1) They reject the notion of “writer’s block” the way others shun gluten. Some people are truly unable to tolerate that vilified protein, but many more leap after a culprit to explain their dyspepsia or inability to refrain from carby deliciosity. Maybe cutting out a big food group makes it easier to stick to a diet than being careful about portion sizes of crusty bread and pasta puttanesca. Certainly there’s a comfort in diagnosis, relief in the idea that suffering can be linked to a thing that others also get. Likewise, it’s a lot easier to say that the muse has gone AWOL than to admit that writing is hard and requires discipline and sacrifice.
Productive writers don’t reach for excuses when the going gets hard. They treat writing like the job it is. They show up, punch the clock, and punch out. They give themselves a quota; sometimes it’s butt-in-chair time, sometimes a word count. Simple math allows you to figure out how quickly 1,000 words a day adds up to a book-length work. These writers know how to use deadlines, whether external or self-imposed, to stay on track.
2) They believe in themselves and their work. To be a prolific writer you have to believe that what you’re doing matters. The work takes priority. You have to believe it’s your job to be productive and to feel bad if you’re not.
3) They know that a lot of important stuff happens when they’re not “working”. Productive writers have been through the cycle enough to know it’s a cycle, and sometimes you figure out problems while you’re walking the dog. They know to trust that and don’t get twitchy when the pages stop piling up.
4) They’re passionate about their projects. Too much scholarly work is obviously produced without heat. Some academics take so long to finish a book they can barely remember what interested them about the topic in the first place. Productive people become impatient and seek out new thrills. They like to learn stuff.
5) They know what they’re good at. Perhaps academics find themselves traumatized by writing because they’re trying to sound like some “smart” version of themselves. Their writing comes off as inauthentic. Often, however, these same people can talk about their ideas in a way that makes you want to listen for hours. The best writing is a conversation between author and reader. If these folks could write more like they teach—be themselves on the page—the work would surely benefit.
6) They read a lot, and widely. Productive writers (should) pay attention to craft and read to steal tricks and moves from authors they admire. Reading becomes a get-psyched activity for writing. Anyone who’s ever assigned (or done) an exercise in imitation knows that.
7) They know how to finish a draft. As with relationships, beginnings are exciting and easy, full of hope and promise. Middles can get comfortable. You fall into a routine and, for a while, that can be its own kind of fun. But then many of us hit a wall. Whether it’s disillusion, boredom, or self-doubt, we crash into stuckness. Productive authors know that they have to keep going through the hard parts and finish a complete draft. At least you’ve got something to work from.
8) They work on more than one thing at once. Of course, when you hit that wall, it’s tempting to give up and start on something new and exciting. While that can lead to a sheaf of unfinished drafts, it can also be useful. Some pieces need time to smolder. Leaving them to turn to something short and manageable makes it easier to go back to the big thing. Fallowing and crop rotation lead to a greater harvest.
9) They leave off at a point where it will be easy to start again. Some writers quit a session in the middle of a sentence; it’s always easier to continue than to begin. If you know where you’re headed the next time you sit down, you’ll get there faster.
10) They know there are no shortcuts, magic bullets, special exercises, or incantations.There are no tricks to make it easier, just habits and practices you can develop to get it done.
Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. www.racheltoor.com. Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Chronicle for Higher Education. Used with permission.