There are as many ways to write as they are writers. Some get up at the crack of dawn and go at it, while others work in fits and bursts. Some can only work in one location, while others bounce from coffee shop to coffee shop. Whether you feel listless with no idea how you best write, or you’ve got a routine that might need just a small tweak, I hope these ten techniques help guide you to a productive method of writing.
Small rituals can help train your mind to get in the writing mode. It can be a little Pavlovian. If everytime you write, you light a candle at the edge of your desk, soon enough, as you start to light that candle your brain will start to go into “writing mode.”
Rituals work because of the psychology of habits. Plenty of internet articles have detailed the following three parts of a habit: “the cue,” “the action,” and “the reward.” The cue is your ritual, and the action is writing. The reward is having written pages that day.
It doesn’t have to be elaborate. David Sedaris’ ritual was simply writing at the exact same time every day. After a while, when that time of day crept up, he just naturally went into writing mode.
There was a whole year where I would recite the opening prologue from Shakespeare’s Henry V before I started writing. “O for a muse of fire!” It worked. I still can’t hear or read that opening without feeling myself start to prepare to write.
One technique that can help develop your writing method is to put the computer and keyboard away, and go back to the notebook. Writing by hand forces you to slow down, because it takes longer to write than it does to type. This slowing down focuses you to think about what you’re putting down.
There’s also a tangible aspect to writing in a notebook that lends itself to feeling productive. At the end of a session, you have a physical copy of the mental work you put in. It can be a nice way to see your progress over time.
Neil Gaiman and JK Rowling are both writers that prefer to write longhand, only transferring their work to a computer at the last stage of their projects.
This was something I learned on my second script. I just kept hitting dead ends, and I just could not get any momentum. Every time I thought I had a scene figured out, I just couldn’t make it work. Before then, I had always set a goal of pages per day. But it wasn’t working. And then I remembered a tip from when I was training for my first triathlon in college. Don’t worry about how many laps you can swim at first. Just swim for thirty minutes. The idea was, since I was terrible at swimming, measuring my progress by something that was directly connected to how well I did that thing was setting me up for failure. By splitting up my output and my measurement, I focused less on the quality of the output itself and just started doing the thing.
So I did that for my writing. I set a timer, and I would write for that long each day, and it felt like I had control over my writing and my day again. The script didn’t get any easier, but every day, I knew that I only had to slug it out for a few hours, and then it’d be over.
This is a tip that I learned on my first rewrite job. Before then, everything I had written was my own ideas, on spec. I had control over the script, and I had control over how I worked on it. But now I was beholden to someone else’s creative vision, and I had a deadline approaching fast. I couldn’t work the same way.
Understanding the needs of the project can help point to how to approach writing it. Maybe your project is a little more character based than your previous, so why not start with a character list, as opposed to a plot outline. If you usually use index cards, but feel stuck, maybe just try writing it. Or quite the opposite. In short, don’t let how you’ve always done things dictate how you do things now.
In fact, here’s certain writer talking about their routine:
And guess what? I know for a fact he doesn’t work that way anymore. He’s continuing to refine what works. Trust me, it changes project to project.
Sometimes, it’s great to keep focused on one project. But other times, it can be useful to keep yourself fresh by working on multiple projects at once. If you’re going to do this, and at some point in your career you’ll have to, my recommendation is to try and have those projects at different stages.
Personally, I try to keep three projects going at once. I have one that I’m just sort of collecting ideas for and taking notes and researching, one that I’m actively outlining and planning and drafting, and then another that I’m usually getting notes and rewriting. Even though it’s all writing, it uses different parts of my brain, and if I’m at a wall on one, I might put it away for the day and try to plug away on another.
One of the most useful writing techniques for me has just been thinking about how I’m feeling and how I’m operating as I write. If I had a particularly good day, I might take a second to think about why that might have been. Where had I been writing? What had happened today that yielded positive results? And I ask myself if there’s anything I can do to capture that again. Conversely, on bad days, I take stock, and look at how to avoid them, if possible. Sometimes the answer eludes us, but other times, you might realize the small idiosyncratic things that help us be most productive.
Charles Dickens learned that he wrote best when there was absolute silence, and from that point on, he sought it out, often working in the middle of the night when the world was quietest.
Figure out what works for you, and then repeat it. Here’s Scott Myers talking about the importance of a writer having consistency:
This is a favorite of many writers, probably because it’s when we’re most with our art. Forget everything and just write. Don’t have a purpose, don’t have an aim. Turn off that little voice in your head that tells you the rules and tells you what’s good and what’s not and just write.
When you’re done, don’t even look at it until the next day. You’ll be surprised at what you can do when you turn off the critical part of your brain. Freewriting can be to the mind what yoga is to the body.
(For my money, this is a great one to combine with writing longhand!)
Films are shot this way, so why can’t they be written this way too. Though I think the saying is more about what you have experience with, when I first heard, “Write what you know,” I thought it was referring to the script. So if you know the ending, write the ending. If you know the big chase in the middle, write the chase.
Don’t get stuck in the order of your narrative. If you don’t know how to open it, but you know how to close it, then write that. It might just show you how to open it.
John August is a big fan of writing (or at least knowing) the last ten pages of your script, so that your ending isn’t rushed, and your beginning connects to it.
Making a deadline public can help get you writing, if for nothing else than avoiding the shame of your peers when they turn in pages and you don’t. I’ve been a part of accountability groups where we’re all supposed to turn in pages at the end of the week, but I’ve also just met up with friends at a coffee shop to write with them. Having someone next to you typing away has a way of making you do the same. I don’t know if it’s solidarity or a competitive streak, but the brain responds to it.
This is actually connected to the idea of self-reflection, but a true engagement with yourself and your writing is essential in understanding what methods work for you. One hour spent thinking about how you write can yield results that affect every hour of writing thereafter.
Take the time to think about what works for you. Thinking about your daily life, your past workflows, your successes and failures, are all data points in how to find the best writing techniques for you
But you don’t necessarily have to reflect on it. Personally, I’ve gone with a trial-and-error approach when it comes to figuring out what works for me. And sometimes what worked last year isn’t working now. And I try something else. Don’t be afraid to change it up.
What techniques have you figured out that help you connect with your writing?
And if you want to know which habits to avoid, here’s a helpful video:
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