How to put words on paper? Should you write every day, or just when you’re feeling inspired? Is there any point to tracking your word count or using specialized writing software? This week, we’re talking about productivity in writing, something that seems to be on everyone’s minds even more than usual, what with the plague times and political instability. How to be productive, or whether you even should be, is a very personal thing, so we don’t have a one size fits all approach. Instead, we talk about different options, how to manage expectations, and what bad ideas to be wary of.
Generously transcribed by Bellis. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
Wes: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is…
Wes: And look, you’re not alone. All of us wish that we could just put more words down on page, faster, quicker, crank out those stories. And if you hop online and search for something like “How do I write faster? Please God, how do I write faster?”, there’s hundreds of posts detailing all those possible hacks and productivity tips to get this done. And they’re always framed as those simple things you probably just forgot to do, like turn off your internet or dictate your first draft, or maybe spend a few hours training up your typing speed, or the best one yet: Just write while you’re tired, that way your inner critic won’t get in your way.
Chris: Do you know that you should just deprive yourself of sleep? For your Art? [laughs]
Wes: [sarcastic] Clearly, that’s the way to go.
Chris: Then we’ve got some writing martyr syndrome. [laughs]
Wes: [laughs] Right. And I mean, it’s not to say that some of these tips might have some merits depending on the person, but the problem here that I kind of wanted to talk about is that any kind of hack or quick tip conversation is usually framed in terms of being productive in writing. And that doesn’t really address the full complexity of the topic. And if you’re only talking about how many words you can get down on the page or how productive you are in terms of word counts or page counts, you’re running the risk of fostering unhealthy approaches to writing practice.
And so I kind of wanted to push back on this productivity notion by focusing instead by talking about how we can write more effectively, because more is definitely not always better. And I’m tired of high word counts being lauded as a sign of success. In publication too. [laughs] I don’t care that the novel was like 400 pages. It probably only needed to be like 150.
Wes: While there’s nothing wrong with trying to improve how many words you can get down in a session, I want to talk about healthy habits and ways to maybe consider your process a little bit more intentionally and hopefully find out what works best for you. So, with that guys, what do we got? [laughs]
Oren: Can I share an observation I made that was very freeing to me?
Oren: Unlike most of the stuff that I say on this podcast, everything I say has to be qualified with “Well, this worked for me” because this is very personal and process is very personal. But I did some thinking and I realized that only a very tiny percentage of writers will ever be able to make a financial living from it. That’s just the way the math works out. And that number is going to shrink in all likelihood, especially as self-publishing grows, because right now, one of the few things that keeps a larger number of writers being able to have a full income from it is that the runaway successes on big publisher’s lists subsidize the books that don’t sell well. And this is not saying that those books are bad. I’m saying that for various reasons, a very, very small number of books ever make back the money put into publishing them, let alone generate a significant profit.
In my opinion, there isn’t any particular reason why writing has to be your main source of income for you to be a writer. It’s fine to write one novel or two novels, if that’s what you feel like writing, or one short story every year, or what have you. There isn’t a productivity goal that once you have this many books out, you’re a real writer. None of that matters. And it’s extremely unlikely that anyone will ever be able to make their full living off of writing, anyway.
So to a certain extent, and this is a financial privilege that not everyone has, but if you can, writing can just be something you do for fun that you want to be good at, because it’s fun to be good at it. Not because you need it to put food on the table.
Wes: Oh man, yeah, well said. [laughs]
Oren: That was just freeing for me. That made me feel better. Because I was like, I will get out my novel and maybe before I die, I’ll write one or two more. That’s fine. I can still be good at writing and not make my primary income from it.
Wes: That’s really well said, Oren. There’s something with that word “writer”. I mean, any kind of identity that you want to take on, it’s like “I’m a Writer”, so you have to think that that’s all you do and you need to make that your thing, but hey, we contain multitudes, man.
