Writing when you feel like it . . . and when you don’t

Here’s how to make progress when writing comes easily — and also when it feels like a struggle.

I need to start with this assumption: you know where the chapter you are working on fits into the book you are writing, and what its purpose is. You know what question the chapter is trying to answer for the reader. (At the end, I’ll come back to what happens if this assumption is false).

When writing comes easily

Having done your research and created a fat outline, you sit down to write.

Sometimes, you just enter a flow state. The task is clear in your mind. You write one sentence after the next, and the words, the sentences, the ideas, and structure come pouring out. It all seems to come together for you.

Do not stop. Do not interrupt yourself. Keep writing as long as you feel like this. You may very well be able to create 2,000 words, 4,000 words, even 6,000 words of priceless prose this way. And when you go back to read it, you’ll see it’s great. Material written in flow tends to hang together in an elegant way.

Do not look at your phone. Do not check your email. Do not break the spell.

If you need to stop — everyone needs to eat and go to the bathroom, after all — make a few notes at the end of what you write about what’s coming next. Give your future self a clue from the version of you that was in flow.

One more thing. Flow is a habit. Do it and enjoy it, and it will happen again for you. It’s a groove you should get used to following.

When writing comes with difficulty

Flow isn’t something you can depend on. Sometimes it’s just not there.

Every sentence seems clunky. The thoughts are out of order. You repeat yourself. You write a sentence that ends with “boy, this really sucks.”

You may not be producing beautiful work. But your brain is doing important work. You are identifying problems. You are trying to solve problems, and figuring out what doesn’t work. You are getting crap down on the page, and crap is better than nothing, because you can edit crap.

If you’re creating a mess, maybe you’ve generated 1,000 words of repetitious, poorly organized, clumsy content with holes in it. And you feel like shit.

But wait a minute.

Your brain grappled with the issues in your chapter. Maybe you got to the end and said “Ah, the problem here is the whole concept.” Or “I can’t even get into this unless I explain something else, first.” Or “I think I have the metaphor to explain this, but I didn’t figure it out until the end.” Or “I just thought of a story that illustrates this perfectly.”

You are way ahead. Before, you were in a bad place to start. Now you know a lot more about how to start.

You’ve also created a bunch of crappy content — but you know which ideas in there are worth keeping.

Put your shitty first draft aside. Make some notes about how you might fix it. And when it comes time to fix it, try writing without trying to keep all that much of what you wrote before. Your next draft will be an educated draft, because of what you learned last time. And that means that the second draft may be a draft you can write in flow . . . or at least one that’s good enough to polish and keep.

This only works if you know what your chapter is about

If you know how what you’re writing fits with the rest of the book, you can make progress regardless of whether the writing comes easily or with difficulty. Either way, you’re on your way to a terrific chapter.

If you don’t know what your chapter is about and where it fits in, any flow writing that follows will just be coincidental. More likely, you’ll just feel stuck. And what you create — and your experience of creating it — won’t be all that useful, because you can’t make progress solving writing problems unless you know what that writing is supposed to do.

So don’t start a chapter until you know where it fits in. Otherwise, your drafts and the time you spend grappling with them will just be wasted effort.

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