Producing consistent creative output in the form of blog posts, social posts, or writing a full book was never an “overnight” thing for me. Writing is an artistic endeavour I’ve been drawn to—but also intimidated by—for years. Writing is challenging, frustrating, and straight up such a pain in the ass (and sometimes a blow to the confidence), yet I feel compelled to continue to write. If I don’t write, I can hear my inner voice yelling at me to get back at it. Writing is an activity that fulfills my strong need and desire for contemplation, understanding, interpretation, and reflection. Writing is a medium that lets me share what I’ve learned, and the mistakes I’ve made along the way with others—with the hope that someone, somewhere can find a small sliver of what I write useful to them. Writing helps me solidify my knowledge and retain what I’ve learned.
The pain and struggle of showing up and putting words to a page is therefore, always worth the effort. It’s the act of writing itself that provides me with ongoing gifts; it’s a way to express my creativity, humour, and to contribute back to the world in a small, but impactful way. Knowledge has it’s own life cycle; an infinite loop. If I don’t share what I learn with others, I feel like I’m breaking the loop. It feels like I’m hoarding important information akin to an evil little leprechaun protecting her gold, and so I feel compelled to contribute; to give back to this circulation of knowledge. And so it continues.
As I embarked on my own writing journey, I sought out help from other people including bloggers, authors, or anyone who publicly and openly shared their advice. I’ve heard really shitty advice when it comes to writing—usually from amateaur writers who want to make a quick buck or are trying to lift their online presence. Anyone who presents a dogmatic assertion on the “right way to write,” I simply ignore. Because the only dogmatic advice I follow is that there is no universal right way.
At the same time, I’ve heard and read some incredible advice that has been instrumental in helping me progress as a writer, and most importantly, helped me to show up consistently with my creative work. I’ve compiled some of the most helpful advice from other writers, authors, and philosophers whom I greatly admire, while also contributing some tips I contrived myself, that helped me in the single most important task of any writer: to produce consistently over the long term.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned through my development as a writer is this: that there is no single, universal writing routine, process, or linear progression one must follow to become a writer. We all must find our own way and cultivate our own process. If you’ve been a reader of my blog (or my book, Find Your Stride), you’ll know I’m a big proponent of self-experimentation. Trying information “on for size,” so to speak, allows us more malleability in how we approach our writing, can help us be kinder to ourselves, which can thus help propel us forward. We are, as Heracltius wrote, in a constant state of “flux”—we’re growing, changing beings and as such, need to refine and evolve our process to suit our ever-changing selves.
So with that being said, if you read something I list below that resonates with you, I encourage you to give it a try in your own practice, and see if it sticks for you too!
One of the biggest mistakes I made in writing was approaching the activity with an all-or-nothing attitude. If I told myself that in a single writing session, I needed to pump out an entire blog post, then I would inevitably procrastinate like crazy. While many writers are indeed able to do this, when I approached writing with this mentality, guess what? I barely (if ever) showed up to my writing. My own daily writing practice consists of small chunks devoted to the task. I set aside a minimum of 30 minutes first thing in the morning to write, whether that’s in the form of a blog post, chipping away at a book, social content, or just journaling. My primary goal with writing is ongoing, lifelong practice; production and publishable content is secondary. I had to shift my focus on the task at hand (that is the one blog post or piece of content I’m working on), and instead, focus on the big picture. Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, writes,
One of the main aims in writing practice is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and nonaggressive. Art lives in the Big World. One poem or story doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s the process of writing and life that matters.
Writing, for the artist, is the act of living. For philosopher Frederich Nietzsche, his written work was his life—he lived through his diversified work and literature. In order to endure and persist over the long haul, as trite as this sounds, we must fall in love with our creative process and formulate our own writing practice. If you’re a beginner, this may just be journaling and writing a stream of consciousness onto the page—even if it comes across as verbal word vomit. Julia Cameron’s very popular book, The Artist’s Way, spread the idea of the morning pages. The formula for this is quite simple. Each day, Cameron recommends sitting down and hand-writing three pages of literally anything. She categorizes the morning pages as a basic tool to harness our creativity. Cameron writes that “in order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it. I ask you to do this by an apparently pointless process I call the morning pages.”
