Write More Because Quantity Improves Quality

I just finished a second 55,000 word novel in six months and sent it off to my editor. In addition to the writing, this five months included Christmas and trips and some sickness. To my surprise, the quality of the last book was considerably better written than anything I’ve done in a while. I was expecting the opposite because it had been written when I was very tired.

But then I remembered some advice I heard years ago from Jane Yolen that helped explain it. She spoke to a group of us in San Antonio at a writer’s retreat weekend.

Telling It Like It Is

At the retreat/workshop, award-winning writer Jane Yolen made a statement that stunned the group of fourteen published writers who attended. Before the workshop, Jane had read and critiqued chapters submitted by each writer.

When she handed back the critiqued manuscripts, she said (paraphrased), “Half of you here have as much talent as I do. About one-fourth of you probably have more talent than I do.” (Imagine fourteen mouths dropping open in disbelief.) “But,” Jane added, looking around the circle of writers, “I guarantee you that I write more than any of you.”

Quantity AND Quality

She claimed it was a big key to her immense success. If we wanted to grow as writers, she advised us to write every single day, even for just half an hour, and for two reasons. One was to keep our minds immersed in our writing projects. The second—the most important to me—was that daily writing should improve the quality of our writing.

I had signed up for the workshop, hoping to find the “magic key” I needed to bring my writing up a notch or two. And there it was: write more. If you want to bring your writing up to the next level, write more. If you want to improve in your handling of the English language and all its creative components, write more. If you want to publish more, fall in love with writing again, and feel like a “real writer,” write more.

How Much and When?

The workshop weekend also included a private 15-minute critique with Jane. We were allowed to ask anything we liked. Among other things, I wanted to know her writing schedule—especially as I knew from her online journal that she traveled extensively to speak and she was (like most mothers and grandmothers) very involved with her family.

Come to find out, Jane does write a lot—and read a lot—but it wasn’t some horrendous schedule like ones I’d heard about. I had half expected another “I get up at 3 a.m. and write for twelve hours, seven days a week” explanation for her prolific output. But that wasn’t the case.

She got to her desk at a decent time, maybe around 8 or 9, did some email and checked a few things, then got to work. If my memory is correct, she said she worked till mid-afternoon or so on those days she was home to write. She wasn’t a hermit though—she frequently had meetings and dinners with friends.

She travels to speak many days out of the average month. She deals with family and life issues like everyone else. Still, I believed her statement about writing more than all of us was probably true. She has a huge number of published books of the highest award quality to show for it.

Start Where You Are

Sure, many of us can’t write five hours every day. There are full-time day jobs, children and grandchildren underfoot, sick parents to care for, etc. But to improve in our writing, we all need to start somewhere. We’re just talking about writing more. Writing more for you might be increasing from two hours per week to three, or increasing daily writing time by fifteen minutes.

So what’s the big deal about writing more? Well, it’s been shown that more hours spent writing equals more quantity equals better quality. “Writing more” certainly produces more quantity: more stories, articles, books, plays. But I think the often overlooked “plus” of writing more is that your quality goes up.

Real Results

In the month after the workshop, I wrote more “new words” and did more revising than probably in the previous six months.  The drafts got cleaner, and descriptive language started to flow, with less effort on my part. (Sometimes it even surprised me, since similes and metaphors have never come willingly to my typing fingers.)

I hope to get closer and closer to Jane’s advice about writing every day. As Susan Shaughnessy says in Walking on Alligators, “Writers are those who write…Days off are deadly. One follows another, and all too soon fears creep back in. Nothing is as easily delayed as writing.”

Although my next deadline has more breathing room in it, I want to keep writing at a good clip. I like what is has produced. And I especially liked the realization about half-way through this period that I had fallen in love with writing again. That’s worth about a million dollars!

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Taking a Break from Brain Snakes

I’m winding up my third big deadline this coming week, but until next Friday, I’m really pressed for time.

So, to avoid ending the month looking like the chap below, I’m taking a break and won’t be posting again until a week from today.

In the meantime, here are two terrific articles for you to read. They define a current writing life problem (one I struggle with) and give some solutions. It’s a subject under discussion a lot lately, but these articles by Therese Walsh are especially well written.

Part 1: Monotasking: The Forgotten Skill You (and I) Need to Re-Claim, ASAP

Part 2: Snakes on a Brain (Multitasking Series)

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Stage 4: Maintaining Long-Term Success

At last, success!

If you’ve taken time to do each of the previous steps, congratulate yourself. It’s been time well spent. But if you’ve done the work, you want it to last.

That brings us to Stage 4 for making changes in your writing life, where you learn techniques for maintaining long-term success. (First read The Dynamics of Change, Stage 1: Making Up Your Mind, Stage 2: Committing to Change, and Stage 3: Taking Action)

You’ve probably begun several new good writing habits to support your future writing career. This is great!

