Dan Perez, Writer & Editor
   

Developing Discipline

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A common problem I'd like to address is one I've wrestled with for years, and one I think a lot of newer writers have trouble with (I was talking to a friend just the other day who complained of the same problem).

It's the problem of developing discipline, and setting up and maintaining a regular writing schedule. I think for some people it turns out to be no problem at all, but for people like me, it was a difficult process to go through. I worked hard to develop a schedule, and was eventually pleased with the consistency of my writing output. Creating and keeping to a regular writing schedule will not only increase your page count, it will improve your mental attitude and sense of accomplishment. So here are some of the techniques I've used to strengthen my (admittedly pretty weak) discipline towards writing. Naturally, some of what works for me probably won't work for you, but I encourage you to try some of these techniques if you're having trouble writing on a regular basis.

Step One: Analysis

The first step in setting up a writing schedule is figuring out what's the best possible writing time in your current schedule. If you don't have a day job, or work flexible hours, I'd strongly suggest writing first thing in the morning. Many authors recommend this, including Ray Bradbury, who says that it's a good time because it's when you're closest with your subconscious and the dream state. It's also good because you're at your freshest in the morning, after a good night's sleep.

If you do have a day job, the task becomes more difficult. If possible, you can get up an hour earlier each morning and devote that to writing. Or you can pick a time later in the evening, when the normal demands of the day are winding down. The only disadvantage of writing later in the evening is that you'll likely be worn out from a day at work and whatever else you had to do when you got home. Still, it can be done, and many writers who have day jobs get their writing done at night.

If you feel like you're constantly busy and never have a set block of time free to write, get a pocket-sized notebook and keep a log of your daily activities for two weeks. Each time you do something different, record the time of day and the activity. A sample entry from such a log might look like this:

Look for patterns in your schedule where you can shoehorn in some writing time. In the example above, an hour of television time could be cut to provide an hour of writing time, and once your presentation for the day job is completed, you may have even more time.

You have to be rigorously honest when you're looking for writing time, so you'll recognize time that could be better used for the writing. You probably have time in your schedule where you really aren't doing much of anything, and a log like the one above can illuminate such time. It helps to be determined to make time to write, of course.

If you're a parent, finding writing time can be akin to finding water in the desert. You may have to break your writing time down into 1/2 hour chunks, scattered here and there. It can be done, though, so don't be discouraged.

Once you've analyzed your weekly routine and set aside some time every day to write, it's time for the next step.

Step Two: Deciding How Much to Write

How much can you write each day? You may have heard about writers who write ten pages a day, or even more. The fact is, people write at different rates. Some people can write ten pages or more per day, and others are doing good to get a page or two written. (A quick aside: we're talking about manuscript pages here, 250 words per page--you can use your word processing software's word count feature to keep track of how much you get done each day).

If you're a newer writer, it will take some experimentation to find out how much you're capable of producing. Set an experimental goal of five pages a day initially, and see how close you come to meeting it. If you meet or exceed it on an average day, you may want to set your goal a little higher, but if you're having serious trouble meeting the goal, go down to 2 or 3 pages. At the very least, you should be able to write one page a day, which, if you write every day, is still 365 pages a year (a novel's worth of pages). My own personal goal is 2 pages a day every weekday (I try to treat writing like a day job, so I give myself weekends off). This amounts to 10 pages a week and 520 pages a year. Quite a bit of production for writing just 500 words a day, isn't it?

Notice I've been talking about keeping track of pages written, rather than time spent writing (i.e.--writing an hour a day). I think it's better to have a tangible number of pages per day, as it's quite possible to have days where the writing isn't flowing, and if you're only keeping track of time spent, instead of pages done, you might not be inclined to push on and meet your goal, settling for just getting a few words down in your allotted time. With a set number of pages, you can just keep grinding along until you get your pages done. It's important to remember that even on the worst writing days--when you're lacking in motivation, when the phrases and scenes aren't congealing in your mind, when about the last thing you want to do is sit down and write--you can still get your pages done by simply being determined to do them. And it's been my experience (and that of other authors as well) that the writing that comes slowly and painfully is usually indistinguishable from that white-hot writing that seems to pour out from your fingers as fast as you can type. On a bad day, my mantra is "You can get two pages done. It's only two pages and then you're done." It works.

