J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Writing Habits and Start-Stop Ritual (boost efficiency by 50%)

My favorite psychoactive substance.

My favorite psychoactive substance.

Recently I came across this article by Phil Jourdan on writing habits and efficiency. It’s a great read. Phil was researching the subject of writing efficiency, routine, and habits. He found lots of bland, unspecific advice like “write every day,” but very little detailed practical advice. So he wrote his own guide, which includes tips on exercise, caffeine intake, digestion vs. concentration, and eliminating distractions.

One thing that Phil discusses is how it’s important to have a writing ritual; a set of steps, performed in the same order, that bookends your writing sessions.

For the last two weeks I’ve taken Phil’s advice on both counts; I’ve been keeping a detailed writing log (start time, stop time, word count, exercise before writing session, food/caffeine before writing session), and I’ve been performing a writing ritual (or sequence, if you prefer).

Here’s my own writing ritual/sequence:

  • check schedule, plan day, attend to any urgent distractions that would otherwise be distracting
  • put cellphone and cordless phone inside house (I work outside in a separate office), turn off wireless connection
  • get hot black coffee and cold water
  • mental preparation (brief meditation, prayer [I’m an atheist but I pray anyway — here’s why], request for inspiration and focus)
  • open documents, briefly review and edit previous day’s work
  • write until quota is exceeded, stopping only to pace, exercise, or use bathroom, politely decline to be interrupted for non-emergency reasons
  • briefly outline ideas for next day’s session
  • close and backup documents, retrieve phones, turn on internet
  • brief prayer of thanks

So far I’ve been pleased with the results. I’ve exceeded my quota (which is only 600 words — here’s why) on average by 50% except for one day when I had to rush out the door to an appointment. Even though my quota was low, before I started using these techniques I was having trouble hitting it. At the moment I’m about 30K words into the project (after two months of outlining/research and 10 weeks of actual writing). Since I’ve been tracking word counts and time worked, I’ve been averaging 865 words per session, with an average session length of 1.5 hours.

My main problem was internet “research” leading to internet distraction. For me it’s better to just leave the internet off, and fill in any missing facts later.

If you write, do you use a writing ritual? Do you keep a log? What do you find to be effective?

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8 Comments

  1. I write a lot (you might have noticed) – both in frequency and volume. My favorite tool? “Space” between me and what I’ve written – usually a brief interlude not exceeding a few days. Set it aside, do something else, come back. Inevitably, during the intermission, bits and pieces float around in your mind, clarifying themselves, refining, boiling down to the essentials. I also use a word count limit – it forces you to be concise and to organize your thoughts. Sometimes I write poetry. On many occasions, my final result is cobbled together from 30 or 40 scraps of paper, each with a stanza or two that occurred to me at various times during the day (or night) jotted down over the course of several days.

    Prayer (from another atheist) – the pause that refreshes, the power of positive thought, bathing your anxieties, fears and regrets in hope for the future.

    As to free will, have you ever read Sam Harris’ take on that?

    • Agreed on “space” as you say, editing the next day is much easier.

      As for Sam Harris, I usually can’t stand his writing. His views on religion strike me as simplistic and sometimes vitriolic. Not all religion has to do with belief, there is also community, values, and tradition — and Harris seems to miss that. But if he has written something brilliant on free will point me to it and I’ll check it out. I have enjoyed a few of his essays.

  2. He is quite pretentious – even angry – most of the time (and pretty full of himself), but some of his stuff on free will is interesting, especially the input he includes from others in that discussion. I’m not at all sure this qualifies as “brilliant”, but it has some food for thought. I read a lot and find that if I glean even a few “thought tidbits” in someone’s missive, it can be worth the sorting of wheat from chaff. Here’s a link to his short book at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1451683405?ie=UTF8&tag=wwwsamharri02-20&linkCode=xm2&camp=1789&creativeASIN=1451683405
    You may be able to find excerpts for free at Google.

    As to religion, I agree. My best friend is Nazarene. We long ago agreed that deeds speak louder than beliefs. It’s the talk-the-talk vs. walk-the-walk thing. In embracing the whole person, we accept our similarities and differences with an open hearts…..I would say “and open minds”, but I think I have a greater ability to accept her belief than she has to accept my lack thereof. Doesn’t stop us from being dear friends, though….;-)

  3. http://www.jonathanfields.com/blog/
    Someone else you might enjoy. This entry sounds like something you might have written…..;-)

  4. Hi JD, thanks for linking to my article. I’m very pleased to learn this works for people. When it was first shared around, I saw people leaving comments to the effect of “I’d never tried unplugging the router itself and it works!” and I felt as gratified as though I’d been the first person in the world to suggest it. All these things in your environment can clutter up your mind before you’ve even started writing — killing what you can feels glorious. Hope the productivity continues.

    • Glad you liked it — thanks for writing the article in the first place.

      I’ve added a few strange columns to my writing log including “moon phase” to see if I notice any interesting correlations.

      • Very appropriate; I’ve added my own strange columns lately, including whether I composed music the day before. My best work in music comes late evening — but strangely, if I had a long session of recording the night before, my writing productivity jumps up!

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