You don’t want to be a quick flash that’s here today and gone tomorrow though. You want the changes to last. You want to continue to grow as a writer and build your career. But…you know yourself. The good writing habits never seem to last.

Until now.

Change and Maintain

In order to keep going and growing as a writer, you need to do two things:

  • Learn to recover from setbacks
  • Get mentally tough for the long haul

First let’s talk about setbacks. They come in all shapes and sizes for writers. They can be mechanical (computer gets fried), emotional (a scathing review of your new book), or mental (burn-out from an accident, divorce, or unexpected big expense). Setbacks do just what they sound like: set you back.

However, too often (without a plan), we allow a simple setback to become a permanent writer’s block or stall. Setbacks are simply lapses in our upward spiral, or small break in our new successful routine, a momentary interruption on the way to our writing goal.

Pre-emptive Strike

Warning: without tools in place to move beyond the setbacks, they can settle in permanently instead. Use setbacks as a signal that you need to get back to basics. Setbacks–or lapses–sometimes occur for no other reason than we’ve dropped our new routines. (We stopped writing before getting online, we stopped taking reward breaks and pushed on to exhaustion, we stopped sending new queries each week…)

Count each day of progress, and don’t be so hard on yourself. I used to make myself “start over” when trying to form a new habit, and it was more discouraging than helpful. For example, if my goal was to journal every morning, I’d count the days. Maybe I managed it five days in a row. Five! I felt successful! But if I missed Day 6 for any reason, I had to start over the next day at Day #1.

Maintaining: A Better Way

I don’t do that anymore. It doesn’t help. Now, if my goal is to develop a new habit, I still keep track, but I keep going after a lapse or setback instead of starting over. So if I were trying to develop a journaling habit, and journaled five days and then missed a day or two, I would begin again on Day #6.

I would count all successful days in a month, which motivates me to try to reach an even higher total number the next month. This works with words and pages written and other new writing habits you want to start.

Coping Plans

In order to recover from setbacks, think ahead. Ask yourself what types of things might cause you to go off course or lapse in your goal efforts. Prepare ways to cope ahead of time and have your plans in place. (Sometimes that’s as simple as always traveling with a “writing bag” of paper, pens, a chapter to work on, a craft book to read, etc. so that you can always work, no matter what the delays.)

Coping plans have this basic structure:

“When __________ [potential distraction] occurs, I will say ______________ [inner dialogue] and I will do _______________ [corrective action].”

When my best friend calls to talk during my writing time, I will say to myself, I’m working and need to call her back at lunch time and I will let the answering machine pick up.

When company comes for a week, I will say to myself, It’s fine for me to take one hour each day to write, and I will close the door to my office (or bedroom) and write before breakfast for one hour.

Retrain Your Brain

Mental toughness–grit to persevere–is the other ingredient you’ll need if you want to maintain the changes you’ve made in your writing habits. Scientific studies have clearly shown that repeated affirmations and mental rehearsals create new neural pathways in the brain making success easier and eventually permanent.

Speaking daily affirmations aloud has been proven to help you “retrain your brain” into healthier lines of thinking. Make the affirmations to deal specifically with your own writing issues. For example:

  • I am equal to any writing challenge.
  • I love to write, and I never miss a day of writing!
  • I get started with ease and keep going smoothly and fluidly.
  • I use visualizations of successful writing times to help build new habits and patterns.
  • I love to study and then apply what I learn to developing my writing gift.
  • I don’t need to be like any other writer.
  • I never give up on my dreams.

I encourage you to make your own list of positive affirmations pertaining to any area of your life where you’d like to see change. Use the affirmations to help you make changes–and then cement those changes in place.

It’s time to stop yo-yoing up and down and create stable, permanent writing habits.

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Stage 3: Taking Action

Ready for Stage 3? It’s about taking action.

(First read The Dynamics of Change, Stage 1: Making Up Your Mind, and Stage 2: Committing to Change.)

If you’ve done your homework in Stages 1 and 2, you’re probably more excited about this action phase than you would normally be.

Why? You’re prepared. You’re motivated. You’ve taken obstacles into account already.

You’re primed for success.

Action Steps

As mentioned before, this stage includes several big steps:

  • You must decide when, where and how to start.
  • You must show up to start despite fears and self-doubts.
  • You must focus on each (present) step, rather than focusing on the end (future) goal.

This is the exciting stage because you’re past making excuses and procrastinating and giving in to the fear of change. You’re done rehearsing and experimenting. It’s now time to take action. You take steps on the path that leads to your goal. Note that shift in focus. The daily path is now more important than the end goal. So find ways to make each successful step enjoyable.

Create Action Plans

An action plan is exactly what it sounds like–a written plan to take concrete action steps to perform a behavior that leads to accomplishing your end goal. An action plan involves when you will do something, where you will do it, and how you will do it.