While perhaps it seems pointless, Cameron explains the practice—that is, the act of sitting down and writing out 3 pages every single day can be “creative recovery”; to unblock the blocked artist. I like to think of the idea of the morning pages as creating a habit or routine.
When I first read this book, I was already years into my writing journey and when I practiced the morning pages, albeit in a digital format, I found that the pages had the adverse effect: instead of warming me up for my own writing practice, I felt drained when I approached my own writing. I use the pages, or morning journaling, if I want to take a break from writing publishable content, but I like to warm-up with something a bit more digestible when I’m writing the actual content I’m producing itself.
My writing practice is now 6 days a week consisting of 1.5-2 hour long spurts. I’m working on my second book right now, so I prioritize writing that first, and if I still have some fuel left in the tank, I’ll work on blog posts or content for social. A writing practice that’s subjective to the individual is essential in writing consistently. Whether you want to hit a 500 – 1,000/day word count, write for 20 minutes, one hour a day, or hammer out a page or blog post a day, is up to you. This process is entirely subjective, but what is objective and paramount in our writing, more generally, is the practice itself and showing up to do the work repeatedly over the long haul.
L’art pour l’art
The popular 19th century phrase and movement, l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake), tried to reposition art as a means of creative expression, rather than a means to an end; that is, to create art that’s detached from theological, political, or moral purposes. When we’re in the act of writing, we don’t always have to produce publishable content or use it as a means to achieve some sort of external goal (which can actually strip motivation away), but rather, as a form of creative expression alone.
If we challenge ourselves in our writing, we can increase the likelihood of achieving that elusive flow state; where time seems to fly by, and we are fully immersed in the activity—achieving a calm, tranquil state of mind. Making writing autotelic is an intrinsic frame, which requires us to immerse ourselves fully in the activity at hand; l’art pour l’art. Writing for me provides me with the most meaning in my life—it’s the form of creative expression I’m most drawn to. Learning to love writing for the sake of writing itself, makes the activity so much more enjoyable and rewarding.
Read a lot and write a lot.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. —Steven King, On Writing
Bestselling author Ryan Holiday says that his books are made up of “all material.” To be well-read, and take diligent notes while reading, combined with hours and hours and hours of practice, can help contribute to good writing and profound insights. We can draw upon instances, parables, and references through the myriad of books we read that will add more dimension and depth to our writing. Reading—especially literature with vast dialect and concepts—can help us form better diction and vocabulary within our writing. However, it’s not just about reading “a lot,” but reading literature with quality inputs. While I’m not saying to only read academic literature (there is certainly merit in all kinds), we do need to be careful with the types of content we consume as it can indeed have profound impact on our world views. I draw endless inspiration from philosophers, finding pragmatic advice in what appears arbitrarily complex. 16th century French Philosopher (and one of my faves), Michel De Montaigne also says that we need to be careful with what we read as it can either nourish, or poison us. I like to read variegated genres, but with a focus on philosophy, self-development, the classics, and fitness from reputable authors. This differs for everyone.
By being well-read, I’ve been able to develop a different way of looking at the world—all through the lens of other’s anecdotes, life experiences or wisdom imparted in their writing. Reading a variety of different styles helped pave the way for my own style and to experiment with different techniques when writing.
Always remain a beginner
[The beginner’s mind] is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, everytime we begin we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps”—Natalie Goldberg, Writing Done the Bones
I first learned about the concept of shoshin (beginner’s mind) while reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, which was recommended to me by my meditation teacher, Shifu Yuan Jing. The idea is this: the more advanced we get, the more experience we accumulate, and the more confident we feel in our skills, the more likely our minds will become ossified and closed-off. We think we already know everything there is to know and therefore shut ourselves off to new perspectives, ways of thinking, and potential new skills we could develop.
