Techniques to get you writing, Part 3: Using wordcounts to gain momentum

This is part three of the “Techniques to get you writing” series.  These posts are aimed at beginning writers struggling to develop good writing habits, or experienced writers who are struggling to get momentum on a project.  Part 1 looked at the psychology of failure, and how we sabotage ourselves without realising it.  Part 2 was about designing effective goals.  Part 3, this post, is mostly about counting, and how to count in a way that makes your brain think you are moving faster than you are.

This is a timely post, since I’m in week 5 of a personal marathon, and running a Novel Push Initiative marathon for a group of writers.  So lets talk further about using wordcounts not just as a way to track your progress, but as a way to drive your writing forward.

Before we start, let me just say that I do not endorse NaNoWriMo as a writing technique.  That sort of output, more often than not, just leads to pages of unfocussed dross.  I’m not saying don’t do it; it’s a great way to have fun in a community environment.  But if you’re looking to use the exercise to help you write, you’re better off learning good writing habits first.

Set up good writing habits: devising daily goals.

The maxim is “write every day”, but it’s never that simple.  Unless you’re a hermit or independently wealthy, life gets in the way of writing.  And when you’ve come home from work, fed the family and/or pets, cleaned the kitchen, put out the garbage, listened to your mother whine on the phone for an hour…  You feel more like collapsing into bed than writing.  And if your goal is “write every day”, it’s easy for that goal to get lost in the crowd of daily goals, along with “remember to keep important receipts” and “water the houseplants before they get crispy”.

Remember part 2 of our series?  Small goals.  Goals you can achieve in a short period of time.  “Write every day” is a big, sprawling goal.  “Write half a page” is a nice, neat little goal, and you can encourage yourself to achieve it.  “Ten minutes, easy.  I can do that after I load the dishwasher, before Gossip Girls comes on”.  Talking yourself into an activity is much easier if the activity is small.

And of course, chose a wordcount that you can comfortably achieve.  Don’t look at someone’s 4,000 words a day output, if you know you can only reliably manage 400.  Do what is achievable.  Remember:

It is better to overshoot a small goal than fail to reach a large one.

Give yourself a boost: writing marathons.

Once you have set your daily goal and you are consistently hitting that target, it’s time to stretch yourself.  The best way to do that is with short bursts of writing called “marathons” or “wordathons”.  There are two ways to use these.

If you know you have a day coming up which is free of distractions, then prepare yourself for a 1-day marathon.  You’re going to sit down on that day and aim for a wordcount that will feel like an incredible achievement compared to your daily count.  You can sit down and just write and see what you get, but you’re more likely to get a good result by setting yourself a target.  If your daily 100 words takes you 10 minutes, and you know that you can count on 6 uninterrupted hours, then set yourself a goal of 3,000 words for the day.  Remember that you may need time to stop and recap during the day as you pump out the words.

If you want to see whether you can write more per day, then set yourself a short marathon, 5 to 7 days, where you will increase your daily count by a set amount.  If you normally write 100, aim for 200.  If you write 1,000, aim for 1,500.  Stick with it for those 5 to 7 days, come hell or high water.  When you go back to your daily counts, they will feel like a breeze.  Afterwards, you will often find that what you thought was your limit has been stretched, and you are able to reach a higher target more easily.

Sounds easy!  What’s the catch?

At first glance, wordcounts seem to be a simple target to hit.  Novel length 100,000 words plus writing time 6 months equals 500 words a day.  Easy!  So why is it that we often come to a grinding halt after a couple of weeks?  Why doesn’t everyone win NaNoWriMo?  Story issues aside, a lot of the time it has to do with the way the brain measures progression.

Let me give you an example.  If I asked you whether you prefer to run uphill or downhill, which would you choose?  Most people choose downhill, because it’s easier.  This is a fundamental ‘truth’ that our brain knows; uphill hurts, downhill doesn’t.  So unless you’re a masochist, you’ll prefer to run downhill.

How about this one?   The journey out always seems longer than the journey home, especially if you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before.  The reason being, on the way home you are going past things you have already seen.  The brain doesn’t need to assimilate them again, and half the time the recognition and processing go on in the subconscious mind.  The brain is physically doing less work, so psychologically it feels like less time has passed, when in fact the journey is the same length.

What does this have to do with wordcounts?  These little ‘truths’ can be turned into techniques to trick your brain into thinking that you are going faster; that you are ‘going home’ or ‘travelling downhill’, feelings that give you a little psychological boost to keep you moving.  Now lets look at how to use it in your writing.

Travel downhill.

Personal trainers are smart people, or at least one of them was, once. Because they figured out a secret to get people to run farther, and harder, by the simple method of counting down, not up.

