Columns > Published on January 13th, 2015

Hitting Your Stride: 7 Tips for Higher Word Counts in 2015

The New Year is often a time when we take a good hard look at what we accomplished (or failed to) in the previous twelve months while looking ahead, in glory, to all we will accomplish in the year to come.

Of course, most New Year's resolutions are no more than the big brother of that to-do list you made in the morning that causes you to actually LOL in the afternoon (otherwise known as a Planning Fallacy). That's why it can ultimately be more productive to focus on establishing new habits in the New Year rather than simply focusing on the same goals that continue to elude you.

Remember Einstein's definition of insanity: if you want different results, try something different. Something that might help you overcome those obstacles—psychological, personal, or logistical—that have been holding you back from the glory that is rightfully yours.

1. Separate Drafting from Editing

"Write drunk, edit sober." Whether or not Ernest Hemmingway actually spoke these words remains in question, but it's a piece of advice in keeping with what we know of his work habits. Take it with a grain of salt—or an ibuprofen in the morning—but if you're interested in upping your output in 2015, consider separating drafting from editing.

Telling yourself you can only write if you have three unbroken hours in which to do so is a cop out.

By nearly all accounts, drafting works best when we're not judging what we're coming up with, allowing ourselves to play, discover, and engage the whims of the unconscious mind—much the same way that kids produce better artwork when they're not required to submit their work-in-progress to a juried art show. When you engage the critical side of your brain, you put the brakes on the creative process, creating frustration.

This is not to say that many famous writers (such as, say, Zadie Smith) don't sweat over every word of their first drafts. But generally speaking, those who edit while drafting are not the writers with the highest number of books to their names.

If editing while drafting is working just fine for you, feel free to disregard this bit of advice. But if you're interested in upping your output, try to draft new work with a bare minimum of editing involved. You might be surprised at the results.

2. Separate Editing from Drafting

This isn't the first time I've brought up New York Times bestselling author Lev Grossman's advice on revision (from Wonderbook), and it won't be the last, because I think it's that good:

It's one of the curious properties of good prose that while hardly anybody can write it, almost everybody can recognize it...You want to engage those naturally deadly accurate readerly instincts that everyone has—instead of those limp, unreliable writerly ones—and put them to work for you.

This means, basically, that the more you can see your own work the way a reader would, the easier it is to spot where the plot veers off plumb, the key emotional note missing from a scene, the lines of dialogue you've written that no human being would ever actually speak, etc., etc., etc.

Of course, as soon as you actually get in there and start moving the furniture around, you're back in writing mode—which threatens to flip that little switch in your brain, to the point where you can't tell what's hitting and what isn't anymore. One way around this is to edit quickly, moving from one thing to the next, almost skimming the surface. Which means, if you hit a snag—a sentence that just isn't right, the wrong word, etc.—skipping it and moving on.

It's a bit of a cognitive trick, and one you probably already know: the next time you happen to read that same passage through, in a different state of mind, after having had something else for breakfast, whatever, chances are, you'll know exactly how it's supposed to read.

Or you can just sit there, doggedly determined, slogging away (writers are nothing if not perfectionists). But remember, this is generally a time suck. There is another option, and that's to edit like you're taking a standardized test: complete a full pass on whatever it is you're taking on that day, be it a scene or a chapter. You can always come back later to the problems that stumped you. (Note: this principle also works for drafting—the point is simply to finish.)

3. Slay the Dread

In my experience as an editor, every writer either finds it easier to draft or revise—almost never do we start off with a natural affinity for both. Both are essential to the writing process, so it stands to reason that if one of these processes is something you don't look forward to, it's hamstringing your productivity.

Moreover, chances are good that no one is actually paying you to write at this point, so why force yourself to do something you don't enjoy? Remember how this whole thing started out—play, kid stuff, creativity. You owe it to yourself to locate whatever dragon has caused grown-up you to dread writing and slay it dead, once and for all.

