If you follow me for any length of time, you’ll find I’m insistent that you can (almost always) fit writing in around everything else you need to do. If you’ve resisted hearing that message, you’ve probably wondered what it looks like in practice.
I’ve been there. I used to imagine that ‘real’ writers, because I (then) a lowly PhD student couldn’t possibly count amongst them, spent hours and hours at their keyboards every day churning out beautifully written, thoroughly researched prose.
That’s not how writing works. Not for you, not for me, not for anyone!
This is how writing works for me
I wrote the first draft of my book, There’s a Book in Every Expert (May 2020), in four weeks. I never wrote for more than two hours a day, and I didn’t write on weekends.
Also, I only rarely wrote for two consecutive hours. Usually, I wrote in half hour spurts spread throughout the day.
I wrote on trains, in cafés, and, sometimes, at my desk in my office.
I rarely had uninterrupted time – phones must be answered, appointments must be kept, laundry must be changed; in other words, life goes on even when you’re writing.
My day would go something like this: Write first thing in the morning (because I often woke up with ideas and needed to get them on paper before I forgot), had breakfast, showered, started work, paused to write for a bit, worked some more, had lunch, and then spent the afternoon dividing my time between work and writing. I usually quit for the day by 5 or 6 and leave the writing until morning.
To write your book, you only need to find a few windows for writing in your day, most days. You do not need to retreat to a remote cabin, cut off from civilisation to write it.
How did 10-ish hours a week produce a book?
I wrote quickly, and I’ve learned to accept that all first drafts need to be shit. These points are related.
First drafts that are not shit, never get finished. Instead, they remain pristine, imaginary drafts that never make it to the page.
Your first draft’s only job is to be finished.
That bears repeating: your first draft’s only job is to be finished.
There’s no point in trying to write a ‘good’ first draft. When you try to perfect draft (write a first draft that’s good enough to be your final draft), what you end up doing is taking a really long time to produce a shitty first draft.
Are you still sceptical? You don’t have to take my word for it. Anne Lamott, the writer of one of the best writing books in print – Bird by Bird, agrees. She discusses it in her chapter called ‘Shitty First Drafts’, which you’ll find here.
Returning to the question of how I wrote a book in about 40 hours, the answer is simple: I wrote as quickly as I possibly could.
It really is that ‘simple’
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Neil Gaiman, a talented and prolific author, wrote, ‘hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new’.
The key to writing your first draft is to not get too hung up on making it interesting or new. You just need to get the words on the page.
In the revision stages (yes, there are more than one), you polish your writing and shape it into something interesting and new.
How do you stop yourself from getting hung up on the quality of your writing or ideas? Chiefly, by writing as fast as your pen will go or your fingers will type. When we write quickly, we don’t have time to censor ourselves.
Those of us (many of us) with highly developed internal editors struggle with this and experience impostor syndrome as a result.
Silencing your internal editor
You don’t want to do away with your internal editor altogether – you’ll need her when you revise your book. However, if you are struggling to keep her quiet long enough to let you write your first draft, the best thing you can do is to practice freewriting for 5 to 10 minutes a day for several weeks. This involves writing whatever comes into your head during that time – don’t let your pen leave the page and don’t go back to correct mistakes. To learn more about freewriting, click here.
You also need to remind yourself that all good writers produce multiple drafts. This is what I say about drafting in Chapter 9 of my book:
Unless your goal is to irritate your reader, the first draft is never the final draft (neither is the second or third draft, for that matter). The idea that a ‘true artist’ or a ‘real writer’ doesn’t need to produce draft after draft has been with us for a long time. It goes all the way back to the Greeks with Athena springing fully formed from Zeus’s head. You wouldn’t expect a newborn to get a job and be a productive member of society, so don’t expect your first draft to be your final draft.There’s a Book in Every Expert
I assume your draft is not Athena, so it doesn’t need to be perfect! Keep reminding yourself of this until you believe it. Use it as your mantra, meditate on it, do whatever you have to do to convince yourself your draft doesn’t need to be perfect.
After all, your first draft’s only job is to be finished!
Gaiman, Neil. ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ Retrieved from: https://www.neilgaiman.com/Cool_Stuff/Essays/Essays_By_Neil/Where_do_you_get_your_ideas%3F
Jones, Jennifer. There’s a Book in Every Expert (that’s you!): How to write your credibility building book in six months (Maggie Cat Books, 2020).
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, 1995).