How to Write

When I first started writing seriously, I wanted to read what writers said about the process. I was fascinated. I mean, how do you do it? Do you write in a crowded café like Ernest Hemingway? Do you seek isolation like Henry David Thoreau? Write in the morning, or late at night? Do you force yourself to write so many words, or just write whatever comes? Should you use a computer or write longhand?

Ernest Hemingway (l.) not writing in a cafe in Pamplona, Spain.

People believe writing is a mysterious process. They think it’s like alchemy. If all the ingredients are perfect – the tools, the atmosphere, the state of mind – gold will come out of the physical act of writing.

Now that I’ve published, I get the same question: how do you do it? People ask this question with a curious look in their eyes, wondering whatever it is they are wondering. This is what I say:

I write during the day, during working hours, and the best stuff always comes in the morning. I write almost every day, even weekends and holidays. Before I start, I have to prepare myself. I check my email, check the stock market, read the news, and get everything out of the way that I know could draw my attention before I start.

Next, I remove all possible distractions. The internet gets turned off, and the phone gets put on silent and placed in another room. It takes a long time for me to get properly focused, but one little distraction immediately throws me off track. One text message could destroy fifteen or thirty minutes of writing time. Sometimes, if I feel weak, I will even close the curtains so I’m not tempted to look outside.

To make sure I’m in the right frame of mind, I meditate for fifteen minutes before I start. I find this extremely helpful, because it focuses my thinking.

When I’m working on a first draft, I force myself to write a minimum of so-many words daily. It depends upon what I’m working on and when the final deadline is. All other drafts don’t have a word count time limit, but I always set target dates for specific tasks. I work best with deadlines. Maybe it’s because I first started writing professionally for newspapers. Newspaper editors love deadlines. The evil bastards.

Anyway, I discovered something interesting reading dozens, if not hundreds, of writers talk about the physical process. These statements should be approached as entertainment, not advice. Something that may work perfectly for one writer may be worthless for another.

Jonathan Franzen in glasses, not a blindfold.

The only writer that really helped me was Jonathan Franzen. Evidently he has some of the same problems with distractions that I have, and some of the things he has mentioned worked like a charm for me. When I read that he wrote blindfolded, I tried it. By God, it worked. When I read that he wrote on a computer with no internet access I tried that, too. It worked as well. Thanks, Jonathan.

But I think Franzen’s method worked with me simply because we had some similar obstacles to the writing process. Other writers’ ideas that I have tried didn’t work at all, or made things worse. So if you want to write yourself, I encourage you to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and use those processes which emphasise the former and nullify the latter. It might take a lot of work, and it is an on-going process, but the end result will be worth it.

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One comment on “How to Write
  1. Ian Oliver says:

    Damned right you are! Writing is hard and writer’s block is sheer hell…weeks can go without a word building to a crescendo of frustration and anger.

    Occasionally a miracle will happen and the words flow… 🙂

    The best advice is as you have given: just write, try to write anything, something, whatever, but just keep writing.


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