If you want to write, write! And other infuriating advice

If you want to write: write!

We’ve all heard some form of this advice, and its more crass counterpart, “put your ass in the chair.”

What I hate most about this advice is its simplicity. I know that the only way to write is to sit down and do it.

Easier said than done.

When I sit down to write, I often sit down surrounded by my ambition, my hopes, and a running to-do list of other tasks I should be doing. I developed my Spell Against Self Doubt – the actions I take to prepare for writing – to build my confidence as a writer. I needed something other than a page number to measure success, and so it was surprising that one of the most useful tools is completing three pages of automatic writing before opening my computer. It made me wonder:

Is the secret to unlocking better writing as simple as writing more?

Time @ Desk (Time + Wordcount) / Hours Procrastinating = Quality

Is there an equation to better writing?

According to Julie Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Understanding, writing more is the way not only to get better at writing, but also better any creative pursuit. The task is simple: write for three pages without a plan. Just keep writing.

For the first few weeks, I remained dubious. My morning pages were painfully mundane. I scribbled to-do lists, petty anxieties, and physical descriptions of my surroundings. While I had succeeded in getting my ass in the chair, it seemed to only confirm the fear that I had nothing interesting to write.

And then something shifted. One morning some of the smog lifted. I started writing about a dream I’d had. The daily practice of unplanned writing led me to unplanned ideas. Unexpected details crawled through my still-foggy brain. I accessed the joy I’ve observed in a marker-wielding three year old: fierce commitment to coloring page after page, followed by total abandonment when snack time rolls around.

So is the secret to writing better, writing more?

My morning pages have not manifested into a manuscript. They have become a beloved junk drawer of detail, observation, and memory. Though I write my morning pages when I am still half asleep, they have woken up my delight in writing. I no longer sit at my desk wondering if I have a story to tell, but which story I will share with this audience.

Writing more has improved my writing, because I now approach my writing like a three year old — content to be completely absorbed in the act of creating! I write from a place of trust and delight. Of course, I’m not saying that quantity equals quantity. Word count is not a panacea for a poorly formed argument, but it may be a cure for doubt.

Art by my favorite three year old - one of 13 pieces made that day!

Art by my favorite three year old – one of 13 pieces made that day!

If you want to write – write! Write when you are half asleep, write when you are annoyed that your friend is late to meet you (again), write when you see something that delights you.

So what do you think? Is writing more a path towards better writing?

Small_headshotNaomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

29 thoughts on “If you want to write, write! And other infuriating advice

  1. Thank you for posting :). Very inspiring. I have felt this (the smog you describe) for quite some time. Writing more (about anything) develops more creativity and ideas!

    • Sorry to hear that you experiencing idea smog. Sometimes I write a letter to a friend as a way to boost myself into a place of joy.

  2. Pingback: If you want to write, write! And other infuriating advice — Live to Write – Write to Live – Starr's Books & Blog

  3. I think of writing as a muscle that needs exercising. This is not a new comparison, but it is one that has stuck with me.
    I used to do lots of automatic writing. I found it freeing and fun. Ideas would pop up and I would write about things I didn’t even realize I was thinking about.
    Maybe my blog is like that. I try to write something with a basic story form, but many comments have called it stream of consciousness.

    • I should also add that one piece of advice I heard once (and it came from a book whose title I don’t know….maybe writing down the bones) that has really stuck with me is
      Write when you write and edit when you edit.
      The idea, I guess, being rather than edit yourself (and get into a funk of not getting it right) wait until you are done. Surprisingly this works well.
      If this is meandering, sorry. I haven’t had my first cup of coffee yet.

      • I definitely think of automatic writing as stretching and warm up. I also am a full believer in “write when you write, and edit when you edit.”

    • I agree with Anthony’s muscle analogy. I chose to start blogging because I wanted to give myself a deadline, a goad to write something, anything on a regular basis. Blogging forces a minimum quality level on me as well as the sense that I have to make something happen on a regular basis. I’m also doing journaling for the first time in my live, sometimes just a phrase that evokes idea, a sentence or two of a topic to write on, and in two cases in the past year, detailed character summaries for fiction I may pursue in the future.
      When people don’t write as well as they might, it is for the same reason they can’t kayak as well as they might: lack of practice.

