Your Own Personal Writing System
“Write every day if you want to become a good writer.”
“The best time to write is in the morning.”
“Write the first draft in longhand.”
People subscribe to writing advice because they don’t trust their own process or they don’t have one yet.
But there is no secret formula.
It’s important to remember that the purpose of writing is not to write. The purpose of writing is to create, to clarify your thoughts, to share your perspective.
The key is to find joy in the process. And something that works well for me might not work well for you.
Consider working out. People love Crossfit. I’m a competitive former college athlete so it seems like a good fit. But I’m not trying to get jacked and I don’t need someone in my face telling me to add more weight to my barbell. 50 pounds is just fine for my squats, thank you very much.
It has to work for you. What gets you excited to write? What gives you energy and inspiration and bursts of creativity? It’s a matter of experimentation. If it’s not the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, maybe it’s a specific topic that thrills you, maybe it’s the unique perspective you’re desperate to share, maybe it’s recognizing how much you learned just by writing it down, maybe it’s a feeling of accomplishment after you’ve written the thing.
The only way to find the joy is to have patience, try things out, then pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work. So instead of telling you when to write, how much to write, and what to write, here are some tools to help you develop your very own, very personal writing system.
A great tool for productivity is deadlines. Writer Jerry Saltz said,
“Deadlines are sent to us from hell, via heaven.”
That’s because they’re a bitch, but they work.
I have four deadlines each week:
- Saturday: rough outline (or at the very least, an idea) for a new essay
- Sunday: rough draft of essay
- Tuesday: final draft of essay
- Tuesday: newsletter
These deadlines create a natural weekly rhythm.
After I post my essay and send out my newsletter on Tuesday, I feel euphoric - for about two hours. Then I realize I had better get to work because I have my next deadline on Saturday.
If a colleague or friend asks me for something and leaves the question open-ended, I will put the thing on the bottom of my to-do list and possibly forget about it. To ensure that doesn’t happen, I always respond with, “When do you need this by?” because deadlines are more precious than perfection. The act of meeting the deadline far outweighs my need to make it great.
So from Tuesday until Friday, I am brainstorming and outlining a new idea. These typically feel like my worst days. My ideas suck and I have nothing to say. How can I call myself a writer?
While these days feel incredibly unproductive, they’re a necessary part of the process. Don’t discount the struggle.
The Saturday deadline is very important because it’s not just about me. I have an accountability group.
I found my writing community through a recent online course that I took, Write of Passage. With this group, I have the opportunity to not only read but edit people’s essays.
The more I provide feedback, the better I get at noticing what doesn’t work, why it doesn’t work, and how to make it better.
Paul Graham advises writers to become a connoisseur of bad writing:
“When you read something that seems bad, try to figure out why. Is it because the author is being dishonest? Is the rhythm off? Is the diction too formal? How would you say it? Once you’re good at noticing mistakes, it becomes harder to produce them.”
On Saturday, about 8-15 of us meet through Zoom to talk about our ideas and write for an hour. On Sunday, I meet with that same group again, this time to read each other’s drafts and give detailed feedback.
With the internet, there’s never been an easier time to connect with people online. But if you don’t have an accountability group, start paying attention to what you like and don’t like in someone else’s writing. How would you change it?
Write Without Writing
It’s famously said that writers don’t like to write - they like to have written.
While it is, indeed, a wonderful feeling to have written, I would never say that I hate writing. So if writing is making you miserable, do something else.
There are other ways to write besides writing. Writing is informed by experiences: a phone conversation, an interaction with someone on the street, attending an event. Through all of the day-to-day stuff, I’m always writing. In my head.
Sometimes I’ve got an idea burning in my brain that I simply need to write. Most other times, I have nothing to say. Nothing. I’m a useless piece of garbage who doesn’t deserve to call herself a writer. Instead of wallowing in self pity, do something that brings you joy in that moment.
A conversation with my husband can quickly turn into a brainstorming session. Listening to a podcast or reading a book can spark an opinion. Going for a long walk can allow time for the mind to wander. All of these are equally important to the actual task of writing.
When you do have a strong opinion about something, that’s a good indication of something you should consider writing about. Blogger Andrew Chen explains that most of his writing comes from talking or reading and then deciding he strongly agrees or disagrees:
“These opinions become titles. Titles become essays. After a lively dinner discussion where a provocative opinion is blurted out, I usually write it down. If it’s fun and memorable, it’s an easy thing to write 3-4 supporting points as paragraphs and turn into an essay later.”
Live your life and pay attention. If something hilarious happens, write it down. If you have a very strong unpopular opinion, write it down. If you have a eureka moment, definitely write it down. Immediately.
And if you’ve exhausted everything that you’re interested in and have nothing left to say (something I feel often), then find something you’re interested in.
Read a book, listen to a podcast, watch a movie. Go learn something. And then take notes.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: taking notes is writing.
Years ago, when I hit a wall with screenwriting, I decided to stop writing and instead read and learn as much as I could. I consumed a lot, but when I’d try to tell people about these awesome books I’d read, I wouldn’t actually have much to say because I couldn’t remember.
Through the Write of Passage course, instructor David Perell introduced me to a note-taking system, so now I use Evernote to log anything interesting.
The note-taking system essentially provides hundreds of quotes and examples and stories of things that have resonated with me. Whenever I sit down to write something, I can search through my Evernote to find supporting statements. It makes writing so much easier. It makes it joyful.
Find the joy in writing. Take off any pressure that you’ve put on yourself. If you’re struggling with your writing, build a note-taking system instead.
Find What Works For You
For a while, this will be trial and error. Try writing 30 minutes as soon as you wake up every morning. Try writing when you have a eureka moment. Try forcing yourself to write when you feel like you have nothing to say. Try writing without writing, and then capture those ideas. What’s the result and how do you feel about your progress?
It’s important to experiment with attainable tasks that make you want to come back and do it again. Little by little, you will develop a course of action that keeps you motivated and inspired and eager to write.
Writing isn’t about writing. We write because we have a desire to convey our ideas. Writing is just one way to do that, so if you choose to write, choose it because it feels good.