In every writing forum I’ve ever visited, whether about creative writing, writing a Ph.D. dissertation or a scientific paper, there is always somebody who asks this question: How to stick to your writing? At some point, everybody who has ever written anything would take pity on the ones struggling, and offer their personal “tricks of the trade”; here are mine.
Whether it is creative writing, writing a Ph.D. dissertation or a scientific paper, there is always a question that pops up: How to beat frustration and keep on writing? Writing can be one of the most satisfying things in which to invest your attention and effort; it can also be difficult, frustrating, it takes time, it can make you feel exposed and vulnerable—especially when writing scientific papers and dissertations. I find that, aside from content and context, the motivation and discipline to write fiction is similar to what you need in order to write a scientific paper, and that a lot of people writing dissertations could use a few tips on sticking to their writing. At some point, everybody who has ever written anything would take pity on the ones struggling, and offer their personal “tricks of the trade” either for free or in more comprehensive forms in “how to” books. Below, I share several things that had helped me stick to my writing throughout my new career as a fiction writer and through my Ph.D. thesis and 23 peer-reviewed publications.
1. If you can, buy or borrow the following books and go through the exercises:
a. Ursula K. Leguin, Steering the Craft
b. Susan Thurman, The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need (This one you can find on some online repositories to borrow electronically for free).
c. Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages
Two of these books are about writing fiction, but they offer wise tips on persistence and on treating your material, that can be universally applied. The other one is about correct English grammar, and there are plenty of examples of how to produce well-constructed sentences, paragraphs, and essays, all of which applies wonderfully to fiction writing as well as non-fiction. Additionally, spending some time in well-structured, low stakes, deliberate practice will help you hone your skills and acquire writing tools that will save you time and effort in the long run, and reduce episodes of being stuck trying to say something and not knowing how.
2. If you are at all sensitive to lists, incorporate writing tasks in your daily to-do list. I try to incorporate at least one and a half hours of creative writing (story writing) and one hour of free-association writing (introspective journaling) per day, 4-5 days a week. Depending on how fast you type, you’d be amaze at your progress; with a little discipline, your manuscript can grow efficiently.
3. This one is an oldie but goodie: Don’t write and edit at the same time. Write your draft first; when it is finished, then you can go back to re-write.
4. Find your own pace: Some people feel more efficient when they are glued to their writing chair, some people need to take breaks in between writing sessions. For me personally, I like to write 20-40 minutes, rest for 10-30 minutes, (which I usually take to work on other, non-writing tasks in my to-do list), then repeat. When I feel too tired, I stop for the day no matter what; more than that, and I burn so deeply that I cannot sleep. (It is well known that lack of high-quality sleep generally reduces cognitive performance and creativity; therefore, you might want to take writing as a marathon, not a sprint.)
5. Quiet: I find that I write better and longer in a quiet, dedicated space. I can write in noisy places, but keeping the required concentration tires me rapidly and I am less productive. This is a matter of personal preference, but if you’ve been writing with music or in a noisy environment and are not advancing as much as you’d like, you might want to give it a week or so of silence and see if it improves the quantity and quality of your text.
6. Accountability: Set numeric word count writing goals and try to keep at least 80% of the total. A number of words is a specific, unambiguous measure that is not dependent on spacing, font-size, page margins, or the type of text that you are writing (e.g. dialogue, double-spaced writing, number of figures within the text, etc.), whereas page count can sometimes be misleading. Most fiction writers whose recommendations I’ve studied designate a daily word count and try to stick to it no matter what. If you are not used to target a specific number of words per day, it might be tricky to set a goal that is reasonable for you. I’d start with 400-500 words per day for a week, and try to increase 100 word/day each week until you find a rhythm that is comfortable and at the same time allows you to meet your dealines.
7. For complex, long-term projects like a novel or a thesis, it is useful to prepare an outline detailing the topics, chapters, and main ideas that you want to cover in your manuscript before you start writing the text. That way, you will save time not rambling around, and your writing will become more focused and effective.
These are my two cents for now. They are just some tips that had worked for me, given in no particular order, and I hope they can help you too. Happy writing!