Shoshin is the idea of always remaining a beginner—keeping our minds open and malleable to growth opportunities. Suzuki writes “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” With writing, this is especially prevalent as per Goldberg’s quote mentioned above: that even though we may have the writing skills—the years of work and practice as a backbone—each time we sit down, we must begin again. This perspective is a humbling one and keeps us learning and growing. The authors that stay fixated on their ideas, aren’t open to experimentation with their process, and write about the same topics over and over again, become repetitive—not offering a lot of quality takeaways for the reader. So how does one become a beginner? By stretching ourselves. Try writing about a new topic, try incorporating a new style into your writing, try using new words. If you’re used to writing about others (a more journalistic approach), try writing about yourself instead (and vice versa). The key here is to remind yourself over your lifetime—especially as you become aware of any sort of rigidity, or dogmatic assertions with your writing—to step back and perhaps even start from square one.
Watch out for monetization
“Payment and reserved copyright are at the bottom of the ruin of literature. Only he who writes entirely for the sake of what he has to say writes anything worth writing. It is as if there was a curse on money: every writer writes badly as soon as he starts writing for gain.”— Arthur Schopenhauer
Look, we all need to make a living. One of the hardest professions to make a strong income from is writing, or any creative labourer for that matter. The “starving artist” motto has much truth to it in this modern age. Unfortunately, in the capitalistic society we live in, a majority of artists struggle to make a living through their art. While there are more opportunities than ever to monetize, I’ve heard countless times from friends in the arts, and from my own personal experience as a writer, that it’s extremely difficult to earn a sustainable income—it’s a precarious and volatile profession unfortunately. Further, many people who go all-in on writing or on other creative endeavors with the attempt to “monetize their hobbies” may be subject to the overjustification effect where the introduction of external rewards (like money), can make the intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of the activity itself wane or dissipate altogether. They no longer enjoy the activity for the sake of the activity itself, but use it as means to earn money. If we put that pressure on our art—to afford our lifestyle, pay our rent, and numerous other bills—our art may suffer.
Subjectivity in writing
“[A style] should not be subjective, but objective. An objective style is one in which the words are so arranged that the reader is downright compelled to think exactly the same thing as the author has thought.”—Arthur Schopenhauer
We must acknowledge our own lens and biases that we bring to the table when we write. Just because something has worked for us, or a truth we discovered for ourselves, does not mean it becomes a universal truth. We must remember that we are not in a monologue, but rather in a dialogue– with our readers. It takes part skill and party empathy to put yourself in the reader’s shoes; readers of all social locations, cultures, and backgrounds.
Going pro means showing up consistently
In Steven Pressfield’s fantastic book Turning Pro, he explains his definition of what turning pro entails: “Before we turn pro, our life is dominated by fear and resistance. We live in a state of denial. We’re denying the voice in our heads. We’re denying our call. We’re denying who we really are.”
The turning point for Pressfield wasn’t the realization that “ah yes, this is quality stuff I’m writing” (my words, not his). No, it was showing up consistently after “years of running from it.” Consistency showing up and chipping away at our writing over the long haul, is what counts. It’s not grinding away for a single day or multiple days in short spurts of effort, but it’s a long, slow grind. Consistency is reliant on intrinsic motivation; it must come from the inside. For me, it’s exploring my curiosity, the gratification of seeing myself visibly get better, the challenge it presents day-in and day-out, and to help others. I need these constant reminders to show up consistently to my creative work.
Focusing on the end result, the stats, social validation, money, or any other ego-centric, external rewards, are likely going to cause our motivation to burnout quick. The amateaur focuses on these. The pro focuses on what really counts: the inward journey and making writing a sustainable and integral part of our lives.
