10 March 2014

I’ve spent the last 30 days writing at least one hour every day. Want to do the same? Here’s how.

First, make a public commitment. Decide when you’re going to start writing and how many days you’re going to do it (30 days is a good starting point). Ask your friends to hold you accountable, make a bet with your cousin that you will write every day, post a daily update on your Facebook wall. Do anything to avoid having to answer the most dangerous question of all: “Should I write today?” Pondering this for any amount of time will lead to a thousand perfectly reasonable excuses on why you should skip today. Only the fear of public humiliation will keep you honest.

How am I going to find the time to write?

Never. You will never find the time to write, your only option is to make time. You have spent your life filling every idle moment of your day with some kind of activity; you won’t get that time back without a fight. Choose what you’re willing to give up—email, Facebook, clubbing, Netflix, shopping, Xbox—and carve out the time. I decided to give up reading news and checking email first thing in the morning; it freed up an hour and a half that I now use to write. The urge to go back to my old routine was strong during the first week—then it went away.

How should I get started?

If you find yourself sitting in front of the blank page, waiting for inspiration, do yourself a favor and stop writing. You might think that writing requires creating beautifully crafted paragraphs that cascade down elegant story lines. That’s a lie. What you perceive as writing is the end result of a multi-stage process that started out with a simple outline. Every skyscraper in the world began as a rough sketch. You can come up with an outline in your Starbucks napkin while you wait for the bus. You can scribble it in your notebook during a boring seminar. You can type it with one thumb as you groggily fall to sleep. Outlines are easy to create, they elicit no expectations of perfection, and they plant the seeds of better writing.

How do I develop the outline into a draft?

You need to thrash before you draft. Some of the ideas in your outline will resonate more than others. Get rid of the boring ones and pick the ones that spawn a bunch of supporting ideas and point to interesting directions. Combine loosely connected ideas into themes. Remove the cruft from your ideas, unpack vague notions and turn them into clear statements. Multiple rounds of thrashing strengthen the foundation that underlies your writing. Without a sound structure, you will waste most of your time rewriting.

Once you are comfortable with the structure of your outline, it’s time to make a commitment. Musicians are not allowed to rewrite the score in the middle of a performance. Likewise, you are not allowed to change the outline in the middle of the draft. Give yourself a time limit (say, one hour) and use it to develop the outline from start to finish. Some parts will be harder to develop—they could have probably used more thrashing—, but it’s too late to go back now. Give it your best shot, and work with what you’ve got. A firm deadline will make your creativity soar in ways you didn’t think were possible. It will help you acquire the habit of solving problems with limited resources, and it will teach you the importance of thrashing early.

This is a crucial lesson. Before I learned it, I would spend 12 hours writing and rewriting a few paragraphs and never finish anything. It takes a lot of discipline to resist the perfectionist urge. When you’re in the middle of the draft, it’s surprising how many times you will feel that you need to rewrite your entire structure from scratch. This is self-sabotage and should be ignored. Once you finish the first draft—if you still have time—, you can do another round of thrashing and drafting (when you will likely discover that things were not as bad as you previously thought).

When do I start revising?

Only after you have written the first draft. Revising a day later is ideal; if you don’t have enough time, at least wait a few hours. Your brain needs time to switch off the creativity factory and turn on the analytical engines. Revising is not about criticizing, it’s about noticing. If you can pinpoint why something doesn’t work, fixing it is easy. Your enemy is not a lack of literary ability, it’s blindness. Developing the habit of noticing the things that hide in plain sight is the quickest way to make your writing sparkle.

The rules of daily writing

  1. Make your goal public. Other people are better at holding you accountable than you are.
  2. If you don’t know what to write, stop writing. Outline instead.
  3. Thrash before you draft. Ensure that every idea in the outline is clear.
  4. Timebox the first draft.
  5. No thrashing and no revising while you draft.
  6. Wait one day. Then revise.
  7. Ship. Gather feedback.
  8. Repeat

Most ambitious projects are not about making huge leaps of genius and ability, they require taking a lot of small consistent steps. 30-day challenges are a great way of embracing this habit. I guarantee you that after 30 days of writing, you will be a different person. At the very least, you will know that you have the discipline and the determination to achieve your long-term goals. You will see new challenges as opportunities to face your fears and grow. I can’t think of a better way to live.

Go out and write.