That might involve experimenting with process (see below). It might involve creating more of an outline/plan of attack before digging into a new scene or revising a chapter. It might involve taking notes on the fly throughout your day as images and ideas hit you so when you sit down to write, you're already three steps ahead. Whatever it is, pay attention to what's happening when things get hard and try adjusting the parameters. Contrary to popular opinion, suffering isn't mandatory.

4. Experiment with Smaller Units of Time

It can be easy to convince yourself that because your novel is big and weighty, you need big chunks of time with which to engage with it. I call bullshit on that, and so does anyone who has managed to write with small children in the house—or despite the overbearing demands of this total bummer of a thing called a full-time job.

According to a bevy of brain experts, you should do whatever it takes to make exercise happen on a daily basis if you want your gray matter to function the way it should when you sit down to write.

Telling yourself you can only write if you have three unbroken hours in which to do so is a cop out. If you've got your project on your mind and have worked out your approach beforehand, you can hit the page in a meaningful way in pretty much whatever unit of time you have available, whether it's your lunch break or the kid's naptime.

Books are made of small things called sentences, and sentences add up to paragraphs. If you have a small unit of time, consider focusing on these smaller units. Sure, things will progress slowly this way—but they will progress.

It's the fitness equivalent of deciding to run around the block on a daily basis versus deciding to to run a marathon; one is almost always within your current capabilities. (Bonus: the former, magically, tends to lead to the latter.)

5. Experiment with Process

What time of day does writing tend to come easiest for you? What is your preferred environment? Are there certain triggers that get you in the mood to write? What's your preferred medium for drafting? For editing?

If you don't know the answers to these questions, consider experimenting with your writing process to whatever degree your current schedule allows. That might mean drafting with paper and pen (or pencil) for the first time since you were in grade school; it might mean moving your writing desk to the attic, the basement, or a coffee shop; it might mean getting ahold of some really swanky noise-cancelling headphones and a catalog of Mozart's greatest hits; it might mean writing at night if you've always written in the morning, or vice versa; it might mean prostrating yourself each day before the image of Amygdala, your personal writing god. 

When you hit upon a writing process that really works with the way that you, as a writer, are wired, writing will generally become easier and more productive, not to mention more fun. 

6. Turn Off the Internet 

LitReactor's own Robbie Blair has a lot to say about turning off the Internet as a critical step in getting more writing done, and there's no doubt that it's true: unfettered Internet access will cause you to lose hours upon hours down the random info rabbit hole instead of banging out the next scene of the brilliant short story you sat down to write.

Stephanie Vozza, productivity expert and author of The Five-Minute Mom's Club is another advocate for cutting back on (or cutting out) the Internet, having found that she could accomplish in six Internet-free hours what would normally take her two or three days.

There are those who advise actually working on a machine that lacks Internet access (or even a typewriter) and others who swear by nanny programs like Cold Turkey, which temporarily blocks social media sites and games while you work. Personally, I've found that simply checking my email and social media at three set intervals throughout the day (rather than leaving tabs open while I work) has upped my level of productivity considerably. It also allows me to batch tasks—yet another productivity hack. 

7. Get More Exercise

If there's one thing that causes the human brain to work better, according to developmental molecular biologist John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, it's exercise. 

We all know that exercise is good for you, but where, exactly, do you manage to fit it in, between a job that requires you to sit on your ass and an art from that demands the same? There are no easy answers, but according to a bevy of brain experts, you should do whatever it takes to make exercise happen on a daily basis if you want your gray matter to function the way it should when you sit down to write.

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (aka, "The Running Novelist") is famed for his hyper-athletic daily writing schedule, which includes rising at 4:00 a.m., writing for five to six hours, then running 10 kilometers or swimming for 1500 meters (or both), followed by a bit of reading and listening to music before he hits the sack (presumably, with a thud). Few of us have the luxury or desire to establish such a demanding routine, but almost all of us can find a way to move a little more over the course of the day, whether it's a regular yoga class or choosing to walk rather than drive.

Like all forms of advice, feel free to take what works for you from this list and chuck the rest—even one of these tips. If it jibes with your style, it should help you hit higher word counts in 2015.

About the author

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Story Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature, along with many other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West, and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, and has served as a freelance editor and book coach since 2010.

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