All writers have horror stories of losing work when a device dies.)
5. Take a Break
Sometimes, your brain won’t cooperate with your need to meet deadlines. And that’s okay! A break can be the thing that recalibrates and reinvigorates you, so when you do find your way back to your writing, you return with renewed vigor and a sense of purpose.
Of course, taking a break looks different for everyone. For some people taking a nap is just the thing. For others, it’s exercising, taking a bath, listening to music, playing an instrument, baking, having an impromptu dance party with the kids/grandkids, or grabbing lunch with a friend, whether virtual or face-to-face.
As nonfictions writers, we’re often writing about our lives. But if we’re not out there living them, what will we write about? If you can’t give yourself permission to take a periodic break, remember that your editor already said, “Go for it!”
6. Reward Yourself
Although a break itself can be a reward, the two aren’t necessarily interchangeable. A break is something you do to rest your brain; a reward is something you give yourself as a treat for a job well done. And some activities can serve both purposes. For instance, in my current life stage of raising small children, I consider a nap a break and a reward!
During our present season, some typical rewards, like going out for a delicious meal or getting a massage, aren’t available to us. But you can get creative in finding ways to reward yourself, like watching a couple episodes of the show you’ve been recording but haven’t gotten around to watching. Or maybe you can recruit someone to prepare a surprise dish for you and/or your family. (My husband is always happy to entice me to stay focused and motivated by promising to make his strawberry-spinach salad with homemade poppyseed dressing.)
So have fun setting a goal—like writing one chapter, ten pages, etc.—and receiving a reward when you reach it!
7. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
We’re all human beings, on the same earth, spinning at the same rate and circling the sun at the same pace. And we’re all facing unique challenges day in and day out. In our current circumstances, it’s especially important that we all extend grace to one another. And that includes communicating our needs, asking for help when we need it, and being patient—with ourselves and others.
We’re always working against deadlines, but at the end of the day, nothing is more important than our overall well-being. So know that everyone on the Horizon team is here to help you navigate this process in any way we can. After all, you’re part of our Horizon family!