Many of us writers have experienced great spurts of creativity and productivity, but alas, these waves don't always last. So I decided to investigate why it is that on some days I can write 2000 words in four hours and on other days I dawdle through 250. In this editorial I share my findings with the hope that they will help you improve your productivity.
Sometimes the answer is easy. You really have no time. You haven't slept, or you have a headache. Something else may be bothering you -- it is tax time or you have discovered that your mattress has bed bugs -- and so you are reasonably distracted.
Some people want to blame the Internet and other aspects of modern life for their lack of concentration, and some studies show that constant surfing hurts the brain's ability to focus. These days, you can spend thousands of dollars to wean yourself from these distractions, or at least to take a break from them. It seems counter-intuitive to pay someone to deprive you of something, but that is what rehab is all about. However, I know that way back in the last century, in pre-Internet days, that I sometimes had similar difficulties concentrating. I bet that writers occasionally experienced it in the 19th century, too.
So, what improves my ability to concentrate?
Deadlines and Agreements with Others. Promising a chapter or an article to a third party is an effective motivator for me. The one time I participated in NaNoWriMo I finished the 50,000 words in the month, which means that I wrote an average of 1667 words per day. I have noticed that this works in other areas of my life, too. I can readily apply my willpower when I have to fast for a medical procedure, but I have trouble not eating when I want to lose five pounds.
It should take the same mindset, yet one is relatively easy compared to the other. With external deadlines, I can even get a lot done in the face of distractions and hurdles; I write my way through headaches and fatigue. And this tells me that my reasons for not writing are often just excuses, and that I could write if I were more disciplined.
After realizing this, I first decided to treat my own goals with the respect that I give to promises made to others. Second, I decided to study the other factors that impact my productivity.
Physical Preparation. Our brains live in our bodies and our minds work better when we are physically fit. In fact, increased creativity seems to be connected to higher serotonin levels. For most people, serotonin peaks in the morning, but you know your own rhythm.
So, what helps make you physically fit? Obviously, you need enough sleep. Next, walking and other forms of exercise can enhance concentration. Even a ten-minute stroll can make a difference. Most articles recommend going outside, but you may not want to do this if it is dark, dangerous or if the weather is bad. In this case you can find a spot to pace for ten minutes in your house or apartment. I would not count on this to burn many calories, but it can help get your circulation going, which helps mental acuity. I often write for twenty minutes and then pace for ten, interspersing the back-and-forths with descending and ascending the stairs. You know what exercise options are available to you, and you know your own excuses.
There's lots of advice about what you should and should not eat; you need to adapt this to serve your own body and your brain. Most people need less sugar and carbs, and more protein, vegetables and fruit. Basically, you need a balanced diet.
Mental Preparation. It helps to think about your writing while you are not doing it, such as during those ten minute pacing sessions mentioned above. You should also think about it when you are waiting in line, such as at a stoplight or in line at your bank or grocery store.
Mental preparation is most effective when it is specific, rather than the general daydream hoping that your agent will land you a movie deal. Concentrate on your next scene. What will your characters do next? What trouble can you get them into? How can you improve that scene? If you come up with a good idea or a good phrase, jot it down, or do your best to remember it until your next writing session.
Deep Breaths. Sometimes when I am confronted with a scene where I am, frankly, stuck, I take several deep breaths before starting. Lots of people and websites recommend meditation but I don't have the patience (kudos to you if you do). I can however, take five to ten deep breaths; it has made a huge difference it has made to some of my projects. Deep breathing is supposed to be good for relieving stress too.
Minimize Distractions While Writing. I surf way too much, so, in order to reduce this, sometimes I use the airplane mode so as to cut my access to the Internet. This has some genuine disadvantages, because it means I can't use the online dictionary and thesaurus and other reference sites. I also have to connect for a few minutes now and then in order to download potentially critical emails. However, by using the airplane mode, I am training myself to surf less, at least during my writing time.
You know your own distractions. Some will be external, others internal. Once you have figured out what they are, take steps to decrease their impact, at least during your writing time. Perhaps you have to stop posting on Facebook. Perhaps you have to turn off you phone.
Perhaps you have good reason to be worried about a certain situation, such as the health of a loved one. Do what you can do about the problem, then if possible, tell yourself that not to worry for the half hour or hour when you're working on your project. Life's problems are always with you, so unless there's something that you can be doing about them at the moment you choose to write, you might as well take some time for your writing. After all, creativity is one of the things that makes life worthwhile.
Plunge In. Even if you think you can only manage fifteen minutes, don't hesitate to enter your story. When you do, really focus on each phrase, sentence, paragraph and scene and keep on going. You will probably get more done in your quarter-of-an-hour than you expect. And you may find yourself continuing, if you have the time, or returning to it as soon as you can.
Remind Yourself that You Like Writing! Sometimes I get such a kick out of writing that I have withdrawal symptoms when circumstances prevent me from working on my projects, but there are other times when the idea of it seems like a burden. I have to laugh off my bad attitude. However, if you truly do not like writing, then perhaps you should seek another creative outlet.
Many of us have only a few hours now and then to devote to writing; it is important to make the most of them. By using these techniques, my own discipline and productivity have improved. I believe, if you do likewise, yours will as well.
Maybe I'll figure out how to lose those five pounds, too.
Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.