When questioning whether writing is an art or a science, I can’t steer myself away from a conclusion stating ‘both’ in the boldest of typefaces. It is a craft multiple purposes, from educating and articulating scientific theories, to serving as a creative outlet. A similar multitude of skills and mindsets are involved. On one hand, you have adherence to formal rules of grammar and sentence structure, to certain tricks which distinguish compelling writing from bad, and on the other – an inner flame urging you to serve a grander purpose, whether personal, political or ‘art for art’s sake’.
Writing, regardless of the purpose with which you do it, demands an interaction between motivation and discipline. Dynamism and/or an engaging tone are difficult to achieve without a hint of adrenaline in your fingertips urging you to shift words from mind to page. When, however, a dent looms in your motivation and distractions saturate your immediate environment, discipline steps in and carries you to the end of your final sentence. Striking a balance between the two is the key to maximising the efficiency of your writing process.
We’re all familiar with that worst case scenario: you psyche yourself up to start a particularly tricky article, create a new document, write the title. Suddenly, an email illuminates your phone screen. Unwilling to keep the sender waiting, you respond. In the meantime, three more emails invade your inbox and to avoid unintended favouritism, you pen three more responses. In like fashion, you spend half an hour forcing out two hundred words of you article in between checking notifications and scheduling plans for the evening. Before you know it, a growling stomach lures you into the kitchen. You make a snack. You take the dog for a walk, run a marathon, learn a new language. By the time you return to the article, discarded mid-sentence, your heart drops with the thought: ‘what was I even talking about?!’
From talking to people, including those who characterise themselves as writers, I’ve noticed that writing is likely to evoke procrastination. There are many reasons for this: writing is difficult, involving both sides of the brain. Writers are vulnerable to perfectionism and dread the prospect of producing a puddle of incoherence as opposed to something memorable, enticing, rational. For this reason, you may find yourself taking longer than necessary to produce a written piece. Moreover, losing focus often creates a self-perpetuating spiral of doubt (the more you procrastinate – to either start or reach the dreaded conclusion – the more you question your abilities) and writing lacking flow and/or a consistent tone.
However, there are a few strategies and attitudes you can implement that are simple yet powerful ways of maximising the efficiency of your writing.
(Note: click HERE to view my rather generalised post about procrastination. These tips are tailored specifically towards writing)
Note the significant difference with self-deprecation, a process carrying negative connotations which need not be involved in evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. Analyse why you lose focus while writing or struggle to tackle a blank page – is it perfectionism, specific distractions, a specific paragraph looming by the horizon as a menacing storm cloud? Be honest with yourself, without being cruel. To overcome our metaphorical hurdles, we must first understand what they symbolise.
Ruthlessly eliminate distractions
Wind the clock back a few centuries to just you, pen and paper, and the liveliness of your mind. Lock your phone in a different room. Because many written pieces require internet access (such as essays and research papers), avoid needless websites either through, if possible, sheer willpower. There is software out there which allows you to block certain sites for a period of time, but these often demand renumeration and remove the opportunity to practice self reliance.
Create, or find, a writing-friendly space
Through trial and error, either locate an environment which nurtures your productivity, or allow your current workspace to evolve in accordance with the creative energy you desire. Declutter your table, move closer to a window, plaster motivational quotes on the wall if they happen to be your thing. Avoid working in your bedroom – the comfort zone of all comfort zones, a place suitable for relaxation as opposed to the mental astuteness required to write with efficiency. Many people like to work outside the home altogether. Try matching work space with style of writing. For example, I like to write essays in libraries so silent I can hear the earth creak below my chair (as you can tell, I am a big fan of the hyperbole), blog posts in the steady bustle of coffee shops and poems in my back garden, turning into the wavelengths of the surrounding world.