  4. So are you saying you believe in and adhere to the advice even though it infuriates you? I don’t think it is bad advice, and it works for some, but I advise people NOT to write everyday if it begins to feel like a chore to them. I keep an idea notebook that I scratch in every few days, and then breeze back through a few weeks later. 95% of the ideas aren’t worth writing, but that last 5% get turned into first drafts. It sounds like we have similar but different approaches.

    • Yes! I adhere to the advice, “if you want to write, write” with a twist. I’ve found that the daily practice of automatic writing is about building trust and delight, not about creating a finished product. I do not work on my other projects daily, or have a hours-per-week quota for my creative writing, because I don’t want to be a chore. My daily writing means that when I do sit down to work on a play or essay, I don’t have that voice saying, “you have nothing to write.”

      Another example is: I love to climb…and this isn’t something I do every day. I do work stretch and train daily, so that I have the strength and endurance when I am able to get to a mountain. Does that make more sense?

      • Absolutely makes sense, and I think that’s a good way of approaching things. It’s a fascinating topic because there seems to be a different method that works best for every writer.

  5. “I write from a place of trust and delight.” –this belongs on an index card pinned on my bulletin board.
    I’ve finally accomplished butt-in-the-chair: getting up an hour earlier to write every single day at the coffee shop (where all my other should-be-doings magically disappear because I know the only thing I can do at that moment is write), and my productivity is way up, but it’s been so long since I’ve done any free-writing! Writing without a goal. You make some good arguments: write something WITHOUT knowing if I’m going to be able to put it in a novel, use it on a blog, or submit it as a short story.
    Someday, God willing, I’m going to get this WIP published, and by gosh, I’m going to need a fresh idea.

    • I should probably add that to one of my reminder sticky notes as well!

      I love that you’ve committed to writing for an hour each morning. Yes – someday you will come to an end of this WIP and it will be a moment to write all of the other ideas and stories that are within you. Next post, I’ll be writing about the value of taking a break (or detour) from a WIP as a way to regain clarity.

  6. I don’t know if other writers feel this, but I often feel that I’m either 100% in flow and could write for hours, or absolutely nothing I write is readable! But I guess that pushing through feeling like you have nothing to say is the most rewarding. Off to my notebook!

    • Jess – Yes! I have experienced the fast or famine of writing flow. Writing morning pages has helped me learn how to find flow more frequently. Usually, the first page is total garbage, and then I start to find my groove. It helps me to do this terrible, no-flow writing in a notebook, instead of on a document for a WIP. The best days are when I find flow in my morning pages and then can take that to my desk.

  7. I found this posting very interesting. From the perspective now of a longer life and much writing, I do believe the secret is not to be stressed or worried about goals, ambitions etc but live to write and write ie consider that everything even the simple seemingly trivial is expanding writing experience…..a letter to the editor of a newspaper simply expressing a point of view or a need….ie for a park in your town etc. Writing to friends and family – using both your mind and your hands. The new technological age makes us all slaves to the devices if we let them. I certainly have found that the sentences scribbled on the bottom of a shopping docket, Just a thought etc is far more beneficial than the pressure of completing a certain number of words etc. Entering short story competitions or setting personal challenges to actually write a 1000 word story but not stressing about it but as a personal challenge when the time is right, is good for the mind. In recent times I have found blogging and having a website – without any thought of fame or fortune is very helpful. I love the challenge of actually being inspired to write something ……..encouraging on a regular basis. Know you own voice is also my advice. Never try to be a writer like anyone else…….We are all uniquely different. Happy writing to all!

    • I like your advice about embracing multiple writing experiences (letters to the editor, friends, family). Texting and e-mail mean that most of us write and read throughout the day, but often without a heart-mind connection. I also really value your comment: “never try to be a writer like anyone else.” Thanks and Happy Writing!

