How I fit writing in around my life

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!

Works cited

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).

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

When you sit down to write a book, whether it’s your first or your 20th, you’re likely to wonder whether you can do it. If this is a fleeting thought that you dismiss and get on with writing, it’s not a problem. However, it becomes full-blown impostor syndrome, if you let that moment of doubt take over your thoughts and feelings about your writing.

One of my favourite examples of this is from a nineteenth-century novelist, George Eliot (Marian Evans). Her novels were always well received and they sold well – the figures are unreliable (to put it mildly), but she seems to have sold as well as Charles Dickens. Queen Victoria even praised one of her early novels and commissioned paintings based on two of the characters. Despite all this evidence to the contrary, every time she started a novel, Eliot worried she just wasn’t good enough.

This would lead to a pattern of thinking (which we have bits of in her journals and letters) that is similar to what I, and every writer I’ve ever discussed this with, go through with impostor syndrome:

  1. I don’t know enough – I need to read another book (or 10), go on another course, get another qualification, …
  2. I know the last thing I wrote was well-received, but this time they’ll find they were mistaken. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I have no business writing a book.
  3. I’ve done all this research, but when I try to write, everything I write just seems too obvious. Everything’s already been written about it; who am I to try to add to the conversation?

This list could go on, and on. The key to overcoming impostor syndrome is challenging these beliefs as they pop up.

  1. I don’t know enough – you don’t have to (and can’t) know everything about your topic. You just need to know more than your intended reader and/or have a unique take on the topic. You’ll have a unique take because no one else thinks about the world exactly the way you do.
  2. They’re going to find out I’m a fraud – unless you plagiarise someone else’s work or misrepresent your qualifications, you’re not a fraud. You do know what you’re doing, if you don’t believe that, re-read point 1.
  3. It’s too obvious – of course everything you write is obvious to you; you’ve done the research. Your readers won’t have done the research, so what you say is new to them. If you’re thinking of countering this with ‘but my readers have done the research’ – they haven’t done it exactly the way you did and they don’t see the world exactly the way you do.

Lou Solomon has an entertaining take on how you can recognise impostor syndrome and challenge the lies you’re telling yourself. She names her negative voice Ms Vader and talks back to her. You can see her take on this issue in a TEDx Talk here.

For more tips on writing, follow me on Twitter (@JJonesEWC) and join my Facebook group, EWC Writers’ Group.

Never Fear the Blank Page – Start Your Book Now

Some writers fear staring at a blank page for hours (or days) on end. This fear is most often rooted in impostor syndrome and/or perfectionism (I’ll address both of these in their own posts soon), but it’s easier to overcome than you might think.

If you’ve decided to write a book, you have some ideas. If you find yourself frozen in front of a blank page or screen, try changing your ideas about what starting your book looks like. No one just sits down and starts typing beautiful, witty prose.

Let go of any sense that you’ve failed because you haven’t finished a chapter or even a page.

Instead of thinking about ‘writing a book’, do something that’s much more manageable and productive: write about one idea that is related to your book.

This writing doesn’t even have to be in the form of sentences; you just need to record your thoughts so you can go back and develop them.

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If you’re still struggling to write, try changing your writing situation. Move from your computer to pen and paper, or to unlined paper (preferably not white) and coloured pencils or crayons. It’s harder to judge what you’ve written in crayon!

The point of these exercises is to get your creative juices flowing. You may not think you need much creativity to explain SEO or the latest sales funnel, but writing is always also creative. Get out your crayons and start letting your ideas take shape.

For regular writing tips from me and others around the internet, follow me on twitter: @EntrepreneurWri and join my Facebook Group.