Wes: Yeah, I like that. It gets in the time factor. You read some kind of process advice that tells you to treat it like a full-time job and sit down for eight hours a day, because that’s the only way you’re going to be serious about this. Then that person can just… probably go write another book. Cause I’m pretty sure that was Stephen King, but [laughs] you know, that’s just not healthy. And it’s not practical anymore. A lot of us don’t have that privilege.
Chris: Yeah, you definitely can’t condense how effective you are as a writer down to a number [laughs], which is what it feels like people are doing with word counts. And the other strange thing is it only accounts usually for the drafting stages of the project, doesn’t say anything about the other phases of the project, like revision or anything else. Just that first draft. In many cases, taking more time with your first draft means less revision later. So it’s not even necessarily faster to increase your word count per day. You don’t know, it’s so individual.
Wes: Yeah, it is. And also, all writing sessions are different. None of them are created equal. If you’re working on a particularly emotional scene in your novel, it might exhaust you to get through those, like what, 2000 words or something like that, because it’s taking a lot out of you to actually do that. And then you need to take a break for a few days. That’s okay. That sometimes happens. But this idea that you’re just summarizing things and you can just like focus on how fast you can type is just silly and not realistic.
Chris: On one hand, many writers do have to push a little bit to make sure that they make time for writing. And it’s hard to find the balance here sometimes because probably a lot of the people who are maybe saying things they shouldn’t say like “you have to write every day” [laughs] are trying to encourage people to set boundaries with their family or do what has to be done to carve out that time, because you do have to find time and that can be difficult if you have a really busy life, as many of us do, but it’s just too easy to take it too far. Or again, absolute statements like “you have to write every day” are just ridiculous here.
Wes: You know, what helps you become more successful at writing or just doing anything, is just achieving some successes. When you succeed at something, you’ll feel good and you’ll want to do that again. And so if you’re wanting to write more frequently, let’s say, maybe not every day, but you can say, “How long do I think I can manage to write for today or tomorrow?” And you say, “I think I’m going to try to do it for just 10 minutes” and you set your egg timer. If anyone still uses those. [laughs]
Oren: Yeah, your relic from the past- First step, go to an antique shop, find an egg timer.
Wes: We just did like a holiday cooking thing, so it’s in my brain. Set it for 10 minutes and stare at that paper and maybe put some words down. But the goal is to have your focus be on that thing for 10 minutes, not how many pages. So you should consider it a success if you sat down and whatever happens, happens. But if you did it for those 10 minutes, that’s a win. It doesn’t matter if there’s pages or even any words on the paper, you kind of focused yourself on that effort, in that moment. And you should feel good about that.
And I don’t think that that kind of effort gets enough praise, because it’s hard to focus, especially now when you’re interrupted by whatever tech you have around you, like every 10 minutes, there’s an interruption. And then you have to train your focus again. And that takes on average like 20 minutes. And then you’re just so in and out and in and out, it’s just– Any work, even if it’s just some quiet thinking about your book, should be treated as a success, not as a failure.
Oren: The whole concept of “Well, you need to cut yourself off from social media because that’s distracting you and stopping you from working.” And it’s like, you know, that could be true. I’m sure for some people it is. I once, fairly recently actually, ran an unintentional experiment where I changed my work setup so that it was impossible for me to check social media while I was doing podcast editing, thinking that surely I would edit podcasts faster. But what actually happened is that I was just so bored and miserable that it took way longer.
Oren: And once I changed my setup so that I could have Facebook open while I was editing, suddenly it was faster. So that was more productive. [laughs] This is just another example of why these things are so personal and why you really have to try different things and find whatever combination is, that works for you.
Wes: That’s a great example because Chris mentioned earlier, words on the paper for like a drafting stage. Writing craft is a ton of different things: researching, brainstorming, drafting, writing, revising, all of those things. And so if somebody says “Shut down your social media when you’re writing.” Well, okay, for what part? [Oren laughs]
I think some solid process advice is, whatever you’re going to do that day, figure out what you’re going to do that day, first. And if you’re having a brainstorming day, then maybe you kind of want to allow yourself to be distracted because that might help work through some things. Or if it’s an editing day or revision day, maybe you actually read something, know you need to think on it, know you need to distract yourself and then come look at it again. There’s a lot of different things that we take on during this process.