  8. I agree. I have noticed that the more I write. The more I have to write about. The ideas seem to come in a steady flow as long as I write on a consistent basis. The ideas tend to stop when I stop writing. It’s funny how that works. Great post and happy writing!

  9. I loved the way you have presented your ideas about writing. You sure as hell have got the jiff of it. Though don’t you think number three has been used a tad bit too much (my opinion). Let not the bracket misguide you (and others).

    • You’re right, three does get a lot of airtime as a magic number. I sometimes set a time for 25 minutes and write based on time. I find that three is long enough to move past the banality of describing my sleep, but not so long that I tell myself I don’t have time. Of course, ironically — or inevitably — the day I posted this blog I didn’t do my pages.

  10. What is writer’s block for most writers? Personally my biggest obstacle is a complete lack of confidence. There is something in my head that just says “what you’re making is crap and no one wants to see it and you’re wasting your time.” I think the wasting of time is the biggest thing. How do you ignore the other 1,000 things you need to do? How do you convince yourself that you have time to create?

    • Hi Petitekee – I set aside time just to write “what you’re making is crap and no one else wants to see it.” That’s what I do first thing in the morning, ever morning. I’ve found that making the time to do it means that I get it out of my system…and I’ve actually run out of negative things to say about myself. Making time to write “this is crap, I have nothing to say,” takes the power out of those thoughts, and it means that when I sit down to write a story, I’ve already acknowledged my demons, and can move forward.

      I often set a timer — both for my writing and other tasks. If I say, “I’m going to write for 25 minutes,” then I can ignore those other 1,000 things, after all, its just 25 minutes. I make time to create because I enjoy my life — and myself — more when I am creating. When I don’t take time to create, I get cranky and jealous of those who do. Good Luck!

  11. I completely agree when you say that writing more is the path to better writing. It’s a tried and tested formula and always works. Whenever I couldn’t write for days it takes me five to six days of random nonsensical writing to come back on track & regain the synchronization between the fluency of my thoughts and the keyboard.

  12. Hi Naomi, I so needed your post today. I have been paying for a Word Press account for over a year, sadly without a single post. Probably over 5 years ago I read “most” of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. I witnessed first hand just how effective the morning pages were in helping me to release artistic thought at my place of business. Although, not entirely in my writing alone, but also, obviously in all forms of business there is a need to be able to express yourself well. Example being email structure, marketing, etc. I have struggled for years with the “voices” telling me that I am not well-educated enough to pursue writing, although so many well-educated people have told me that I have a real gift of expressing myself through writing. I write more of a “small thoughts” approach from my personal experiences in life. Facebook isn’t the platform for this and Word Press made sense after fellow writer suggested it. Each time I write something and proof it to post, I chicken out. I read the proof and it sounds forced and without flow. The times I have received wonderful and encouraging comments from people, its when I have written some on the fly, somewhat lengthy Facebook “small thought” about life, family, and well, life. I put it out there randomly, raw and untamed to a bunch of Facebook friends and it flows! Thanks to your reminder here, I will go back to the morning pages, for I know that they work. (AND, I will also go find a good online course that helps me clean up my rusty punctuation and vocabulary skills. 🙂 AND I will write.) Again, thank you for the reminder….back to the morning pages I will go……

  13. Pingback: Take a Break (Infuriating Advice, Part 2) | Live to Write – Write to Live

  14. I love the advice to write upon waking up… and to write about ones’ dreams. Since, I indeed do have a rich dream life! I struggle to free-write, as I am an incredibly rational and organized person. Too much so, at times – although it has aided me in my educational endeavours (Molecular Genetics and Medicine) – it absolutely stifles my creativity.

    I think that endeavoring to free-write will train my brain to become more creative. Thanks for the tip!

  15. I totally agree with you on the simplicity of this advice. It sounds like those clichés which are of no use. But that’s not the case. It’s indeed a powerful advices which starts to show its effect after the doer commits himself to it. And the results are mind-blowing. I contemplate a lot (yeah, it sucks sometimes) but since I have started doing it via Automatic Writing, it seems to have opened a plethora of insights and thoughts, which I never knew I had.

    It was a great read.:)

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