As someone who teaches writing for a living, I’ve read my fair share of books on writing over the years. Most of these address the mechanics of writing: argument…style…structure.
Very few writing books are devoted entirely to the other, equally important part of the writing process: how to get it done. Or as Bec Evans and Chris Smith put it in the sub-title to their new book, Written, “How to keep writing and build a habit that lasts.”
This book is divided into three sections: one that lays out the author’s overall approach, one that helps you start writing, and one that helps you keep writing. The second and third sections are chock full of useful tips and exercises to enable you to get across the finish line with your latest article or manuscript. But I took away three bigger lessons from Written, ones that will stay with me as I continue to work with clients who struggle with “writing to done”:
One size does NOT fit all
If there’s a through line to this book, it’s that there’s no *one* method for getting writing done. Everyone has different needs in terms of when they can write, how much they can write, and even where they can write. Or as Evans and Smith explain, “Productivity is personal.”
I was initially non-plussed by this observation, which struck me as obvious. But then I began to reflect on the clients I work with as a writing coach, and realised just how spot on their insight was. I myself am what Evans and Smith would call a “daily writer.” I wake up every day and write at exactly the same hour, in exactly the same place, and for exactly the same amount of time.
And so, when I coach others about cultivating good writing “hygiene,” I tend to encourage them to follow my lead. Wrong. While my approach works for some of my clients, it absolutely doesn’t work for others. One of them told me that he can only work in 18-hour periods of “binge writing.” Another client is completely unpredictable. Some weeks, she sits down and does several hours of “deep work” at the same time every day. Other weeks, she’s all over the place, squeezing in her academic writing between teaching, family obligations and journalistic writing. Both of them have managed to hit their deadlines.
So the first thing I took away from this book is that writers need to figure out which writing routines (if any!) work for them and go from there. And as a writing coach, I need to be far more open-minded in my strategies when it comes to helping others improve their productivity.
Good Writing is Good Project Management
My second big takeaway from this book is just how much project management techniques can help you as a writer. There’s this myth out there that writers inhabit a world that is utterly distinct from other, more office-based jobs. Writers abide by their own set of mysterious, creative rules, so this story goes. They can’t possibly be dragged into the mundane heuristics that we regularly rely on in the real world.
Nonsense. Once you’ve identified the writing rhythms that work best for you, there are a host of project management tools out there to help you move forward. I remember the first time I had this “aha” moment about the effectiveness of productivity tools in a writing context. I was helping a non-academic friend write her Master’s thesis. She’d gone back to graduate school in midlife. But not having written a paper in 20 years, she felt overwhelmed by the enormity of writing a 15,000-word thesis. She didn’t know where to start.
Knowing that she had a background in the corporate world, I suggested that she set up a timeline for this project and work backwards from her final deadline, blocking out all the constraints on her time between now and then (e.g., vacations, conferences and other work projects.) That way she’d know how much time she *really* had to write this thesis and could also make sure she didn’t crash her landing on the very last day without having factored in time for editing. “You mean I can just…schedule this?” she asked me, incredulous. “Like an ordinary project?”
Written is a trove of useful project management tips like this one, including SMART goals and obstacle thinking. Once again, however, the authors aren’t dogmatic. They encourage the reader to try out bunch of different strategies. If one doesn’t yield fruit, you simply try another.
Which brings me to the final lesson I took away from this book. The subtext of Written is that writers need to be practical if they wish to finish their projects. But they also need to marry this pragmatism with a strong understanding of their over-arching goals.
A considerable portion of the book is devoted to helping writers achieve success through techniques drawn from . Drawing on research in psychology on the power of positive thinking, the authors focus in particular on the how affirmations can help you overcome self-limiting beliefs. It’s not enough to say “I’m going to write a best-selling book on X.” You need to rephrase that as “I am selling a best-selling novel on X.” Talking about the goal as if you’ve already achieved it helps you to envision the final outcome and embed that in your psyche.
Written will be useful to a wide-range of writers, as the examples in the book attest. In making their case, the authors profile everyone from novelists like Bernadine Evaristo to popular writers like Cheryl Strayed to academic clients they’ve coached.
This blog first appeared on the LSE Impact blog.