The Discipline of Writing

Photo by Kristin Nador (via Creative Commons).

Photo by Kristin Nador (via Creative Commons).

My friend Noah just got a book contract.

“Do you have any writing tips for me?” he asked recently. “I have only six months to finish the entire book, so I’m a little stressed out about it.”

I often get questions like this – I blog for Forbes, the Huffington Post, and the Harvard Business Review (not to mention Owner), and usually write 2-3 posts per week overall.

Many professionals recognize that blogging is a great way to develop their ideas and enhance their personal brand. But when you’re busy, writing even once a week can seem overwhelming. How can you find time to sit down and actually compose something worthwhile? I have a slightly unfair advantage: I started my career as a journalist and had to report and write 3500 words a week, or I’d get fired. (That’ll teach you to write pretty fast.) But I also have a few tips —writing habits, if you will— that I shared with Noah and they might work for you, too.

Capture All Your Ideas

There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page and desperately willing an idea to come. Instead, I try to capture every idea that comes into my head – at the gym, walking in the neighborhood, or talking with colleagues. I record them in my smartphone’s “Notes” function, periodically consolidate them into a (by now very large) Word file, and turn to it when I need ideas.

Know How Much Time You Need

With a bit of practice, you can learn how much time you need for different kinds of writing, and you can block it out accordingly on your calendar. If I’ve interviewed someone, I can usually produce a blog post from that in about an hour; a “think piece” requires a little more soul-searching (or research) and generally takes 1 ½ to 2 hours, and when I’m working on a book (like my recent one, Reinventing You), I need to block out a full half-day to get anything meaningful accomplished.

Don’t Let Food Get in Your Way

Food is possibly the greatest procrastination tool of all time, so that’s part of why I like to work in coffee shops. Research indicates that the “sonic hum” of café life may actually be optimal for stimulating your productivity. And if I get hungry or thirsty, I can take a 30 second break to order something, rather than a half-hour break to leave my office and go get it. If I really need to get something done, I’ll simply vow that I won’t leave the café until it’s finished. Self-imprisonment isn’t necessarily the ideal formula for creativity, but if you need to “bang out copy,” it’s a good way to get it done.

What are your best strategies for building up the writing habit and making it happen?

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  • MarleneO

    I love all of your points, though I’d actually say that ‘self-imprisonment’ *is* my ideal formula for creativity! I try to start each day with a 50 minute period of writing – set a timer, not allowed to leave, be distracted, or touch any other tasks. It’s amazing what I can produce when I don’t allow myself to stray from the task at hand. It’s an amazingly productive way to start the day.

    And if possible, I try to fit in another one or two of these 50-minute segments each day.

    • Dorie Clark

      You’re hard core, Marlene – I love it!

      • MarleneO

        Haha. Between blogging and client work, sometimes there is just no other way! :)

  • Scott Browning

    For me, being in a quiet room is the best place to create. And I usually find that if I rotate (write one day, don’t the next) I will feel awful about not writing the day before and it will really push me to write the next day. But that is for my personal work, not my professional. For professional work, I just know it needs to get done and hammer it out.

    • Dorie Clark

      Scott, great tips. Yes, there’s a real balance between “hammering it out” and feeling the inspiration and flow. I suppose it’s the perennial question around creating.

      • Scott Browning

        My professional creativity usually comes during the hammering out, if you will. I’ll be typing and something will come out that I wasn’t expecting to say, and then I can just run with it. Sometimes the best thing to do is just open up and type.

  • Paul O’Mahony

    Lovely stuff Dorie. I use audio to help the ideas flow – often begin a blogpost in the car by talking freely into an audio app on smartphone. That audio I can even share with other. People are interested in the “backstory’ of the blog content.
    It becomes a lot easier to write content when I’ve audiowalked the turf beforehand.

    • Dorie Clark

      Paul, great point. I read an article in the New Yorker once about how Taylor Swift comes up with song ideas and saves them by singing them into the Voice Memo feature of her iPhone, and thought it was fabulous – totally applicable to us business types!

  • Penelope Silvers

    Capture All your Ideas. Ha! Mine are captured alrighty. On little pieces of paper all over the house. Thanks for the additional great tips. 😉

    • Dorie Clark

      That can work, too…unless you have a cat who likes to “help you organize them”! :)

    • Linda Maepa

      LOL I finally switched to an app that I dedicated to capturing all of my ideas and use it for no other purpose. The analog version of this would be a small notebook you always carry with you. Good luck!

      • Olivier Rizet

        I Like that! I use Google Keep to write lists, notes with pictures, all from my smartphone and then use my computer to edit or review. It is cloud-based so accessible from any device too 😉
        The best with Google Keep, is that you have the power of Google Search to put in a keyword to find the right note.

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  • jon_mitchell_jackson

    Love to write. Especially outside the law office. The more I write the easier it becomes and I’m told the better I’m getting at it. Great tips Dorie. Always enjoy your writing :-)

  • Nils Davis

    Great tips – trying to put them into practice. How do you capture ideas you have in the shower? I’m totally serious! I have some great ideas in the shower, but by the time I’m dry, I just recall I had some good ideas, but nothing more.

    • Paige – Simple Mindfulness

      Nils – They make tub crayons for kids so you can write your ideas on the shower wall with them. It only takes a little scrub to remove the writing but it will last through your shower. After your shower you can either write down your notes or take a picture of them with your phone. Then wipe them down so you’re ready for your next shower.

  • Joanne Sprott

    Nils needs a waterproof case for his mobile device, methinks, for those shower inspirations.

    Thanks, Dorie, I may very well take that coffee shop advice to heart. Working at home has downsides in terms of distractions, just like the office. I find I get more “substantive” (like your article that takes some research) articles written in the morning with coffe (at home or not). Then I do my billable (at this point I make no money blogging) editing, proofreading, and book indexing work in the afternoon/early evening. I like the flexibility of freelance life, but freelance doesn’t necessarily create time for writing; I still have to consciously make the time. :)

  • HoosierMommy

    The “sonic hum” of cafe’ life is indeed the perfect place to accomplish writing or any other task that requires some intense concentration. I spent most of undergrad studying in the snack bar at the main library, and in law school, spent most of my final exam prep time at McDonald’s – getting out of the house was an absolute necessity due to having a husband and small child at home :)

    And now, even though a semi-retired empty-nester, I still find that a corner booth in a busy, noisy fast-food restaurant is the ideal spot for writing, wrestling with spreadsheets, etc. If I stay in my too-quiet home office, I get distracted by email, social websites, “tidying up”, and so on.

    Oh – and put your phone on vibrate and put it in front of you on the table so that you can check it at a glance. You don’t have to interrupt your thought process to ensure you’re not missing an important call, while the rest go to voice mail.

  • Ash

    Hi Dorie. Thanks for sharing the article. Notes is a great way to capture ideas on the iPhone. I have an app called Omnifocus to capture all my ideas and it’s really powerful because it syncs across all my macs and my iPads, iPhones etc. It also allows me to categorise tasks into projects etc.

    After reading your article the other day I actually went and spent some time writing in a cafe and found it to be very productive. You’re right the hum of a cafe is very useful to put me ‘in the zone’

    Thanks for the cafe hack!


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