Run this when-where-how scenario through your mind for each step of your action plan. Be detailed. It doesn’t have to take a long time, but this mental rehearsal is immensely helpful. The more detailed the mental rehearsal, the higher the probability that you will actually initiate the behavior.

To help you create action plans, ask yourself these questions:

  • When do you want to start working on your goal? (day and time)
  • Where will you start? (time and place)
  • What specific action step will you take at this time?
  • How will you keep this commitment?

Time to Show Up

Fear and self-doubt can raise their ugly heads when you least expect it. Even when you’re primed and eager to start, fear and anxiety can give you pause. There are many ways to deal with fears and self-doubts. How you choose to deal with them is probably an individual thing. (I start with prayer.)

I keep several books on my shelf such as Ralph Keyes’ two books on fear (The Courage to Write and The Writer’s Book of Hope) and The Now Habit by Neil Fiore on conquering procrastination.

Focus on the Present Step

Focusing on your end goal as motivation to get started causes two problems. First, the end goal (e.g. finish a novel) can just look overwhelming. You want to quit before you start!

The solution? “Focus on what you can do rather than what is out of your control,” says Neil Fiore of Awaken Your Strongest Self. “Switch from thoughts about the goal, which is in the future and is usually overwhelming, to thoughts about what you can do in the present.”

Second, the reward is so far in the future that we feel tired just thinking about waiting that long. A reward many months in the future isn’t much motivation to stick with the writing today.

One solution is making sure you have rewards lined up for every 15- or 30-minute block of time you work on your goal. Publishing a book a year from now won’t get me writing today, but a reward of watching a favorite movie today if I write ten new pages is much more likely to get my fingers to the keyboard.

Small Steps

Take small steps. Reward yourself (with something healthy) for every step you take in direction of your goal. Be your own cheerleader. Each small step will get you warmed up and moving, then help you build momentum.

For more about the importance and brilliance of “mini habits” to beat procrastination, see “Not Enough Willpower?”

NOTE: Don’t stop here. Next week we’ll discuss the final stage–learning to recover from setbacks and maintain momentum.

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Stage 2: Committing to Change

(First read The Dynamics of Change and Stage 1: Making Up Your Mind)

Okay, we’re ready for Stage 2: Committing to Change. This is not taking action yet. Instead, this stage involves:

1) Planning the necessary steps
2) Building up your motivation
3) Considering possible distractions and/or discouraging things that might cause a setback

The change you make at this point is to shift from “passively wishing to achieve your goal to actively committing to make it happen.” (Neil Fiore in Awaken Your Strongest Self.) If you did the work in Stage 1 (thinking through the risks and benefits, plus evaluating your personal abilities), you should have fairly realistic expectations of what does–and doesn’t–work for you at your particular stage of life.

Time to Experiment

Before you plan the necessary steps to succeed in making permanent changes as a writer, you’ll want to take time to experiment in small ways. See what you like and don’t like. See what works for you–and what doesn’t.

  • Try writing for 15 minutes upon awakening or right after your morning coffee.
  • Stay offline until 10:00 a.m. for three days.
  • Try writing at the library during two lunch hours this week.
  • Read a writing blog before you get on Facebook or Twitter.

Record your thoughts and feelings when you introduce these writing changes. How do you feel? What works and what doesn’t? You can’t fail at this stage. You are only gathering information.

Some of these changes you’ll love and find so easy! Others you won’t find helpful at all. But as you succeed with certain writing changes (writing 15 minutes each evening while supper cooks, reading 5 pages per day of a writing book), your motivation will rise. You’ll feel more like a writer automatically.

Mental Rehearsals

During this stage you also need to think through strategies for dealing with obstacles, distractions and setbacks. One of the most effective (and fun!) ways to do this is using what athletes call “mental rehearsals.” They imagine how they’ll handle challenges at each step along the way. [NOTE: This is not just wishful thinking. Current books on brain chemistry show incredible studies and brain x-rays, revealing changes made in the brain after "mental rehearsals."]

Envisioning how you will handle writing distractions (toddlers wanting to be entertained, friends calling to chat, school vacations) and setbacks (an editor rejects your novel after two revisions, computer crashes) helps you build stamina or mental toughness.

Use mental movies to confront each setback or distraction. Instead of your usual reaction (chocolate, TV, surfing the ‘Net), clearly envision yourself sitting tight, working methodically through your writing problem, piling up a stack of new pages, and keeping to your deadline with ease.

Not all interruptions and distractions happen to us. Be aware that you often seek out distractions as well. In order to escape writing blocks or manuscripts that just aren’t working well, we often attempt to escape the anxiety or boredom or agitation by looking for distractions.

Are You Ready?

The final part of Stage 2 is actually committing to the change. Take time to think and journal about the strength of your commitment. If you want to succeed–and make the success permanent–it needs to be more than a wish. It needs to be a strong intention.

So, what do you intend to do? What change(s) in your writing life do you intend to make? Now is the time to commit.

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