Let reading be your fuel
Many of us acknowledge the power of eloquent writing on our own abilities – ‘read like it’s your job’, many resources rightly state. Over time, we accumulate skills, techniques and ideas in the absence of formal lessons by making reading an intrinsic part of day-to-day life. However, I’ve noticed that reading for five or ten minutes right before I get to work delivers a final push and reacquaints me with the reasons for which I love writing. Read a few passages from your favourite books or a brief article to descend into the mindset writing requires, absorb some momentum, and feel the words flow with greater ease.
Plan of action
‘Fail to plan, plan to fail’ is not a foolproof rule. Many writers relish spontaneity and assign a role of authority to their inner muse. Some written pieces necessitate more planning than others: writing an essay without a detailed outline is a dangerous endeavour, while an article requiring fewer formal constraints may benefit from a degree of impulse. I, however, would recommend planning to anyone who struggles with losing focus because a few bullet points, a mind map of words or a couple of headings are your weapons against the fear of starting from scratch. Furthermore, planning tightens up your writing, minimising tangents and redundant information.
No first draft is too bad to be left unwritten
The atrocity of first drafts is a painfully familiar matter to many writers. You postpone the agony of reading through grammatical errors and incomplete paragraphs despite knowing that no sentence is immobile and anything can be fixed with further edits. In such situations, train yourself to think: ‘procrastination will not alter my dissatisfaction with the end outcome, but will simply reduce the time available to refine it’. Get the first draft done as quickly as possible while having a laugh at the unavoidable yet blatant errors, and see the outcome as almost a plan for the final, much more comprehensive piece.
Do the hardest part first
That could be a particular argument in an essay the propositions of which demand strengthening, or a book chapter which makes greater sense in your head than on paper. You sideline them in favour of something easier, or worse – avoid the project in its entirety. In such situations, reduce the chances of future stress and tackle them now. As an added bonus, the rest of the project may feel like a piece of cake in comparison. And if the entire thing is the hardest part, the above two points – thorough planning and an attitude of acceptance – are your best friend.
Search for an optimal break stategy
I’ll quickly highlight the difference between procrastination and taking a break. Procrastination is an undesirable phenomenon which involves the postponement of a task and dampens your overall productivity. An optimised break, however, is intentional, interlacing with periods of hard work to engender mental clarity and avert burnout. As I mention in my post about the phenomenon of ‘overwhelm’, different people match different rhythms: some like shorter, frequent breaks, while others work best over longer stretches of time. Regardless of your preference, ensure to rest your brain during some of your breaks by participating in an activity unrelated to writing such as exercise, meditation or time with family and friends.
Change your mindset and find a reason to enjoy each piece of writing you produce
Throughout certain pieces, our workflow is untroubled and procrastination is nonexistent. A fascination with a given topic may sideline the difficulty of narrowing down your research into 2000 words, the pressures of formal citation and even awful-first-draft phobia (which I’m convinced is a scientific phenomenon). However, not every project is butterflies and rainbows. In such cases, find a reason to replace negative thinking and enjoy the process regardless of the strains involved. Remind yourself of your love for crafting sentences and the musicality of language. Find a unique way of addressing the issue in question. And if you can, embrace the difficulty in itself.
I’ll illustrate what I mean with a personal example. During sixth form, chemistry was my least favourite subject. Having picked it almost by mistake, I found it harder than the others. And when the syllabus called for a research paper picked arbitrarily by our teachers, I tweaked my mindset as opposed to collapsing under the dread of the upcoming task. How did I do this? Well, I thought ‘writing is still writing’ and developed an interest in the overly precise and detached tone expected by the discipline. Between endless formulae and practical work, not only did my enjoyment of the project reach unforeseen levels, but I refined my aptitude in concise language and learnt a few things about Vitamin C along the way.
We posses different writing styles and use words for a multitude of varying purposes. Whether you write as a career or a hobby, a school assignment or a constituent of your university degree, we can all benefit from increased attentiveness and discipline, in particular when confronted by dips in motivation. Let me know in the comments – what do you do to stay focused as you write?
Lots of love, Maria ♡