And so, again, that universal “shut off your social media” is not going to work in this kind of situation. But bringing intent to your writing situation generally is helpful. I mean, for anything really. From baking to gardening, to all those things. It’s good to just take a breath and think, “Okay, today I’m only weeding” and maybe you’ll do more, but if that’s the thing that you set out to do and you did it, you’ll feel better. And then you’ll want to do more.
Chris: Personally for me, one of the reasons why the whole “write every day” just does not work is that I have a fairly large startup cost when I am about to start any kind of large project or a project that takes a lot of concentration. And for me, writing fiction takes the most concentration of anything I do. It takes me a while to get into the mindset, but it’s easier to keep going once I get started. If I spend my first hour writing relatively– not really getting anywhere, just trying to get back into the mindset of the story again, but after that I’m much more productive, it just makes way more sense for me to block off an entire day to do writing, as often as I can, than it does to try to do a little bit every day. It wouldn’t work. I would spend all the time trying to get back into the story again, instead of actually doing what I set out to do.
Oren: Whereas I wrote the entire manuscript for my short novel in the 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM time slot on weekdays, when I was done with normal work but it wasn’t time to watch something before bed yet. So, you know, I’m a weird man, okay. I’m not claiming that this is a normal process. [laughs]
Chris: I’ve met other people who love having daily writing as part of their routine, that it keeps them inspired and motivated. Again, it’s different for everybody. I couldn’t do that. I have to reserve writing for when I have, you know – I’m fully “on”, it’s early in the day, I’ve got the most energy, and then clear off my schedule for that day so that I can’t procrastinate [laughs] and work on other things instead. Make sure that, no, this is your only job today, so that’s what you need to focus on.
Wes: Do you guys experience, they call it like a flow state. Do you guys experience that very much anymore? Or is it kind of harder to get into, where you suddenly look up and four hours have gone by. Maybe not four, but -insert time here- and you’re shocked that that much time has gone by without your notice.
Wes: Yeah, same. [laughs]
Oren: I don’t think I ever experienced that. Certainly not when writing. Like I have occasionally, I don’t know, when I’m being entertained, sometimes I’ll lose track of time that way, but not when I’m working to put words down. Some things have gone more smoothly. Like when I was really inspired to write this short novel, time went faster than it has been in other writing projects where I was not as inspired and was trying to force it because I wasn’t as passionate, but I’ve never been like, “Oh man, I’m just writing so many words, I lost track and oh, I blinked and five chapters were written.”
Oren: I don’t know. That’s just completely foreign to my experience with writing.
Chris: Well, I certainly can concentrate and get very intent on what I’m doing. Again, once I get going, I don’t want to do anything else and I’m very focused. But the way that people describe flow as “it just like goes and you don’t notice the passage of time”, I don’t know if I’ve never experienced flow before, or I haven’t recognized it when I do, but that idea is foreign to me.
Wes: I bring it up because that also comes in discussions of being productive or efficient with your time. And if it’s something that you’re into and passionate about, you’ll get into this flow state and then suddenly, you’ll forget to like eat lunch because you’re being so productive and blah, blah, blah. I asked this to a lot of people, do you get that way? Like I remember being that way more as a kid, but I had way less worries. [laughs]
This conversation around this and like the passion and the flow of it and things, I’m just like, no, maybe that can happen, but there’s a lot more demands on us as well. And I think that it undercuts a good value, which is kinda like grit or just perseverance that both of you have kind of talked about. “Well, I’m going to get done what I can get done.” Some days it’s a chore and that’s okay.