Writing is hard
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come our right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.” – William Zinsser, On Writing Well
Okay I’m just gonna say it: writing is hard. No matter the tenure, writing is very difficult. In fact, it could be arguably more difficult as you become more experienced and accomplished. You have more pressure to produce quality work—more eyeballs and potential scrutiny on what you produce and put out into the world. I think if we expect writing to be easy or hope that it gets easier, we’re going to be in for a rude awakening. When we read a book or article, it’s a polished, perfected piece of art. We don’t get the behind the scenes look at all the crap that came before it (we’ll get into the shitty first draft ethos in a second here). All writers think writing is hard. Period. But isn’t that what we like about it? That it challenges us and pushes us to grow? In that way, it should be hard. We want it to be hard. If it was easy, we’d likely get bored and abandon it. Us humans love a good challenge. So framing writing as hard, as a challenge for even the best writers in the world, allows us to approach the task with a bit more self-compassion. Similar to a marathon; if you think it’s going to be easy, you’re gonna suffer or get hit in the face with a big DNF. However if you go into it, knowing that it’s going to push you, you’re going to be uncomfortable, and that there’s inevitably going to be high points and low points, you can approach it more pragmatically—what Steve Magness describes in his book Do Hard Things, as “embracing reality.” We’re then better equipped to handle the many roadblocks and challenges writing throws our way.
Writing drains and supplies the mind
Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too”— E.B. White, The Elements of Style
Writing is an activity that can both supply us with profound insights, help us deal with emotions, and make sense of our world and our experiences. At the same time, writing can fatigue us creatively. A piece of advice I found very helpful when writing my first book Find Your Stride is to stop writing for the day before the tank is empty. End on a high note so you’re excited to return to your writing the next day. You leave your writing with a good experience. If you’re completely draining yourself every single day and squeezing out every last creative drop you possess, it’s going to be exhausting and, to be blunt, shitty. Figuring out when you should stop for the day is not something I can tell you. You have to figure that out on your own based on your own writing endurance. If you want writing to be enjoyable, try stopping when you’re in a good place. It’s of course not going to be possible every day—some days I feel taxed after a writing session—but most of the time, I try to stop when I’m beginning to feel the onset of fatigue.
Hemingway’s Shitty First Draft Ethos
You’ve likely heard Hemingway’s motto that all first drafts are shit. When we’re in constant editor mode while writing, we may feel stuck and begin to chastise ourselves while we write. The shitty draft ethos helps me get words to the page and refrain from rereading what I wrote that same day. Let me repeat: I never write a first draft of anything and edit the same day (unless it’s a short form piece for social media) and even then, oftentimes, I’ll write the first draft and let it sit for a day before editing it and cleaning it up. My first drafts are messy and sometimes leave me feeling borderline illiterate. The point is to just keep going, keep in motion, and don’t stop, friend! Telling ourselves that the first draft of anything is going to be shitty helps us deal with those oftentimes harsh, critical voices in our head that tell us we’re not enough, our work won’t amount to anything, that people are going to judge us, and on, and on, and on. By saying “it’s okay to be shitty”—even the best, most prolific writers jot down shit on their first go, it can help us keep writing which is the most important thing we can do as a writer.
I’m always on the hunt for new pieces of wisdom to improve my writing, my process, and to deal with those negative voices in my head. My process is ever-evolving and ever-changing and that keeps things fun for me. When I wrote Find Your Stride, I stuck to a rigid 7-day per week schedule of working on my book for an hour per day first thing in the morning. With my new book, while I still prioritize it over my other writing, I’ll take some weekends off if I’m traveling or if I’m super tired that day, I’ll write for 30 minutes or so. I’m more much flexible with this new project and it’s working well for me. Finding what works for you, is a process of ongoing exploration and experimentation. I hope this post in some way, helps you in your writing—wherever you are in your journey. Any advice you’ve heard that’s really stuck and been instrumental to your own process? I’d love to hear it 🙂
Only lately have I begun embracing the shitty first draft. I treat it as something a non-writer friend would send me, and it’s up to my editor self to clean it up. So while drafting, I try to be my non-writing friend as much as possible, just to get the ideas out. Anyway, thanks for this post!