Now for some psychological tricks to help you settle into a daily routine. One thing I've found useful is a technique lifted from those 12-step addiction programs: take things one day at a time. It's easy to become daunted at the sheer length of a novel, and the sheer amount of time and effort it takes to write one. Or, like me, you may have had a long spell where you haven't gotten much writing done, and you're disgusted with yourself at your lack of productivity. In two words, forget it. You can't change the past, so give yourself permission not to be burdened by how little you got done back then. Tell yourself, "I'll write my X pages today, and that's all I should worry about. If I get my pages done, I'm doing good." And while there are times when you must think about the novel as a whole, when you're sitting down to write, give yourself permission not to think about the novel as a whole, and how many pages you have to go until it's completed. Those thoughts are not only a distraction, they can be downright demoralizing (and thus, counterproductive). Ray Bradbury keeps a sign next to his typewriter that says, "Don't think! Write!" I think this is what he's getting at: just concentrate on writing X number of pages today. Just as an athlete concentrates on that day's sprint, or long jump, or whatever, narrow your focus to accomplishing what you need to do that day. There's plenty of time later in the day to worry about everything else.

Another trick is to allow yourself to have off days. Everyone who works for a living has off days. If you encounter a day in your regular writing schedule where the words are flowing about as quickly as cold mollasses out of a jar, just keep plugging until your pages are done. If nothing else, give yourself permission to write a couple of lousy pages. You can always go back and revise them later, and you may find, upon later reading, that they weren't quite as lousy as you thought. In any case, the thing to do is get those pages done, whatever their quality, however you can. As the sneaker commercial sez, just do it.

Important: Okay, so you had a bad cold and had to work overtime and you are just so wiped out, you didn't get your pages done yesterday. It's easy to get upset about missing a day and let that affect today's production. Don't. Remember, you can't fix the past, so don't try to write twice as many pages today to make up. Just tell yourself, "Okay, I didn't get my pages done yesterday, but I'll get back on track today," and the write your regular quota for the day. It's important, when trying to maintain a regular schedule, to set realistic goals and not try to exceed them.

If, on the other hand, you have a terrific day and you get more than your quota written, that's great. But remember that anything over your daily quota of pages is gravy, and it doesn't mean that you can take tomorrow off. If your goal is 2 pages a day and you get 5 written, great. But the next day, forget the day before (see above) and tell yourself you'll get your 2 pages done, as usual.

Set a realistic goal and make a regular thing of it. You can do it. It just takes a little determination.

After you've set aside time to write and figured out what your daily quota of pages will be, it's time to take the next step.

Step Three: Keeping Track of Your Progress

It's one thing to set goals and quite another to meet them. One good way to know you're making steady progress is to keep a daily record of how much you've written. It can be as simple as keeping a calendar (the kind with space next to each day to write a note) next to your computer and writing the number of pages you wrote that day in the corresponding box. My system is a bit more complicated, and we'll look at it in a moment. But the point is, by keeping track you can see a number of things at a glance. Are you getting your pages done every day? If not, is there a pattern you can detect that's getting in the way? That sort of thing.

I find it useful to keep track of things both on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I keep a plastic-sleeved note board next to my computer that I can write on with a watercolor pen. The note board is divided into three sections: a daily checklist, a weekly accomplishment graph and a simple bar graph showing how many pages I get done each month.

The daily checklist is a useful tool to keep me focused on what the basic things I need to do that day. As I get something done, I check the appropriate box for that day off. Each box is "weighted" with a number of points according to its importance, and at the end of the week, the points are added together to give a percentage figure for how much I got done that week (which is recorded on the weekly accomplishment graph). A sample daily checklist is shown below:

MON TUE WED THU FRI

Morning journal entry 3 3 3 3 3

Write 2 fiction pages 10 10 10 10 10

Magazine work 4 4 4 4 4

1-hour catchall 3 3 3 3 3

On my note board, the numbers are boxed so I can check them off easily as I get things done during the week. Note that all the numbers for the week add up to 100, so if you get each item done every day of the week, you've had what I call a 100% week. Actually, since the idea is to get as much accomplished each week as possible, it's easier to add all the unchecked numbers together at the end of the week, and subtract those from 100 to get your weekly percentage.

Getting my pages done is the most important thing, so I assigned them the highest numerical weight. My current freelance work as editor of a magazine is next highest, since that's the next most important thing I want to get done that day. The 1-hour catchall is an hour devoted to things I'm often tempted to put off until later (my writer's group critiques, outlining for my fiction, etc.).