Your PT doesn’t set the clock at zero and tell you to run 5 kms.  They set the clock at 5 kms and get you to run to zero. Watching that distance count down, not up as you run makes it seem easier, because as you run the goal gets smaller. 5 km, 4 km, 3 2 1 home! This trick is pure psychological balderdash, but it works.

So use this to trick your brain into making the writing marathon easier.  The goal will be the same; 50,000 (or 25,000) words, which can be a daunting amount, especially if you’ve powered on for a week and only have 11,600 words to show for it.  What your brain says is “Only 11,600?  Look how far we have to go!”

Turn it around, and look at it another way.  Instead of saying “I’ve only written 11,600 words”, tell yourself “I’ve only got 38,400 to go”.  Your goal has now gone down from 50k to 38k.  The mountain just got a little bit smaller, a little bit easier.  Instead of struggling up the 50,000 word mountain, you’re coasting down the slope, getting closer and closer to the bottom with every word.

Logically, this makes no sense, but let’s be honest, we’re not the most logical of creatures.  It’s the same goal, you’re just looking at it differently.  Don’t just take my word for it, give it a try.  You might be surprised.

Stop watching the clock.

You write and you write, and you check your wordcount again.  78 words?  Oh come on!  You’re sure you must have written more than that!  You’ll never make it at this rate.  Cue self-defeating behaviour and the end of your writing day.

The more you check your progress, the slower you will go.  Forget watching the scenery.  Stop looking for landmarks.  Just drive.

There are several ways you can defeat the need to check your progress every few minutes.  One is to count pages; tell yourself you won’t check your wordcount until you’ve made it to the next page.  However if you are a compulsive checker, this can be just as bad.  Another way is to get an alarm clock.  Set it for 20 minutes, sit down in front of the page and force yourself not to check your wordcount until the alarm goes off.  Once you stop interrupting your flow every few minutes, you’ll find the journey fades to the subconscious, and your mind will focus on the story.

Don’t count the shortfall.

You’re in the middle of a writing marathon. You miss a day, or two, or four, and suddenly you’re 7,000 words behind and wondering how on earth you can catch up. If you keep telling yourself that you are 7,000 words behind, you raise the stress levels and promote avoidance behaviours, which just exacerbates the problem.

Here’s a trick I learned from my budgeting coach. One of the most common ways that budgets fail is overspending; you make a few bad purchases and suddenly you’re over budget for the month and then you think “why bother” and the budget goes out the window and you’re back where you started.

My budgeting coach says this; “everyone overspends. It happens. Recognise that it has happened and move on.” At the beginning of every month, you tally up what was overspent in the previous month, and you pay it from your income. Then it’s gone; the sins not washed away, but dealt with and not hanging over your head.

So, we deal with it. Take your shortfall, divide it by the number of days remaining in the marathon, and add that to your daily goal. You’ll find that you’re only doing a few hundred words a day more to catch up.  Suddenly it’s not so scary. A huge shortfall has been transformed into an achievable goal.

These techniques all assume you are facing the page with something to say.  But what do you do on the days when writer’s block hits like a sledgehammer and you just have no words left to write?  Next time we look at bargaining with your brain: using threats and blackmail to get you moving again.

Techniques to get you writing, Part 2: working with goals

Read Part 1: The Psychology of Failure here.

If, like me, you are relatively green when it comes to writing novels, you’ll find that your brain is not yet willing to work with you through the hard times, and has to be coaxed, cajoled and occasionally threatened into cooperating.

As Thomas Edison said, “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, and never a truer word was spoken.  All the good ideas in the world will go nowhere if you don’t have the perseverance to keep going until the end.

Procrastination usually sets in around the point where the momentum from your brilliant idea slows down, and you find yourself having to think about what you are writing.  This is the point where “inspiration” becomes “perspiration” and, if you don’t recognise this and work to overcome it, can result in yet another unfinished manuscript.

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Techniques to get you writing, Part 1: The psychology of failure

Over the next month I’m going to post a series of articles on how to deal with the problem of actually getting words on the page.  This series was originally posted over at Kiwi Writers as part of their SocNoc Challenge.

This series isn’t aimed at the people who are going to write “one day” or the people who are “waiting for the perfect idea before writing”.  This series is aimed at the writers who really want to write, but who haven’t yet developed the discipline or courage to sit down and blast out that first draft.

And yes, that group includes me, which is why I developed this series in the first place. I’m talking about the people for whom the inner editor is louder than the narrative voice, and the fear is greater than the drive.

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There’s a difference between routines and rituals, but the two are often tied together. Routines are events that we act out on a regular basis. Rituals are the little actions that we do as part of those routines.

My partner’s pre-bedtime routine includes stacking the dishwasher and locking up the house. But before he crawls into bed, he walks around checking that every window and door is locked. That’s his nightly ritual, and he can’t sleep without it.

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