About eight months ago I started using a writing log to track my daily work. The practice has been so successful that I feel compelled to share an update, even though I have already written about this topic in an earlier post.
The basic practice is this: in a spreadsheet or text document or a notebook, track your daily writing progress. As a minimum include date and word count (or number of pages if you prefer). I also include start time, stop time, and few other details. The exact details aren’t important; the key thing is keeping a written account of your work.
It occurred to me at some point that writing (and other creative work) was one of the few life areas where I wasn’t keeping daily notes. I was tracking my work hours on client projects (I’m a freelancer, so I have to track time if I want to get paid). I was also tracking my weight, mood, exercise, and various aspects of my health. But I wasn’t tracking my creative work! I wasn’t exactly “waiting for inspiration” — I was still attempting a daily writing habit. But tracking the details dramatically improved my output and quality.
Getting Started, The Ritual
The transition from “lazy brain” (reading, internet surfing, working on easy tasks) to “power brain” (solving difficult problems, almost any type of rigorous creative work, doing anything that involves active learning) is difficult. The brain wants to conserve energy. A work ritual can help with this transition. My own ritual includes:
- get rid of distractions (work alone, turn off wi-fi and phone)
- set session goal and estimate time (what do I want to get done and how long do I think it will take?)
- appeal to subconscious/Other/The Muse (acknowledge that my conscious mind is not fully in control of the creative process)
- physical stimulants (black coffee, brief bouts of intense exercise to generate lactic acid, the ultimate brain fuel)
- record-keeping (entry in the writing log, backing up work after session)
I would love to tell you that I’m merrily working away at 6am every morning. The truth is uglier. I get up at 7, get the kid ready for school and out the door, clean up the kitchen, read email, drink some coffee, take a shower, look at reddit, read the New York Times online, drink some more coffee, look at Facebook, take my laptop out to my studio, check my calender, check email again, listen to demos for Loöq Records, maybe master a track or two or work on some album art. Then maybe I’ll get started on writing. Or maybe I’ll procrastinate some more! 10:30am is often when I actually get started, though there’s nothing in my schedule preventing me from starting at 8:45 sharp. I try to avoid the self-loathing that might go along with the procrastination. I get started when I get started. Writing requires concentration, and I can’t blame my brain for trying to conserve energy. Looking at the log is encouraging: a long list of days where I actually worked. Don’t break the chain, says Jerry Seinfeld. Even if you take weekends off, and occasionally take a vacation, having a system that generates steady progress beats waiting for inspiration. Working on average less than two hours a day, I’m on track to complete a 100K word novel a year (including multiple revisions).
Sidebar: Writing As A Career
Writing, like music production, is a long tail career. A very small percentage of writers earn the vast majority of royalties (or, in the case of self-published authors, direct income from book sales). The GINI coefficient (a measure of income inequality) among writers is over .70. This makes the United States (with a very high GINI coefficient of .41) look like a socialist utopia! Here’s a graph of writing income among authors. The majority of authors make less than $1000 a year, and the vast majority (even including only those authors who have been traditionally published) make less than $30K/year. Definitely not enough to live comfortably in the Bay Area.
In January of 2013 I made a 5-year commitment to becoming a novelist. Looking at the graph above, I can see that even if I’m successful (published, good sales), I still may not be able to support myself via writing income. This doesn’t dissuade me. My main motivation is wanting to contribute to the world of ideas, to envision and describe possible and fantastic scenarios for the future of humanity.
So wish me luck — I’ll need your support. And good luck to you in your own creative endeavors.