Using this weighted system helps me to prioritize my work and keep track of how much I really am getting accomplished as the week progresses. The weighted values also mean that if I miss two journal entries in a one week, I'll still have a 94% week, but if I miss two day's worth of pages, it goes down to 80%. I find this provides good incentive to get those pages done first thing.

At the end of each week, I tally up my accomplishment score and record it on my weekly accomplishment graph. This is a simple graph with increments of 10% (up to 100%) as the vertical axis, and 52 increments (for each week of the year) as the horizontal axis. I connect the graph points as they accumulate on the graph, so at a glance I can see how I've done so far this year. I also average the number of percentage points by the number of graph points to get an average percentage value for the year (mine is currently 76%, which is pretty good, but can stand some improvement).

The last graph is just a bar graph showing how many pages I got written each month. Since the weekly accomplishment graph is a measure of everything I did, I like to keep track of how many pages I wrote, so I can see that at a glance.

Now all these checklists and graphs may sound needlessly anal-retentive, and perhaps for some people they would be. But as I noted above, I have had serious problems in developing discipline, and these tools provide me with some of the daily incentive (as well as structure) to get my work accomplished to the best of my ability. I've set myself some realistic goals, and all the checklists and graphs are designed to help me achieve those goals as best I can. For you, it may be as simple as writing the number of pages you get done each day on your calendar. Find the level of meticulousness you need, and implement that in your daily routine.

I have found that maintaining these graphs not only has made me a more productive writer, but the weekly accomplishment graph has made me a more productive person in general, and for those chronic procrastinators out there, they can certainly provide some good incentive to get busy.

Note: I'd like to thank David Gerrold for introducing me to the idea of the weekly accomplishment graph in his writer's workshop. I took his basic idea and refined it into something more useful for me.

Some Final Tips

In the game of psychological judo known as getting motivated to write, there are a number of things you can do to help you stick to your schedule. Here are some:

Red buttonKeep a journal. Writing is often therapeutic, and keeping a private journal can be worth the time in helping you develop the right mindset about your new schedule. Set a time for thirty minutes and write down whatever's on your mind (even if it's just worrying that you'll have trouble sticking to your new schedule). You'd be surprised at how this simple activity can both warm you up for writing (I make my journal entries first thing in the morning before I write, and it helps me shake off any fuzziness associated with just waking up), and set your mind at ease by getting your worries out of your head and onto the page.

Red buttonAvoid distractions. Turn on your answering machine. Have your coffee mug full and (if you listen to music while you write) the stereo ready to go. If you have roommates, a significant other, etc., close the door to your office and ask not to be disturbed while you write. Don't get on GEnie before you've got your pages done (I used do this, and even if I set a timer, I'd still be tempted to stay online longer than the thirty minutes I'd alloted). In short, set aside your writing time, and make sure that you write during that time. If something keeps inexorably interfering, figure out why and modify the situation so that you can get your pages done.

Red buttonReward yourself for a job well done. When you get your pages done each day, give yourself a little treat of some kind. I save getting online here as my treat for getting my pages done. Take yourself out to dinner and a movie. Buy yourself that book you've been wanting to read. Look at your "pages written" graph and/or your weekly accomplishment graph and see how well you're doing. If nothing else, just say, "Hey, I did a good job on my writing today. I'm X pages closer to the end of my (short story/novel)." If you cultivate a mindset where it feels good to stick to your schedule and get those pages done, you'll want to get your writing done each day.

Red buttonDon't beat yourself up for missing a day. The flip side of feeling good about getting your writing done is how lousy it can feel if you don't get it done. Blow it off. Tell yourself, "Okay, I blew my schedule today, but I'll get right back on track tomorrow." Then do it--no excuses. Nothing is easier than falling back into a pattern of not getting any writing done. Just be determined not to let that happen. If you do miss more than a couple of days without good cause, go back to the analysis stage and figure out why you're having trouble. Then you can set about modifying your behavior so that you can get back on track.

In all, it will likely take some experimentation, and a few failures, before you find the schedule, number of pages, and recordkeeping methods that are right for you. Once you hit upon what feels right, stick to it and you will improve your productivity and attitude. If a dyed-in-the-wool procrastinator like me can do it, you can, too! Good luck.

Copyright 1997 by Dan Perez. All rights reserved.

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