Chris: I wonder if it might be more discovery writers on their first draft that talk about flow? I think about this cause my dad is very much a discovery writer. He’s like on the opposite end of the spectrum as me. And he loves this blank page and all the possibilities that it has. And he actually enjoys dictating to write, where he’ll talk into a recorder. And then try to use software to get it translated into words on the page. And that’s how he likes to do his first draft. I think for him, the process of writing is a lot more about just exploring the imagination and seeing where the story takes you, which is the experience that discovery writers love so much.
And I can definitely see in that kind of situation, this idea of flow and time passing really quickly. But for me, I like to plan as much as possible ahead of time because that narrows down what I have to focus on when I’m writing the draft. And for me, it’s a very intellectually intense process where I’m focusing on exactly what words I want to communicate what I want to communicate. It’s not an “open inspiration, see where it takes me” type of process. [laughs] And that might make a difference there.
Wes: Oh, I think I lied. I have experienced some flow states recently, but it’s only for editing and it’s only for clear mechanical edits on nonfiction. [laughs] I rarely have to query what the writer meant and I’m just fixing punctuation, fixing errors, and I’m just like, “Oh, okay, that went by relatively quickly.” Because it was almost just rote: Okay, I know what I’m doing.
Chris: Sounds like you were able to be more on autopilot and again, it wasn’t very intellectually intense for you.
Wes: Exactly. Your dad’s story is interesting. I’m sure a lot of discovery writers are like that, because to me, it sounds like his flow is just telling himself a story.
Wes: I think that’s cool, but it’s completely foreign to me.
Chris: For a lot of these writers, the fact that they don’t know how the story is going to end is a big motivational factor. Most people are some hybrid between the type of rigorous planner that I am and the type of absolute discovery writer my dad is. [laughs] We’re both on both ends of the extreme. Most people are somewhere in between.
But for the people who do discovery writing, they don’t want to do planning, even if it saves them revision later, because that’s what motivates them to finish the story, they don’t know how it’s going to end. Whereas if you plan, you do. And so you don’t have that tension as a motivational factor anymore, or not as much. That’s a very different experience and therefore calls for a different process.
Wes: What motivates you guys when you’re writing for your sessions?
Oren: Usually I just find some topic that’s really neat. And then I write a story about it. So in the space future, if spaceships are fighting and they’re so far away from each other the light delay becomes a thing where they can’t just see where their opponent is, they see where they were several seconds ago. That’s kind of weird. What if I wrote a short story about that? Boom! Now there’s lasers and stuff. And that’s basically my entire inspiration process.
Wes: When you were putting that story together Oren–cause I think I read that one, which was super fun–as you worked on that, I don’t know how long it took you, but did you not feel satisfied throughout the process or did you? Cause I think that’s a good question because some people think, “Oh, it’s a short story or a novella, I’ll only be satisfied when I’m done” and they won’t acknowledge that maybe they had a good day of writing.
Oren: I mean, I’ve reasonably enjoyed writing that story. The ones that I don’t enjoy writing don’t get published because they’re a lot worse. So I enjoyed that one a reasonable amount. Like that one, I was also combining my weird phobia of being replaced by a machine. It’s like, well, now I’m going to write a story about that. Eff you, machines, eat laser beams! Ha! This is a healthy coping mechanism.
Oren: So you know, that one was fine. There are other stories that are trunked because I… I got them written. It’s not like I regret writing them, but they were much harder to write. They were not nearly as smooth. And they were not nearly as well conceived to start with. And it just isn’t worth the emotional energy it would take to edit them. So they live in the trunk folder. As experience points.
Chris: I think that each story I have something different that I’m really interested in. And one thing I’ve learned is that the amount of motivation has to be equivalent to the length of the story and my commitment to the project. With short stories sometimes it’s just a novel idea that I want to explore or a point I want to make.
