I don't know if I should admit this in a public space on the internet, but I'm not a very good writer. By that I mean I'm not good at doing writing on a reliable or predictable schedule; whatever the quality of the work that gets published in the end, I'm terrible at the literal action of sitting and writing. If I had treated the job I used to have in a shop the way I do this job of putting words on a screen I would have been sacked on day two when I didn't show up for my shift, refused to answer the boss's calls and set fire to my uniform.
Yet in different ways, writing has been my job for over a decade now. I have published many articles and a book — you're reading this now, in all likelihood, because you once came across something I wrote and enjoyed it. How is this compatible with my bad employee approach to doing the work, you might wonder. The answer comes in two parts: the writing I do happens in squeezed pockets of time usually when I can no longer postpone the obligation, and for a long time my primary job was as an editor of other people's words rather than as a writer of my own.
I'll let you in on the awful secret of how I wrote my first book. I had a year to do it and 85,000 words to write. I treated it like a giant article, by which I mean I spent 75 per cent of the time researching and interviewing and then arrived at the last three months with precisely zero publishable words on the page. I do not recommend this: the psychological impact of being so close to the deadline and having to stare at a blank screen where your book should be is extremely denting to one's confidence.
I hadn't written up any of my notes from the research period into recognisable sentences, and all of my interviews had been transcribed but not digested. I had the outline that I'd used to sell the book, but no idea if this was going to work in practice. With no better plan, I just started at the beginning. I wrote the book through in the order you can now read it, starting at page one and ending exactly 85,001 words later. This is also how I write articles — I have to write them as if I'm the reader, for some reason I can't fathom.
I had a spreadsheet titled "Book ARGH" into which I entered each day's word count next to the date. It then calculated the running total for the manuscript, divided it by the number of days left until the deadline, and thus told me how many words I needed to write on each remaining day to make it to the finish. I found the terror this inspired very motivating. After a bad day when I only put 250 new words into the document, the required daily word rate would shoot up over 2,000; a good day could push it down below 1,000.
I will discreetly draw a veil over how much of a complete mess I was during the 84 days in which I wrote like this. Suffice to say, when I mentioned to my husband that I was starting work on a new book idea, his main feedback was "maybe you could cry less this time". That gave me a jolt and got me thinking: why do I do it like this? I like this profession, I've made it work for me, yet I'm so very terrible at putting in the hours. There has to be a better way to write.
There's that quote, often misattributed to Dorothy Parker, that goes "I hate to write, but I love having written". I've believed in that for a long time — that the process has to be awful so that I can arrive at the blissful feeling of a deadline met. And I've never had cause to question this, because I always get there somehow. I didn't exactly love the all nighters and the stressful crunch periods, but I thought that was just how I worked. I needed the adrenaline to flush out the inspiration.
That is, until the last few months. Around the first anniversary of going into lockdown last March, I suddenly lost two skills at the same time: the ability to get a full night's sleep, and my much-honed capacity to pull the words out of the bag at the last minute. It was not dissimilar to the disbelieving feeling you get when convalescing from an illness. I used to be able to walk up this hill without getting out of breath, so why am I having to sit down every ten steps? The environment looks the same but the way you inhabit it is utterly changed.
I've been quiet on this newsletter since this March while I've been grappling with this inability to write as I always have done in the past. I've never been much of a consumer of "writing advice" content, but I've been devouring the stuff recently as I've been trying to rebuild my process and learn to view the act of writing as worthwhile rather than just prizing the results. A few selected highlights:
- This interview with William Boyd, in which he tells the story of how very early in his career he pitched a "completed" novel to a publisher that he had not actually written, and then wrote it in three months after they accepted it while telling his editor that he was "retyping it". I feel like this is a lie that worked better in the 1980s, but it does still sound like something I would do. He now writes every day and plans out his time and plots extensively, which he finds to be a more sustainable and less anxiety inducing habit.
- This interview with John Swartzwelder, which has been widely shared already but contains such a gem of a paragraph that I'm going to repeat it again here:
Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it.
- This article by Amitava Kumar about why ticking off 150 words a day helped him correct a problem with how he felt he was spending his time:
Too often I spent my days wanting to write and not writing. Again and again, I would note in my journal, “I did not write today.” The idea that this was how I was going to spend my life filled me with despair.
- This interview with Caroline O'Donoghue, in which she eloquently explains how to write a novel instead of just talking about writing a novel. Unfortunately, it involves getting up early.
I've always been of the opinion that devoting time to reading about how to write is just a form of procrastination from writing itself, but I was wrong – all of these perspectives and more have really helped me get back on the metaphorical horse after my fall. I've realised that I can't just wait for inspiration to strike when I'm under pressure, nor can I rely on writing anything good while staying up all night any longer. I have to be my own crappy little elf, turning up each day to put down the bad words so that the next day I can make them better.
Here are a few things I'm doing now that have really helped me with this. Since I've started these practices, I've filed some long overdue essays, am no longer so behind on podcast scripts, and actually completed the book proposal I've been working on for over a year. It's very irritating to find that the "get up early and get on with it" people were right all along, but life is full of such disappointments.
- I did the two-week #1000wordsofsummer challenge run by writer Jami Attenberg. I wrote 1,000 words each day before moving on to any of my other work, and the impact was quite astonishing — no matter what other frustrations and failures occurred during the day, I had already made measurable progress towards finishing something.
- I've been posting more on my Instagram about the difficulties I've had with writing and people have been very kind, which has made me feel like less of a secret failure. I am historically terrible at all forms of self promotion, but am trying to get over this.
- I started a morning accountability writing Zoom. It's nothing fancy — after a very quick hello, we all keep our videos off and mute ourselves before checking back in an hour later, but I've found having made the appointment with other people to show up for an hour and get some writing done is really effective. If you'd like to join me to do this at 9am BST on weekdays, fill out this form and I'll send you periodic updates about when it's happening and what link you'll need. If my schedule doesn't work for you then you might want to look for an existing session in your timezone — writers' workshops and groups tend to run them — or start your own.
- I do calendar blocking now. After encountering this term a lot I finally learned what it is properly from this video by Hannah Witton. I've found that the process of allocating time each day in my calendar in advance for all the different tasks I want to do has been very helpful in reducing my anxiety about having too much to do and not enough time to do it in. The writing Zoom is a fixed and recurring appointment, for instance, and I've also been making space properly for other writing work like Shedunnit scripts rather than just expecting it to magically happen in between all my admin.
I don't feel like I'm in any position to offer advice about writing — this is just what has helped me out of a major slump and I'm mostly writing it out now because putting it down like this helps me to clarify what I'm trying to do. I'm still very much working on becoming a better writer who can show up for her job properly.
If any of what I've listed above prompts any useful ideas or techniques for you, I'm glad, and if you're afflicted with any or all of the problems I've described I hope to see you at a writing Zoom sometime soon. Your advice and experiences will be very welcome; just hit reply on this email to tell me about something, ask me a question or make a suggestion about a future topic you'd like me to write about.
I hope to be more regular with this newsletter now — this is another horse that I'm getting back on. I've been doing it on and off for nearly seven years, and the format and content has changed a lot in that time, so I won't be offended if you unsubscribe because this iteration isn't for you.
Until next time,
There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: get my article and podcast recommendations in The Browser, listen to my murder mystery podcast Shedunnit, or follow me on Twitter and Instagram.