Another Day, Another Diamond is about a character in a utopian world where nobody has to work anymore and she’s the very last worker and it discusses the value of work. So that was an interesting idea. I decided to write it in omniscient and I worked really hard to make the wordcraft pay off, despite the fact that it was more distant and that was a lot of work. And by the time I was done with it, even though it was a short story, I was like, I’m very much ready to be done with this story. Because that was an interesting idea to me, but it wasn’t so compelling to me. The novelty of new ideas wears off [laughs] and I was just ready to be done. There’s no way I could have done a novel about that, it wouldn’t be in me.
Whereas for longer stories, I need something that has a lot more emotional pull. Where, yeah, I know how it ends because I’m a very rigorous planner, but it has some emotional pull, like I’m very attached to the main character and the main character’s emotional journey. And a lot of times there’s something about their experience or the atmosphere that I find very compelling or intriguing. And so I need more than to know the ending, I need to really see it come to life before I am satisfied.
I love having works with lots of variety, but I think as I get longer, probably my works will have less variety, unfortunately. Just because what I’m interested in [laughs] is a more narrow thing. And like I’m often interested in stories that are kind of dark. And so my stories just might get darker as they get longer because I have to meet that requirement.
Yeah. Being motivated and liking what you write is also a really important part of being effective.
Wes: I just really liked how both of you touched on, a primary motivation is actually just problem-solving. You both talked about your process as being kind of identifying something cool and you just wanted to see how it works. With a good narrative, that’s the key thing. I think that there’s gotta be some similarities with discovery too, because discovery writers are going to set out and problems will arise and they’ll want to solve them. So I think that that’s kind of a neat way to maybe think about your writing and writing more effectively is, you could sit down and approach your page on day two and say like, what’s the problem that I’m working through today and see how much progress you get on it.
It’s like working through doing – I don’t want to reduce it to like math homework or anything like that, [laughs] but there’s a sense of progress when actually you’ve identified a problem and you can start working towards it, is a healthy way to start thinking about your work in terms of delivering more satisfaction. Because maybe you solve the problem in two pages and maybe you solve it, it takes 200. But either way, that’s your goal and you’re working towards a way of feeling more accomplished with what you did instead of sitting down and saying, “I need to write a 300 page novel because… that’s what I need to do apparently.”
Chris: [laughs] Yeah. Going back to motivation, and some of the obstacles that writers often have that I hear that they have, one of the big ones is the novelty of a new idea. And I definitely have times when I’m just like at a normal day of work, trying to make my dollar [laughs] and a new story idea hits me and suddenly I can’t concentrate on anything else and my brain is assembling the story and I can’t even work at my day job anymore. And I have to [laughs] start writing down the story.
And many writers get interrupted by this, where they have trouble committing to the same story and ever finishing it because they have that new, sexy idea that shows up. And some writers have an issue where they get enthralled by a new idea and they start writing it and then they lose that interest because it’s just novelty and so it fades very quickly and then they can never finish a project. So this kind of like excitement curve is a real issue for many writers when it comes to actually getting their writing done.
My recommendation if you’re having that problem is: While you’re still excited about the novelty of the idea, to try to put in something, some emotional hooks that are compelling to you so that you have something that you’ll stay interested in after the novelty of the cool world-building idea or whatever it is, fades. Could be different for every person.
What about the two of you? Do you have any experiences to share about staying interested in a story?
Oren: I would say, never underestimate the power of spite.
Oren: On multiple occasions, I have been motivated to keep going by thinking of a time when a successful author did something wrong and I’m going to show them! And they’ll never know about it, but I’ll have shown them. Then they’ll be in their place, egg on their face for sure.
Chris: [laughs] “This is how it can be done right.” Basically.
Wes: Similarly if I get to a stuck point, or if I’m working with a client who’s turned in something and take a look at it and say like, okay, we’ve been working on this for a while or I’ve been working on this for a while and say like, I get weirdly motivated, whatever I do write, I write so slowly because no sentence is ever finished and that’s my task and my problem to work through.
But I think there’s always fresh takes by kind of interrogating what I have or what a client has by saying, like, “Well, what happens if this goes away or we introduce something else or if we revise?” I think a lot of my motivation ends up being revision focused, even when stuff isn’t necessarily complete, which is also a hindrance to conventional productivity, but it helps keep it fresher for me. And it keeps conversations going with authors that I work with. So that’s helpful I think. At least they don’t seem to mind it. But there’s definitely a lot more dialogue back and forth. But maybe at the core of that is just, sharing is helpful for keeping motivation up after the idea that strikes you like lightning cools a bit.
Oren: All right, so since we’re kind of getting towards the end of our time, I did want to bring up specialized writing software. Since I have some opinions about that. There are a lot of them. I haven’t tried them all, so I don’t know what all of them do. My thing that I would recommend to people is that if you are going to try something like this, see if there’s actually some value that it adds first, because the ones that I have tried don’t offer much beyond an organizational system. And maybe you’re someone who has enough trouble with organizational systems that it’s worth paying $60 or however much they cost for a built-in organizational system.
But I’m guessing that for a lot of people, they could do that without too much trouble with some files and folders. If you watch the commercials for these writing softwares, they’re always like “Keep track of your world in this cool thing!” and they show you this like graphic that they made to represent their file storage system. And it’s like, that’s not what the file storage system looks like. It looks like a normal file storage system.
In a lot of cases, these programs are being sold to people who are a bit on the desperate side, because you know, there’s so much that we all want to be writers. And there’s a hope that maybe this software will finally be what does it. And it’s not like there’s nothing useful in there. I’ve heard some people get really excited about different writing styles- or typing styles, like there’s one style I believe on Scrivener called typewriter mode, where the cursor stays in one place and the text goes out from the cursor instead of the cursor moving along with the text. And I’ve seen some people claim that that really helps them. And I absolutely believe those people, but like people also claim that writing in Comic Sans really helps them. And I’m going to go ahead and believe those people too, but if Comic Sans cost $60, I would definitely try to make sure you know it works for you before you bought it, is all I’m saying.
Chris: I will say for myself, just going back to the Comic Sans issue, why I can believe that works, is because when I need to do brainstorming sometimes to solve a sticky problem, if what I’m writing on looks too neat and finalized, I have a problem just putting out ideas that I know are bad. Sometimes in order to solve a problem, I need to do a brainstorm, I need to just start putting out ideas, even if I already know they are terrible, and just keep writing whatever comes to my head. And if I do that, I will eventually find a solution that I actually like. But I find myself unable to do that if I’m doing the neat typing on a computer. Cause I just feel like what’s supposed to go on that page should be relatively polished.
So often I actually move to physically writing on a notepad, but I’ve also sometimes gone to the actual notepad program [laughter] and used fonts that are different, that feel rougher, because it doesn’t feel like what I’m writing is final or has to be neat or tidy anymore. And so putting your font in Comic Sans, where it’s like, wow, this is… I can’t take my writing seriously in Comic Sans, but that’s what I need. Because now I actually feel free to let myself write something, even if I know what I put down might not be perfect. And for some people that works better.
Wes: Okay, so, I guess by means of kind of wrapping up here, we know that discovering an effective writing process takes time. There’s tips and techniques that might seem an obvious fit for your natural tendencies, but as Chris just noted with type faces and stuff, you might need to trial other options to kind of determine what’s right for you. And when you’re doing that, the hacks and tricks and tips are probably going to come into play.
But I think trial and error is important for figuring out what works for you. If it was just this one weird thing to solve all your problems we would have figured it out long ago and everybody would be published authors and whatnot, and you wouldn’t need to consult the many great articles that Chris and Oren have on our blog that you should all read.
So just remember that as you develop your practice, there’s going to be days where the result of your best efforts just don’t feel like much and that’s okay. And it should be more than okay, because being an effective and efficient writer doesn’t demand a staggering outcome. It’s just asking that you focus on your best work with the resources available to you.
Oren: All right, well, that is a great note to end this podcast on. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he’s a fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you all next week.
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This has been the Mythcreant Podcast. Opening and closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
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